In 2007 I was part of the founding team of a company that created digital strategies for some of the biggest brands in the world. A few years later I became the CEO. While I thought of myself as a progressive, in truth I managed the company in a somewhat traditional way. I weighed in on all the hiring and firing decisions. I gave annual performance reviews and set compensation. I told people what to work on, and how to do it well. I designed the organization as I thought it should be.
We grew quickly and hired some amazing people – some of the best I’ve ever worked with. Our clients were happy. Our reputation was strong. From the outside it looked like a success.
There was only one problem: it was exhausting. As it turns out, controlling everything is not really sustainable. And even when it works, it’s unfulfilling. I would lie in bed night after night, sometimes at two or three in the morning after working a 16-hour day, with the same thought stuck in my head: this can’t be the best way to run a business. Slowly the realisation hit me. If I truly was the hero leader, the single point of failure, then what had I really built?
At the same time, I was getting a front-row seat to how things were done in some of the largest companies in the world. And honestly, things didn’t look good. As far as I could tell, big always translated to bad. Bigger companies were slower, less innovative, and less human places. People there were constantly wearing masks that hid their true selves – it was everything I didn’t want. But if we were to grow, wasn’t that our future?
I had questions and went looking for answers. Was there a way to run a company that didn’t end in a bureaucratic mess? Was agility at scale even possible? Was growth a goal or a by-product?
My walkabout led me to many unexpected sources of inspiration. I found complex adaptive systems – such as cities, ants, flocks of birds, schools of fish, immune systems, and brains – that solved problems without a leader, adapting to a wide variety of situations and challenges.
I began to discover a hidden-in-plain-sight collective of people and organisations that were doing things differently, some since before I was born. They represented a way of working known as self-management, characterised by a lack of traditional hierarchy and bureaucracy. These Evolutionary Organisations had been out there all along, but somehow popular business culture had managed to ignore their stories. How many people have ever heard about the inner workings of a pioneer such as WL Gore, the makers of Gore-Tex, or FAVI, a successful brass auto parts foundry that has been leveraging decentralisation and distributed authority since 1983? And yet there were dozens and dozens of stories like these, both new and old.
So I made a decision. We were going to change our OS. Self-management or bust. Easier said than done. I had to change my identity from a charismatic control freak who thought his job was to ensure perfect execution to someone who could let go and let come. But before I could do that I had to get everyone else on board. And that wasn’t easy, those who had previously wielded power had to find new ways to feel important and useful. Those who had lacked organisational power had to step into their new authority and take ownership.
It didn’t happen overnight. We tried a handful of new practices. Some worked, some didn’t. We learned new principles and felt a little bit wiser. We argued. We debated. We became ethnographers of our own culture. One day we looked up and we were meeting differently. Deciding differently. Talking differently. Slowly but surely, we had become one of those companies that was not like the others. Were we done? Not at all. In fact, we’d realised what only those companies that really care about their way of working know – that you’re never done. You’re always learning. Always changing.
Twelve months later, when we looked back at our financial performance, we had delivered our best year ever. The funny thing was, no-one knew why. There wasn’t any one thing we could point to and say, ah, that was the reason we grew, that was the reason we succeeded. It just... happened. And that’s when I realised that we had gone from a place where all the best ideas were trapped in our heads to a place where they were free – where the genius of the firm was happening not inside people but between people. I knew I could never go back.
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