Organisaties als communities. Iedereen is de baas.

Onderstaand artikel van William C. Taylor is een mooi praktijk voorbeeld van een nieuw type organisatie. Anders in de structuur, met andere systemen, ander leiderschap en andere kernwaarden. Het is het verhaal van het bedrijf Threadless, een kleding organisatie die wordt gemanaged door haar klanten. Het is dus mogelijk om op basis van samenwerking en gedeelde waarden een duurzame en innovatieve organisatie te bouwen. Klein in de kern, met een hele lage overhead en zonder alle¬† ‘corporate’¬† aspecten in de traditionele zin van het woord. Is dit de toekomst van nieuwe organisaties en innovatief ondernemen? Minder regels, meer waarden? Minder top down, meer bottom up? Gezamenlijk eigenaarschap? Meer samenwerkingsgedreven en minder structuur en systeem gedreven? En misschien wel het belangrijkste: meer energie, meer plezier, meer creativiteit en diversiteit?

In an era of huge dislocations and scarce resources, fewer and fewer companies are in a position to hire lots of new people or devote big budgets to new projects as a way of moving forward. But most companies are surrounded by customers, suppliers, fans, advocates, and interested parties of all kinds who are passionate about what they do, bursting with ideas, and eager to be more involved. Why not invite them to demonstrate their creativity to you, share their best ideas with you, and collaborate to solve your toughest problems or deliver on your most promising opportunities? That’s one of the great mind-flips for leaders today: The performance of your organization can draw on talented “players” who may never work for you but are eager to work with you, especially if you, as a leader, work to keep them excited and engaged. It’s a mind-flip that challenges how most executives define their jobs, but that improves the odds that they will succeed in the job of making real progress in difficult circumstances

That’s one of many lessons to be learned from Threadless, a small company whose meteoric growth offers big ideas for how organizations and their leaders may work in the future. Threadless is in a pretty old-fashioned business–selling T-shirts (and a few other clothing items). But the company, which has become a full-blown Internet sensation, approaches the business in a completely new-fangled way.

All of the designs in its online catalog come from its customers, who submit original artwork to the site. Threadless has more than a million registered members and adds more than 20,000 members per month. It receives an average of 150-200 new designs per day–that’s more than a thousand designs a week. Members rate the submissions on a zero-to-five scale, and the most popular submissions, as determined by visitors to the site, become candidates to be made into actual shirts. (A team of Threadless employees makes the final decisions, based on a variety of creative and commercial criteria.) The company selects seven new designs (and reprints two old designs) each week and sells the shirts for $15 to $17 each. The winning designers receive $2,000 in cash and $500 in store credit for their designs, plus an additional fee if their designs get reprinted later.

This is an organization where, in the words of a headline in Inc. magazine, which has spent three decades chronicling how lone-genius entrepreneurs experience the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, “The Customer is the Company.” Threadless “churns out dozens of new items a month–with no advertising, no professional designers, [and] no sales force,” the magazine marveled. “And it’s never produced a flop.” All told, Threadless sells more than 100,00 shirts per month–that’s more than a million shirts a year–with just 35 employees. (It also sells “hoodies,” children’s shirts and onesies, and, most recently, it added user-generated art prints to its catalog

The brand is as hot as can be–young people around the world know and embrace Threadless as a company, a sensibility, and an online community. Since its inception in November 2000, according to an elaborate, multi-media Harvard Business School case study (yes, this free-spirited Internet outfit has gained the imprimatur of the West Point of Capitalism), Threadless has attracted nearly 150,000 submission from 42,000 aspiring designers–with more than 80 million votes cast by members to express their preferences. The company has nearly 1.5 million followers on Twitter (almost as many as Tony Hsieh of Zappos), and has launched what it calls Twitter Tees, in which Threadless members nominate actual “tweets” to be turned into shirts, and other members vote on their favorites. Threadless turns the most popular tweets–”Ironic, self-aware narcissism is still narcissism,” or “Note to self: Actually read notes”–into nicely designed shirts.

I asked Jacob DeHart, one of the company’s cofounders, what leadership principles he and his colleagues have developed to guide the company’s growth–without interfering with the guidance provided by its one million members. “We’ve got four rules we follow,” he said. “We let the community create the content. We let the community build itself–no advertising. We let the community help with the business; we add features based on user feedback. And we reward members of the community for participating.” In other words, Threadless doesn’t just attract ideas for shirts–it provides opportunities for people with all sorts of skills to engage the company and each other, and for good ideas to emerge from all this interaction. “Most of the energy comes from how fast the product line is changing,” cofounder Jake Nickell explained to me. “There’s something for users to do every day–see which new designs are out, score the latest submissions, post a blog entry. It’s just a very active community.”

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