Veterans of numerous biotech companies, Scott Uknes and Eric Ward thought the science behind agricultural biotech was extremely promising. However, large agribusiness companies had been slow to innovate. This lack of progress, Uknes and Ward believed, created a market opportunity. So they founded AgBiome in 2012 to be “the most successful agricultural innovator ever.” To achieve this goal, Uknes and Ward were convinced that AgBiome's structure had to differ radically from most companies. The two founders were admirers of self-managed organizations and commitment culture, approaches to organizational structure and process that encouraged openness and collaboration. Accordingly, Uknes and Ward built AgBiome to operate without supervisory relationships, job titles, formal performance evaluations, and individual performance bonuses. Instead, AgBiome relied on a committee structure that encouraged people with the greatest expertise to make decisions on matters within their ambit.
Employees gave AgBiome’s innovative organizational structure a large share of the credit for the organization’s success. Nonetheless, actualizing an organization built on commitment and a lack of hierarchy proved a continuing challenge. Training, leadership development, and feedback and mediation mechanisms had to be developed from scratch, as there were few off-the-shelf programs to support this kind of organization. Stakeholders also found they had to adjust their expectations.
In its short history, AgBiome achieved a great deal of success. Nonetheless this created its own set of challenges. By 2017, AgBiome employed 80 people and was projecting further expansion. But observers wondered, could a company, which worked on the basis of commitment and without a hierarchy, scale? Uknes and Ward believed that the best way to grow was to divide the company into a number of cells. But much work remained to operationalize the cells, including specifying the operational relationship among cells, building a common vocabulary around the development of leadership and culture and even the physical location of the cells. More fundamentally, observers wondered if this division into cells allow the collaboration and openness within the company to continue?
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James Baron and Jaan Elias, "AgBiome" Yale SOM Case #18-012, February 21, 2018
- Science-Based Business
- Ethics & Religion
- Leadership & Teamwork
This Yale School of Management case has been made possible by the generous support of The C. E. Thomas Cleveland ’68 B.S. and Barbara S. Cleveland Managing by Values Fund.