Zappos Two Point No.


Reading Bud Caddell’s post on the Zappos “use-it-or-move-it” announcement on self-organising teams from last week prompts some interesting questions about Zappos’ approach – and some effects for us, as an organisation that’s hurtling towards self-organisation.

You’re half-way down the road to working in a self-managed organisation.  One day you’re told that the company has sacked all of the managers.  If you’re one of those managers, you’re effectively sacked from that role, and have to find other, company-relevant work to do.  Now what?  

Firstly, I’m a postmodernist, and that’s going to to run through this post.  If you’re up for Holacracy, you’re probably ok with this, but it’s not for everyone, so you might want to jump ship now.  Feel free. I think the ideas that play out in critical theory have some of the widest applications, and the potential to change how we think about things.  That’s particularly the case in organisations, which have been pretty resistant to the free-floating chaos that they think comes with some of those ideas.  But crucially, I’m pretty taken (let’s just phrase it like that anyway) with the ideas of Gilles Deleuze. Amongst (many) other things, he’s famous for the advancing (and popularising, so far as continental philosophers are ever popular) the idea of assemblages.  

Bud’s right to say that people aren’t immune systems or ants.  But organisations are assemblages.  Very definitely.  All of them.  Even the ones that aren’t aware that they are. They’re a group of ‘things’ that have relationships to each other.  Yes, if you get down to it, you can describe most things that way.   But with assemblages, those relationships produce emergent effects – things that are not (despite the best efforts of organisational theorists over the years) easily reducibile to an analysis of their parts. The shape, grouping and nature of those relationships affects what kind of organisation it is – whether it’s orange, green or a holacratic teal organisation.  

Assemblages are territorialised – that is, made more stable – by certain actions, and destablised by others.  Rules tend to territorialise: the sheafs and sheafs of employee rules, the civil service code   What you tend to see in large, hierarchical organisations are two main things:  the first is that the organisation isn’t aware that it’s an assemblage.  It’s a structure, potentially a very rigid ones and things are supposed to work ‘this’ way.  These organisations often have a large shadow culture that supports (or sometimes undermines) the ‘main’ culture of the organisation. In attempting to make everything officially prescribed or proscribed, you invite people to surreptitiously create their own worlds around that core when they don’t agree. It’s in this space, the unofficial bit, that you get office politics and a bunch of other nasty things.  The second is that assemblages territorialise themselves by making other assemblages less stable – or by remaking them in ways that are consistent with their own goals.  In organisations this takes the form of hierarchy: specifying who can do (and say…) what, and when, and to whom.  What I might pretentiously call ‘assemblages of the self’ are diminished in orange organisations, so that the organisation as it thinks it wants to exist, can continue to exist.  They become an exercise in self-perpetuation, at the expense of their people.  

Cue burnout.  

Cue dissatisfaction.  

Cue lawsuits.

Self management and organisation are, at their core, an acknowledgement that you work in an assemblage.  Assemblages are inherently self organising.  They happen whether you want them to or not.  The difference is to do with agency.  In holacracy you understand that this is how things arrange themselves, and seek (as an organisation) to actively manage how it’s assembled.   In doing so, you cluster the relationships between accountabilities in the way that makes most sense for people.  When it stops making sense, you re-cluster it.   In doing so, you need to stabilise your company’s assemblages (or, getting back to the original point, your holacratic circles) in ways that support people.  A self-organised team that’s been put together by managerial fiat is an inherent contradiction, and that’s what Zappos are in danger of doing at the moment.

The takeaways from this (and Bud’s post) should be self-evident, and they sort of channel Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kun Do mantras:

  • “Take that which is useful and discard the rest.”
  • “No-form is not the same as no form.”  ( I love this one)
  • “…be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup… That water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” (ok, that one’s a bit longer)

Self organising organisations aren’t the end-point.  The end never comes, and the sooner we accept that, the happier we’ll be.  Possibly, the easier we’ll find ‘doing’ holacracy.  Just as with other aspects of culture, it’s… well, I need to borrow a horrible cliche here: it’s not the destination, it’s the journey. Culture is about the performing of the stuff that makes up culture.  Self-organising teams are about the doing of it.  Every time you perform, you become that little bit stronger.  That’s where Tony Hsieh needs to alight: if his team don’t want to perform, why not?  

The answers lie with the team, not in forcing it from the centre.

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