bureaucracy

Bureaucracy’s Event Horizon

By Doug Kirkpatrick

An ‘event horizon’ is the boundary of space surrounding a black hole from which nothing can escape—not even light.

With the term ‘self-management’ showing up with increasing frequency in the popular business press, it’s worth asking fundamental questions: Will companies be able to avoid the black hole of permanent bureaucratic management? Is it even possible for people to manage themselves at work?

Everyone makes gigantic, life-altering decisions without a boss, at least in their personal lives. We all decide who to date, who to marry, where to live, what to do for a living, whether to buy a house, take out a mortgage, or have children. This fundamental reality begs a serious question: if an individual knows what to do at work and how to do it, why does that person need a boss?

Vanguard companies are exploring this very question and putting it to the test.

Netherlands-based home health care provider Buurtzorg gives its 10,000 self-managed professional nurses tremendous autonomy to determine and deliver services. It starts with the presumption that the clients themselves wish to be as independent and self-managed as possible and then provides a holistic, community-based approach to care that preserves their independence.

W.L. Gore & Associates, with a well-deserved reputation as one of America’s most innovative companies, built its organization around a “lattice” framework of flat, self-managed teams and little hierarchical management. Its culture is populated by associates and sponsors, not managers and bosses. The mantle of leadership is earned naturally through visible results that attract followers, not conferred by tenure or politics.

Nand Kishore Chaudhary, the founder of Jaipur Rugs in India, has been called the “Gandhi of the Carpet Industry” for his visionary approach in bringing self-management principles to his 40,000 contract weavers located across India. His business model involves eliminating the middlemen who extract profit so that the weavers themselves can improve their lives and the lives of their families. His simple statement to me earlier this year: “Don’t tell me that these people can’t manage themselves—they’ve already learned how to survive.”

While a relative handful of new wave companies have achieved escape velocity from the powerful grip of bureaucratic gravity, the case for directing significantly greater energy to this challenge is compelling.

Professor Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini of The Management Lab argue persuasively about how the iron grip of bureaucracy crushes human creativity and engagement while burdening the economy to the tune of trillions of dollars.At the same time, encouraging research in fields like Promise Theory portends scalable domains of autonomous agents bound by trusted commitments that obviate the need for centralized command-and-control management.

Traditional management (a.k.a. bureaucracy) is under tremendous pressure from scientific, economic, social and technological forces. It will be up to organizational leaders to guide the release of that pressure to avoid bureaucracy’s event horizon with courage, ethics, and vision.

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