Don’t Tell Uber: Group Control Has Mixed Record

Uber has 14 bosses.

When the ride-sharing giant announced that its embattled CEO, Travis Kalanick, would take a leave of absence in the wake of multiple scandals and a family tragedy, outsiders may have assumed that temporary control would be given to one individual. Instead, 14 senior executives will guide day-to-day decision-making at the company.

As The Wall Street Journal pointed out in a June 14 article, the decision to rely on a team of decision-makers is due to Uber having no clear line of succession, following the recent departure of top executives such as Emil Michael, who was Kalanick’s main lieutenant.

Running a major company via a group comes with huge risks. “You can’t make decisions that way,” Joseph Bower, a Harvard professor of business administration, told the Journal.

True, lots of startups are run by a committee—but that’s much easier when your company consists of five people in a garage. Can large companies pull something like that off?

Zappos tried something similar with Holocracy, a management system in which operational authority is evenly distributed among teams. Since it switched to the system, the shoe-selling e-commerce giant hasn’t descended into anarchy, but 14 percent of its employees did decide to take buyouts rather than stay when the system was first announced. (An excellent Quartz article from 2015 describes how employees reacted to management without hierarchical leadership.)

Valve (which makes popular video games and runs the Steam digital-distribution network) embraced a “flat” management structure, in which hierarchical management is de-emphasized in favor of collaborative teams; in theory, anyone at the company has the ability to kick off a project. While that seems to have worked for the company, despite its size, others haven’t had the same luck: GitHub reverted from a flat to hierarchical structure in the wake of a few scandals and some questions over its ability to ambitiously iterate.

An Uber ruled by committee may very well survive and prosper until Kalanick returns to take the helm. But in tech, the prospects for group rule are decidedly mixed.

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