Will Zappos Find Agility?

As recently reported, 14% of Zappos’ workforce chose to take a three-month package and seek new entrepreneurial or employment opportunities rather than remain and support its new, intricate, ‘self-managed’ organizational approach.

When the exodus of the un-committed is complete, Zappos’ leaders hope the remaining group will more quickly progress toward their goal of becoming a ‘Holocracy’ or self-managed work environment.

Some questions: Does self-management deliver agility?

A business is agile when it can quickly detect marketplace changes and adapt its offerings for competitive advantage. While it could be true that self-managed employees may be more motivated to see new openings, operating with self-managed ‘circles’ may actually delay needed changes.

Is decision-making/advocating now a major activity?

Zappos’ ‘circles’ will require employees to influence their peers to gain support for new alternatives. Many employees are not adept at influencing peers, and those who can, can easily be resented by their seemingly harder-working, but less-influential, colleagues. The probable result: delays and politically-motivated, watered-down decisions (due to perceived career risk). Zappos’ new management and decision-making ‘system’ is complex (summarized in over 18,000 words and 35 pages on the Holocracy website) and will require re-educating the workforce to use it, consuming time and resources.

Is the concept of self-management, itself, ‘natural’?

It may not be. One of the ‘Occupy’ movement’s original goals was to give everyone an equal voice in decision-making. The resulting decision-making delays frustrated even enthusiastic participants. Contrary to the group’s intentions, individuals gravitated to those with a clearer, better articulated vision – ‘leaders’ in all but name.

Can organizations become agile without self-management?

Angela Ahrendts, then CEO of Burberry (now with Apple), described their organization’s effort to become more responsive to design and fashion trends. They empowered younger, newer employees, who were attuned to the needs and wants of Burberry’s target demographic, to share in formal meetings with older and more experienced employees. The more ‘seasoned’ employees were accountable to take their product direction from these ‘focus-groups’ of younger employees. Senior employees, however, then used their expertise (and managerial authority) to operationally direct everyone to rapidly execute the required supply-chain adjustments to bring new products to worldwide markets. Specific guidance to both groups brought agility.

Can clear, considerate guidance deliver agility?

I believe so. During one of his leadership conference presentations, Jack Welch, ex-GE CEO, asked attendees to put up their hands if they had come with their boss. A majority of audience members did so. Welch then asked, “How many of you know where you stand right now with your boss related to your job performance?” Only a few kept their hands up. Welch told the managers to fix the issue.

Perhaps the secret to agility or improved organizational performance isn’t spending time learning a revolutionary, new structure but rather spending that same amount of time giving employees specific direction, expectations, and accountability.

Do you agree?


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