How can an organisation function without people hierarchies? Alison Sturgess-Durden, Director at Mayden shares insight on the flat-structure and working culture at Mayden and provides tips to make it work within your organisation. Alison is speaking at the CIPD Performance Management Conference which takes place on 5 December 2019 in London. Book your ticket today.
Having been asked to speak at the forthcoming CIPD conference on performance management of individuals at work, I have a confession to make. Those words – performance management – make me shudder a little. They suggest a certain assumption about people at work that does not sit well with me, and which progressive workplaces are challenging – that employees need performance managing to do a good job.
Let me ask you a question: In your job, are you responsible for managing other people? If you’re reading this and thinking of attending the conference then chances are you do. Line management is how we organise organisations.
Let me ask you a second question: Do you need managing in order to do your job effectively? I expect you do not. You are capable of working effectively without the routine supervision of a line manager.
Therein lies a contradiction worth exploring.
Let me ask you one other question: How many UK employees need a manager to function responsibly and effectively outside work – in their homes, families, communities and wider society? The vast majority, of course, do not. In fact it’s a ridiculous idea. Within the limits of legal, ethical and other boundaries, citizens tend to effectively organise themselves.
Why is it, then, that everyone is deemed to need managing when they arrive at work? Why is our predominant organisational paradigm – people hierarchies – grounded in the idea that you manage work by managing people? Why not cut out the middleman and let everyone get on with managing the work? Can’t most people be trusted to manage themselves in work as they are outside work? We are half a century on from Theory X and Y, after all.
Of course, organisations have been through significant attitudinal shifts over the decades, for example line managers taking a more coaching approach to their staff. But the paradigm persists that employees and their performance need managing by a superior. Inevitably, some do. Poor performance is a reality in many workplaces just as some citizens do not manage their own lives well. What I’m suggesting though is that it is not the norm, so does line management and individual performance management at work need to be the norm?
At Mayden, we’ve deconstructed line management, looked closely at the functions it serves, and come up with a different way of working. Whilst we still retain three line managers (our three company directors), in that capacity they serve as a final backstop only for any issues that cannot be resolved at a peer level around the business, and within our formal capability, disciplinary and other HR procedures if ever invoked. What we have instead are self organising teams, prioritising and delivering work together to the best of their abilities and discretion.
How does this not descend into complete chaos? How can it possibly safeguard high performance from individuals and the company? Just like a traditional hierarchy, we have sound structures and processes. They are just different to line management as the main control mechanism.
Here are Mayden’s processes:
- We have a clear purpose, strategy, business plan and set of differentiators from the competition. Everyone is involved in developing and reviewing progress against, so all know what needs doing and have a compelling vision to strive for (in our case, ‘changing what’s possible for clinicians and patients in mental healthcare with digital technologies’). Our strategy group is open and any member of staff can contribute.
- We regularly elicit feedback and ideas from our customers so we know what they want.
- Transparency is our default, so unless there is commercial or personal confidentiality to consider, information is openly available to everyone within the business.
- We use agile project management methodologies (mainly Scrum) to get the right work done on time.
- Work is explicitly ‘owned’ by individuals and teams who take responsibility for its delivery. Regular ‘Sprint Reviews’ make everyone accountable to the rest of the business for whether they’ve delivered.
- Our formal decision making process means anyone can make a decision about anything as long as they’ve heeded the process (which includes checking that they really are the best person to make the decision).
- Anyone can then challenge any decision as long as they adhere to the associated challenge process in doing so (do it face to face, ask questions, seek to understand each other).
- We have a powerful set of organisational values which the whole company was involved in identifying, and that genuinely guide choices and behaviours of colleagues.
- The genuine ‘no blame culture’ we have worked hard to build enables employees to take risks, learn from mistakes and take ownership of corrective action.
- ‘No blame’ also underpins a feedback culture where colleagues are encouraged to routinely give and receive feedback to each other in an effective way (replacing, for example, the annual appraisal). Fortnightly ‘Sprint Retrospectives’ are one of the team ceremonies where this can happen.
- Every employee has free access to a personal coach to help them reflect, problem solve and action plan.
- Teams have embedded coaches too, who facilitate (but do not lead) process management and decision making on a day to day basis.
Many organisations with traditional hierarchy have some or all of these elements too. The difference is we have baked them into our organisational model to the point that the need for individual line management and performance management is largely negated. Our directors need to step in to make decisions or take corrective action less and less as we grow in maturity in our chosen way of working. Better work is being delivered faster than when we had middle management. And according to our regular staff survey, employees are as happy at Mayden as they’ve ever been.
In essence, we have found that our way of working fosters engagement and high performance from our employees without performance managing them individually and directly.
I look forward to exploring further at the conference what this shift in ways of working means for individual employees and the conversations that are important to have with them, if not routine line manager catch ups and formal appraisals.