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Imagine A Workplace Without A Boss

Zappos offices
Tech Cocktail

Zappos, the Internet shoe and clothing shop based in Las Vegas, is changing its management structure.

Imagine a workplace where there's no bosses.

Or, maybe better put, where everyone shares collective responsibility for the work carried out. 

Where teams of people work together to achieve a common goal.

It's called Holacracy, and it's being rolled out in companies around the world, including at Las Vegas' own Zappos. 

Bryan Robertson founder of HolacracyOne, the group responsible for developing the system, told KNPR’s State of Nevada that the idea came out of efforts to remove hindrances to creativity at companies he had started.

“How can we take everything that gets in the way of someone using their creativity and their passion and their talent and just get it out of the way and get a path way to actually improve things in the company,” Robertson said.

And despite the characterization that Holacracy is a free-for-all with no structure, Robertson said it is actually the opposite.

He said under the system employees get clear roles, clear expectations and clear autonomy. There are governance meetings where roles and the people in them are discussed, changed and challenged.

Robertson said unlike with current top-down management structure Holacracy eliminates managers actually telling a subordinate what to do.

“Yes, accountability is there and the rules kind of shield you from the micromanagement that often comes with the boss,” Robertson said.

At some point, every boss must make a decision, whether her subordinates like it or not. However, in holacracy, there is not an ultimate decision maker in the same sense. The way Robertson describes it there is no consensus building but instead distributed autocracy, where a person in a role makes a decision about his responsibility.

“There is a group collective process but it is just used to break down who controls what and what we expect from each other, not make specific decisions,” Robertson said.

The whole thing is based on a 30-page document, but Robertson said if all rules about navigating the systems, including personalities and power structure, for a large company was written down it would be a lot more than 30 pages.

He says like most things once you understand the rules, Holacracy becomes easy to use.

“When you’re first getting into it, it’s complex. It’s different. It’s new. But when you get in the habits of it it’s like playing a complex game. It might have a lot of rules when you get in to it but when people learn the ethic of it and principals you just play the game,” Robertson said.

But not everyone wants to learn the rules or play that game. Zappos, for example, is telling employees who do not wish to work under the system Holacracy provides to  leave

Which doesn’t surprise Robertson, he believes people usually do not like change and Holacracy is a dramatic change in how a company is structured.

“It’s much more like working together with a team of entrepreneurs who are all building a company together and that’s a big shift for some people,” Robertson said. He said it is a total change in how power in a company is used and how influence is wielded, which can make people uncomfortable.  

He praised Zappos for actually offering compensation for people who choose to leave. Robertson points out that most companies who make a policy change just expect everyone to step in line or risk losing a job.

Overall, Robertson compares Holacracy to a computer’s operating system and a company must provide the applications, like the apps people add to their phone’s basic operating system, to adapt it to their needs.

“It’s not a complete solution to self-organization. It’s the platform for self-organization. You still need to put your business processes on top of it,” Robertson said. “Instead of having this implicit power structure with personalities and managers and all that, we have a pretty simple boiled down basics of here is how things work around here.”

Robertson doesn’t believe the system is limited to high-tech companies but is only limited by the leaders who adopt it. 

Bryan Robertson, founder, HolacracyOne

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Casey Morell is the coordinating producer of Nevada Public Radio's flagship broadcast State of Nevada and one of the station's midday newscast announcers. (He's also been interviewed by Jimmy Fallon, whatever that's worth.)