I have been reading about this latest management fad, holacracy, for some months now, but it was Gregory Ferenstein’s post on July 11 that finally sent me over the edge. For the record, here are two other articles that tee up this management craze. Zappos says goodbye to bosses by Jena McGregor and a more reasoned explanation, published in the Economist, The holes in holacracy.
Also note that the word holacracy is a registered trademark. It is a brand, which always raises red flags in my world regarding its methods. Is it really something new or is the word made up to muddy the already turbid waters in management consulting.
But, I promised to talk about what Tony Hsieh is doing at Zappos and provide a more reasonable context for the structural decisions he is making.
First, “getting rid of bosses.” Boss-ing is something siblings do to each other. Indeed, it is a power struggle. The descriptions of holacracy appear to equate boss with the word manager. I am always amused at where the power lies in the manager-team-member relationship. It is like telling a kid that they have to eat broccoli. But, it is the kid who will determine if broccoli will, in fact, be eaten. Being an effective manager has very little to do with power.
“There are no managers in the classically defined sense. Instead, there are people known as “lead links” who have the ability to assign employees to roles or remove them from them.”
When I look at the “classic definition” of a manager, that person is vested with some very specific authorities. How is this “lead link” different?
- Determine who is on the team.
- Determine who is off the team.
- Set the objective.
- Assess the team member’s effectiveness in the context of the objective.
“Zappos and Robertson are careful to note that while a holacracy may get rid of traditional managers (those who both manage others’ work and hold the keys to their career success), there is still structure and employees’ work is still watched. Poor performers, Robertson says, stand out.”
So, now I am curious. Just exactly who is it that is doing all the watching if it’s not the manager? Is “lead link” another word for manager?
So, what is all this talk about abolishing managers?
“while the system lacks traditional managers, it does not mean that leaders won’t emerge.”
No shit. Leadership is an observable phenomenon, it happens. And when an organization selects its managers, it had better be paying attention to qualities of managerial leadership (as opposed to political leadership, parental leadership, spiritual leadership).
Apparently, Tony wants to provide the appearance of the absence of managers, by defining broad latitudes of discretion within the various levels of work at Zappos. That is what hierarchy is all about. Hierarchy is not about being the boss, it is not about command and control. Hierarchy is about establishing the boundaries of discretionary judgment within a level of work.
Discretionary judgment is required to make decisions and solve problems appropriate for that level of work. And most teams can handle the problems and decisions that sit within their level of work.
Here’s the pinch. When the problem is difficult or the decision is hard, on the upper end of that level of work, who does the team go to? That would be the manager. Being a manager is NOT about telling people what to do (boss-ing), it is about bringing value to the problem solving and decision making of the team. And that’s the role of the manager. At Zappos, those people exist, and Tony knows exactly who they are. I don’t care what he calls them.