Fast-and-loose means the end of the boss

I’ve been talking and writing a great deal about the fast-and-loose business culture that emerges as companies start to rethink work around social networks instead of slow-and-tight business processes. One helpful way to imagine the difference between these very different cultures is this: fast-and-loose cultures differ from slow-and-tight by having more ‘weak ties’ — as Mark Granovetter called them — and fewer strong ties.

Is something lost by the reduction of strong ties? Aren’t the strong ties between friends something that we want to hold onto, and not throw away? Let’s step back and look at the nature of strong ties in the more-or-less conventional business of today. First of all employees have a strong tie to their manager, and they share a great deal of personal and work-related information. And, in principle, the employee’s work is being ‘managed’ by the boss. Secondly, there are generally various project teams and departments where each employee is pulled into tight social bonds with others, not only working with people, but because of the nature of organizational dynamics in today’s typical business, involved in an ongoing game of politics. Where there is hierarchy, there is politics. So, not  only is the relationship between the boss and employee an unequal one, based on power, there is an undercurrent of power politics in slow-and-tight businesses.

In Edgar Schein’s three-tier model of business culture, the top-most level is the artifacts: the tangible representation of shared culture, like offices, how people dress, mission statements and explicit creeds. These relay meaning. The second level is found in the rituals of the organization: the collective behavior of the group form the remaining visible aspects of culture. How things are done, what is said, what is valued. This is in fact where values are shared. The third and deepest level is the tacit assumptions underlying the rituals and artifacts: this is something like the subconscious mind, where outsiders asking questions can lead to blank stares or hostility.

The latent hostility in power relationships in business is one of the taboo areas in slow-and-tight business cultures, one of those things that everyone knows is a factor in every business relationship, but about which people do not want to talk — or actually find themselves either unable to talk about it, or angry when it is brought up.

The adoption of the fast-and-loose organization form — based on weak ties and cooperation instead of strong ties and collaboration — means that work is more self-organized and people are increasingly self-managed. A project still must have a ‘linchpin’ — a person that represents the project to its sponsor or customers, and who are involved in the coordination of work to make the project go — but they are not the boss of the people involved.

So the strong ties between the worker and the boss become diffused into a skein of loose ties between cooperators, and the push model of direct management is replaced by a pull model of indirect self-management, where individuals decide their role models and mentors, and follow them.

I was inspired to write about this after learning about another bossless company, FAVI, a French manufacturing firm:

Matthew May, The Less-is-Best Approach to Innovation

The trend toward flatter organizational structures is growing stronger. W. L. Gore, maker of GORE-TEX and other fluoropolymer products, is known for their team-based culture void of job titles. A visit to the website of videogame company Valve reveals a “bossless” structure. Even the giant automaker Toyota encourages new hires to “dig their own job” — meaning find a challenge or problem that fits with their skillset, and run with it. The epitome of a “loose reins” approach, though, is French automotive parts maker FAVI, a 600-person company led by a CEO, Jean-Francois Zobrist, who describes himself as “a stupid and lazy manager” who has “no idea of what people are doing.” This, of course, was his way of explaining that he trusts his employees to do their jobs. He knows he doesn’t have the expertise to do their work and so shouldn’t have much input into it. Zobrist subtracted many things when he took the helm of the company in 1983. “I came in the day after and told [everyone] when you come to work, you do not work for me or for a boss; you work for your customer. You do what is needed for the customer.” He then eliminated all central control: personnel, product development, purchasing. It was replaced by 20 self-directed, self-sufficient teams, each focused on a specific automaker.

One of the most paradoxical aspects of working in a more egalitarian organization is that work becomes more serious. I recently interviewed Will McInnes, the founder and managing director of Nixon/McInnes, a UK-based consulting firm that has been honored as one of the world’s most democratic work places:

Stowe Boyd: How does that feel on a day-to-day basis? If I’m working in your business what does that mean for me as the new hire? What’s work life like?

Will McInnes: That’s a good question. I think life in a democratic organization is probably a little bit more serious: the effect of taking responsibility for more. You can’t sit in the corner and bitch about someone else’s problem, and the fact that so-and-so isn’t doing their job. One of the flip sides of working more democratically we all have to take responsibility for what’s going on.

So, a surprising result: take away the bosses, and responsibility increases, while office politics drastically fall.