W. L. Gore cuts product line in spirit of democratic decision-making

W. L. Gore and Associates, Inc., announced last month that it will no longer sell or market products in the plastic surgery market. A multi-billion business, W. L. Gore has gained a reputation for its principles of organizational democracy.

Bruce Steinhaus, a Gore associate in Flagstaff, Arizona, says the recent decision to cut the plastic surgery product line followed the company’s protocol for its democratic decision-making.

“We undertook [the decision] only after a lot of discussion within the team directly involved in the business of plastic surgery products, also in the business unit, also within the leadership group,” says Steinhaus, a member of the team involved in making the transition out of the plastic surgery market.

The company plans to intensify its focus on products for the cardiovascular and general surgical market.

Gore has been repeatedly named one of America’s 100 best companies to work for by Fortune Magazine. In 2006, it was in the top five of the list.

Company leaders declare that it is how they work that sets them apart. Their philosophy is outlined on the company Web site. “Our culture is a model of contemporary organization seeking growth by unleashing creativity and fostering team-work,” reads a description.

“You don’t tell anybody at Gore to do anything,” Dave Lane, a sales leader in the fuel-cell group, was quoted as saying in an article, “Who’s afraid of a new product? Not W. L. Gore” by Ann Harrington (CNN Money.com, November, 2003). Gore employees commit to work on the projects that they believe are most likely to play a role in the company’s success and that they believe are most worthy of their time.

To facilitate that, there are no bosses, job titles or organization charts. The founder, Bill Gore created a flat lattice organization. There are neither chains of command nor pre-determined channels of communication. “Instead, we communicate directly with each other and are accountable to fellow members of our multi-disciplined teams,” states the company’s Web site. Steinhaus is known simply as an associate, which he says is “in the spirit of the company’s democratic decision-making.”

Innovation has been touted as one of the company’s top strength, and to that end, time is allowed simply for dabbling. All research associates get to spend 10% of their work hours as “dabble time,” developing their own ideas. Their “sponsor” will guide them if their dabblings look like they might be of value for an investment of resources from Gore. Along the way, a cross-functional oversight group checks in periodically. Questions are asked such as: Is the opportunity real? Is there really somebody out there that will buy this? Can we win? What do the economics look like? Can we make money doing this? Is it unique and valuable? Can we have a sustained advantage [such as a patent]?”

Gore’s approach appears to be working, both on the profit and employee satisfaction level. Gore’s annual revenues top $1.98 billion.

An internal survey showed that staff would strongly recommend the company as a place to work (with a 95% positive score) and think their job is good for personal growth (92%); they feel they are trusted to do their job by their leaders (90%) who are excellent role models (80%).
W. L. Gore has been listed as an example of a democratic organization by WorldBlu, a leadership and business design studio.

The company specializes in fluoroploymer products to provide innovative solutions throughout industry, in next-generation electronics, for medical products, and with high-performance fabrics.