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An argument for anarchy Featured

10:48am EDT October 23, 2001

Don't call Clyde Henry's business an organization. He's not into structure. Not in the least.

"We work real hard here to maintain anarchy," Henry says of his 30-person architectural firm that designs more than $250 million in construction annually. "A lot of firms fall into the trap of, as they grow, gaining structure."

Henry and company co-founder David Price want no part of that.

Organizational charts? Forget 'em.

Job titles? They don't exist -- not even on business cards.

Time clocks? Price and Henry don't see the point.

Private offices? No way. At TRIAD Architecture Inc., even the company founders share their office with other employees -- and they long for the day when a better-designed, larger office building will allow everyone at TRIAD to work in one large, open room.

"We want to be right in the mix; right on the production line," Henry says, noting he'd like to set up a work environment with no cubicles or dividing walls, where everyone can see and hear what's going on at every desk.

"People say, 'Don't you need confidentiality?' I say (employees) should see what's going on. I really believe, in most situations, inclusion is better."

Employees generally find the nontraditional atmosphere at 4-year-old TRIAD in Gahanna either refreshing or downright terrifying, he says.

"Some people, until they get used to it, are really scared. They wonder, 'What have I done?' We've had people who have been here three to five days and just said, 'Hey, I'm over my head here,'" he recalls. "They're used to working in a more restrained environment."

Henry would rather lose a talented hire or two than cave in to regimentation, however. He considers policies and procedures unnecessary evils that simply slow down production.

"Dave knows one firm where you have to fill out a form every time you run a letter through the postage machine," Henry says. Not only is that burdensome and disruptive to workflow, he adds, but "What does that say? We don't trust you with 34 cents -- but we trust you with client projects that are worth millions of dollars."

Treating every employee with respect, trust and as an equal, Henry says, reduces the need for excessive paperwork and promotes a team atmosphere.

"We have no organizational chart. Basketball teams don't have a chart for who throws the ball to who; they throw the ball to whoever needs it to score," Henry says.

Likewise at TRIAD, employees play different roles depending on their skills and the project at hand. Employees can pull anyone -- including Henry and Price -- into a project if their expertise is needed.

"We have no seniority," Henry says. "We recruit the best players. And if they don't perform, we cut 'em. And we do transition people out very quickly ... It's move up or out here. A coach wouldn't keep a player on a basketball team because he's been there 30 years."

Performance is what matters.

"If you don't fulfill the mission, that's fatal," Henry says. "We cannot tolerate not fulfilling the mission."

TRIAD's No. 1 goal is client satisfaction. That's why employees at TRIAD get so much autonomy.

Project managers interview and hire their own project engineers, for example.

"That puts the project manager's neck on the line if that person doesn't perform," Henry explains.

Employees are also authorized to purchase whatever supplies or equipment they need -- even items costing $1,000 or more -- without anyone's prior approval.

"If you give somebody responsibility, you have to give them the authority to use all the assets of the firm to make things happen," Henry says. "If you need it to fulfill the mission, don't tell me about it; go order it."

Henry acknowledges this management approach can lead to some expensive decisions.

"The back room is full of junk that's outdated," he confesses.

Still, he says the payoff is in knowing everyone in his firm is doing what he or she thinks is best to meet client needs, and that clients aren't lost in a maze of bureaucracy waiting for answers.

"Our people don't have to say, 'Gee, I have to check back with the office first,'" Henry says. "They can give an answer right away."

When costly mistakes are made, they are discussed openly -- like the time Henry bought an office phone system that lasted somewhere between three and 30 days, depending on who is telling the story.

"It gets back to the example of the basketball team. With a basketball team, you're coaching on the floor," Henry says. "If a player does something wrong, you talk about it. Other people on the team hear that and learn from that, too."

Henry and Price say maintaining an open, unstructured environment has become more difficult with the company's growth. When issues arise, it's tempting to make a rule or create a manual to address it, they say, but they haven't given in yet.

"There's not a set of controls that will solve every problem," Price says. Instead, "You really have to stop and say, 'What is this all about?' It's not about creating bureaucracy -- that creates a whole other set of problems. It's about reinforcing the mission again." How to reach: Clyde Henry and David Price, TRIAD Architects, 751-1833, chenry@triadarchitects.com or daveprice@triadarchitects.com

Nancy Byron (nbyron@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Magazine in Columbus.