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Anarchy as management style?

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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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