Three Lessons For Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh From A 250 Year Old Team

Zappos sells shoes and consumer goods online. A string quartet performs classical music. Zappos has more than 1,500 employees. A string quartet only four. Zappos was founded in 1999 and is now a leading 21st century corporation. String quartets—two violins, a viola, and cello—have not changed since the form was created about 250 years ago.


At first glance these two organizations could not be more different. But a few years ago Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh boldly re-shaped his company in a way that the musicians of a string quartet would find quite familiar. Instead of the traditional manager-led structure he embraced a flat and self-managed organizational model called Holacracy. It was a radical step and Hsieh has gotten a lot of criticism for it—in particular, that employees are confused amid the rapid pace and complexity of the implementation. From my experience as a string quartet cellist I would suggest that Zappos simplify by focusing on just three core responsibilities of self-management:

Everyone is responsible for understanding their role and how it fits with others on the team.

In a string quartet each instrument fulfills a certain function—bass line, rhythm, melody—and that function changes throughout the performance. In business one's role on a team should be similarly flexible, evolving according to one's capabilities and the needs of the team, not a job description.

Everyone is responsible for leading and supporting.

During a performance there is no time for a quartet to negotiate that relationship. When it's clear—or even just hinted—that a player should lead, everyone adjusts their roles, knowing that it is in the group's best interest and that in a minute or two the roles will change again (see video). A cross-functional team in business also has no clear built-in hierarchy. Members come from different departments, divisions, or even from outside the organization itself. With this kind of team, leadership doesn't come from status, but rather from deep knowledge in a particular area. That's why cross-functional teams can have several leaders at the same time.

Everyone is responsible for communicating clearly and efficiently.

One of the striking things about a string quartet in concert is that its members don't communicate in words. Speaking gets in the way of the music and is distracting for an audience—but also too slow and too imprecise. Instead, they use gestures, body movements, even breathing to communicate leadership and group direction. Obviously, a self-managed team in a business environment uses spoken language in all aspects of collaboration. What they can learn from a quartet, however, is the clarity of intention that wordless communication demonstrates so well. When members of a team can effectively hold attention, be deliberate, and calibrate their delivery, then communication in all forms—email, phone, face-to-face—is much more efficient and powerful.

I hope Zappos sticks with shared leadership and self-management. For one, it's only been a few years. Professional string quartets have worked and experimented with self-direction since their members were young music students. Shared leadership does not come naturally, and the lessons learned (both positive and negative) accumulate and gain strength over the years. Secondly, Zappos parent company Amazon seems to be fine with letting the Holacracy experiment continue. If they didn't think it was worthwhile they'd already have pressed for change. And lastly, because creating something as part of an independent and collaborative team can be a supremely rewarding experience. Whether that's Beethoven or selling sneakers, I believe it's worth the effort.

Published here on
July 13, 2017