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Is a Management-Free Workplace Productive?

Imagine the entire professional hierarchy restructured into something more democratic. No boss to report to, no corporate ladder to climb, no one to beat for a promotion and no one left in the dark about overall goals and far-reaching vision. Will it breed innovation or lead to a Lord of the Flies style meltdown?

(Photo credit: Dell / Flickr)

A bunch of ex-Twitter engineers are making it happen at a company called Medium, adopting a radical new corporate theory called Holocracy. But Medium, a content platform company, is one of the concept's fiercest and most faithful adopters. In an article on First Round, Medium co-founder Jason Stirman says the practice has propelled productivity and given the team a laser-like focus.

"[It's] hands down, by far the best way I know or have ever seen to structure and run a company,” Stirman tells First Round. “It’s basically an operating system for your organization, so the engineer in me loves it. In fact the Holacracy organization just released 4.0 of its constitution, so our company is upgrading – just like you would update to a new iOS.”

The key tenets of Holocracy are:

  • No individual managers. Maintain maximum autonomy. 
  • Expand organically. Hire new talent when a job gets too big for existing staff.
  • Resolve tension. Figure out what issues people are dealing with, jot them down and systematically resolve them. 
  • Make everything obvious and explicit – from PTO policies to who makes what decisions.
  • Spread out decision-making power. Discourage people from seeking consensus. 
  • Get rid of extraneous drama and other factors that distract people from work.

That's not to say there's no leadership in a Holocracy. Stirman broke employees up into different circles, each one with its own hierarchy. The Reading and Discovery circle, for example, functions within the Product Development circle. So does the the Creation and Feedback circle. That way, the Product Development sphere can review the work coming out of the circles nested within it to steer things down a particular path.

Members of each circle have a goal that feds into the larger group's purpose, which supports the company's overall direction. Everyone works in the same direction. And to make sure nothing hinders a group's progress, the team meets to air out what they call "tensions," that is, conflicts that need resolution.

“The difference between Holacracy and traditional management is that when you have people at the bottom and people at the top, it’s always the people at the top trying to figure out their tensions, then they have the people at the bottom resolve them,” Stirman tells First Round. “No one takes into account the tensions, ideas, issues felt by the people at the bottom. They spend their days resolving tensions they don’t have and may not even understand.” 

Even if Holocracy can't systemically work at your company, maybe some of its principles could apply.

Tell Us What You Think

Would you thrive in a boss-free work environment? Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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