You know management philosophies have come full circle when the notion of employing middle managers--what you might call Hierarchy 101--is facetiously billed as a "radical idea." 

Yet that's what has happened, given how much mainstream attention holacracy and other "flat," team-centric forms of employee self-management have received this year. 

Specifically, a piece in today's Wall Street Journal tells the story of Treehouse Island co-founder and CEO Ryan Carson, who, after experimenting with a completely flat structure, decided that that middle managers weren't such a bad idea after all. The Journal, in fact, calls it a "Radical Idea at the Office."

What's really going on here is that middle managers are not always a good thing or a bad thing. It depends on the middle managers themselves. And successful so-called "bossless" structures are rarely as flat as they at first seem. 

The Great Bossless Experiment

For most of the past two years, Carson's 100-employee online coding school, based in Portland, Ore., had no middle managers. There were some perks to the situation: empty email inboxes and carte blanche to pursue passion projects. But in the absence of project managers, supervisors, and strict deadlines, Carson was beginning to feel like his staff was not as productive as it needed to be.

"Carson, one of the most vocal cheerleaders for managerless companies, was forced to re-evaluate his allegiance to an organizational approach he had espoused in blog posts and interviews," writes the Journal's Rachel Feintzeig. The co-founder and CEO succinctly summed up his change of heart: "That experiment broke," he told the Journal. "I just had to admit it."

Since bringing in a caste of middle managers a few months ago, Treehouse's leaders say that revenues have increased (they don't tell the Journal by how much). Other measurables have improved too: The time it takes customer support employees to respond to student queries has dropped from seven hours to 3.5 hours. Craig Dennis, a teacher at the company, tells the Journal that life with a boss is "light years better," since he is now reporting directly to someone who can give him praise and direction. 

The Truth About Self-Management

While the story of Carson's change of heart at Treehouse is interesting in its own right, you'd be wrong to use it as a referendum on the role of middle managers--or the art of self-management, whether you're talking about holacracy or Morning Star's reliance on empowered employee teams

Since the 1980s, when the business media and B-school professors made heroes out of incoming CEOs who chainsawed the fat from bloated companies by slashing jobs right and left, the term "middle managers" has become synonymous with bureaucracy and organizational bottlenecks. Pop-culture depictions of middle managers as hawk-eyed goal-setters with memorized strengths and weaknesses have only added to the stereotype. 

But in many cases--both then and now--middle managers are actually the ones preventing the bottlenecks and adding competency at every turn. The academic research about this is abundant. There's also no shortage of real-life CEOs who'll testify about middle management's important role in getting things done

So while there remains in the air a specious notion that middle managers are a definitive symptom of bureaucracy, it's just not true.

Likewise, a common misconception about experiments in self-management is that they are bossless or free of middle managers. That's just not true either, no matter how many headlines suggest otherwise.

David Allen, the guru of the "Getting Things Done" (GTD) system of personal efficiency, is still the owner and de facto boss of the David Allen Company. But now that he has converted his company into a holacracy, he no longer carries the title of CEO. His role--and the roles and decision-making authority of the other 40 employees, including those with managerial duties--are clearly defined. In holacracies, everyone knows which team members are empowered to make which decisions. Your role is public knowledge. The person formerly known as the CEO can feasibly tell the employee seeking his sign-off: "That's not my job."

"It instantly relieved 60 tons of pressure off my shoulders," says Allen. "I always said to myself, 'Wouldn't it be nice if this organization could run without a CEO,'" he says. Now it does. "Most people's perception is that [holacracy] is just willy-nilly distributed authority," he adds. "But it's quite dictatorial. It's just everyone agrees: 'This is your area, dude.'"

The point is, regardless of whether your management structure is conventional (like the one Treehouse recently adopted) or new-agey (like a holacracy), what you need in any organization are clearly defined roles--and skillful people in those roles. 

"There will never be a system invented which will do away with the necessity of work," Henry Ford famously said. Likewise, there will never be an organizational system--not holacracy, not other forms of self-management, not conventional hierarchies--that will do away with the necessity of talented people empowered to do their jobs. 

Published on: Aug 19, 2015