Management as Anarchism: It’s okay, I think

Anarchism gets a little bit of a bad rap. When we hear the word “anarchy” it evokes mental pictures of punk teens throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails. It brings to mind lawlessness, post-apocalyptic hellscapes, Macy’s Black Fridays with middle aged moms throwing elbows. It’s hard to imagine anything other than revolution and destruction.

To me, though, a lot of that sounds like modern business. Maybe not destructive, but certainly revolutionary and in the best cases highly disruptive. Maybe if we look at Anarchism academically, picking at it’s core concepts, we can see a platform for creativity.

Maybe.

Photo credit James Irwin

I recently picked up the book On Anarchism by Noam Chomsky while in a bookshop in South Kensington called, aptly, South Kensington Books. It was only £4.99 and seemed supremely British. I walked over to St. James Park and flopped down in the grass and started reading. I was shocked and surprised to learn I agreed with a bunch of the concepts right off the bat. The first one that struck me hard was, and I quote:

The anarchist asks those in power to prove their claims to authority — and argues that if their systems can’t be justified then they ought to be dismantled and replaced by something more free and just.

I love that. That says to me “don’t just accept what you’re told, but question every assumption and if you find a better way, go that way.” In a modern workplace, challenging the status quo and building something new is the genesis of disruption. At the end of the day, Anarchism isn’t about the removal of all rules, but having the simplest rules necessary. At some point the status quo is simply protecting a group of people with power, and when we can disrupt that, we release more power to more people.

There’s a sensitive side to Anarchism, too, that I didn’t realize. Chomsky argues that instead of simply dismantling the State, we should preserve important parts like welfare and social services while slowly re-configuring unnecessary bureaucracy. A successful anarchist should never let the poorest among us starve.

Okay, so, what does that mean for the workplace?

At Alchemy, I’m hoping that we can continuously question and challenge the way we approach solving every kind of problem. The way we take products to market, the way we come up with user experience designs, the way we run experiments, for example. All of these and more are practices that are passed down to us through training and accepted practice. But are they the best way?

It used to be that a designer would talk to stakeholders, go away for a while, and come back with a few design concepts. The stakeholders would pick one they liked, give feedback, and that would go on a few more times. We’d say something in the SOW like “three (3) rounds of revisions”. That method is effectively extinct in the modern workplace. The method we use now is called a Design Sprint, and aligns a cross-functional group not only on a design direction, but also functional components, copy tone, MVP scope, and stakeholder alignment.

But, is that the best way? It’s hard to say, but I can tell you that we’re already iterating on the process to better bring it into the the way our stakeholders work and think and communicate. We’re looking at the rules written, asking if they give us the most freedom, and changing them if they don’t. Anarchism.

Success is the donut, and we’re the ants, right? And like, we work together and… Ah, who knows.

Before I even read the book, I think people called my management style Anarchy. I try hard to cut through the nonsense, create deep personal connections, and pull people forward towards their highest capability. But, unfortunately, that’s a learning process too. I don’t always know how to do that, or how to read people, and it shows when I’m ineffective.

However, if I take a serious look at a framework, even a highly controversial one like Anarchism, and try to apply some of its foundation to my own thinking, I get interesting results. Instead of being a source of authority in the workplace, how can I change management into an act of service? Instead of trickle-down ideas and commands from on high, what if I tailor how I interact with my people depending on what that person needs for their own success?

Alchemy doesn’t succeed through my success, we succeed through the success of the 50 people on the team. When everyone is doing their best work, we’re delivering world class work to brands and feeling accomplished.

Peanut butter first, code second.

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