Bossless on National Boss Day

Posted by jlubans on October 15, 2013

20131015-chihuaha boss.jpeg
Caption: A clown Chihuahua, dressed up for National Boss Day.
Yet another greeting card holiday looms; since 1958, October 16 has been set aside as Boss Day and increasingly the supervised class (us) is being gently prodded to do something. At least send a card!
One card defines the boss in ethereal terms as “Someone who knows the magic of teamwork. Someone who believes in dreaming as well as doing. Someone who is an everyday hero.”
Another card offers up self-serving praise:
“On Boss's Day, we’d like to pay you a compliment, Mr. Gilroy: You’ve sure got a great bunch of people 
working for you!”

Boss’s Day juxtapositions neatly with a recent report on “Bossless Offices”.

Caption: Group effort at Menlo Innovations: People and dogs share computers and space, productively.
Lest anyone think I have a grudge against bosses, I don’t. I supervised hundreds of staff over my career, so I have some idea about the complexities of boss-dom. Certainly, not all bosses are good; some are toxic. My favorite bosses are more leaderly, if you will. They empower (really) subordinates. They are generous in spirit, they encourage, and they possess integrity and defend staff through thick and thin. What makes my leader particularly different from other good bosses is that one of her main responsibilities is creating, training, promoting and sustaining independent leaders and self-managing teams.

But, this essay is less about the qualities of the “unboss”* and more about seeking an answer to what happens when an organization decides to be “bossless”? The NPR story offers a largely positive take on the Menlo organization but does include a cautionary perspective from a former employee of the Valve Corp. Valve is a video game developer; its bosslessness is illustrated by this quote on the front cover of their “New Employee” handbook: “A fearless adventure in knowing what to do when no one’s there telling you what to do.”
The former employee says her time at Valve "felt a lot like high school." … "What I learned from Valve is that I don't think it (self-management) works,” "I think that if you give complete latitude with no checks and balances, it's just human nature [employees] are gonna try to minimize the work they have to do and maximize the control they have."

These words remind me of comments from a survey of a student orchestra coached by musicians from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Orpheus, as readers of Leading from the Middle know, plays without a conductor and is well regarded musically and self-sustaining financially. And they truly are bossless when up on stage at Carnegie Hall. So, what could be better than Orpheus training a motivated student orchestra about going conductorless? It’s not that simple. Here are a couple insightful quotes from the student assessment:

“I really liked to work with (coach X and coach Y). They were precise, maybe more guiding than the others... We worked faster with them, but it was closer to the kind of rehearsals we would have had with a conductor.”

“Actually, most of the coaches told us what to do musically rather than helped up discover this ourselves. We need more suggestions on how to work as a group without a conductor and less about musical opinions and suggestions... I'm sure we could come up with this ourselves if we knew how to better work together….” (Emphasis added)

So, here’s a question for the aspiring unboss: Is it time to give up the bureaucracy? If your answer is yes, what will it take to introduce, cultivate and sustain the sort of teamwork apparent at Menlo and at Orpheus?
Is success a matter of:
Size? (Around 50 people work at Menlo, 40 at Orpheus).
Age? (Menlo is 10 years old, Orpheus late 30s)
Leadership vision and support? (Menlo’s founder Rich Sheridan is out on the floor along with everyone else – no corner office. Another unboss is Ricardo Semler at SEMCO. As owner and philosopher/leader he provides guidance and direction for the staff.
And, at Orpheus about half of the musicians take turns being concert master/leader – each models the Orpheus way of collaborating.)
Freestanding? (Not being part of a larger enterprise gives one the freedom to experiment without having to answer to those beholden to the hierarchy and lovin’ it.)
Self-selection? (Like-minded musicians and programmers may be attracted to the self-managing model. If you want micromanagement, you apply elsewhere.)
Singularity of purpose? (The organizational mission is narrow and everyone understands and supports its mission.)
Type of business? (Musicians – soloists and ensemblists - must collaborate, even when bossed by a conductor; software developers often collaborate – it seems a natural way of work to that field. That said, one of the most maverick staff in my career was a brilliant systems analyst.)

Probably several of these structural and cultural factors are relevant to creating a flat “bossless” organization. These same factors help explain the complexity of changing a bossed organization into an unbossed one. However desirable and superior the latter – and I believe it is - I suspect a National UnBoss Day is a few years off.

*NOTE: I used the term “unboss” in an essay in 2006.
While writing this essay I discovered that two researchers in Denmark published a book, Unboss, in 2012. I have yet to see a print copy.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: University of Pittsburgh Hillman Library.

Copyright John Lubans 2013

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