Boss Free

Are you angry at your boss? Is incompetent leadership ruining your company? Does your boss squash creative initiative and enforce conformity?

I have always loved my bosses, but bad bosses must be pretty common because Bob Sutton’s new book Good Boss, Bad Boss is selling really well (hot off the successes of his hit The No Asshole Rule). But here’s a radical idea: Dispense with bosses altogether. Think it could never work?

Guess what, there are lots of companies who have chosen to go “boss free.” Valve Corp, a videogame maker in Washington State, has been boss free since 1996. It also has no managers and no official project assignments. How do the 300 employees coordinate their work? They “self manage”: they recruit each other for worthwhile projects, and they roll their desks around (all are on wheels) to reconfigure their work teams as they wish. Salaries and raises are set by committees of your peers. At Valve, with each project one person tends to emerge as the de facto leader, but they’re not assigned from on high.

In my book advocating for the collaborative organization, Group Genius, I wrote about W. L. Gore, another company with a famously flat organizational structure with around 10,000 employees. Management guru Gary Hamel likewise is an advocate, see his book The Future of Management.

These companies are radically different from what you’re used to. It takes almost a year for a new hire to adapt; some of them never do, and they move on to a more traditional company. Getting the culture right is absolutely crucial. Gore CEO Terry Kelly told me that she spends over 50% of her time managing the culture. And having the right staff is essential; you need highly motivated and collaborative employees. At most such companies, the interview process is grueling, because you’re hired by a huge team of ten or more people (because there’s no boss to make the final decision).

If you’re nervous about going completely boss free overnight, it’s possible to take small steps in this direction. For example, at Gore, they tell employees that ten percent of every week is their own “creativity” time, to manage as they wish. Any company could experiment with something similar: Ninety percent of each week you’ll work on your managed project, and the other ten percent, work boss free. But then: What if everyone prefers working boss free?

*See Silverman, Rachel Emma, 2012. “Who’s the boss? There isn’t one.” Wall Street Journal, June 20, 2012, pp. B1, B8.

C. K. Prahalad, Management Guru

Sunday’s New York Times (April 25, 2010, p. A30) reported that management guru C. K. Prahalad died April 16 . He was 68 years old. He spent his career as a professor at the University of Michigan School of Business. I met him only once, at Gary Hamel’s Inventing the Future of Management event in Half Moon Bay, California. A wonderful and giving man. He was a frequent collaborator with Gary Hamel. Prahalad became famous for the concept of “core competence” which he introduced, with Hamel, in a 1990 Harvard Business Review article. More recently, he wrote extensively on poverty, and on innovation and markets in emerging markets–arguing that companies could alleviate poverty and make money at the same time. His last book was titled The New Age of Innovation.

Rest in Peace.

Inventing the Future of Management

How can we maximize human potential to make the world a better place? How can we make work more fulfilling–whether in a business, a school, or a government agency?

For the past two days, I’ve been attending a high-powered conference here in Half Moon Bay, California, hosted by Gary Hamel (Wall Street Journal’s “top business guru” and author of The Future of Management). Our goal: to use the latest management research to re-design organizations to release the full potential of their employees, and to generate maximum innovation, adaptability, and engagement. Our starting point is the observation that management today–whether businesses, government agencies, or educational systems–is deeply flawed (think of Dilbert’s cartoons and you’ll know what we’re trying to fix).

C. K. Prahalad, Peter Senge, Gary Hamel (standing), Eric AbrahamsonMost of the 40 or so in attendance were thought leaders, authors of best-selling business books and/or professors (The photo shows, from left to right, C. K. Prahalad of University of Michigan, Peter Senge from MIT, Gary Hamel (standing), and Eric Abrahamson of Columbia).

But the high point, for me, were the presentations by a few CEOs, representing innovative styles of management: Gore, Google, Whole Foods, and IDEO, all companies I describe at length in my book GROUP GENIUS.

Tim Brown, IDEO

Representing Gore was CEO Terri Kelly; Whole Foods, CEO John Mackey; and IDEO, CEO Tim Brown (in the photo). If you’ve read my book GROUP GENIUS you know that all of these companies represent a new sort of management technology, one that is designed to tap into the power of collaboration.

A high point of the event was when Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, answered questions from the audience about Google’s unique organizational culture (sitting at the right of Gary Hamel in the photo). I haven’t written as much about Google, simply because that company has been so widely reported in the media already; but, like Gore, IDEO, and Whole Foods, Google is a company that maximizes the collaborative potential of its employees.

Gary Hamel and Eric Schmidt

“Inventing the Future of Management” was designed to be a beginning, so we didn’t come up with concrete advice so much as challenges, obstacles, and important issues. But I was delighted to see that the consensus emerging from this group is directly aligned with my message in GROUP GENIUS: that innovation can’t be forced in a command-and-control organizational design. Innovation always emerges from the bottom up, in teams that form spontaneously and interact improvisationally. In the future, we need organizations that enhance the power of collaboration, managers that facilitate the unpredictable creative work of everyone.

Attendees: Eric Abrahamson, Chris Argyris, Julian Birkinshaw, Tim Brown, Lowell Bryan, Bhaskar Chakravorti, Yves Does, Alex Ehrlich, Gary Hamel, Linda Hill, Jeffrey Hollander, Steve Jurvetson, Kevin Kelly, Terri Kelly, Ed Lawler, Andrew McAfee, John Mackey, Tom Malone, Marissa Mayer, Lenny Mendonca, Henry Mintzberg, Vineet Nayar, Jeff Pfeffer, C.K. Prahalad, J. Leighton Read, Keith Sawyer, Peter Senge, Rajendra Sisodia, Tom Stewart, Jim Surowiecki, Hal Varian, Steve Weber, David Wolfe, Shoshana Zuboff.

Is Innovation a “Business Process”?

I just returned from giving a keynote talk at the Business Process Management Conference. Business Process Management, or “BPM” for short, emerged in the early 1990s as a trend best exemplified by the 1993 book Reengineering the Corporation by Michael Hammer and James Champy. The basic idea sounds like common sense to me: instead of focusing on the structure of your organization–the divisional lines and functional areas–focus on the core processes that create and deliver value (like the order process, supply-chain management). Although “conventional wisdom” has it that BPM was a short-lived fad, in fact the core of the message lives on in widely used management techniques, including six-sigma, and information technology management tools such as ITIL and COBIT.

I worried over my keynote presentation. After all, is innovation a “process”? I think so, and in fact my talk’s title was “the innovation process”. All businesses manage processes of incremental innovation (six sigma might even fall in that category) and new product development (with stage gate approaches). But I don’t think breakthrough innovation can be managed like other business processes. It’s more of an anti-process. By that, I mean breakthrough innovation is not linear; it doesn’t have identifiable stages; the participants and organizational units are unclear. As I say in my book Group Genius, breakthrough innovation is improvisational–it emerges, unpredictably, from a long series of small sparks of ideas. No single one of those ideas determines the final form of the innovation that will later emerge.

In the famous words of the immortal guru Peter Drucker: “When a new venture does succeed, more often than not it is in a market other than the one it was originally intended to serve, with products and services not quite those with which it had set out, bought in large part by customers it did not even think of when it started, and used for a host of purposes besides the ones for which the products were first designed.” (1985)
Yes, innovation is a process.  But you can’t manage it like any other business process; it requires a new vision of management.  After you finish my book Group Genius, I recommend The Future of Management by Gary Hamel.