Evolving organisational structures

There’s a debate going on at the moment about Zappos and their imposition/adoption of a new management structure based on Holocracy.

Basically Zappos want people to self manage and to speed up the process they’ve mandated it, offering severance to anyone who doesn’t want to work in this way. Broadly there seems to be a couple of responses to this:

  1. It’s a good thing because self organisation is a good idea
  2. It’s a bad thing because self organisation is a bad idea

It’s the classic media/internet response. Binary by nature (as if the very essence, 1s and 0s, of the technology underpinning the internet somehow makes our thinking more digital in nature… Anyway I digress). However, the issue here is not what one company decided to do and thinks is right for themselves, but the fact that one company’s structure or way of working is held up as a good or bad thing.

Organisations evolve. They are complex, the larger they are the more complex they become. The conditions in which they operate are unique to them and a product of the unique individuals that inhabit them.

Therefore a structure cannot be imposed or decided upon. However it can be evolved. It is not the management structures or way of working that needs to be codified and repeated but the evolutionary journey and thinking that codifies improvements into the organisation.

The response to the Zappos story also reveals another interesting facet to how we think about evolving organisations: that evolution is a constant conveyor belt of improvements. That somehow a new form of organisation is better than a previous form just because it was created after the first form. Evolution is the adaptation of an organism to the conditions it finds its self in at the time – not some constant refinement of the inferior to the superior.

By seducing ourselves that we are somehow doing things better than we were in the past, we fall into the trap of looking at the previous incarnation of organisations as somehow inferior and therefore miss the context in which they operated at the time.

Organisations need to stop looking at each other for inspiration or trying to improve on the past. We need to codify what is valuable in our current situation and reduce that which is no longer useful. This is how evolution works. It does not work by imposing a new supposedly superior form of structure borrowed without context from others.

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