June 11, 2014
In 1958, a middle-aged engineer named Bill Gore walked away from a seventeen-year career at the DuPont Company to literally start a business in his basement. Gore wanted his new business to be very different. He noticed, during his time with DuPont, that the best conversations happened in the carpool when people were free from the hierarchical dynamics of the office. Gore had a clear vision for his new company: He wanted it to be like the carpool all day long. He wanted to build a company that was designed for innovation and collaboration.
Gore quickly realized that, if his vision was to become a reality, no one in his new company—including himself—could have the authority to kill a good idea or keep a bad idea alive. So, he decided there would be no organization charts, no chain of command, and no bosses or supervisors. All work would be accepted rather than assigned, and the collective intelligence of the workers would decide what they would do and how they would do it. This was clearly radical management thinking for 1958. Certainly, if Gore had sought the advice of the management experts at the time, none of them would have expected his new company to last more than a year or two. After all, how would anything get done with no one in charge?
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It turns out that going “bossless” works very well. Today, W.L. Gore and Associates, the makers of Gore-Tex and other innovative products is a $3 billion enterprise with 10,000 employees in 30 countries around the world. It has made a profit in every year since its founding and is consistently on Fortune’s list of the “Best Companies to Work For.” While Gore’s record of success may seem surprising—even counterintuitive—what’s more surprising is why no other companies followed their lead for so long. Gore remained essentially alone for more than 30 years, before other companies such as Morning Star, Valve, and, most recently, Zappos joined the bossless ranks.
Perhaps the reason it took so long is because, in 1958, designing companies for innovation and collaboration was a business option, not a business imperative. The business imperatives for most of the twentieth century were efficiency and productivity, which were the design values for the pioneers of top-down hierarchical management. Although, Gore had discovered an arguably better management design alternative, there was no incentive for executives to give up their positional power to embrace Gore’s peer-to-peer network model.
That all changed with the dawn of the new century and a technological revolution that has transformed the dynamics for how power works in organizations. With the sudden convergence of accelerating change and ubiquitous connectivity, power has more to do with being connected than being in charge. In a world, where the arc of technology strongly favors networks over hierarchies, traditionally managed companies find themselves at a distinct disadvantage. The need to keep pace with a rapidly changing hyper-connected world has suddenly shifted the design imperatives for business organizations from efficiency and productivity to innovation and collaboration. As business leaders search for alternatives to meet these new design requirements, they may want to keep in mind the simple guiding principle of Bill Gore’s vision and make sure that their organizations are like carpools all day long.
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