How to Give People Their Voices Back in 2017

Say goodbye to hierarchical management.

In an operating bureaucracy, strategy gets set at the top. Power trickles down. Big leaders appoint little leaders. Individuals compete for promotion. Compensation correlates with rank. Tasks are assigned. Managers assess performance. All of this gradually takes it toll on economic productivity and organizational resilience.

It’s perplexing that despite the research and evidence that hierarchical management structures make companies cumbersome, unproductive, and unable to keep up with the pace of change in their industries, it’s still the status quo.

In my experience at The Morning Star Company (Morning Star), the traditional hierarchical model of organizations is not sustainable—in fact, it seems to be a recipe for slow death by bureaucracy.

I spent the first half of my business career at Morning Star. One day, our founder had an epiphany. Each employee was a manager in his or her own personal life. People were taking out mortgages, they were raising children, they were buying cars, and they were involved in civic organizations. If people know what to do and how to do it, shouldn’t they be able to manage themselves at work?

In spring 1990, we adopted organizational self-management as Morning Star’s governing philosophy.

The key ideas of the self-management philosophy include:

  • People are generally happier when they have control over their own life (and work).
  • It doesn’t make a lot of sense for decision-making authority to belong to the person who is furthest away from the actual work being done.
  • When you give good people more responsibility, they tend to flourish.

By adopting organizational self-management at Morning Star, we achieved greater transparency across the organization, increased collaboration, and lowered management costs—allowing us to focus on stakeholders’ very highest priorities.

How did we do it?

Effective Management Starts with Self-Management

In 2008, I co-founded the Morning Star Self-Management Institute with company founder Chris Rufer and colleague Paul Green, Jr., to promote the principles and systems of self-management for both internal colleagues and external organizations.

We found that self-management works best with people who are mature, communicative, have a high degree of social and emotional intelligence, and are committed to the mission and vision of the enterprise.

Self-management is founded on a belief that people are naturally going to work together and form teams. In organizational self-management, traditional managers don’t concoct teams; people self-organize into teams that make things happen.

For example, Morning Star does have logical groupings of people who work together by necessity because of what they do and where they work. For instance, every functional area has its own profit and loss statement and is considered a business unit. This gives people a sense of what their costs are, so they know whether they are providing value to other business units in the enterprise. In this sense, economic thinking promotes a sense of accountability, ownership and financial literacy.

Morning Star’s founder uses the analogy of a cloud—when condensation conditions are right, water molecules form a cloud. When conditions change, the cloud dissipates and the molecules reform and reconfigure in a way they’re needed in the future.

When people join Morning Star, they are asked to embrace two core principles. First, human beings should not use force against others—all interactions should be voluntary. Second, people should honor the commitments they make to others. To the degree that people align their behavior with these core principles, they should experience greater happiness, harmony, and prosperity. Imagine a world where everyone eschewed the use of force and honored their commitments! The organizational benefits also would be profound.

When Self-Management Is Not for You

A dysfunctional culture lacking in trust, with a deficit of social or emotional intelligence, or where the organization is riddled with power politics, will not easily transition to a self-managed environment. The same could be said for a culture where people lack initiative or consistently tolerate non-performance.

It’s important to take the temperature of the organization to see what you’re dealing with. You can do that through valid, reliable organizational audit techniques and culture assessments.

Once a determination is made to give people their voices and their brains back at work, there are several social technologies available (beyond individual coaching and mentoring) to listen to those voices, including Open Space and World Café. Having skilled coaches and mentors guide others through a change process is crucial to a successful outcome.

If you need any further convincing that this is the year for your business to decentralize, look to the success of these organizations that have adopted various flavors of organizational self-management:

  • Valve Software
  • Nearsoft
  • W.L. Gore & Associates, Inc.
  • Semco
  • Buurtzorg

Doug Kirkpatrick will be speaking at Business Agility 2017, to be held February 23-24 in New York. For more information, visit:

Doug Kirkpatrick is an organizational change consultant with NuFocus Strategic Group, TEDx and keynote speaker, author, and educator. The first season of his career was spent in the manufacturing sector, principally with Morning Star, a world leader in the food industry. He now engages with Great Work Cultures, Work Revolution, The Center for Innovative Cultures, and other vibrant organizations and leaders to co-create the future of management. In the last four years, Kirkpatrick has spoken about the future of work with audiences in China, Brazil, Poland, Mexico, Canada, Germany, Norway, Denmark, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and throughout the United States. Kirkpatrick is the author of “Beyond Empowerment: The Age of the Self-Managed Organization,” and a monthly contributor to the Huffington Post. He is a director at the Association for Talent Development (ATD), a talent development association with more than 40,000 members in 120 countries, and a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR).


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