The quiet revolution that is reinventing our workplaces

Fed up with organisational politics and infighting, with people defending their departmental ‘turfs’? A radical change in our workplaces is emerging which might just see much of this consigned to the dustbin of history – and organisations where nobody is ‘unimportant’ will become commonplace.

August 3, 2015

The current poster-child for this quiet revolution – leading US online retailer Zappos – has been regularly in the news as it experiments with removing traditional managers. Its charismatic CEO, Tony Hsieh, believes that this will liberate staff autonomy and creativity. Hsieh is also one of many who have been influenced by the book Reinventing Organizations, which profiles 12 successful ‘Next Stage’ organisations, and has been making waves internationally since its publication in 2014. All in all, it’s clear that there’s something in the air right now.


The kind of radically fluid organisational structures that once seemed an idealistic anomaly are starting to look like they could in fact be the future for all workplaces. Amazon’s own CEO is said to be keeping a close eye on Zappos – which Amazon now own – to see if their experiment gives them a new edge.

According to Reinventing Organizations author Frederic Laloux, the workplace practices at places like Zappos, tomato processor Morning Star, outdoor clothing designer Patagonia and community nursing network Buurtzorg may not be just the wild expressions of individual mavericks – but the emergence of a consistent new format for business, which seems more effective too. An Ernst & Young study suggests that Buurtzorg’s bureaucracy-free, more human and empathic approach to community nursing could save $49bn were it replicated across the US!

He also found – to his surprise – that the 12 organisations he researched in his book – ranging from 90 staff (and 20 dogs) to 40,000 staff – were usually characteristed by three commons features:

  • Self-management (not traditional command-and-control hierarchies)
  • Wholeness (bringing your full self to work)
  • Evolutionary purpose (listening in, to serve a higher organizational purpose)

And “the result seemed to be extraordinarily vibrant, powerful and soulful organizations”, Laloux says.

“What got me really excited was when I started noticing that these different organizations that operate in very different industries and geographies had often stumbled upon almost identical practices, even though they didn’t know of each other”, he added.

Zappos’ Tony Hsieh isn’t the only person fired up by Laloux’s vision in Reinventing Organizations: 100 eager volunteers around the globe – inspired by the book – have come together for a wikithon to create a wiki of all these ‘Next Stage’ processes, so organisations everywhere can get a head-start when they seek to make the transformation.

These new self-managed organisations often find a need for a fuller and more collaborative use of blogs, intranets and suchlike to co-ordinate their new more fluid structure. Self-managing teams need all information to be available, to make the best decisions – otherwise informal hierarchies re-emerge when some people are in the know, and others are not, Laloux explains. To avoid this, ‘Next Stage’ organisations make the intranet the central repository.


At Buurtzorg, every nurse has an iPad and is a member of online communities. Founder Jos de Blok blogs regularly.

A particular structure for self-management known as Holacracy is being used at Zappos. It relies on software called GlassFrog for tasks such as running effective tactical meetings and keeping track of the 10 or 20 ‘Roles’ that every member of staff could easily have, instead of a fixed job title. The rules of the Holacracy ‘operating system’ are laid out in its constitution document, was recently put on to GitHub and given a creative commons licence meaning that anyone can now create their own derivatives and use it for commercial gain – as long as it is released under the same licence, not made proprietary.

Does all this represent more than just another cyclical management fad? It looks like we will all be able to see for ourselves, pretty soon…