Managing without managers

I have a bit of an interest in the way organisations manage themselves and their people and was particularly inspired by The Starfish and the Spider: The unstoppable power of leaderless organisations by Brafman and Beckstrom a few years ago.

I firmly believe that much of the best work done by CYO has been as a result of letting people work to their strengths and follow new directions based on their gifts and the things they get excited about. Sanctum (prayer spaces in schools), Chaplaincy, Beloved (self esteem course for girls); all have flowed more from a team member being excited about a possibility they’ve spotted and being encouraged and coached to pursue it than a top-down developmental approach.

So naturally I was drawn to this article, Managing without managers by Jennifer Pahlka, Founder & Executive Director at Code for America. Jennifer raises a couple of interesting points about what makes such freedom (from managers, reporting systems, performance reviews) work so effectively.

  • Constraints – Ultimate freedom succeeds because of other constraints in the system. Jennifer highlights recruitment at games software company Valve and time at Code for America. Thinking about CYO I think our constraint would be appointing all self-starters. There have been a few occasions when we have had people who find it difficult to devise, plan and own a project and without a history or culture of traditional management we’ve struggled to succeed and have probably let them down too.
  • Autonomy, mastery and purpose – the three great motivators. Jennifer writes, “Putting the focus on coaching and supporting, instead of managing, was one way we could optimize for autonomy, and also to some degree for mastery, when professional and personal growth are a stated part of the agenda.”

There are, of course, limits to allowing people to just ‘do their own thing’. But the best work often happens when people are allowed to nurture their vision for a project and see it succeed. And for an organisation like ours, their success makes an impact on all of us.

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