Management Changes at Medium

March 4, 2016, 3:40 PM UTC
WIRED Business Conference: Think Bigger
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 07: Cofounder of Medium and Twitter Evan Williams speaks at the WIRED Business Conference: Think Bigger at Museum of Jewish Heritage on May 7, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images for WIRED)
Photograph by Brad Barket — Getty Images for Wired

No, Ev Williams isn’t going anywhere. But the radical management philosophy the company has been using for the past several years—holacracy—has left the building.

In a post released today, Medium announced it will no longer use the “self-management” system trumpeted by the likes of Zappos and other companies as the antidote to traditional hierarchy. An “operating system” invented by software developer Brian Robertson, holacracy is organized into “Circles,” rather than teams or units, and replaces bosses with “Lead Links.” The notion is to give employees more control of their own jobs and to remove the politics and power plays common in traditional workplaces. Says Robertson, in an interview discussing Zappos’ use of holacracy: “In most companies, rarely do you know exactly what your authority is. Now [in holacracy], when you have the role, you have the authority to do anything that makes sense to you to get the job done unless there is an explicit rule against it.”

Sounds intriguing, yes? That’s what Medium believed when it embarked on the experiment in 2012, as did Zappos, when it started holacracy almost three years ago (to find out about what has happened to Zappos culture in the meantime, see “How A Radical Shift Left Zappos Reeling.” ). But the reality has proven to be just a little bit different. Writes Andy Doyle, Medium’s Head of Operations, in a post on the site:

So we’re off Holacracy. Not because it didn’t work, or because it’s “wacky” or “fringe.” Hell, we’re a little wacky and fringe. And we’re OK with that. We are moving beyond it because because we as a company have changed and want to make fundamental changes to reflect this. …

…the system had begun to exert a small but persistent tax on our both effectiveness and our sense of connection to each other. For us, Holacracy was getting in the way of the work.

It’s an interesting statement. Holacracy is supposed to make work, well, work. With a clear delineation of who does what and the right to refuse jobs that you don’t want to do, everyone is supposed to be clear on their responsibilities and impassioned about what they do. And yet—as I saw at Zappos—the sheer number of rules and regulations, combined with the potential for politics to seep in in different forms, makes holacracy, in my view, a questionable replacement for the classic management system, as flawed as the latter may be.

Holacracy empowers some people, particularly those who weren’t in positions of power before. But it also has a certain soul-sucking element; it seems to constrain more freewheeling cultures, as Zappos’ was. In part because of the switch to holacracy, Zappos, for the first time in eight years, did not qualify as one of Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For. That ranking, it should be noted, is based on surveys from the company’s own employees. (In other words, Zappos was booted off the list by its own workers.)

It may simply be, to borrow a phrase, that old-fashioned hierarchy is the worst approach—except for every other one that has been tried.





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