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How You Can Manage Without Managers

Are companies better off without managers? Your first reaction is probably, “Yes!” But in a lot of cases, there may be more than anti-management frustration to your answer than you think. Indeed, IT teams – especially startups – may be ripe for the innovative approach of managing without managers, a move that could straighten even Dilbert’s tie.

Line of ManagersAccording to Michele Zanini, managing director of McKinsey’s Management Lab in Boston, an IT workforce could work well under a leaderless system. Typically, companies that rely on independent workers who are used to managing themselves, or rely on a collaborative team approach, can thrive under this scenario.

It sounds dynamic and creative. But is it right for all companies?

Go the Gore-Tex Way?

In 1958, Bill Gore launched weather-proof fabric maker Gore-Tex. Today, the company pumps out more than $3 billion in revenues. Under his approach, Gore-Tex’s approximately 9,000 workers, spread across 30 locations worldwide, operate in self-managed teams that are linked together in a kind of “lattice” with few formal structures in place.

“There is no hierarchy. It’s a collaborative culture that is entirely team-based,” Zanini says. “They do have team leaders when the team assigns them, but it’s not coming from above. At the end of the year, each team member has a survey sent out to the people who worked with them and are asked, ‘how much value did this person add to everyone this year?’ ” Those who receive high scores are compensated accordingly.

“You can’t play politics under this system,” Zanini chuckles. “It’s one thing to brown nose one person, it’s another to do it to 20.”

Right Mix

With a self-management system, employees have to be very clear on what they need to do and why, and embrace the values of the company. “They need to believe in it and feel they can make a difference,” Zanini says.

If you’re not willing to so far as give up leading entirely, peer management is an approach worth considering. It calls for colleagues to define their own role within a group, receive sign off from the group for holding that particular role, then make a commitment to the others who will depend on their work. Software development teams may do well under this structure, which in many ways works much like a no-lead approach.

“When you have a team structure where they come together for a project and then disband, this would work,” Zanini says. He notes that companies like Spotify, Electronic Arts, GitHub and Gore-Tex try variations of this approach to empower workers to take the lead, with or without a an actual leader.

Leaderless Startups

While some environments may work well with a leaderless system, venture capitalist Tim Draper of Silicon Valley-based Draper Fisher Jurvetson says it’s tougher in a the startup world.

“This has happened in several startups,” he says. “I tend to force a final decision on who will be the CEO, so there is ultimately one decision maker, otherwise if there is ever a situation where two people both lead and disagree, you have a stalemate.”

But there are ways to approach even this creatively. “I had a situation recently where I forced the decision and they decided to alternate who would be the CEO every other year,” Draper says.

About Dawn Kawamoto

Dawn Kawamoto is the associate editor of Dice. She is an award-winning technology and business reporter, previously working for such publications as CNET's News.com where she reported on a wide range of sectors from enterprise software to mobile computing to Internet darlings and the funding that fueled their growth. In 2002, she was a Gerald Loeb Awards finalist for coverage on Oracle's sales practices.