Michael Y. Lee - Faculty & Research - Harvard Business School
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Michael Y. Lee

Doctoral Student

Michael Y. Lee is a Doctoral Candidate in Management at Harvard Business School and studies novel organizational designs and how formal structure can be leveraged to foster greater organizational effectiveness. His dissertation research explores the dynamics and consequences of radical approaches to less-hierarchical organizing, focusing on a novel organizational system called Holacracy that simultaneously decentralizes authority while employing a dynamic structuring process to enable coordination and control. His other research explores how teams can foster more productive and less-hierarchical dynamics. He uses ethnographic observation and interviews, field experiments, and survey methods to study these phenomena. 

Michael has worked in a variety of organizational contexts and sectors. Most recently, he served as an engagement leader for the Parthenon Group, a global management consulting firm, where he advised corporate, private equity, and social sector clients. He has also spent time in the technology industry and in the nonprofit organizations where he helped clients measure and increase their social impact. 

Michael earned his AB magna cum laude in Social Studies from Harvard University and an MBA from U.C. Berkeley where he was elected Net Impact President. He has trained in large group meeting facilitation and self-managed teaming as a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs, and is an experienced student in Vipassana (Insight) meditation.

Journal Articles
  1. Self-Managing Organizations: Exploring the Limits of Less-Hierarchical Organizing

    Michael Y. Lee and Amy C. Edmondson

    Fascination with organizations that eschew the conventional managerial hierarchy and instead radically decentralize authority has been longstanding, albeit at the margins of scholarly and practitioner attention. Recently, however, organizational experiments in radical decentralization have gained mainstream consideration, giving rise to a need for new theory and new research. This paper reviews the literature on less hierarchical organizing and identifies three categories of research: post-bureaucratic organizations, humanistic management, and organizational democracy. Despite this extensive prior work, scholarly understanding of radical decentralization remains limited. Using the term self-managing organizations to capture efforts that radically decentralize authority in a formal and systematic way throughout the organization, we set forth a research agenda to better understand less-hierarchical organizing at its limits.

    Keywords: Self-Managed Organizations; Self-Managed Teams; self-organizing systems; self-managing organizations; Flat Organization; Decentralization; organization design; non-hierarchical organizations; less-hierarchical organizing; Organizational Structure; Organizational Design; Research;


    Lee, Michael Y., and Amy C. Edmondson. "Self-Managing Organizations: Exploring the Limits of Less-Hierarchical Organizing." Research in Organizational Behavior 37 (2017): 35–58.  View Details
  2. Beyond the Holacracy Hype: The Overwrought Claims—and Actual Promise—of the Next Generation of Self-Managed Teams

    Ethan Bernstein, John Bunch, Niko Canner and Michael Lee

    Holacracy and other forms of self-organization have been getting a lot of press. Proponents hail them as "flat" environments that foster flexibility, engagement, productivity, and efficiency. Critics say they're naive, unrealistic experiments. We argue, using evidence from a multi-year research agenda at several mainstream organizations that have adopted these forms, that neither view is quite right. Although the new forms (built upon a half-century of research on and experience with self-managed teams) can help organizations become more adaptable and nimble, most companies shouldn't adopt their principles wholesale. A piecemeal approach usually makes sense. Organizations can use elements of self-management in areas where the need for adaptability is high and traditional models where reliability is paramount.

    Keywords: Self-Managed Organizations; Self-Managed Teams; reliability; adaptability; holacracy; organization design; organization structure; organizational design; Organizational Charts; organizational architecture; organizational forms; organizational structure; Organizational Design; Organizational Structure; Organizational Change and Adaptation; Performance Effectiveness; Performance Productivity; Management Practices and Processes; Management Systems; Managerial Roles; Human Resources; Apparel and Accessories Industry; Manufacturing Industry; Retail Industry; Public Administration Industry; Technology Industry; North America;


    Bernstein, Ethan, John Bunch, Niko Canner, and Michael Lee. "Beyond the Holacracy Hype: The Overwrought Claims—and Actual Promise—of the Next Generation of Self-Managed Teams." Harvard Business Review 94, nos. 7-8 (July–August 2016): 38–49.  View Details
Book Chapters
  1. New Prospects for Organizational Democracy?: How the Joint Pursuit of Social and Financial Goals Challenges Traditional Organizational Designs

    Julie Battilana, Michael Fuerstein and Michael Lee

    For an extended period during the first half of the 20th century, industrial democracy was a vibrant movement, with ideological and organizational ties to a thriving unionism. In 2015, however, things look different. While there are instances of democracy in the business landscape, hierarchical forms of organization remain dominant, and organizational democracy commands only scant attention in organizational theory. The precise reasons for this trend are undoubtedly complex and bridge economic, sociological, and psychological concerns. Nonetheless, a key indicator of this trend is the dominance of the view of organizational economists that hierarchy outperforms non-hierarchical alternatives (including democracy) on grounds of economic efficiency across a wide range of contexts (Coase, 1937; Williamson, 1981; Ouchi, 1980). The underrepresentation of democratic models compared to hierarchy would thus seem to reflect, in part, a triumph of this economic logic (e.g., Hansmann, 1996). What does the balance of arguments look like, however, when values besides efficient revenue production are brought into the picture? The question is not hypothetical. In recent years, an ever increasing number of corporations have developed and adopted socially responsible behaviors, thereby hybridizing aspects of corporate businesses and social organizations (Margolis & Walsh, 2003; Kanter, 2009; Porter & Kramer, 2011). Particularly striking is the marked growth of social enterprises, which adopt a social mission as their principal objective but sustain themselves through commercial activities (Battilana and Lee, 2014; Battilana, 2015). This deliberate integration of social concerns into the value proposition of businesses—be they corporate businesses or social enterprises—is notable in its own right as a challenge to conventional conceptions of what the very practice of business is about. It is also notable, from an organizational point of view, insofar as it raises questions about what model is best suited to the integration of nonfinancial concerns. Does the joint pursuit of commercial and social objectives require new ways of organizing? In this essay we argue that it does. Or at least—to put our thesis in more measured terms—we argue that the joint pursuit of financial and social objectives warrants significant rethinking of organizational democracy’s merits compared both to hierarchy and to nondemocratic alternatives to hierarchy. In making this argument, we draw on some parallels with political democracy: the success of political democracy as a model for integrating diverse values offers some grounds for thinking about parallel virtues in the business case. Our goal is not to offer any general prescription for organizational democracy at this stage but, instead, to argue that the merits of more democratic models of organizing deserve significant reevaluation in the context of organizations pursuing multiple objectives. We proceed, first, by drawing on an extensive literature review to assess the way in which organizational democracy has been conceptualized in recent decades as well as to document the relative lack of substantive discussion about it in comparison with some other alternatives to hierarchy. We then characterize the recent surge of socially engaged models of enterprise and press the case that this turning point warrants reconsideration of the merits of organizational democracy. We close with some reflections on the future prospects of the democratic model and the limitations of our argument.

    Keywords: Organizational Design; Social Enterprise; Values and Beliefs; Integration; Theory;


    Battilana, Julie, Michael Fuerstein, and Michael Lee. "New Prospects for Organizational Democracy? How the Joint Pursuit of Social and Financial Goals Challenges Traditional Organizational Designs." In Capitalism Beyond Mutuality, edited by Subramanian Rangan. Oxford University Press, forthcoming.  View Details
Working Papers
  1. Decoupling Structure and Hierarchy: Achieving Control and Autonomy Through Dynamic Formal Roles

    Michael Lee

    Hierarchy and formal structure are conventionally viewed as two tightly coupled dimensions of organization design. As organizations move from more hierarchical to less hierarchical authority structures, they also tend to reduce formal structure. However, organic designs—which combine less hierarchical authority with less formal structure—reduce the mechanisms for coordination and control, leaving them limited in their applicability. I present an inductive qualitative case study of an organization that adopted a new management system that simultaneously reduced hierarchical control while increasing the degree to which roles were formalized. The newly formalized roles, which could also be easily changed, served as dynamic resources for supporting coordination and control, essentially substituting for managerial authority. At the same time, individuals used the same formal roles as resources for enacting and reinforcing the decentralization of authority. In this way, formal roles served as janus-faced resources, enabling both freedom and control. This study suggests that hierarchy and formal structure should be viewed as two distinct dimensions of organizational design, highlighting the possibility and logic of designs that sit on the off-diagonal – low hierarchical authority but highly structured. In such designs, the loss in control from less hierarchical authority is replaced by control from visible, legitimate, and amendable formal roles. Implications of this design are discussed.

    Keywords: organization design; autonomy; Decentralization; Self-Managed Organizations; formalization; roles; Organizational Design; Organizational Structure; Management Systems;


    Lee, Michael. "Decoupling Structure and Hierarchy: Achieving Control and Autonomy Through Dynamic Formal Roles." Working Paper, August 2017.  View Details