Social Architecture in Action at W.L. Gore

Social architecture exists, and now that I have found a company that has been working as a social architecture since it was founded I am more determined than ever to continue along this road less traveled.

Last week I had the honor to attend to the presentation of Dr. Debra France, who is responsible for leadership development at W.L. Gore (known most for its Gore-Tex range of high-performance fabrics). When she talked about the way they are organized I immediately decided that I had to interview her. Luckily I had the opportunity to do so, because it turns out that her organization puts Social Architecture in practice in their day-to-day operations.

Have a look at the video and the transcript below.

The Lattice: Social Architecture in Action

W.L. Gore operates as a lattice or a network, and associates can go directly to anyone in the organization to get what they need to be successful. When I saw Dr. France on stage explaining the lattice I had an instant feeling of epiphany (Yep, I had to look that up myself, just to be sure that this is what I felt). The lattice is what I have previously referred to as Social Architecture, and seeing that there exists a successful company proving that it is possible to operate in that fashion gives me kick.

So what does their ‘lattice’ version of a social architecture look like? 50 years ago, founder Bill Gore understood that every organization relies on an informal ‘background’ network that is based on personal relationships. As Dr. France puts it in the interview:

Even though this might be my official appointment, to get something done I might seek out someone else informally.

When Bill Gore created the company he decided to take this network of personal relationships as the basic architecture. He was influenced by Douglas McGregor’s book The Human Side of Enterprise and by Abraham Maslow’s views on how people react when they are not feeling safe and secure. His goal wasn’t simply to create a happy workplace. Being in the business of innovation, Gore figured that if people don’t feel valued for what they bring to the business and if they are not encouraged to collaborate, innovation does not get a chance.

A hierarchy based on authority has some serious design-flaws working against collaboration and involvement. A network does not suffer from these design-flaws; so as an engineer, Bill Gore made a rational choice. His choice has far-reaching consequences compared to ‘the world-as-we-know-it’:

  • There are no hierarchical rules to define that decisions need to make their way to the top and then back down. Associates can go directly to anyone in the organization to get what they need to be succesful.
  • There are no titles apart from ‘Associate’, because the whole notion of a title puts you in a box and limits your performance to the boundaries of the job description. Worse, a job description makes us believe we have the authority to command others in the organization.
  • Commitment is as holy as Freedom. Instead of having a boss telling you what to do, it is more powerful to let the individual decide what to work on and where they can make the greatest contribution. But once you have made a commitment, there is an expectation to deliver.
  • Leadership development in this context means that you help people to grow their lattice. So there is no one single lattice. Every individual needs to grow his or her own social architecture or lattice.

Sponsorship Redefined

Another consequence of the lattice is that our standard definition of sponsorship needs to be reviewed. At W.L. Gore they put a lot of emphasis on this aspect. In their ecosystem, as sponsor is something that everybody has – including the CEO. A sponsor is the person who is committed to an associate’s success and development. A sponsor is different from a leader and needs to be very clear on which hat he or she is wearing.

A new associate experiences a lot of freedom they didn’t have in their last job, but also a lot more responsibility in terms of self-drive. You need to set your own career goals and determine where you can make the greatest contribution. This may be very frightening for people coming out of a structured environment, where all these choices are made for them.

The Product Mother

During the interview, we touch upon a strange role. The role of a Product Mother exemplifies how W.L. Gore defines its roles-based lattice (as opposed to ‘function-based hierarchy’). As Dr. France explains, a Product Mother is what other organizations would call a Product Specialist or a Product Manager. The reason to choose for this different name is that most of their operations are organized as a ‘three-legged stool’. The concept of a three-legged stool refers to the fact that innovation depends on the coordination of research, manufacturing and sales.

The person who needs to form a circle around these three disciplines – so the stool won’t collapse – is the Product Mother. They are responsible for the integration of the three disciplines in order to make a product successful. Rather than providing an exhaustive function description for this role, they have chosen for an indication that suggest a high level of vigilant attention and nurturing that a product needs in order to become succesful.


Leadership gets stripped to its bare essentials, because you are not a leader at W.L. Gore unless you have followership. Instead of getting academic about leadership, the focus is on the day-to-day reality where teams gather around opportunities. The person who emerges as a leader in those situations is the one who has something to offer that people appreciate. This may be the ability to organize the team, a certain expertise, the ability to influence, or the ability to get resources. They allow the voice of the organization to determine who’s really qualified to be a leader, based on the willingness of others to follow.

In this approach to leadership, influence is honored as a ranking system as opposed to authority. The past 120 years we have been conditioned – as a society and as individuals – to believe that authority is the only way to execute leadership. Even our education system is built on this premise. So you can imagine how hard it is to build an eco-system that is based on different laws-of-nature than its surrounding eco-sphere. How on earth did they survive over the past five decades? The answer lies in the business results.

Let’s have a look at some facts.  The company makes over 1000 products and employs over 9000 associates in 50 locations around the world. Unlike any of their competitors, they have been making money since the company was founded in 1958. And they do this without a hierarchy of VP’s, SVP’s etc.

Getting Out of the Way

The fact that leaders need to earn followership at W.L. Gore results in a different use of their power. For example, they cannot use their authority to push decisions in a certain direction. Instead, they need to do an incredible job of internal selling to their peers in order to move the organization. On stage (prior to this interview) Dr. France asserted that this takes more time; but once a decision has been made you’d better get out of the way because now you have a whole organization that is eager to accelerate and execute.

In a context of authority a decision is sold after it has been made. We call it “communication” – but in reality it is “propaganda”. By contrast, communication in an environment that is based on influence requires communication in the purest sense of the word: constructing a ‘common ground’ through involvement.

Eventually, leadership is a different challenge at W.L. Gore than at any other organization. In fact, stripping away the positional power of a leader, makes it one of the most challenging roles. The fact that leadership is earned, not granted, results in leaders who need to become comfortable with not being at the center of all the action and not trying to drive every decision. Their contribution is to help the organization scale and be effective.

The moral of the story? W.L. Gore is a tangible example of the fact that we don’t need a bureaucratic system (authority based) to hold people accountable. Authority gets pushed to the operating teams that are much better equipped to make the right decision at the right moment.