Anarchy as management style?

K.C. Cole


Kai Ryssdal: There are hundreds, probably thousands, actually of management books out there. "How to lead with authority." "How to get the most of your employees. "How to set worthy goals." There are far fewer, though about taking a more relaxed approach, like putting employees on equal organizational footing with the boss. Letting everyone bounce ideas off of each other with few constraints. No titles, even. Anarchy, right?

Commentator K.C. Cole says she worked at a place once that thrived on just that type of hands-off approach.

K.C. Cole: The institution was the Exploratorium in San Francisco, a "museum of human awareness" created by the late physicist Frank Oppenheimer, our anarch -- and also the younger brother of Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, which Frank joked made him the "uncle of the atomic bomb."

The museum of art and science Frank created has since been copied in hundreds of countries, produced some half-dozen MacArthur "genius" fellows and influenced science curriculum in all 50 states. A success by any measure you like.

And yet, I've often heard how Frank's "loosy goosy" management style could never fly today. Anarchy is out. Organization and accountability are in.

When I floated these thoughts by Warren Bennis, author of dozens of books on leadership, however, he emphatically disagreed. Frank's anarchy was the very archetype of how innovative institutions work: Smart leaders gather great people and simply let them do. No bulky chains of command. Few rules and lots of play. Failure encouraged. Persuasion valued over coercion.

These days, Bennis said, this management style describes dot-coms better than it does most dot-edus, dot-orgs, and needless to say, dot-govs.

Cultural and educational institutions are increasingly pushed to be "business-like." But layers of management can lead to precisely the ossification that good business avoids. And while bureaucracy works for stability, it's a death knell for change.

Biological evolution, after all, has produced millions of successful species through random tries, countless failures and fast adaptation. It's unpredictable, messy and prolific. Not a bad business model all in all.

Ryssdal: K.C. Cole is a professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Her most recent book is called, "Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the world he made up."

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From my experience, the "loosy goosy" management style not only increases creativity, but also increases productivity, employee satisfaction, team work and overall happiness within an organization. It is common knowledge that happy people work harder and better, most likely because they tend to care more about the organization they are working for than their counterparts in a stifling over burdensome micro managed organization.

In addition to the benefits above, these anarchical management styles also reduce overhead. They do so by removing the burdensome need for obsessive time recording (a pretty big overhead). Meetings to talk about time management and how much time is wasted in meetings become unnecessary. And the ridiculous training session to teach employees how to record their work time with whatever new system management has decided is the flavor of the month become unnecessary as well. All the "little" things that go into micro-management vanish and time is spent working, learning or researching, rather than recording how you worked and what you did.

Employee happiness goes hand in hand with quality of work and productivity. Without titles people seem to feel more important within their organization. When they feel like they are an important part of the organization they care more about that organization. If every employee put in the effort as though they were the owner of the company, it would obviously help the company flourish.

Another when you remove the constraint of vigorous time recording and obsessive micro accountability is that people tend to take the time to research and learn how to best solve problems. Rather than just doing it as quickly as possible to get it done "on time" which could create future problems, the problems tend to get solved in the best way possible reducing the need for future time, spent on an issue that wasn't properly resolved the first time.

However, I'm not certain "loosy goosy" is for every organization. Some types of people will undoubtedly take advantage of such loose management. But then can't we just let those people go and replace them with responsible workers?

While I agree, it's a good idea to allow creative people to run wild with ideas, this commentary seemed calculated to promote the aims of big business at the expense of the public sector. First of all, she was incoorect to say that nothing innovative ever came for Govt. or education.
Secindly and more importantly, this sounds like the old "what's good for GE is good for America' rhetoric but in more hip language. What "burdensome " constrictions is ms Cole afraid of? Perhaps laws and regs that protect workers from saftey hazards or that protect the environment? Or -God forbid collective bargaining for workers? I'm disappointed but no longer surprised at such disingenuous corporate rhetoric spewing out of "public" radio these days

Bureaucracies always tend to increase in size while decreasing in productivity. This is because they are filled with two kinds of people: the people who care about the organization's nominal purpose, and the people who care about the bureaucracy or their personal influence. And the latter category always wins. Now, you could easily argue that a slow bureaucracy in government is a feature, not a bug, because it's too inefficient to be tyrannical, but anywhere else it's bad for business.

As an academic increasingly "managed" by university mandated requirements for metrics, outcomes, multiplying forms for every conceivably action, and of course an increased requirement to participate in this administrativa, I found Professor Cole's commentary a breath of fresh air. The sad truth is that administrators in universities are increasingly divorced from the purpose of education and more interested in applying problematic business models to hapless faculty who simply want to teach and do their research, and to students who simply want to learn.

Timely commentary as my organization is currently struggling to invigorate innovative thinking while employing more project tracking methods which are often at odds with one another. Very interensting.

I spent many childhood, adolescent, and teen hours wandering the Exploratorium. Friends worked there. I took high school dates there. My mind was opened wide and my ability to question my presumptions and perceptions was spawned and grew there in the science funhouse that "Frank" (as everyone called) built.

Something your story forgot to mention was a random element that, I thought, was unique to the Exploratorium. I think Frank loved to see the fruits of his labors as children of all ages played with hands-on illustrations of physical, medical, and optical principles, many of them in playful ways. Press a button, make a frog's leg jump. Step into an distorted room, and watch yourself get larger, like Alice in that locked, Wonderland room. Each exhibit was a new and enticing toy to play with, and discover science in a new and very personal way.

And from time to time, looking over your shoulder, you'd find this funny looking, charmingly elfin man, dressed in trademark over-sized black suit and tie with white shirt, Dr. Seuss hair billowing behind his ears. Frank, smiling broadly. He loved to watch guests discovering science, and having fun doing it.

Even when walking with a cane, Frank liked to wander the hall and learning happen. That's what the anarchic organization needs: a leader, whose passionate vision forms the heart of the apparently crazy circus, and then wanders around regularly, smiling and approving.

Frank and his wife created one of the most innovative public exhibitions of the 21st century (30 years ahead of its time), and I'm glad someone has told their story in detail. One day, I hope we'll recognize Frank Oppenheimer as one of the great educators of the past century.

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