Is your small business run by ants or a gorilla?

December 20, 2012

A new generation of “bossless” companies are challenging the traditional corporate structure.

Typically, the corporate world relies on a strict pecking order that runs from the CEO down through a team of middle managers to the workers. Bossless firms have few or no managers, with teams of workers instead deciding whether to hire and fire colleagues and setting pay and working conditions collectively. Business theorists are interested in finding lessons for how to run a company from the social habits of different animal species. The traditional templates for the workplace have hierarchical social structures, like lions and gorillas, where a dominant male tells everyone what to do. That’s because businesses, just like gorilla troops, need a clear leader who keeps everyone in line and makes all the decisions, it was thought. But now lions and gorillas are making way for - ants. Bossless companies have in many ways adopted the work habits and social mores of ant colonies. Like the insects, their workers cooperate easily together, work hard for and trust each other and have the ability to focus on solving a problem without any one of them being in overall charge.

Small businesses tend to have this kind of flat-management structure, where jack-of-all trades do everything. But as they grow they often develop a hierarchy. Managers are hired to look after the expanding operations. But is that always the right model? Having a dominant leader in a business can help to create cohesion and eliminate conflict. But if all the ideas and decisions come from one person, then a firm can quickly become stale due to a lack of diversity in ideas. In bossless companies the emphasis is placed not on leadership, but on “followership”. But that doesn't mean that employees should be lemmings. Non-hierarchical firms can be innovative, because everyone across the company is encouraged to contribute new ideas. The bossless company can also be nimbler, because during the time it takes for a problem to filter up the management chain and for a response to be passed back down in a hierarchical firm, their managerless rivals have discussed the problem among themselves and worked out a solution. The bossless company helps motivate employees and makes them more flexible. Natural leaders or those widely recognized within the team as having the chops to lead a specific task will typically emerge as the de facto manager. If no one steps up to take the lead, it's usually a sign that a project isn't working. How does anything get done? The key is to hire employees who are very motivated and who will thrive in such a freewheeling environment. You can’t have pen pushers or clockwatchers if you want to make this kind of organization work. Tech firms often adopt the ant-colony structure, but even the mighty GE uses teams without managers and are rolling out these working practices across its entire aviation business. So before you hire a manager for your expanding small business, stop and ask yourself: do I need an ape? Or more ants?