It seems to me that we are witnessing a profound shift in thinking about how companies should be organized and managed. It would be easy to trivialize this movement by attributing the change to Change aheadstereotypical Millenials who want work to be fun and want to have a voice in decisions from the moment they are hired. But that would not explain what seems to actually be happening. Leaders in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, who have prior experience in many different kinds of organizations, are intentionally creating truly unique work environments that are structured differently and operate differently from mainstream, bureaucratic, business-textbook organizations.

These leaders are asking why a business has to be autocratic, hierarchical, and controlling. They are wondering how a traditional structure that was designed for consistency, predictability, and minimal risk can achieve creativity and innovation. They are raising doubts about workplace cultures that make people miserable and don’t allow them to achieve their full potential.

It used to be that the only businesses that didn’t operate from an org chart were small, family-run enterprises with a close-knit, caring atmosphere. But now we see large scale enterprises intentionally creating cultures that are aligned with what they want to accomplish rather than simply adopting the structures typical of organizations that have come before. For example:

  • Menlo Innovations - In the Menlo culture the message to employees, both implicitly and explicitly, is that everyone is learning together how to best serve clients while creating a work environment of joy and meaning. CEO Richard Sheridan describes this culture in his new book Joy, Inc. He explains the “rituals and artifacts” the culture: from the hiring process when prospective employees learn how to fit into Menlo, to paired employees who learn how to work together on job tasks, to an open workspace with no offices, to constant conversations among employees during the workday, to lunch n’learns, to storytelling, to leaders setting an example for continuous learning, and to presenting “The Menlo Way” to other companies and to the public.
  • Zingerman’s Community of Businesses – As described on their Web site, the ZCoB is a family of eight businesses all located in the Ann Arbor area and reflects the novel strategy for business growth created by Zingerman’s Deli founders Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig. Rather than replicating their deli through the franchise model, Paul and Ari instead chose to develop new, independent businesses, all rooted in our local community that work together as one organization. Each business is operated by one or more managing partners who share ownership and put their particular expertise to work in the day to day running of their business. The idea for the ZCoB was laid out in Zingerman’s 2009 vision, written by Ari and Paul in 1994 and highlighted in Bo Burlingham’s 2003 article for Inc. Magazine, “The Coolest Small Company in America.”
  • Zappos – From an article in The Washington Post: The Las Vegas-based retailer is now going even more radical, introducing a new approach to organizing the company. It will eliminate traditional managers, do away with the typical corporate hierarchy and get rid of job titles, at least internally. The company told employees of the change at a year-end meeting, Quartz first reported...The unusual approach is called a “holacracy.” Developed by a former software entrepreneur, the idea is to replace the traditional corporate chain of command with a series of overlapping, self-governing “circles.” In theory, this gives employees more of a voice in the way the company is run...According to Zappos executives, the move is an effort to keep the 1,500-person company from becoming too rigid, too unwieldy and too bureaucratic as it grows.

These companies are not only being innovative in their products and services, they are applying innovation to how they do their work. They are aligning form with function (and values) in order to continue their success. This is more than incremental improvements to their organizations. These companies are implementing radical changes to create cultures in which employees feel respected, take risks, are continuously learning, are helpful to each other, and are joyful at work every day. 

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