Thought Leader Doug Kirkpatrick Wants People to Have Their Lives Back at Work

“Doug Kirkpatrick wants to give people in the workplace their lives back.”

While the statement may sound bold, Kirkpatrick, an organizational environment expert, makes a strong argument against traditional work structures and highlights the damages of blind conformity in his new book “Beyond Empowerment: The Age of the Self-Managed Organization.”

Self-management, the respected author and speaker explained, is the pathway to more productive and positive companies. The era of hierarchical management’s reign is coming to a close.

As a long-time business and organizational observer, Kirkpatrick’s perspective is one that has developed over decades.

However, despite a multitude of office influences, he vividly remembers his first day of first grade, an experience he now considers the catalyst for his advocacy of self-management.

“Our teacher… asked us to look at an outline drawing of a buffalo and color it with a brown crayon” he shared. “I felt creative. I felt independent. And I knew that buffalo’s have a variegated coat, so I used a black crayon as well as a brown.”

Unfortunately, his use of prior knowledge and application of skills didn’t earn six-year-old Kirkpatrick extra credit or praise. In fact, he failed the assignment.  “I remember thinking ‘I don’t understand. I’m just supposed to color this brown just because someone said to do it,’” he recalled. “‘I’m supposed to abandon my own experience and creativity and just follow the instructions no matter what?’ I found that sort of troubling, and I never forgot it.”

After growing up in Montana, Kirkpatrick pursued a college degree in economics and fell in love with the dynamic nature of business. He joined a food-processing startup after graduation, and while the company was financially successful, it experienced organizational challenges.

“We simply defaulted to the traditional command and control pyramid structure,” Kirkpatrick shared.  Over time, it became clear this concept was not the best solution.

“We had an open-door policy… every problem always seemed to go to the top of the pyramid, which was very frustrating for everyone in the various layers of management,” he recounted. “We also found that our time was not well utilized.”

From there, Kirkpatrick describes the epiphanies that the company founder, Californian entrepreneur Chris Rufer shared with the team. Realizing management is something that everyone does all the time in their personal lives and that many excel at complex and life-altering decisions in that context, the idea of shifting to independence from command authority gained credence.

“People were deciding who to date… where to live, whether to buy a car…whether to have children,” he said. “They were already making these life-changing decisions without a boss.”

When Kirkpatrick joined Rufer to begin a new company, Morning Star, the opportunity arose to apply what they’d learned in a fresh environment.

In the early days of Morning Star, Rufer called a meeting and presented the team with a proposal for a new form of organizational structure, which they carefully discussed. Everything changed that day.

“When we walked out into the night air we were a self-managed organization,” Kirkpatrick said.

A self-managed company, he explained, acknowledges that everyone is already a manager and to the degree individuals are knowledgeable about what to do and how to do it, they should be able to manage themselves.

“We all do this all the time in our own personal lives but when we get to the prototypical workplace, we find that most organizations want to have a designated layer of managers to do those things for other people.”  While this concept sounds ideal theoretically, if it fails in application, it’s void. Fortunately, the success of self-management is expansive, and international.

“Our self-managed governance system allowed us to be extremely agile… and embrace quick changes in strategy,” he explained. “It allowed us to grow in a very coherent manner… and it reduced the cost and overhead of a typical bureaucratic management.”

Additionally, the culture self-management created was one of mutual respect and dignity.  “We didn’t call people ‘employees’,” he said.

This is because the word employee is defined as one who works for another for pay. Morning Star uses the term ‘colleagues’.

“We consider everyone to be a professional regardless of what he or she does, whether they’re making critical operating decisions, cleaning bathrooms or sorting tomatoes,” he said. “They have the freedom and autonomy to do their best work, to acquire resources, to build relationships, to innovate, to lead.  People are happier when they have an agency and autonomy.”  Inspired by the Morning Star, Kirkpatrick decided to author a book about the experience and effectiveness of self-management.

“I consider the book to be for organizational leaders seeking a better way to define their organizations and to create higher levels of engagement, elevate business performance, shrink the costly bureaucracy, and do the right thing by giving people their lives back at work.

International business leaders have translated and published the book in Chinese and German.

The University of Phoenix and well-known online company Zappos have already purchased the book in bulk, and the University of Phoenix’s business unit leader, Stephenie Gloden even transformed her part of the institution.

“There were a lot of challenges along the way, but after the 12-months effort, she was able to successfully transform her particular business unit all the way from command and control to self-management and her colleagues and fellow leaders were very proud of the work,” he said.

University of Phoenix’s example, along with his own experience, supports Kirkpatrick’s claim: Self-Management isn’t the type of change that happens overnight.

It won’t be the predominant way of working in the next few years, but Kirkpatrick believes it is the future.  “If we look at a hundred years from now, it could be perhaps the only way of working,” he speculated. “But it’s going to take time and effort and cultures changing slowly.”

For more information about Doug Kirkpatrick visit

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