Talking with Michel Hervé about turning the pyramid upside down

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You problably don’t know Michel Hervé and that’s a pity since thy guy is really worth being exported. This entrepreneur is well known for his book “from the pyramid to the networks”  (unfortunately only available in french) that describes the way he run his business, has he says, in a participative and democrat way.  Something that’s like Ricardo Semler runs Semco, if you’ve heard about him.

I had the chance to spend a whole afternoon with Michel Hervé and talk with him of many things. Despite we often speak or attend in the same events, we never had time to sit down and talk, now that’s done.

There’s so many things to say that I could fill a book with, but I’d like to focus on two points of our discussions. The principle of subsidiarity and why connecting people through information is so important.

By “subsidiarity” he means that everything in the company is driven bottom up. Each employee has to solve his problems at his level, without referring to the management. If the problem is too complex, and only in this situation, it’s transfered to the upper level. If it’s still too complex, it’s transfered…and so on. As a result, local issues are solved locally, territorial issues are solved at the country level…and strategic problems are solved by the CEO. That has also a side effect : manager use their time to tho what they are supposed to do  and they are not flooded with tons of issues that could be solved elsewhere. So managers have time to take some distance, to do their day to day job and think of future, create opportunities. Michel Hervé is the only CEO I met who told me “I have time to give to things that are not business today but may be business tomorrow…and I want managers to do the same”.

This implies many things. First people have at their disposal the means to do what they’re asked to do. Second, trust is key in this kind of organization. Third, people who prefer being cared about and don’t have the profile of an intrapreneur, who prefer depend on the others than being empowered are not very comfortable in Hervé’s company.

Thus, instead of taking decisions about everything at the top level and trying to have them going down, decision are made as close as possible to the issue and one only take decisions that couldn’t have been taken at a lower level.

And what if people fail ? Instead of sanctions they got trainings. Let’s also add they set their objectives themselves and that the word of community is omnipresent at Groupe Hervé.

The second point has to with with communication. In an ever changing context, people depend more and more the one on the others. But in silo built companies, everyone go his way, with two kind of consequences. First some people try to do things without knowing others are doing the same or have already done the same. Second, there’s no alignment between the direction each silo is taking, no consistency.

According to Michel Hervé it’s essential that people could informally exchange, send “social signals” in order everyone could know about each other’s own strategy and could adapt his own strategy. Once again it saves top management from explaining everything a top-down way, which is not efficient and takes a lot of time, since people can connect together through their own inforation. Efficiency and consistency in the one hand, strenghtened links between people on the other hand. It’s essential people give information about what they do, what they need, and that others could follow these informations in order to adapt, to give help, in short to act as a company and not as many groups of people. Such a way to communicate is, according to me, also key to make subsidiarity possible because people from the same level can try to solve things together and share best practices before asking managers for help.

There’s no need to say Michel Hervé pays great attention to IT means. At the beginning, since he couldn’t find anything to provide his company with what allowed such way of working, he built his own IT department which became an independant company years later. In fact, from the 80s/90s they worked hard to build what today looks like a real social media infrastructure and made everybody use it, even workmen and blue collars. But once again, if softwares were used it’s only a matter of culture.