This is a cross post from my Secure Scuttlebutt account. Some links won’t work because they are cypherlinks intended to be viewed on SSB.

I’ve been wanting to write down some more thoughts about the book Reinventing Organizations which I finished several months ago, but I’m just getting around to doing it now. Huge thanks to @jeukku for the recommendation, I’m so glad I picked this one up!

Reinventing Organizations was a real eye opener for me, and it completely convinced me of the premise: that companies of self-managing employees can exist at all sizes, in various industries, and can outperform traditionally-managed organizations.

I have never worked for a cooperative or other type of organization where ultimate authority and ownership come from the workers, not a CEO or board of directors. My desire when I asked this question was to learn more about them and hear real stories about how they solve the tough problems. Hiring, firing, compensation, budgets. How can large groups of people manage themselves in situations where people disagree and compromise is not effective?

The answer lies in a few simple principles. (These aren’t directly from the book, these are my own takeaways).

  1. People will generally work hard, and work towards the higher purposes of the organization when they feel responsible for its future and empowered to effect change. This is the foundation of self-management. Traditional organizations are stuck in industrial era mindsets in their views of workers: that workers are mostly lazy, dishonest, unintelligent, and must not be trusted. But viewing workers this way is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  2. The goal is not to eliminate all power hierarchies. The goal is to move away from having a single org-chart style hierarchy. Instead, create many hierarchies with different people at the top of each, and be flexible in rearranging them as circumstances evolve. People take on well-defined roles and changing one’s list of active roles is done much more frequently than changing a job title or org chart in a traditional organization.
  3. The advice protocol. The advice protocol says “any person can make any decision after seeking advice from 1) everyone who will be meaningfully affected, and 2) people with expertise in the matter. Advice received must be taken into consideration.” This radically empowers people to solve problems without getting bogged down trying to focus on unanimous approval. The advice protocol is sacred and violating it is one of the worst offenses you can commit in a self-managing organization.
  4. Peer to peer conflict resolution is essential and every effort must be taken to ensure that it stays effective. This involves: robust training in conflict-resolution for all members, creating a culture of psychological safety, supporting processes like standing meetings for processing tension, peer reviews, check-in and check-out processes at meetings, etc.

The whole first part of the book was a strange broad-stroke history of the world, which I found reductive and not well-supported. I don’t think the author’s goal was so much to make an argument with historical backing as to tell stories about different types of organizational worldviews to draw on throughout the rest of the book. If you find it off-putting just power through or skip it and read the summary paragraphs at the end.

I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in healthier ways of working. I have found myself using some of the concepts and processes from the book in my day-to-day work at Planetary, even though we aren’t a self-managed organization (although management processes are very lightweight and informal). There is a wiki for the book that I found helpful and drew on to write this. For anyone looking to start or transition to a self-managing organization there is also Holacracy, a company that provides training, consulting, and example processes and documents that can be adopted.