Jim Halpert on Spontaneous Order

If you ask the average supervisor, they are likely to say their team cannot function without constant supervision. If you ask a leader, they will say that a sign of their success is the team’s ability to handle the day-to-day without someone looking over their shoulder. This theory was tested a while back at the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company Paper.

The Dunder Mifflin office in Scranton, PA was faced with a unique issue, they did not have a manager. The former had left and the corporate office had not hired a replacement. This left them leaderless…and yet work still was getting done. As Jim Halpert, one of their salespeople, said,

So as it turns out, unless you’re a young child or a prison inmate, you don’t need anyone supervising you. People just come in and do their work on their schedule. Imagine that – people like us allowed to sell paper. Unsupervised. And yet, somehow it works. It must be because the stakes are so high.

The theory that people can work without a leader was recently discussed on the Freakonomics  podcast. Dubbed “spontaneous order”, they described it as people’s ability to “organize and police themselves even when no one is imposing order from above.” The host used the sport Ultimate Frisbee to illustrate his point. An office can work just as well.

What happens when a task force is created to design a product without one person designated as being in charge? How does a leaderless party planning committee decide on the type of cake? According to spontaneous order, there is an impulsive emergence of order in the face of chaos. This comes about when a group of self-interested individuals start barreling towards a common goal. Without intentionally trying to create order, the act of planning creates unspoken social norms, rules, and expectation for everyone involved.

This is not to say that leaders are never needed; spontaneous order can only go so far. Quality leadership remains in high demand, but not necessarily more leadership. Quality leadership is the result of getting the right people involved, setting clear objectives, and ensuring that everyone has the needed resources. If this is in place, the group should be able to make strides without an actively involved leader. The leader still needs to check in on the team, but there will be no need for a “helicopter boss.”

Leaders are responsible for getting a lot done with the people under their tutelage. Imagine how much more you can accomplish with a few spontaneous order teams happening at once. Multiple teams tackling multiple issues with multiple strategic initiatives being accomplished. With this much free time, you’ll have enough time to pull a few famous Jim Halbert-like pranks.

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