No Managers? No Hierarchy? No Way! - Forbes

Posted on by Brandon Klein

In the discussion of the vast ongoing paradigm shift in management from the slow-moving stifling hierarchical bureaucracies of the 20th Century to the more agile, collaborative and networked forms of organization emerging today, some of the more counter-productive phrases are “get rid of managers!” or “abolish the hierarchy!”

Thus I often hear it said, and see it written, that firms like Morning Star or Southwest Airlines [LUV] or Valve or Zappos have done exactly that, i.e. “gotten rid of managers” and “abolished hierarchy.”

This is a misunderstanding. This is not what these organizations are doing or what the ongoing paradigm shift in management is about at all.

In networked organizations, where work is self-managed, there are still managers. The managers have become enablers of self-managing teams and networks rather than controllers of individuals. In those organizations, someone has to sign checks. Someone has to sign legal documents on behalf of the organization. Someone is legally responsible for what is done by the organization. That someone is a manager. A manager after all is simply someone who is responsible for getting things done. If anything is to get done, an organization has to have managers.

There are still hierarchies in a network, but the hierarchies tend to be competence-based hierarchies, relying more on peer accountability than on authority-based accountability, that is, accountability to someone who knows something rather than to someone simply because they occupy a position, regardless of competence. It is a change in the role of the manager, not an abolition of the function.