Frédéric Laloux (2014) did research on twelve organisations without a hierarchical structure. The organisations come from different sectors (e.g. healthcare, food processing, utilities, consulting), have different sizes (from 10 up to 40.000) and operate locally or globally. Key elements in their organizational operating model:
- Anybody can make at anytime a decision, as long as the people affected and the people with expertise are consulted.
- Peer-based evaluation and salary processes
- A formal conflict resolution mechanism
- Explicit ground rules for attitude & behavior in order to create a safe space for sharing & learning
- Office spaces full of soul. No status symbols.
- Thorough onboarding process with foundational training and building social capital
- Reflective (meeting) practices: e.g. check in, check out, value or praise days, feedback sessions
- Thorough recruitment process, hire for purpose & attitude
- Develop collective purpose, e.g. “empty chair” meeting practice. The empty chair represents the organizational purpose.
These organizations have no longer need for operational, middle or senior managers and limit staff roles to the strict minimum. Strategy, change, HR, marketing, planning, controlling are less formal and everybody’s responsibility. They are truly lean and practice maximal transparency. No more hidden agendas. All information on e.g. performance, finance, salaries is open. Customers & suppliers are included.
Pearce et al. (2014) describe similar cases in their book with the inspiring title “share, don’t take the lead”. They developed a framework that helps organisations to withdraw from their addiction to hierarchical behaviors and develop a more empowered and engaged workforce:
Does this mean that there is no longer need for vertical leadership in the organization?
No. Even in the twelve extreme cases of shared leadership in Laloux’ book, there is still a CEO. Laloux concludes that a “self-managing organisations” can only be successful in a sustainable way with a wise CEO and a supportive board of directors. Bottom up self-management or organisations without authority are doomed to fail.
The role of the CEO is threefold. He or she remains the public face of the organization. But more importantly, the CEO must initiate & protect the space for self-management (by e.g. abdicating his formal authority) and he must be the role model, a person with high moral authority. He spends no longer time managing teams or people, but inspires, challenges, asks questions, coaches, mentors, gives advice.
“In a self-managing company, everybody, not just the CEO, gets to be the hero” (p. 245).
It’s too early to state that shared leadership will become the normal way of organizing in the years to come. But if you put all actual management trends together, as e.g. lean, agile, customer centric, shared value, networked, NWOW, … why not learn & be inspired by those organisations that go ‘shared’ all the way?