22/01/2014 - 15:30

Moving past command and control

22/01/2014 - 15:30


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New management system models are seeking to address the need for better communications and decision making in modern workplaces.

Moving past command and control

Increasingly during recent months I have started to have doubts regarding the relevance of the traditional hierarchical organisation chart in today’s business environment.

On the one hand we are coming to the realisation that business owners must engage with staff on a far more consistent and meaningful manner to better utilise the wealth of talent that exists in the workforce. On the other, we are continuing to represent the business and how it relates internally, by way of the traditional structure.

This hierarchical format suggests that all power emanates from above and gradually diminishes to the point where those at the lower levels of the chart appear to have no power, no influence, and are there only to complete the more basic tasks. While this may be a far cry from what is intended, it is, nevertheless, how it is represented. And this representation hardly supports the concept of engagement and valuing the contributions of all employees.

Therefore it was interesting to read some recent articles and opinions that seemed to support the way I was thinking on the subject.

One such article was a recent blog from The Huffington Post by Pam Ross, a culture consultant, titled ‘2014: The Year of Workplace Reinvention’, in which she claims that under existing structures (but new working environments that include the use of social media in the workplace) only 13 per cent of employees are ‘engaged’.

Ms Ross discusses the case of Mabel’s Labels, a business that introduced ROWE, or results-only work environments. The developers of ROWE describe it as ‘a management strategy where employees are evaluated on performance, not presence’.

The article goes on to discuss online retailer Zappos.

“Zappos is also turning traditional management on its head. They announced at their all hands meeting in November that they are becoming a ‘holacracy’,” it said.

“Holacratic organisations are organised in circles. Workers are members of several circles depending on what they are working on at the time. Decision authority is distributed throughout the organisation, with everyone focused on the core purpose and strategy.”

The article quotes John Bunch, who heads up the holacracy initiative at Zappos: “We’re trying to do the same thing by switching from a normal hierarchical structure to a system called holacracy, which enables employees to act more like entrepreneurs and self-direct their work instead of reporting to a manager who tells them what to do.”

Some of the features of a holacracy include the abandonment of job titles, a reduction of people in management roles, and a greater emphasis on teams developing their own roles and being jointly responsible for outcomes.

There are other movements afoot, too, such as the UK-based ‘sociocracy’, which is similarly based on the dispersal of decision-making. Rather than decisions being the sole responsibility of the CEO, owner or management team, decision making become the responsibility of teams within the business.

Holacracy? Sociocracy? ROWE? Workplace modernisation programs? Are we really ready for this?

While some businesses may be, I am of the view that while we should be looking at these movements and monitoring their success, it is often too much to expect business owners to embrace wholesale changes on face value.

One thing for sure is the need for business owners to embrace the idea of engagement with staff on a greater basis than anecdotal evidence shows is the norm. To me, this is the first move in the process of spreading decision making throughout the organisation.

Like many people, I relate to the visual representation of concepts and this led to asking myself how the new concept might look and how we might begin to move from the traditional representation to one that is proposed as the ‘new way’?


A representation of the traditional organisation chart can be seen in graphic 1 (above), while my perception – and it is only a perception, without supporting evidence – of how the ‘new way’ would be represented can be seen in graphic 2 (below).


Personally, I think it is too much to expect that this revolution will (or even should) take place and that it will occur any time very soon.

Closer to home, here in Perth, Future Logic is also a convert. I spoke to its founder, Stephan Jenner, who has actually gone a step further in his conversion. Through another entity he has founded Telus Partners, a consultancy that assists businesses implement holacracy. To quote from its website, the benefits include “ … a more productive and efficient organisation that can quickly respond and grow within its environment, a defined clarity providing a better and happy workplace and less friction in the organisation increasing productivity and profits.” 


For businesses that would prefer to take a first step, rather than delve headlong into concepts such as holacracy, I suggest an intermediate step that could be considered – the use of the traditional organisation chart in developing a communications process. While it does not address all of the problems that holacracy attempts to resolve, it does address when communications should take place and who should be involved. This intermediate step between the traditional organisation structure and holacracy might be represented in graphic 3 (above).

At first glance, it looks a mess, but all it does is allow business owners to embrace the idea of improved outcomes through improved communications. As with all of the above diagrams, it is generic and an example only. Each would need to be altered – sometimes drastically – to suitably demonstrate individual situations.

However it is used, any outcome that improves internal communication and makes better use of the talents of the people within a business can only be positive.

John Matthew is managing director at Switch Directions for Business.


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