Kinko's and Workplace Democracy

Writing E Pluribus Kinko’s: A Story of Business, Democracy, and Freaky Smart People, inspired me to become an organizational democracy evangelist. In this blog, I’ll discuss the idea in greater detail, but here are some key concepts:

  1. Democratic societies are inherently creative and entrepreneurial.
  2. Paradoxically, only a very strong leader can ensure a democratic workplace.
  3. People associate democracy with votes, but it’s really about voices.
  4. When owners, managers and workers are not partners, they are adversaries.
  5. Despite the idealistic language, there is nothing Utopian about workplace democracy – it is stressful and messy, yet extremely effective.

E Pluribus Kinko’s describes how a very democratic structure helped the company grow and profit for thirty years. We had a written constitution, called the Kinko’s Philosophy, which articulated the precepts governing the company. We had a Partnership Ethos that defined rights and responsibilities of citizenship, which included patronage (mentorship), participation, and profit sharing. And like any good Jeffersonian democracy, we had a Pot Stirrer creating continuous (r)evolution to ensure growth and engagement, based on provocation (questioning everything), permutations (a thousand R&D labs), and playfulness (balancing candor with appreciation and affection).

Kinko’s succeeded by building engagement, creativity and initiative through organizational democracy. E Pluribus Kinko’s: Out of many, Kinko’s. Our success owed less to the company’s leadership than to the leadership’s ability to stay out of the way of the thousands of anonymous 20-somethings who actually built the company and had a good time doing so. It was a great education, and I look forward to sharing the lessons with you.

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