"No Orders, No Secrets, No Big Shots"

Last Updated Oct 1, 2008 5:04 PM EDT

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Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson call it the "results-only work environment (ROWE)", where employees can do "whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as the work gets done."

In the UK, businessman and author John Timpson calls it "upside down management", a system that puts colleagues (employees) at the top and directors at the bottom of the hierarchy chart.

Timpson's eponymous chain of stores operates in "an unfashionable sector", he writes in his new book, How to Ride a Giraffe -- key cutting, locksmiths, engraving, watch and shoe repairs. But it is the "ultimate people business"-- which is why Timpson developed upside down management.

The Cheshire-based family business has had its ups and downs since its inception in the 1860s. But since Timpson introduced upside-down management, it's thrived and expanded, while other shoe repair chains have faltered.

The concept, like ROWE, is simple: "No orders, no secrets, no big shots. But putting it into practice demands discipline, nerve and vigilance.

Upside-down management allows Timpson shop staff the authority to make decisions about their workplace -- they treat the price list issued by Timpson as a guide, they can spend up to £500 to settle a complaint without having to take it further, they can invent their own shop displays, organise charitable promotions, organise their own fun days... effectively do their job in whatever way they feel is most effective.

The only four rules are:

  1. Have at least the minimum number of staff to cover the shops.
  2. Give great customer care.
  3. Have good housekeeping (that is, accounting).
  4. Keep everything legal.
But behind the freedom is a framework and it took "three years of conferences, area visits and consistent determination" before it started to work. Resistant area managers struggled to delegate authority. But now they are the 'heroes', says Timpson, the people who helped turn a crazy idea into workable practice.

It also wouldn't have worked without a good bonus scheme. It is also no quick fix -- "getting it going is like seeding a new lawn. First a tiny bit appears, then another; it is a long time before the whole lawn is green".

Timpson has toiled over several manuals and guides to establish the necessary framework from which area managers can work. Training is in-house and career progression is clearly laid out so anyone can see what they need to do to get from store employee to area manager.

It also doesn't work for everybody -- some people like rules, and others are just too lazy to make it work. These are "drongos" and it's ok to discriminate them, as far as Timpson's concerned.

But for "people with character", it gives them a chance to make the shop their own. "It might say Timpson above the door, but we want our customers to feel the shop belongs to the person who manages it," says Timpson.

Timpson has some basic lessons for aspiring upside-downers:

  • Mastermind the strategy.
  • Pick the right personalities.
  • Trust them with authority.
  • Watch them carefully.
  • Help your people succeed.
  • Praise star performers.
(Photo by Johnny Jet, CC.20)