Freelancers have been working in packs for ages – just look at the way the TV and film industries work. Those teams are loose collaborations between specialists, and you may well have been pulled in to work this way as an ‘associate’ (as part of a temporary team).
So here you have a group of people who may or may not know each other, who come together for the common purpose of creating something outstanding. Everyone is pulling in the same direction, working together towards that common goal.
But they are all freeagents. So how does that work? Where’s the benefit in working for the greater good of the team? The answer lies in the motivations for getting involved in the first place. Great projects and teams happen when people see their own success is aligned to the success of the project.
Why do some teams work well and some not?
Think about the best jobs and projects you’ve ever worked on. I bet you are remembering specific people, shared goals, a special something that bonded you in adversity (there’s usually a baddie boss or client in the picture). Those are some of the best times.
Where it all goes wrong is where an unnatural hierarchy is imposed. Those of us who have worked in corporate life might remember those awful team building exercises designed to get us all ‘living’ the corporate values. It often became about forcing people to work in unnatural ways and with people who weren’t ever going to be soul mates.
Who’d be a manager these days?
It must be ever more difficult to be a manager in most organisations these days. Unable to use the bullying techniques of the past, managers are forced to use more subversive techniques to keep their flocks under control. At one end of the scale, you have the micro-manager who has to know everything about everything (not exactly motivating for anyone wanting to be autonomous), and at the other, you have the familiar office psychopaths. In the middle, managers who are trying to keep some semblance of order over their rag tag team of people with varying agendas, value sets and domestic set ups.
What happens when the command and control culture stops working? There are plenty of examples of companies that have failed because their focus has remained on trying to manage and squeeze their staff into unnatural roles that they can control, rather than coordinate their talents for the greater good.
There is some research by Professor Greer and others that showed that a rigid hierarchy in organisations exacerbated senior level in-fighting. Professor Greer thought it was a little like King Arthur’s round table, where individual knights had specific jobs, but shared respect. Her view was that key was to maintain good relations by fostering mutual appreciation of people’s skills in fulfilling their closely defined jobs.
As we all adapt to a changing work landscape, where our teams become fluid, less hierarchical and less permanent, it’s clear that a radical rethink about the way we organise people is needed.
Two new models of management from Zappos and Github
Indeed, Zappos, the online retailer has taken this to the extreme. They have decided to structure their organisation around a concept called ‘Holacracy’. It’s a radical ‘self-governing’ modelwhere no one has a manager and no one has a job title. The term Holacracy is derived from the Greek word holon, which means a whole that’s part of a greater whole. Radical stuff eh?
The idea is that the company will be made up of different circles—there will be around 400 circles at Zappos and employees can have any number of roles within those circles. What’s exciting about this concept is that it will rely on complete and absolute transparency. So, there’s no way a command and control culture could work here.
That’s an extreme example, and of course it’s early days. It’ll be a while before we see whether it works or not.
At GitHub, a small group of senior employees handles companywide issues and external communications but doesn’t give orders to workers. Teams of employees decide which projects are priorities, and anyone is free to join a project in whatever capacity they choose. In effect, you have the power to be where you are most useful.
How will businesses organise in the future then?
Where am I going with this? Well, as many organisations start to organise their resources around projects, and try to rethink the way they work with talented people, we will start to see the number of freelance and contract roles within organisations rise. It’s already happening.
At some point, the balance between freelance and permanent employees will tip the other way, and companies will be faced with organising staff who – although committed to a project – are not hanging in there for the long term and won’t react to the same kind of incentives and management tricks.
Let’s go back to our loose collaborations between freelancers. Why do those work? The dynamics within freelance teams are completely different. Driven by a desire to do the best possible job, they seek peer approval rather than management approval. They will often put aside their own needs in order to support other people in the team, knowing that it will reflect well on everyone in the team. Without the politics of management and career building, they are free to do the job and do it well. If they don’t enjoy the job, they move onto another project that suits them better.
Established companies need to start thinking fast about how they will adapt their management structures to suit the independents as they flow in. But I rather expect they might just ignore it and hope it all goes away.