The Indicator: Could Architecture Offices Abolish Hierarchy?

Zappos is one of the biggest companies to function as a ‘holocracy’ (without a fixed staff hierarchy). Their Las Vegas headquarters utilizes communal furniture to increase team-based collaboration (according to Business Insider, ‘desks are linked but can be easily disconnected or moved, the walls are movable as well. So if a team needs to work a different way, or a new product team is formed, the space can be changed, and changed again until it works’). Image Courtesy of Zappos, via OfficeSnapshots.com

What can architecture learn from Zappos? Yes, we’ve all heard about vegan cafés, yoga rooms, playing commando games indoors, and wearing Crocs in the office, but – more importantly – Zappos is transforming office culture in a meaningful, far-reaching way: it’s put an end to staff hierarchy.

According to The Washington Post, Zappos is the largest company to have adopted the Holocracy principle, the brainchild of software entrepreneur-turned-management-guru Brian Roberston. Guru would be the right word because, at first glance, and maybe second or third glance, Holocracy does come off as somewhat of a cult, albeit a business management cult. It creeps me out just a little bit, but having pushed through their website, I feel a little better now, not in the least like I’ve been L. Ron Hubbarded.

In a Holocracy, authority and responsibility are distributed across an organization in a way that is more goal-centered. As they say, “Everyone becomes a leader of their roles and a follower of others.” Still not making any sense? Old hierarchies that rely on “leaders” at the top, “followers” at the bottom, and “managers” in the middle are done away with completely. So, no more “bosses.” No more “staff.” No more “junior designer” or “senior designer.”

This all gets replaced with “circles” and “clusters” and “next actions” and very detailed rules of “governance” based on “integrated decision making.” This is not simply the absence of hierarchy or the replacement of top-down with bottom-up. It’s something that navigates between the two with constant fluidity and flexibility based on goals and tasks.

The term comes from the Greek root holon, which means a whole within a greater whole, or something that is simultaneously a part and a whole. It sounds like it contains some of the elements found within an architecture firm’s operations already, but one look at their Constitution reveals that it goes a lot further. Yes. There is a Holocracy Constitution and in it it says…. It’s actually quite involved, so never mind. You should just look at it for yourselves. The main thing is that it re-defines organizations once structured vertically into “little villages” where “everyone pitches in, everyone is responsible for solving the next problem or putting out the next bonfire,” says Nancy Koehn of Harvard Business School.

Holocracy seeks to transform the deep structure of office interactions and behaviors. It has to be learned as a complete system (training required!) and  everyone has to buy in for it to work. I hope there are psychologists and sociologists at Zappos keeping an eye on how this is going so we get some data. I suppose the quarterly earnings reports will also tell us how it’s working.

Zappos is one of the biggest companies to function as a ‘holocracy’ (without a fixed staff hierarchy). Their Las Vegas headquarters utilizes communal furniture to increase team-based collaboration (according to Business Insider, ‘desks are linked but can be easily disconnected or moved, the walls are movable as well. So if a team needs to work a different way, or a new product team is formed, the space can be changed, and changed again until it works’). Image Courtesy of Zappos, via OfficeSnapshots.com

In addition to Zappos, a few tech companies, including Medium, the publishing platform established by Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, have adopted the Holocracy model. This may make sense for young, progressive companies that were founded on more open organizational structures, the same ones that tend to favor open office spaces, but could it work for architecture firms? Who will be the first to try?

What if one of the biggest firms on earth, Gensler, say, committed to this? Risky? Maybe not entirely, because architecture might already be operating within the domain of the holocractic model when it comes to team behaviors. Studio roles can be distributed with shared responsibility for outcomes. Studio members can also delegate specific elements of projects according to experience and expertise. Organizationally, however, decision making and authority still run downstream based on rank and titles.

So what would be the implications of doing away with titles like design principal, lead designer, project manager, associate designer, and so forth? Project managers would still manage projects but they wouldn’t be called project managers anymore. Most importantly they wouldn’t be limited to defined tasks associated with a title. Roles and tasks would be, in theory anyway, assigned more fluidly. Could this make for more agile responsive teams and more efficiently run firms? Would it lead to better architecture and better architectural workplaces?

Zappos is one of the biggest companies to function as a ‘holocracy’ (without a fixed staff hierarchy). Their Las Vegas headquarters utilizes communal furniture to increase team-based collaboration (according to Business Insider, ‘desks are linked but can be easily disconnected or moved, the walls are movable as well. So if a team needs to work a different way, or a new product team is formed, the space can be changed, and changed again until it works’). Image Courtesy of Zappos, via OfficeSnapshots.com

Guy Horton is a writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to authoring “The Indicator”, he is a frequent contributor to The Architect’s Newspaper, Metropolis Magazine, The Atlantic Cities, and The Huffington Post. He has also written for Architectural Record, GOOD Magazine, and Architect Magazine. You can hear Guy on the radio and podcast as guest host for the show DnA: Design & Architecture on 89.9 FM KCRW out of Los Angeles. Follow Guy on Twitter @GuyHorton.

Want to learn more about Zappos’ unconventional office space? Click here.

Cite: Horton, Guy. "The Indicator: Could Architecture Offices Abolish Hierarchy?" 20 Mar 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed 27 Nov 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=488162>
  • Booh

    Ha. And I thought architecture was all about being submissive, passive aggressive and trying to work your way though endless hoops of hierarchy. I would say that the entire process of building buildings is… all about hierarchy. reduce/eliminate that? We’ll have a building industry that’s about as effective as congress (not effective) But thanks George Washington.

  • Ivo

    great idea !

  • PRATI

    I’m curious–sounds both promising and troubling. In a system in which every role is determined by peer voting, I am concerned that the system would turn the office into one large popularity contest. Such a system would privilege strength of personality over strength of ideas–perhaps more so than is the case in more hierarchical models. Any system should be judged under the assumption that all individuals will act in such a way that will maximize their own success in relation to the success of their co-workers. Given this, it is very likely that the democratic voting in the Holocratic model would become heavily influenced by strategy and politics that work against the strongest designers (e.g. the biggest threats to the success of the other designers).

  • holodeck

    Hierarchies are also established by pay gaps. I suppose they still exist at Zappos.

    Despite that I wonder how they come to make decisions with that organizational model. Endless discussions? Who shouts loudest? Majority vote?

  • Junaid Ahmed

    It’s great idea. Designing and decoration of the office affects strongly upon the behavior and hierarchy of the office employees. That’s great designing of the office which I think should be implemented.

  • holodeck

    Why was my comment removed? No critical voices allowed von AD?

  • Eric in Colorado

    The difference is there’s not likely to be a failure resulting in injury or death if a pair of shoes doesn’t arrive at a customer’s house. If a new staffer in an Architectural office hasn’t properly coordinated the structural or mechanical engineer’s documents for a building project, such a failure could occur. Architect’s aren’t fully trained when they begin their working careers.

    Architecture needs a hierarchy to assure proper execution of it’s tasks and to train it’s practitioners. The new folks need to know who to look to for guidance and education. The clients need to feel assurance that their projects are being handled by staff with the experience to correctly carry them out. It’s a built-in hierarchy. That’s not to say that people shouldn’t be recognized for abilities and knowledge and allowed to put them to use, but they have to go through a process of proving those abilities under the watchful eyes of more experienced people.