The cover article in the December issue of Harvard Business Review reminded me of this powerful little story:

A scout leader was trying to lift a fallen tree from the path. His pack gathered around to watch him struggle. “Are you using all your strength?” one of the scouts asked.

Using all your strength“Yes!” was the exhausted and exasperated response.

“No. You are not using all your strength,” the scout replied. “You haven’t asked us to help you.”

In “First, Let’s Fire all the Managers,” Gary Hamel reports on his study of Morning Star, a $700 million California food producer that “demonstrates how to create an organization that combines managerial discipline and market-centric flexibility — without bosses, titles, or promotions.” Here are the key elements of the company’s culture:

  • “No one has a boss.
  • Employees negotiate responsibilities with their peers.
  • Everyone can spend the company’s money.
  • Each individual is responsible for acquiring the tools needed to do his or her work.
  • There are no titles and no promotions.
  • Compensation decisions are peer-based.”

Visiting professor at London Business School and author of six books, Gary doesn’t suggest companies fire their managers tomorrow and become like Morning Star. He does show that reducing multi-layered hierarchy and pruning policies and rules can sharply reduce overhead costs and increase organizational flexibility and response times.

Here’s how to get started:

  1. “Ask everyone on your team to write down a personal mission. Ask each person, “What’s the value you want to create for your peers? What are the problems you want to solve for your colleagues?” Challenge people to focus on benefits delivered rather than activities performed.
  2. Look for small ways to expand the scope of employee autonomy. Ask your colleagues, “What are the procedures that handicap you in achieving your mission?” Once you’ve identified the most exasperating ones, roll them back partially and see what happens.
  3. Equip every team with its own P&L account. To exercise freedom wisely, employees must be able to calculate the impact of their decisions. The road to self-management is paved with information.
  4. You must look for ways to erase the distinctions between those who manage and those who are managed. If you’re a manager, you can start by enumerating your commitments to your team.”

In his article, Gary discusses the advantages and disadvantages of self-management and provides practical steps for flattening the hierarchy and managing versus managers. He concludes, “we don’t have to be starry-eyed romantics to dream of organizations where managing is no longer the right of a vaunted few but the responsibility of all.”

I used the scout leader story to open the Teams chapter of Pathways to Performance. You can read an excerpt from that chapter at “Leadership Keys to Harnessing the Power of Teams“.