At the Spigit Customer Summit, Gary Hamel described an innovative management approach that has stuck with me. W.L. Gore management has a hands-off approach to managing employees. Each employee is free to say ‘no’ to any request by a colleague. That’s right. Refuse to do something a colleague asks.
Damn, that sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? No more of those annoying requests that drive you insane.
But doesn’t it also sound like a recipe for anarchy? I mean, companies need employees to get specific things done, on a timely basis. It’s what make companies “go”. You get people refusing to do work, things will grind to a standstill.
All true, if the story stopped there.
Say ‘No’ But Watch the Repercussions
The figure below demonstrates the power of community in regulating excessive refusals to do work, or in providing work that is of inferior quality just to get someone off your back:
Employees learn community expectations about what constitutes quality work, responsiveness and collaboration. As you see in the graphic, each employee is requested to work on different projects over the course of a year. And true to the W.L. Gore way, an employee can say ‘no’ or ‘yes’ to each request.
The kicker is that at year-end, peers will rate the employee’s performance. A normal, conscientious worker will do fine in this scenario. But one who is an underperformer will have trouble hiding from the judgment of peers.
Consider how this maps to current processes:
- Executives and other employees set direction and launch new initiatives, just like today
- Employees are expected to contribute to multiple projects during the year, just like today
- Employees need to work in a collaborative team environment, just like today
- Peers provide a 360 review of employees, just like today
The biggest difference is the primacy given to the peer feedback. It is the crucial input on performance reviews.
It is the crucial input on performance reviews. This is how individuals internalize expectations that might normally come from a single boss. In the usual work setting, your boss is the final arbiter of your performance. Which means you really need to focus on winning the opinion of just one person.
In management by community, you need to think larger than that. The work everyone does plugs into a larger objective of growth and profitability. By tying one’s performance to the interactions with multiple colleagues versus one, companies like W.L Gore alter the influences on employees’ work. And it has paid off for Gore. As noted in FastCompany recently:
In its 50th-anniversary year, the $2 billion-plus private company is on pace for record revenues and profits, thanks to a number of clever new products with a lot of potential.
Visibility Becomes More Important
One outcome of management by community is that the visibility of one’s work becomes more important than ever. Two reasons for this:
- You want a record of the work you have done, so others will see it and be able to find it
- You need evidence of the work you are doing when you inevitably have to say ‘no’ to someone
Others will know that you are accomplishing things as you deliver your work for projects. But the visibility will be limited to only those involved at that time on that task. You’ll likely email your work to others for use in a project. That includes your boss, which is all you really need usually.
Creating public spaces for the sharing of work allows you to deliver on a specific task to a group of people in the same way. But it also lets others know what you’re doing. Someone who may be rating you down the road may not have been on that specific task. But they are now aware of your work. Think that might help influence their opinion come peer review time? I’d say it will. It also makes you more valuable to others for future work, which is an important aspect of management by community.
The other thing is that you will have to say ‘no’ to people. They will be disappointed, even a bit angry. This is a reality, as there is only so much of you to go around. But what can help mitigate those feelings of rejected “work suitors” is a demonstration that:
It’s not you. It’s me.
You didn’t say ‘no’ to someone because you don’t like them, or the work they need. It’s because you’re just so tied up currently on other things.
Final thought on visibility. One could take this to an extreme of tracking the tasks you’re asked to work on. You then signal whether you are in or out on some sort of online site. Considering that many task requests come in the form of email, perhaps not so farfetched to imagine them being made online.
Better Match between Employees Interests and Their Work
Another aspect of management by community is that employees will tend to associate to projects with work that matches your skills and interests. As you make decisions about what to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to, there will inevitably be a pattern to them. Generally, I’d expect a bias toward ‘yes’ on projects requiring talents matching yours.
This has two upsides and one downside. One upside is that projects get a better mix of diverse skills from people with above average talents for a given task. This is great, as it improves the output of a team.
A second upside is that employee satisfaction rises. Imagine a world in which you got to employ your skills in something bigger than yourself, and that was your primary work. Not everyone gets to do this. Having more control over your career destiny and work that you personally enjoy is a recipe for happier employees.
The downside is that there are always going to be those grunt tasks that need to get done. Having liberated workers who determine that their time is better spent on meatier projects can risk a failure to get the grunt work done. We all know what employees who exhibit these traits are called: prima donnas.
An interesting question is how much the community dings employees who refuse the more menial tasks that make up everyone’s day. If you truly are world-class talented for something and applying those skills for bigger picture work makes everyone’s projects better, I suspect you can get away with it. But suppose your chosen work is of decent quality, but not earth-shattering. Or what you’re good at is in low demand by peers. I think you risk serious prima donna backlash in the community reviews by saying ‘no’ too many times to grunt work.
Employees will have to do a serious self-assessment in such an environment. Which may be one of the best outcomes of management by community.
There is a lot to commend this concept of management by community. It plugs employees much more into the hive mind of the organization than do traditional management models. And it seems to work. Aside from W.L. Gore’s record financials in its 50th year of business, note that the company is consistently ranked as One of the Best Companies to Work For by Fortune Magazine.
Management by community: worth a closer inspection.
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