What happens when there is no boss - an example

Not having bosses in an organization sounds like a very radical idea. The hierarchy and its elements, such as having top leaders and managers, are so embedded into our worldviews of work that it’s hard to imagine a workplace without them.


I was very excited when, many years ago, I learned about self-managing teams, flat organizations, and new ways of working. And so every time I see a working example, it reinforces my belief in and enthusiasm for this very special way of collaborating within a team. Whenever I talk about these concepts, I like to use analogies, metaphors, and concrete examples to help people visualize how it actually works in real life. So following up on the analogy with the roundabouts, here comes another great example of what might happen if a team gets full ownership of the work they do. 


As I mentioned, there are certain structures that are so deeply embedded in how we do things that sometimes we don’t even question their existence. Let’s take the example of an orchestra. An orchestra is a group of musicians guided by a conductor. The role of the conductor is to keep the musicians on time and together. They are also considered to be the ones ‘channeling’ both the music and the message of the composer. Their interpretation comes alive as musicians can transmit the vision of the music to the audience in a unified way. 


But what happens if some of the musicians start to challenge this assumption? 


This is what happened in 1972 when a group of young artists decided to create Orpheus, an orchestra without a conductor. Their vision was that they would lead themselves democratically and create extraordinary musical experiences through innovative collaboration. And this is indeed what happened and continues to happen today.

How does that work in practice? What makes them so special? How can you envision this kind of innovative collaboration? I think their example provides many insights into the advantages, the magic, and the mindsets that are needed for self-management. We can then translate these into the life of any organization that embarks on the journey of eliminating management layers, building a flat organization, or simply building more wholesome and human-centered workplaces with inspiring processes and practices. 

Before you continue reading, I really recommend that you watch this video (5 minutes) to get a glimpse of the kind of work they’re doing. I promise you’ll be smiling from start to finish! 


What can you learn about self-management from this example? 


1. They are one team


What happens when there is no ‘leader?’ How do they perform if there is no one person providing interpretation, vision, and order to everyone?

What actually happens when there is no leader is that everyone becomes a leader. They are one team, they work together, and they rotate the leadership roles. These leadership roles are not even assigned, but rather emerge naturally when there is a need for them, as you can see in the video. If someone notices something their music needs and has a suggestion they naturally initiate a conversation. 

This way everyone can contribute with their best ideas and feels ownership to raise an issue whenever they notice it. They are one single entity with one common goal: to make the best music possible.

This is what happens in a self-managing team as well: anyone can make any proposal to make things work better or produce better work. Everyone says what they think, everyone’s idea is valuable, and people discuss these suggestions based on the single most important factor: whether it is in the best interest of the work they do. 

2. Check your insecurities at the door


The last sentence of the previous point is critically important: the common goal of this orchestra is to make the best music possible. Every suggestion and piece of feedback is considered valuable if it seeks to make the music better. This is what they all care about.

This is why everyone raises topics and this is why everyone accepts the feedback of others. It’s not about egos, pushing your ideas on others, or defending yourself and your way of doing it.

There are many different people with different instruments and different interpretations of the music. They manage to channel these differences into healthy conversations. This is something I love about the video: whenever they add a comment, they explain their ideas or actually show what they mean musically. There is passion and creative energy in the air. 

What makes it possible to have this kind of collaboration was articulated in the video as well: these people are musically secure. That is, there are no feelings of inadequacy. Which means that they feel safe. They know that they are competent musicians, and that the feedback they’ve just received about a piece they played is not about their competence, but about an attempt to making their music better. They don’t take it personally, and thus they don’t try to defend themselves at all costs. 

This is what we call psychological safety. I know that I can raise any topic or suggestion because I won’t be punished for it and I can handle any feedback because I know that the others accept and appreciate me. 


3. Immediate communication


In this team there is absolutely no hierarchy. There is no one person who knows what’s best. Lively and sometimes messy conversations are shaping the final version of the music. 

Their common energy is also fueled by the way they communicate. Their communication is unfiltered, raw (this is what I would call real radical candor feedback) and most importantly: immediate. They can directly communicate with each other at the exact moment they sense something. They can turn to each other with their suggestions instead of turning to the conductor.

Imagine what this would look like in an organization. 

I was recently talking with a manager who told me that there are many issues and tension points between two teams at his organizations. As a result many of his team members come to him and expect him to mediate whenever there is an issue. Then this manager initiates a conversation with the other party involved in the conflict. Then these two peope and their two managers get together to sort things out. 

Not only does this take way too long (resolving an issue this way might take days or even weeks),it also takes the time of too many people ( a one-hour meeting with four people means four hours of productivity lost dues to this tension). Flat organizations instead have processes in place for handling these kinds of issues by encouraging the people involved to resolve them on their own or with an unbiased third party. 

Conflict resolution is something that a team needs to learn and practice continuously. Having a good process in place can normalize resolving the conflict instead of shying away from disagreement and tension. Resolving tensions immediately might be challenging for many as the vast majority of people don’t feel comfortable having these difficult conversations. This is why collaboration skills and conflict resolution skills need to be developed as well. 


+ Work is much more fun this way 


Every time I watch this video I start smiling and feel this joy bubbling up inside me. The thing I like the most about it is how much fun the musicians have. The whole process of creating together seems to be such a joyful, playful, and entertaining process. If something goes wrong or someone plays a bad note, they laugh together. Rehearsing seems to be quite an entertaining process even if there are conflicts or people highlight the mistakes of one another. 

This is a real example of the magic that happens when people co-create, when they can bring their whole selves and creativity into what they do and collaborate innovatively. Because in the end they are not an orchestra. They are “a big noisy family”. 


If you are curious about inspiring work practices or want to learn more about self-management, let’s get in touch and start a conversation!