I am the CEO. I am the Employee.

No Management. No Subordinates. Is Workspace 2.0 ready to take self-management to its logical conclusion?

How flatter can an organization get in the context of workplace 2.0 which hates hierarchy? From the Buck Stops Here to the Buck Starts Here? The knowledge worker of today doesn’t bat an eyelid cracking Dilbert jokes with his boss at the water cooler. All this is the new normal (?) and that’s why management tomes like ‘First, fire all the managers’ fly off the shelves faster than you can actually do that.

All this is oh-so romantic and utopian. But would Apple run by a million CEO workers have been better than Apple under Steve Jobs? Jobs, according to people who worked closely with him was more of an autocrat than less. Damn! Not fashionable at all. Jack Welch too by all accounts can hardly ever be a pinup idol for zero hierarchy. Of course they were all for empowering the down lines, but finally, the nuclear button vests with them.

From a historical perspective, there’s nothing “new” about self-management. Peter Drucker way back in 1953 in his classic ‘The Practice of Management’ called for empowering workers as managers and more importantly, said, it requires new tools and far-reaching changes in traditional thinking and practices.

Now that we have the new tools and think out of the traditional box, more and more companies are putting the Drucker test to practice. Gary Hamel, “the world’s most influential business thinker” according to the Wall Street Journal and author of the recently released What Matters Now, showed how Morning Star, a leading food processor, had made it to the top without bosses, titles or promotions in his analysis published in Harvard Business Review.
The California-based Morning Star, the world’s largest tomato processor handling nearly 30% of the tomatoes processed each year in the United States and with annual revenues of $700 million is not just a Drucker dream-come-true but a company which has registered phenomenal success. And that’s why it makes you pause and ponder. Is it really possible for an organization to become a global market leader where there’s no CEO, where everyone can spend the company’s money, and where each employee is responsible for acquiring the tools needed to do his or her work?

As Hamel explains in his case-study, Morning Star is built on the edifice of five fundamentals, viz. Make the mission the boss; Let employees forge agreements; Empower everyone – truly; Don’t force people into boxes; and Encourage competition for impact, not for promotions.

So why aren’t we seeing more Morning Stars shine bright? If self-management has evolved from a nice-sounding slogan to a workable sound business strategy that can enable organizations to grow to the pinnacle why is it still unfamiliar to most of us? The view from the cubicle (and even from the CEO’s penthouse) is that self-management is an idea whose time has come as much as it is an idea which is yet to really take off. Contradictory? Yes, but check your premises – and we mean your company premises. People are not ready yet. Paul Green Jr., who helps run the Self-Management Institute launched by Morning Star, is on record having admitted that not even one company to his knowledge has “fired all the managers all the way” a la Morning Star and hit pay dirt.

Self-management like Morning Star is still an outlier. Of course organizations swear by empowering people, and are eager and willing to go the extra mile to bat for a minimalist hierarchy, but as to whether go the whole hog with this, they have to wait for a nod from their Board. It’s still for the Boss to decide whether he/she can be fired…
A true answer would be to perhaps go for the middle ground. Go for self-management, and retain the boss. You can’t win Wimbledon only on the strength of your forehand…