Thursday, January 09, 2014

Zappo-ing management

Zappos has quite the reputation for the emphasis it places on delivering tremendous customer service, and on its rather unorthodox corporate culture.

Apparently no company meetings where you fill up flip charts with (nonsense) ideas and (false) promises. Where, after the fact, those flip chart sheets are rolled up and stowed in someone’s office, where they stay put until that someone gets laid off, or has the good sense to leave.

Apparently no company meetings featuring break-out sessions where everyone takes a turn closing their eyes and falling back into the arms of their colleagues. (See? This is how we build trust!)

Apparently no company meetings where the senior executives stand up their spinning the company’s downward spiral so that it appears to be a strategy. And where new euphemisms for lay-offs are perpetually coined. (My personal favorite: at a Genuity all-hands, held the day after a major RIF in which 2,000 people were let go, it became apparent that the president was not aware that the lay-off had taken place. He attempted to cover his tracks by assuring us that, while those 2,000 pink slippers were no longer with us physically, as long as they were on severance, they were with us in spirit. (If only in payroll spirit.))


Zappos is so far removed from days of yore, that they have company meetings like this:

The company’s Q4 “All Hands” meeting in November was aptly-themed “Gone Wild”: one female employee voluntarily climbed into a case filled with tarantulas to win a $250 gift card. The event opened with a Lion King performance put on by employees at the Smith Center in downtown Las Vegas and closed with an after party at the museum next door. (Source: Aimee Groth on Quartz.)

Admittedly, I’ve gone to many a corporate function held at a museum. I may be missing a couple, but I’ve been to company events at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Science, the Children’s Museum, the Computer Museum, and the DeCordova.

But the only case filled with tarantulas I’ve ever seen was metaphorical: a stage filled with senior management.

Which may well be how Zappos sees the management strata, too.

…Zappos’ traditional organizational structure is being replaced with Holacracy, a radical “self-governing” operating system where there are no job titles and no managers. The term Holacracy is derived from the Greek word holon, which means a whole that’s part of a greater whole. Instead of a top-down hierarchy, there’s a flatter “holarchy” that distributes power more evenly. The company will be made up of different circles—there will be around 400 circles at Zappos once the rollout is complete in December 2014—and employees can have any number of roles within those circles. This way, there’s no hiding under titles; radical transparency is the goal.

First off, I wan to laud Zappos’ Tony Hsieh for having the zapatos to name his company’s governing system a word beginning with “hol(e)”. At any company I ever worked for, the troop reaction would be that we already had a management structure in place that was a complete and utter hol(e)acracy.

But maybe when you have a corporate culture like that of Zappos’, and employees willing to dive into a case of tarantulas – presumably trusting that her colleagues (or the assemblage formerly known as Zappos management) would not let any harm befall her - you don’t get employees who make that particular  immediate word association when they hear the word “management.”

Tsieh didn’t invent holacracy.

Credit, I believe, goes to Brian Robertson, founder of Holocracy, which promises “purposeful organization through social technology.”

Admittedly, they lost me at “purposeful”, but here’s a bit about it:

Holacracy is a real-world-tested social technology for purposeful organization. It radically changes how an organization is structured, how decisions are made, and how power is distributed.holacracy

The use of the light gray type clearly signals that this concept is for the younger set. No Boomer could read that chart! Millenials only need apply.

But, hey, Boomers are so, so, so very yesterday.

“We’re classically trained to think of ‘work’ in the traditional paradigm,” says John Bunch, who, along with Alexis Gonzales-Black, is leading the transition to Holacracy at Zappos. “One of the core principles is people taking personal accountability for their work. It’s not leaderless. There are certainly people who hold a bigger scope of purpose for the organization than others. What it does do is distribute leadership into each role. Everybody is expected to lead and be an entrepreneur in their own roles, and Holacracy empowers them to do so.”

Perhaps Zappos, with the premium it places on hiring people who have a perfect fit with the corporate culture, never, ever, ever hires anyone who actually doesn’t have what it takes to be an entrepreneurial leader, or any interest in being one. Is there no longer room in the workplace for someone who just wants to get the job done?

And aren’t some people better at organizing work, delegating tasks, mentoring individuals, evaluating performance, communicating ideas, etc., than others.

God knows, they don’t all get into the managerial ranks.


In its highest-functioning form, he says, the system is “politics-free, quickly evolving to define and operate the purpose of the organization, responding to market and real-world conditions in real time. It’s creating a structure in which people have flexibility to pursue what they’re passionate about.”

Ah, yes, the “in its highest-functioning form” qualifier.

Has there ever been any organizational structure that involves two-plus people that can operate “politics-free”? If so, I’ve yet to encounter one.

In fact, while politicking gets a bad name, in its purest, non-destructive form, it’s actually the art of convincing others that your ideas are better than the alternatives. And some of those entrepreneurial leaders are going to have better ideas, and/or they’re going to be better at convincing others of the merits of their ideas.

And politics is about negotiating between competing ideas, and – ideally – actually getting something good out of those negotiations.

Isn’t this how the world works?

I’m actually all for trying new ideas to make the workplace more functional. In my day, it was all about ratcheting back and forth between traditional hierarchy and matrix organizations.

And maybe the holacracy shoe will fit some companies, so good luck to them when it comes to wearing it.

Yet there’s something kind of hole-y about holacracy.

On the other hand, Brian Robertson did present it at TED, so what do I know?

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