Who are the most important people in a company? The bosses, right? They’re the Silverback gorillas making all the big decisions and keeping everyone in line. After all, every business needs dominant leaders, doesn’t it?
Not necessarily. A firm doesn’t need leaders at all, some people would argue. A new generation of “bossless” companies is challenging the traditional view that businesses need a strict hierarchy running down from the CEO, through a team of middle managers to the workers. In contrast, these other firms have teams of employees who decide whether to hire and fire colleagues and set pay and working conditions.
The irony of many start-ups is that they are people who felt suffocated by the layers of management where they used to work. But, once their own business begins to expand, their first big decision is to start to hire managers, so they often end up creating scale-models of the firms they escaped from.
Does it have to be this way? No, is the simple answer. Take the example of Suma Wholefoods, a Yorkshire-based food cooperative. It has no chief executive or chairman. Every employee is paid the same wage and has an equal voice and share in the business. Self-managing teams of employees do the work and every one of them is encouraged to do different jobs. One day they might be answering the phones, the next they might be working in the warehouse.
Suma says this helps “to broaden our skills base and give every member an invaluable insight into the bigger picture. It also helps us to play to each member’s various different strengths while enabling us to think ‘outside the box’ when it comes to creativity and problem solving.”
This idea that bossless firms may be more innovative is one reason why the concept is being enthusiastically taken up by tech firms. Workers at one US videogame maker are even given desks with wheels so they can form teams to work on projects as they choose.
Suma proudly calls itself a “workers cooperative” and GE has used self-managing teams of employees for decades, expanding the working practice across its entire aviation business, which employs tens of thousands.
But how does anything get done? Well, Suma elects a management committee, but the decisions it implements are made at regular general meetings of all the workers. Decisions might take longer in bossless firms but actually getting things done can be quicker, because workers have discussed the problem and worked out a solution for themselves, rather than waiting for a decision to be filtered down the management chain of command. Just like ants, workers can cooperate easily together and have the ability to focus on solving a problem without anyone being in overall charge.
So before you hire a manager for your expanding small business, stop and ask yourself: do I need a gorilla? Or more ants?