Barking a top-down command to be bottom-up

dog barking
According to The Onion earlier this year:

Warning of severe consequences if he didn’t see results, Pantheon Digital Consulting COO Daniel Abelson, 59, told employees Monday he wants a relaxed, friendly company culture implemented by the end of the week ...

Interesting approach.

Organisational culture is a notoriously tricky thing to pin down. My favoured definition is simply – how things get done round here. And if you're tempted by new forms of organisation that retire command and control and emphasise self-organisation, how on Earth do you get that process started?

Can you use that command and control authority one last time to instruct people to dismantle command and control?

Amazon Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh, is famously a fan of one such self-organisation approach, Holacracy. Fast Company was one of many media to report Hseih's ultimatum to employees in 2015:

... each employee will be offered at least 3 months severance (and ... reimbursement for benefits) if he/she feels that self-management, self-organization, and our Best Customers Strategy and strategy statements ... are not the right fit.

In short, this may be interpreted as (polite version) "fit in or go away".

The problem is, best intentions accepted, this is hardly inclusive. It can hardly be said to recognise the benefits of or indeed need for diversity for sustainability in complex environments. And at minimum it conveys neither respect nor understanding for those who have effectively been 'institutionalised' in traditional org structures for their entire working lives.

Moreover, if Holacracy is an answer, it would be the first instance I know of in which a living system thrives from a proprietary trademarked code of operation. On the basis that it can’t be the answer, but may be adapted / forked in infinite ways, are we to suppose that the trademark owners lay claim to the kernel of the system, metaphorically speaking?

I was challenged when I made this assertion on the Responsive Org Slack instance. My interlocutor appeared to be asserting that the collective is merely the collection of the atomistic agents, and individual agents select the structure; in this instance Holacracy. For many employees today, especially those in large firms, I'm afraid that is simply not how they feel.

This is related to the fundamental structure / agency question in sociology. A consensus is emerging (pun intended) amongst leading sociology theorists that we’re contemplating a complex system here within which the balance of power between the structure and the agent varies from one situation to the next, from one moment to the next.

Structure frequently has a massive impact on the freedoms of the agents.

I am therefore questioning whether we should really invoke proprietary code for the structural component of the complex system, especially as we know structure is damn resistant to individual agency once it’s established. And I'm questioning the encouragement of new organisational forms by command.

There is no simple prescription, but simple rationale might suggest avoiding instruction and deferring to leading by example. If your example demonstrates a new way for 'getting things done round here', you are leading a cultural transformation.

I'm left concluding that the adoption of servant leadership (as described beautifully by Adam Grant in Give And Take) is prerequisite to a transition to bottom-up organisational forms.


Image source: sari_dennise, cc by 2.0

What do you think?...