Your business without a boss? If you’re in management, you might not find the idea as thrilling as many beleaguered workers would. But, believe it or not, there are companies that run quite well without anyone in charge. (Some of these have been described recently in articles including Inc’s A Billion Dollar Company with No Bosses?, the Wall Street Journal’s Who’s the Boss? There Isn’t One, and management guru Gary Hamel’s Harvard Business Review essay, First, Let’s Fire All the Managers.)
To imagine a bossless workplace, and understand why and how to create one, Michelle Benjamin, CEO of Benjamin Enterprises and TalentReady, a company that offers strategic talent management solutions, suggests first defining what a boss is. According to Dictionary.com, it’s “a person who employs or superintends workers.” But that definition falls short. “It lacks purpose. It doesn’t say what are we trying to achieve,” Benjamin says.
She believes “the true role of the boss is to communicate the organization’s vision and align the work effort to ensure the desired results.” Sure, some bosses don’t come close, and others overstep those boundaries, she acknowledges, “but that’s truly the purpose of the boss.”
Based on that definition, Benjamin says, there’s no reason to think that only a boss can communicate the vision in a way that gets the desired results from a team. A problem, a product, or a high-profile customer could cast a vision for an organization just as well, she suggests.
Take, for instance, a team whose job is to build a spaceship. “There are different team members with the vision to go into orbit. The team can look at that problem and see how it’s going to be solved,” Benjamin says. One worker can bring electrical engineering experience to bear, another brings structural engineering to solve the problem—all so that the company benefits. “That’s how vision can be dictated by the problem itself,” she says.
Benjamin suggests that the most effective bossless teams are small—no more than a dozen people—and their interactions might resemble kids playing in a sandbox. “Children take on positions so they can all participate in that sandbox environment; adults will gravitate to the work that gives them the most fulfillment and lets them produce desired results,” Benjamin says. That’s when team members “work together collegially, each at best strength, to solve a particular problem.” Ironically, she points out, even in a bossless environment, a leader will emerge—just like one always does in the sandbox.
Benjamin says bossless business models buy into the notion that people will naturally seek out work they are good at. “When people are doing what they like to do and they know they do it best, what results is high satisfaction, high customer retention, and low turnover,” Benjamin says. “To achieve this, your culture has to be infused with trust, loyalty, transparency, and treating adults like adults.”
Hiring the right players for such a team is crucial. “You’re looking for people who respect community, who have high self-imposed respect for the job they are going to do, and who receive the highest gratification by knowing that they did it,” Benjamin says. The company asks them to support the system by being self-measured and accountable. Benjamin adds that this sort of organization “doesn’t lack structure and process, but it’s not being dictated by or controlled by an individual from above; it’s more self-controlled.”
Benjamin points to a practice known as “management by agreement” as one way this can work. “The team agrees to a set of core values that all members will abide by. For instance, one might be, ‘all decisions will be in the best interest of the company.’ Another could be ‘company before self.’” The company communicates those values even in the hiring process, getting candidates’ agreement to abide them if hired.
Are there types of companies where going bossless is more likely to succeed?
Benjamin says she has seen companies that make annual business plans projecting different results than last year, but, because they stick with their old model, nothing changes. “They get the same results because they don’t change the system,” she says. That’s common, because it takes a maverick to do something as radical as eliminating managers.
“You’re going against the grain,” Benjamin says. “You have to have a clear sense of the results you want to achieve.” She adds that companies that produce tangible products can more readily apply these principles because the product either works or it doesn’t. A service business would require more structure and would need to define clear, distinct expectations in order to deliver a consistent level of service and get the expected results.
To be sure, there is no single formula for establishing a bossless environment. Benjamin says, “You don’t have to convert the whole organization. You can try it on for size in one unit before weaning the rest of your team. You can even have stakeholders from one unit train another and explain the vision. Each business unit might craft the bossless environment that works best for them. There are many different ways it can work.”
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