“No CEO.”

Posted by jlubans on February 21, 2017

Caption: Meeting rules. How you will speak and feel.

When I see a headline like that – No CEO! - I take notice.
The story, by the BBC, is about a Swedish software company “where nobody is in charge.”
The company, Crisp, based in Stockholm, has about 40 staff, mostly independent contractors.
In any case, Crisp has gone through a few organizational models - including the usual boss at the top and also a “taking turns” model.
Notably, Crisp has decided to leave the top job vacant. They’ve systematically spread out the CEO’s responsibilities among the staff and the board.
The notion that no one is in charge is, of course, journalistic hyperbole. In reality, with no boss, everyone is in charge. Bosslessness may well be the best part of this model; it should lead to a great deal of job satisfaction and motivation among the people doing the work.
Like Crisp’s organizational coach claims: “Because they are all in charge, workers are more motivated.” That is the case with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra which performs famously with no conductor – if it were not the case; they would not be performing at one of the world’s toughest venues, Carnegie Hall.
Does the No CEO model work?
That’s hard to say. Crisp thinks so. Their annual staff satisfaction survey comes in at 4.1 out of 5. So a “B” or good grade, if an “Excellent” is a 5.
Certainly beats a 2 or a 3, but what about comparable companies? None are cited.
I know of at least one workplace in my experience that scores right up there as a “best place” to work. From my perspective, it is an unimaginative, stuffy and tradition-bound organization, coasting on past glories. It does pay well, however.
So, for Crisp, I’d like to see some numbers, bottom lines and such. I don’t mean to be negative on Crisp; I just would like to see some quantitative assessment of improvements under the No CEO model to the CEO or any other model they may have tried. Complicating any assessment is that this company sees itself as a non-profit. There is no value – they claim – to the company.
Different, for sure.
Crisp’s organizational coach claims that decision-making is greatly sped up. Again, I would like to see some comparable data – however approximate – with the way it was with a boss and the way it is now with everyone in charge. And, can any peer comparisons be made?
Crisp does have all-hands-on-deck meetings – meetings that run for up to 4 days a few times a year. A lot gets hashed out in those meetings. The detailed etiquette rules for those meetings were prominent at the not-so-long-ago Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.
Marathon in length, those OWS meetings - towards the end of the OWS run - became more and more unruly, devolving into violence. Presumably, in pacific Sweden such behavior would not be tolerated.
The BBC write-up quotes a skeptic of the no boss model. His words rang a memory bell for me:
"Often infinite freedom … can be pretty disorientating. It doesn't always feel good, because you no longer know what you're supposed to do, what's important and you're bumping up against other people."
It reminded me when I was leading an effort to turn a hierarchy toward self-managing teams.
Perhaps crazily, I offered that my direct reports, some dozen or more, would no longer report to me directly - I became an unboss.
Some saw this as an opportunity to undermine the self-managing teams effort and to keep the hierarchy. They zealously worked at doing just that.
Some got it right. While I was no longer the immediate boss, I was someone to consult, to talk with, to bounce ideas off of, to seek help from to navigate through unknown waters. I was there to help.
A few were very uncomfortable with the model. They saw my withdrawal as leaving them adrift, not knowing quite what to do.
Had I to do it over, I would be much more explicit about my unboss role – leader, follower, coach. And, for that matter, I'd want to clarify their roles vis-à-vis me.
And I would have tried this approach only with team leaders who were the most promising unbosses; leaders who could step back and empower their teammates.
Just like my self-managing teams experiment, the No CEO model might be too extreme for many organizations. However, it does offer alternative ways of organizing and in its own way gives us insights about what leaders and followers do.
If you have effective leaders and followers, any model will work. If you have a mixed group of staff, some good, some not so good, the hierarchy may still be the best model.
I’d qualify that last statement, because in some cases the hierarchy causes dysfunction. Innovative people are shut down, problem solving becomes convoluted, etc.
So any effort toward less hierarchy, however inept, might benefit the organization and its clients in unexpected positive ways.

© Copyright John Lubans 2017

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