Newcastle Station Clock

Newcastle Station Clock

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Who's Boss?

In my recent searches for local architects I came across an interesting practice near Gateshead, who in their team working policy claim "[they] do not believe that hierarchies should exist in an intellectual and creative atmosphere."(1) I find myself wondering just how easy this is to do, and to what extent a business can run without a hierarchical structure. There are lots of different elements within an architectural practice to which this could be considered. Here are my initial thoughts.

There is almost definately a hierarchy of experience, and this is probably quite useful, as well as necessary. It provides the younger designers in the office people to learn from, as well as ensuring that any hot-headed ideas or methods are reigned in before being unleashed upon clients. The difficulty, comes when you begin to consider the hierarchy of opinion; having everyones opinion counted and considered is relatively simple to implement; treating everyones opinion equally must surely be very difficult for the figure head of the company, especially if the majority vote is against his or her inclination.

Whilst some people may have 'more' knowledge or 'greater ability' in certain aspects of the job there will always be differences in strengths and weaknesses, as well as preferences as to which work to do within the office. Does the practice need to be democratic right down to the scale of who makes the tea in the morning?

Before I mentioned a figure head (due to lack of a better word), by which I was referring to a managing director who doesn't independantly manage or direct. If all things in the office are to be democratic then maybe they would take the role of chairing discussions, however to be truly equal it would surely need to be a rotating chair. (See post below 'The Kofi Shift Notes: The second most fun item in the studio'). This must come down to responsibility for decision. If everyone in the office can act under their own authority and with the democratic support of colleagues then there seems no need to have a figurehead who ultimately takes the blame for mistakes. If people are given autonomy, then with it they must ultimately accept the underlying individual responsibility.

People will not strive to 'move up the ladder,' since there is no ladder to climb. Each individuals focus would be on getting the job done, and since they are responsible for their own action, they would not try and evade doing their work, as they would soon be ousted by the democratic majority.

In this set up everything must be transparant, from each individuals wages (which could probably be relatively fairly based upon experience or amount of work taken on, ) to interviews for new positions in the office. Whilst it would probably be quite awkward getting used to this kind of set up, removing the taboo of how much your colleagues are paid is one step closer to having a completely open and honest company.

To be truly creative people need to 'stop being afraid of being wrong.' (2) Removing hierarchies, and 'fear of reprisal' from an office setting gives people the opportunity to experiment with the way that they do their work, and whilst it may slow the process in the short term, it will almost certainly improve the process in the long term.

The social atmosphere, and in general, worker satisfaction, improves within a workplace when a hierarchical structure is removed. (3). It is however quite possible that turnover will go down.

It is people who really care about their colleagues who implement this kind of structure to a business. They must work as hard as they possibly can to manage all of the issues mentioned above to maintain a workplace which is fair and welcoming to all, whilst full well realising they will be making less money.

I have the upmost of respect for anyone who puts the happiness and wellbeing of others before their own financial gain, and I hope that more architectural practices in the future will do this.

(1) - NNA

(2) - Ken Robinson

(3) - Dan Pink


  1. The great thing about this non-hierarchical system is that with the use of blackmail, manipulation and intimidation (If you don't know what these things are just consult your natural impulses) the most self-serving individuals can quickly rise to the top whilst remaining completely unaccountable. There is a simple test you can use to prove the effectiveness of ideas like this:

    Is it a new idea? No.

    Has it ever worked? No.

  2. You just have to be careful who you employ.

    And (to anon) perhaps if a company gets too big (10+ ?) I'd agree with you, it would have to be a 'very' special group of people for it to work effectively.

    No reason to stop striving for the ideals though.

  3. Hello Anonymous,
    Firstly in response to your comments,
    I'm not saying it's a new idea at all, I think there are many difficulties with it. As with any system, all the people within it need to strive to make it work. People trying to work the system for personal gain will ultimately result in system failure. Personally, I believe that more and more people are striving for a better community life. There will always be people who work for themselves and themselves alone but I do think that a strong happy community is always going to be more successful than a selfish individual.
    Has it ever worked, well I think ‘no’ is quite a closed minded argument to be honest. Have you ever looked for examples of success stories? There’s a company implementing a few of these ideas called ‘Google’. They promote creative days when people can work on whatever projects they want, through these projects they’ve come up with things like “Google Maps”, “Google Street”, “Google Translate.” I would say that that is an example of success. The Australian company Atlassian is another example, this went from two kids from uni wanting to set up a business, to a multimillion dollar international organisation in a few years.

    Secondly, to comment on your comment.
    In a truly democratic system there isn’t really a benefit from being at the top, everyone’s opinion counts equally. Also, you say “There is a simple test you can use to prove the effectiveness of ideas like this: – Is it a new idea – No.” Successful ideas are not always new, in fact I imagine most things don’t work first time. Do you think the first light bulb worked, or the first aeroplane? The fact is people latch onto these ideas and keep developing them until they are successful. With regards to your “has it ever worked” comment, the same applies but as above, the answer is that to some degree it has worked.


  4. P

    I do not deny that the invention of the lightbulb was process of trial and error. However when the successful design model worked, even though the difference between it and it's preceding variation was most likely minute, it contained, in principle, an entirely 'new' idea. Unfortunately the business model you have suggested does not contain this 'special' principle, because it contains no idea that has not already been around for centuries. This is the only basis of my criticism, you have not suggested anything that could contribute to the 'process'. Therefore is it a new idea? No.

    As for the success of Google, I suggest you dig a little deeper. They may 'implement a few of these ideas', which is very easy to do when you have a monopoly share of the market, and this may have been the company culture when Google was five friends operating in a garage, but it's rise to success was based on the same model as that of Microsoft or Facebook. The success of Google, or even Atlassian, proves one thing. If an idea can make lots and lots and lots of money, very quickly, nothing can stand in its way. Therefore the infrastructure of a said company is made somewhat irrelevant. Therefore I should rephrase the part b. of the test

    Has it ever worked over a sustained period? No.


  5. Anon... I assume you've heard of firefox? and wikipedia? ever heard of wikileaks? These are all democratic equally run companies (some of them vast beyond belief!) that have webs of equally placed contributors and then a few administrators.

    True they don't specifically earn money, so perhaps they are - financially speaking - all failures.
    By that measure your statement could be considered true:
    "Has it ever worked over a sustained period? No"

    But ever considered how much 'influence' these websites, democratic open source groups have in the world?
    How many political boats are being rocked? how much money advertisers are losing from firefox adblocks? How much more information has the common man acquired making the need to buy a 'professional' needless? How much has the music world had to change because a large group of equal individuals are willing to share their music?

    These vast companies are working a bit too well, perhaps

    democratic organisation doesn't make money, it just changes the world. Something money still fails to do.