Landing : Athabascau University

First, Let’s Fire All the Managers

This is an article about how and why The Morning Star Company works. It's a company where

"• No one has a boss.

• Employees negotiate responsibilities with their peers.

• Everyone can spend the company’s money.

• Each individual is responsible for acquiring the tools needed to do his or her work.

• There are no titles and no promotions.

• Compensation decisions are peer-based."

Moreover, it is:

" a large, capital-intensive corporation whose sprawling plants devour hundreds of tons of raw materials every hour, where dozens of processes have to be kept within tight tolerances, and where 400 full-time employees produce over $700 million a year in revenues. And by the way, this unique company is a global market leader".

I believe that this could serve as a superb model for academia. In fact, I strongly suspect it would work even better in academia, that has a natural leaning towards autonomy. It would increase motivation, ownership, engagement, efficiency and creativity across the board.

The title of the article is not altogether accurate because the central mechanism through which Morning Star Co achieves its remarkable success is to treat everyone - from the temporary pickers of tomatoes to the president of the company - as a manager. It's not about getting rid of managers at all but creating a process in which everyone has power and agency, without structural hierarchies (or, at least, with very lightweight, flexible and shifting hierarchies). This is clearly very motivating: 

 “If people are free, they will be drawn to what they really like as opposed to being pushed toward what they have been told to like,” says Rufer. “So they will personally do better; they’ll be more enthused to do things.” Morning Star’s employees echo this sentiment. “When people tell you what to do, you’re a machine,” says one operator."

One thing I particularly like is that it is hugely empowering, but it's not about empowerment:

"the notion of empowerment assumes that authority trickles down—that power gets bestowed from above, as and when the powerful see fit. In an organization built on the principles of self-management, individuals aren’t given power by the higher-ups; they simply have it."

The benefits - more initiative, more expertise, more flexibility, more collegiality, better judgement and more loyalty - are well explained in the article. This is a highly successful company, not just in its market but for its workers.

The article goes into some detail on how it works without centralized control and power hierarchies. It explains how those who don't pull their weight are treated, how processes are coordinated, how success is measured and what makes it both efficient and creative at the same time. The mechanisms of control are almost entirely social and the production process is almost entirely self-organizing. The company is designed to create the conditions needed for people to work together effectively: not so much a machine as an ecosystem. Inspiring stuff. Not only would it be a great way to run a university, it would not be a bad way to run a program or even an individual course.


  • Great article Jon! I was reminded of it while reading this Guido van Rossum interview:

    What does a typical day of work at Dropbox look like for you?

    There's a lot of email, a lot of code by other Dropboxers to review, and I also get to write a lot of code myself (which I then have to get reviewed by my coworkers). Fortunately I don't have too many meetings!

    Viorel Tabara September 1, 2016 - 7:13pm

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