Will the Zappos Experiment Work?

If you spend any time with the Cirrus team or have been in one of our development workshops, you’ve heard us say that healthy organizations are run by areas of responsibility rather than titles.  I was reminded of this when I read The Washington Post (NYSE:WPO) blog “Zappos Says Goodbye to Bosses.”

It can be very easy as an organization grows for managers to hide behind titles and push responsibility down the chain of command.  We see that very clearly in government.  It’s often the low-level employee that takes the fall for failures and the person at the top all too ready to receive the accolades for success.  This is a sure-fire way to create a disengaged workforce.

As #Zappos grew, they noticed that the bureaucracy they needed to run the business was getting in the way of their agility.  It was taking longer to respond to customers and markets.  This is a textbook case of the organizational life-cycle and why innovation is so difficult in large organizations.  As organizations grow they must have systems and processes to create predictable results.  However, the systems that are designed to produce “sameness” don’t do innovation or agility well.

So in a bold move, Zappos is changing to a self-organizing organization.  Sure there will be an executive team that is accountable to the #Amazon.com board, but otherwise the company will be made up of self-governing teams.  This works very well for project-based work.

The holacracy, as it is called, is not a new concept, and it’s gone by several names over the years.  However, it will be interesting to see if this will work over the long term in an organization the size of Zappos.  I also have some reservations about whether or not the type of work in which most Zappos employees are engaged is conducive to this structure.  We’ll soon see how many folks were just in the boat versus rowing the boat.

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