1. 79
    1. 16

      For another perspective, I suggest you read “Bullshit Jobs”. It speaks a lot about the logics of big schizofrenic corporations and the psicology behind middle management. It also speaks about the rise of “managerial feudalism” and how this reflects on everyday life inside a corporation.

      1. 7

        Good book rec. This whole piece is kind of deluding itself about what a corporation is and does.

        Maybe one of your organizational values is “do what your boss says.”

        I read this, and I was like, that’s every company! What company doesn’t have this value!

        1. 4

          A cooperative, because there are no bosses.

          1. 4

            Worker led companies are not nearly as pitiless. In many cooperatives though there are still seniority ranks, there is still a managerial role, and the “boss” becomes distributed over the whole of the workers, so there is still some dictatorial aspect in the end.

            1. 3

              No authority doesn’t mean no law and no hierarchy. It just means that the law and hierarchy derives from the workers and not from one person or from the state. and they can be changed through voting. Then yes, there are cases of cooperatives, especially very big ones with thousands of employees, where this mechanism becomes a ritualized appendage that doesn’t challenge who controls the cooperative but they are exceptions, not the rule.

        2. 2

          Companies where the boss first asks their employees what they think should be done and then based on their advice says: “sounds good, let’s do it like that”. Yes, in some sense they’re still “doing what their boss says”, but “do what your boss says” strongly implies that the boss decides what the employee should do without them having much input in it.

          I wouldn’t work anywhere where I would just be doing ‘what the boss says’.

        3. 2

          Eh? It’s my boss’ job to go to meetings I don’t wanna go to, and to let me know where we’re going. It’s my job how to get there.

        4. 1

          What company doesn’t have this value!

          You used an exclamation point instead of a question mark, but I think that is a great question!
          I had to spend most of a day thinking about it off-and-on before I felt prepared to try and offer an answer, so thank you for prompting these thoughts.

          When I read “do what your boss says” as an organizational value, I find a lot to unpack in the phrase. Much of it goes beyond merely acknowledging a difference in power or authority. I cannot read the author’s mind to know if this is what they meant, but when interpreting the phrase “do what your boss says” as a value, if it begins and ends with those five words, then that interpretation is missing out on an entire layer of lived reality.

          Consider the differences between:

          • “Do what your boss says, do only what your boss says, and nothing more.”
          • “Do what your boss says, and be mindful of ways to make it better.”

          And these two:

          • “Do what your boss says, do not question or alert anyone, even if you see a problem.”
          • “Do what your boss says, and raise questions when you see a problem.”

          If none of those seem different to a person, or if they have never had separate experiences that shine a spotlight on those differences, I can understand them not examining further. Yet each is a world of difference. Even in benign office workplaces, it can wind up being a matter of life or death in ways that seem insane at first glance, but which ultimately can be traced back to culture. The story is a bit too long to shove in this (already-long) comment, but there was a situation where a pregnant woman at an office job almost died in her chair from a culture of “brag about good news to your boss, but bad news never flows up.” So I am not over-dramatizing this world of difference.

          I spent years dismissing the whole “culture is everything” and “values matter, but are hard to change” aspect of organizations (whether corporate, governmental, community, or otherwise). Especially when it came to corporations, I had an inescapably cynical, instrumentalist view about what a corporation is and does, as you worded it. Though perhaps I was more pessimistic than you are.

          My mind was only changed after two things happened.

          First, I came across a definition of culture that was infinitely better than all of the pie-in-the-sky, mando-fun teambuilding, platitude parade bullshit that I had long associated with it.

          Second, I observed and experienced differences in outcomes that I could not attribute to anything other than problems of culture. I tried to find anything else. Process deficiencies, technology choices, even matters of power and authority, all are more tangible (and therefore felt safer to engage with) than those squishy culture-and-values questions.

          The definition I came across was this:

          “Culture is the framework by which people in an organization will make decisions.”

          I do not believe that was the exact quote, but it is close. In a corporate structure of knowledge workers, absent from but implicit in that phrase, is probably “when there is no established process”. Yet perhaps not? Even that notion, of how often, in what cases, to go around or outside of a process, is one-hundred-percent within the realm of a cultural value.

          Now this does not mean I am pollyannaish about organizational culture and values in all cases, or at all times.

          There are going to be middle management MBA-types who crow about “culture” blindly, because they have learned that this is the pavlovian trick that gets them the treat: respect among peers, a high salary, and so forth. If a bad actor in a position of authority is especially good at hiding their motivations or incompetence, I do not have a magic wand to wave that can solve that problem systemically. However, I no longer let my cynicism about how other people engage with questions of culture keep me from engaging with those questions in a manner that is productive and empowering.

    2. 14

      This really makes me think about how hierarchy is the major, unspoken assumption in all business writing. I would love to see the application of more anarchist philosophy into this topic. I think that would be really interesting.

      1. 5

        I suggest you the Loomio Cookbook. Also you don’t need to be anarchist, it’s enough to be a democratic cooperative.

        If you want a capitalist-washed version you can look at “holacracy”, that is basically the same thing, but CEO-friendly.

        Also yeah, there are anarchist cooperatives in IT but I’m not aware of anything specific written by them. If you want to read about anarchist cooperatives in general, there’s plenty of material. Also you might be interested in the socialist venture of Olivetti, if you want to stick to something close to IT

        1. 2

          it’s enough to be a democratic cooperative.

          What do you think anarchism is?

          1. 1

            all anarchist cooperatives are democratic cooperatives. Not all democratic cooperatives are anarchist (or at least they don’t know they are)

            1. 1

              That would depend how one defines democracy. Some anarchist threads eschew voting (which some define as a central feature of a democratic system) for a consensus based form of decision making.

              1. 1

                Yeah clearly it depends and if you ask anarchists, you cannot have democracy without anarchy. And I might be one of them, but I also know that appropriating the word “democracy” just for ourselves is a bit pretentious

      2. 3

        I believe that when thinking about management structures we always need to take into account how humans function at a primordial level. As monkeys, we have lived in gangs that are led by one leader, so this is probably the most natural and efficient way to structure an organization. EDIT: Also the most efficient way to lead it somewhere we don’t want, obviously.

        There are drawbacks to hierarchical regimes, which is why we try to come up with alternatives, but we can’t ignore that most people still naturally look for people to look up to and simultaneously look for opportunities to assume a role of responsibility for the well-being of a group.

        Of course we don’t necessarily have to satisfy these urges, but ideally an organization builds on top of them.

    3. 8

      More like “What should executives do, according to Andy Grove”. Not to detract from the contents, which sounds useful and sensible.

    4. 8

      It seems too easy to be real. For any disagreement, identify the lead person on each side. Then, identify the lowest executive in the corporate hierarchy that both leads report into (in the extreme case, this is the CEO). Set up a meeting between the three of them. At the meeting, the two leads will present the one, correct decision that they have agreed upon. The executive will sit there, listen, and ratify it.

      the only other responsibility of an executive is to enforce company values.

      I consider this a case of “simple” not “easy”. Things I consider hard in large organisations:

      • Identify the stakeholders and lead persons for anything. Since the meeting is “between the three of them” there is no board meeting where additional stakeholder have a chance to speak up. Depending on company values, executives might require the lead persons to do some formal stakeholder analysis.
      • Come to compromise with everybody if something is urgent. If it is not urgent, then people often just defer the issue. The real hard case is probably when the lead persons experience a different urgency. Should the executive determine the deadline for the meeting here?
      • Knowing your company values and acting consistently to them. I believe most companies act according to values they never wrote down. This makes consistency impossible. The “Quadrilogue” in the article describes how hard it is to write down your “real” values instead of “wishy-washy” values.
      • Notice when company values are violated. A value like “everybody pulling in the same direction” is probably a significant value in any company, but if it does not happen the involved parties are all incentivized that the responsible executive does not notice.

      By the way, “supremum executive” sounds like a useful term for “the lowest executive in the corporate hierarchy that leads report into”.

      1. 1

        if, then certainly infimum? at least if you’re considering the set of executives.

        edit: I can see though why executives wouldn’t like that;)

    5. 6

      Most management theories have a whiff of snake oil to them, but this one is just excellent.

    6. 5

      Corporate structure is a replication of feudal structure where the board of directors delegate oversight to lower and lower levels of company “nobility”, and everyone gets to set their own renumeration. From a bottom up perspective they’re not necessary for production at all, but from capital’s perspective executives are the obviously rational way to defend their property interests.

      In short, they don’t do anything except for defend profit and extract surplus.

      1. 4

        At least unlike nobility of centuries past, or even the dynastic capitalists of 100 years ago, executives are required to work, to such an extent that you hear them engaging in the same “Gosh I’m so busy” virtue signaling of working all the time.

        The idle rich still exist, but it is not the executive described here. Labor exploitation has moved up the ladder and you have corporate leaders missing their kid’s birthday party to work on the weekends, the same as an aspirational middle class worker picking up an extra shift.

        I forget where I read this, or I would share, because it surprised me, but the percentage of people who are in the 1% that get the majority of their wealth from income/salary is higher than it’s ever been. Now that’s percentage of people in that percentile, not percentage of combined raw wealth in that percentile, but fascinating nonetheless.

      2. 1

        I agree, but can you offer an alternative? I happen to be involved in a political party and it’s a hard problem just to set up reasonable vetting of newcomers. You get all kinds of applicants ranging from math nerds who love trains to paranoid crackpots who notify police that your WiFi is reading their thoughts. Some are latent Nazis, others radical anarchists. Propose a framework to vet and integrate newcomers, please.

        1. 3

          Not sure what this has to do with company execs, but engaging with it anyway:

          Send them a letter describing how your meetings work and the expectations on members.

          Then invite them to meetings as a prospective member and ratify their membership after N meetings if you want to keep them in the group?

          The political party I am a member of has a simpler system: I think it just accepts members unless a cursory search of public records shows bad behaviour.

          There’s a complaints process for removing members that are problematic. Complaints process overseen by representatives elected by members.

          1. 1

            Complaints process overseen by representatives elected by members.

            Hierarchy. And since they are elected, they have a higher chance to get re-elected.

            They can also throw out people who oppose them and keep their supporters, thus solidifying their position even more.

            Does your party happen to have a rule-making committee (perhaps with a delegate system)? Commies had (or have) one (both Soviet and Chinese). Then they elected a subcommittee (called Politburo) to hold the power in-between the sessions which eventually gained enough support in the central committee to mandate that they will pre-select central commission candidates. That’s how a nice democratic party becomes a top-down evil corporation. (It helps that a member of politburo is a minister of interior.)

            I mean, it’s hard for me to imagine systems that operate in non-hierarchic ways. But the problems with hierarchy are real and are independent of organization type.

            1. 2

              Rules can be changed by assemblies of delegates at different levels, yes.

              If you want to avoid traditional delegate systems then you can use sortition (select executive randomly from membership like jury service).

              If you want to avoid hierarchy entirely then you need anarchist theories, I think.

              I think traditional delegate systems can maybe work OK so long as the electorate is informed and the electoral system is expressive and fair enough. Israel has a good democracy by those measures, apparently, but I don’t know how well the Israeli state is considered to be serving its people.

        2. 2

          I agree, but can you offer an alternative?

          The corporate structure is pretty dictatorial, and there are alternatives to that even in today’s society, like with the government. Suppose company executives were elected by and can be recalled by the population of the company, or perhaps there was some kind of representative oversight council that had to ratify executive decisions (think like the US Senate approving of the president’s appointees), but otherwise did basically the same job they have now.

          Obviously, as we see in government, this is still far from a perfect system.. but it more-or-less works and people are already familiar with the concept so it might be an easy baby step to consider.

      3. 1

        who are the share holders in this analogy?

        1. 2

          The mass of shareholders forms an abstract capitalist which is the monarchy at the top of the feudal hierarchy. The shareholders (of which the board is some portion) have absolute sovereignty over production.

          1. 2

            That’s incorrect, though. Most of the big ones are cartes of cartels with interlocking boards of scheming people backing corrupt laws that benefit their own class, specifically them, at everyone else’s expense, including shareholders. The leaked memos from Citigroup called the new structure a “plutonomy.” Just a new form of plutocracy where they keep their control in executive positions, the boards, paid-for politicians, and infiltrated regulators (esp Goldman).

            If really working for shareholders, the folks in this class would’ve sent them the vast majority of the wealth instead of extracted it for themselves with shareholders holding a mix of real money and IOU’s that can change in an instant. If for stakeholders, the employees and customers would get treated better, too. They haven’t been about either in most cases.

            That’s why there’s a new push for public-benefit companies, foundations, and other structures with incentives that might fix some of this.

          2. 1

            It’s an interesting way to model the corporate structure.

    7. 2

      At the meeting, the two leads will present the one, correct decision that they have agreed upon. The executive will sit there, listen, and ratify it.

      The obvious next question being: why are executives paid so much to play this role?

      1. 1

        Now you’re getting to the important stuff this article dodges. ;)

    8. [Comment removed by author]

    9. 0

      Yikes, another of these cultural posts that has nothing to do with technology, now my day is ruined!


      That’s an insightful article and quite succintly explains why meaningful values matter in a corporate setting.