The future of the management discipline largely depends on the rise of new forms of management drawing on circularity and distributed intelligence, which move beyond the widespread misconception that management is done by a few people at the top of the organization. As such, we need to shift our attention from the human agents (cf. pilots) to the management technologies (cf. aircraft) used.
There are so many badly managed firms in the world today, mainly due to the widespread belief that management should be the responsibility of a few people at the top. The future of the management discipline may therefore depend on the rise of new forms of management that explicitly draw on principles of distributed intelligence. These are the principles that make aircraft technology so highly reliable, compared to most other ways to transport people and goods. A modern aircraft includes many thousands of sensors and signalling systems that allow the (automatic) pilot to anticipate, analyze and solve problems. These principles of distributed intelligence are almost entirely ignored by those managing companies and other organizations, which leads to highly unprofessional management practices in the vast majority of these organizations.
Historically, Mary Parker Follett, Henri Fayol, Peter Drucker and other pioneers in the management discipline sought to develop management as a science-based professional activity that serves the ‘greater good’, and thus set out to develop the management technologies that would support this quest. Sociocratic circular management has been pioneered since the 1970s by the Dutch engineer/entrepreneur Gerard Endenburg and recently repackaged by Robertson in terms of holacracy. The rise of circular management serves to revitalize the quest for professional management practices. These circular forms of management perhaps offer the best hope of easing top managers’ stranglehold on companies and, by extension, on innovation in these companies. Circular management implies power and leadership is distributed throughout the organization, while maintaining an unambiguous hierarchy. This type of management practice implies people take on roles as needed, rather than anyone becoming exclusively and (almost) permanently assigned to a managerial or any other role.
A few hundred organizations are now using circular management, in either its sociocratic or its holacratic version. Almost all these companies and other organisations are small or medium sized. Examples are the Dutch design agency Fabrique and the Brazilian agribusiness company Terra Viva. Large, publicly owned corporations are, thusfar, not applying circular forms of management -- except for Zappos (division of Amazon) in which there is ongoing process to try out and implement holacracy. Only the sociocratic approach to circular management has been around long enough to assess its long-term impact: all these organizations are leaders in their (local or regional) industries, and have demonstrated how principles of circularity enhance organizational resilience and performance as well as sustain empowerment at all levels of the organizational hierarchy.
In a HBR.org article, I outlined some of the key challenges arising from implementing holacracy/sociocracy. The following misconceptions often arise: (a) implementing one of these approaches means abandoning the corporate hierarchy; (b) once the blueprint of holacracy/sociocracy has been adopted, any implementation strategy will do to get the organization there; and (c) these new forms of management do not affect the C-suite or boardroom. These challenges can be addressed by redefining "hierarchy" as an unambiguous sequence of abstraction (rather than authority/command) levels, redefining organizational ownership toward "organizations that own themselves", adopting "informed consent" as the primary rule for making decisions, and so forth.
Whatever your first experiment or tryout in this area is, it's important to not underestimate the challenges of truly professional management. Management technologies are much more challenging than any advanced technology in the area of for example computer software, embedded systems, or mechatronics -- because management is about both tangibles and intangibles and takes place in highly ambiguous and uncertain settings. Therefore, forget about everything they've ever taught you about leadership and control, and be prepared to embrace management as a profession that is not for the simple-minded. Please consult some of the sources and references in the Materials section, before you set up your first tryout.
The Quest for Professionalism: The Case of Management and Entrepreneurship (Oxford University Press, 2016): http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780198737735.do
"The big misconceptions holding holacracy back", HBR.org: https://hbr.org/2015/09/the-big-misconceptions-holding-holacracy-back
Buck, J. & S. Villines, We the People: Consenting to a Deeper Democracy (Perfect Paperback, 2007): http://www.amazon.com/We-People-Consenting-Deeper-Democracy/dp/0979282705
Romme, A.G.L., & G. Endenburg, Construction Principles and Design Rules in the Case of Circular Design. In: Organization Science (2006): http://pubsonline.informs.org/doi/abs/10.1287/orsc.1050.0169
The Sociocracy Group: http://thesociocracygroup.com
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