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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Manager-Free Organization

Manager-Free Organization post image

One of frequently mentioned management ideas these days is that we don’t need management. If I got a free beer every time I’ve heard the examples of W.L. Gore, Valve or GitHub and how we should act as they do I could stay drunk for weeks without needing to buy any alcohol. A common message is that if they can everyone can.

I don’t subscribe to that idea.

Well, being a manager myself that’s not really a surprise, isn’t it?

I mean I’m really impressed with what these companies do, especially W.L. Gore given its size. It doesn’t mean that I automatically think that it is the new management model that masses should adopt. I simply don’t treat is as the true north of management or leadership if you will.

First, such an approach is very contextual. You have to have a lot of right bits and pieces in place before it works. For the start it will fail miserably unless you have the right people on board and, let’s face it, most companies have way too many bad apples to make it work.

Second, scaling up a manager-free organization is a huge pain in the neck. This is why I respect so much W.L. Gore work.

Being a fan of evolution I also try to imagine how to become such an organization evolutionary. I guess I must be too dumb but in vast majority of companies it is beyond my imagination. Revolutions, on the other hand, have surprisingly crappy success rate so that’s not a feasible solution either.

So far you might have considered me as a skeptic.

Well, not really.

While I don’t think that the managerless approach is, or will be, for everyone there is a specific context where it is surprisingly easy to implement. If you run a small company, let’s say smaller than 30 people, there’s not that much of managerial work anyway. Unless you introduce tons of that crap, that is.

It just so happens that Lunar Logic is such a small company. When you think about small and stable size you can forget about scaling issue. It is much easier to find the right people too because you simply need fewer of them. While Valve needs few hundreds of them we’re perfectly fine with twenty-something. Besides, smaller teams generally tend to have fewer bad apples as everything, naturally, is more transparent. Everyone knows everyone else, sees others’ work, etc. There’s no place to hide.

Suddenly, the manager-free approach doesn’t seem so scary, does it?

It may be a hit for managers’ ego though.

I can hardly remember when I wasn’t a manager. Obviously there were countless occasions when I used my formal power to do what I believed was right. So yes, it took courage to intentionally strip myself off of power and just put myself in a row with everyone else. Not that I’m already done with that; it’s a gradual process. A nice thing is that it can be done in evolutionary fashion though.

While I still make salary and some other financial decisions, that’s basically it. The good part is that I’m forced to wear my manager’s hat very, very rarely. I spend the rest of my time fulfilling all the other roles I have which hopefully can be summarized as me helping others.

You know, all the fun stuff, like setting up daily conference calls with the clients, writing longish boring emails, keeping task boards up to date, solving mundane problems, etc. Typically, just being there and looking for ways to help the rest of the team doing their best. An interesting thing is it does feel damn good even if the tasks sound less-than-exciting. I help people to do their awesome job. What else could you ask for as a leader?

That’s why I can’t be happier when I witness others treating me just as a regular team member. It means we are closer to being a manager-free organization.

So while you shouldn’t expect me proposing the managerless office to everyone I definitely thing that this is something small, knowledge-based companies could try.

Would it work that easily if we were twice as big? I have no freaking idea. I mean we definitely aren’t yet where GitHub or Valve is. I don’t even know if we want to be there. If the company’s growth is a threat for the culture we grow and cultivate here, so much the worse for the growth.

And this basically summarizes why I think that the manager-free approach isn’t for majority. I think pretty few businesses would prefer to sacrifice growth just for the sake of preserving the culture.

By the way, do expect more on the subject soon.

in: software business, team management

11 comments… add one

  • Nikolay June 20, 2013, 1:42 am

    Hey Pawel,

    Thank you for the great article. This approach is really hard to follow but my opinion is that once implemented it empower team members to be more independent and by that more productive. Or at least this is what I think.

  • Pawel Brodzinski June 20, 2013, 1:57 am

    @Nikolay – You see a lot of empowerment and autonomy. Regarding productivity, well, that’s kind of a different animal. If you think about efficiency – not necessarily. It is the end result of group dynamics which will be different in different groups.

    My argument though is that we shouldn’t focus on efficiency but on effectiveness, which means doing right things. There’s no point in efficiently doing the wrong thing. From this perspective the manager-free approach helps as well because very rarely it is a manager who knows the best what is the right thing. When all the people have the power and autonomy to make their own calls the whole organization is likely more effective. In this meaning, yes, a managerless office should positively influence productivity as well.

  • Nikolay June 20, 2013, 2:07 am

    Ok now I understand you better. . Well this is one of the management paradoxes and yes I truly believe that this is the way to go. As one author says “it is always better to do the right thing in a wrong way that vice versa”. The journey will be long but at the end I believe that it will worth it.
    Good luck to all companies and organization that decide to adopt such a culture but not to forget and that this is a two-way street and as may lead to improvement also may lead to absolute chaos. I have seen them both and it really can be painful for both the company and the employees.

  • Pawel Brodzinski June 20, 2013, 2:10 am

    @Nikolay – I guess that’s exactly the point – I doubt that this approach would work for everyone. And I totally agree that it ain’t easy to get there. I jut see a specific context of small orgs with leaders with little ego where it might be less difficult than we may expect.

  • The Chronologist June 20, 2013, 3:50 am

    Hi Pawel,

    (I guess you know where you can read more about my ideas…. so I will refrain from the shameless plug here on your blog! :-D )

    Great insights. As you know, I’m concerned not about ordinary organizations but about hyper-productive ones.

    In a hyper-productive organization there is no place for managers.

    However, you need leaders. Leaders that are part of the team, and that build a Community of Trust, and give the organization a Unity of Purpose. Leaders that have a “patron role” – they set an example that others willingly follow. Leaders that can stand up and step in front when the situation requires.

    Hyper-productivity is not hyper “activity.” It is about doing more, with less; and doing it faster. It is a consequence of speed (among many other things). Speed in generating ideas and options; speed in decision making; and speed in execution. Speed comes when there is balance in all parts and features of the organization; which in turn means balance between centralized control and anarchy.

    Often, an illuminate leader, in a patron role, can take decisions the quickest; especially in the face of mounting uncertainty, maybe when even the organization as a whole doesn’t really know what to do or where to go. Quick decisions, made by illuminated leaders that are trusted by their team, can be vital to the organization’s survival in these times of quick moving markets. They can avoid unnecessary and maybe even deadly drag in the decision process.

    Once such quick decisions are taken, being a trusted as a member of the team, the leader’s decision will be trusted; and the leading will be followed by speedy and quick execution by the whole organization. Again speed of execution as a consequence of trust in the leader’s decisions.

    Now, in a hyper-productive setting, the above scenario will be the exception rather than the rule; because the whole team will (normally) have a profound, collective understanding of both what is the right thing to do, and how to do it right. Hyper-productive teams do not compromise between right *thing* and right *way*. Hyper-productive teams always know how to do the right thing in the right way.

    It is during the exceptions, in the critical moments when this fundamental capability of hyper-productive teams comes to a stand still, because of unknowns and unforeseen, that leadership can make a difference. Trusted leaders can take quick decision and have them executed quickly. That’s why leaders need to be part of the team, so that reciprocal trust ensues. Team trusts leaders to take this responsibility of making critical decisions in critical moments; leader trusts team to execute. Then once the crisis is solved, things go back to a normal state of a peer driven organization.

    Now… sacrifice growth? Why? What for?

    Get hyper-productive, and learn how to compete with much larger organizations. Scale not by getting bigger; scale through both efficiency and effectiveness. You can preserve your culture and yet grow indefinitely. Actually, a hyper-productivity focused culture will create such growth conditions, and yet preserve those cultural traits you feel are important.

  • Pawel Brodzinski June 20, 2013, 4:59 am

    @The Chronologist – Steve, first of all, feel free to insert here as many shameless plugs as you want :)

    Personally, I’m not a fan of the term hyper-productivity or the way it is commonly (mis)used. Anyway, one thing is that, no matter how we define hyper-productivity, we are talking about very few orgs out there. The other thing is that the way you describe it means that it covers much more that I’m trying to cover here.

    For me the manager-free setup is basically an enabler for autonomy and empowerment (I don’t like the latter word either). Now, how people would use their new powers is up to them. In a chaotic environment, with people who don’t give a damn I don’t expect we’d see much of value thanks to the approach.

    Heck, even with good people but having a long history of working in command and control environment the change will not yield any quick results.

    Note, I don’t even go into doing the right thing / doing thing right here. I simply point how difficult may be the mindshift that has to happen.

    For me this is only one aspect of leadership and effective organizations.

    You point one interesting context though, which is decision-making process and trust. While I agree that getting rid of hierarchy helps here, I also consider that a separate context. You can achieve similar results even in pretty old-fashioned, very hierarchical organization. It all boils down to trust, and trust depends on people and their behaviors. This is definitely not a property of managerless setups only.

  • Cesar Abeid (@cesarabeid) June 20, 2013, 11:59 am

    Pawel, great article again.

  • Peter June 21, 2013, 6:01 am

    Pawel, thanks for the well-balanced approach to the subject. As you stated early, “such an approach is very contextual.”

  • Kirsten September 24, 2013, 8:45 am

    Another great post Pawel.

    I’m also not sure about the term @The Chronologist uses as ‘hyper-productive’, not sure it captures the spirit of what it’s trying to convey.

    What’s for sure is that the term ‘manager’ in what management meant in old currency is being re-defined in Agile teams. I’m not necessarily talking about scrum which is a suitable framework for larger teams and transition but not in my opinion for small teams so much. I’m in a similar position to you Pawel where I run a small organisation of smart people and my role is to make sure the team have what they need to move forward without blockages, to contact the product owner if we’re not clear on a requirements, to ensure they have beer on a Friday afternoon and to provide the time and materials to further their knowledge outside of the pressures of day-to-day sprint work through training and education. It’s just a matter of applying a bit of oil to the cogs and taking away some of the mundane tasks that get in their way.

    The holy grail may be the ‘self-organising’ team and i’m a keen advocate of that although there are times as @The Chronologist suggests where leadership, support and decisions need to be made and that isn’t self-organisation in it’s purest sense.

    Keep up the good posts

  • Charlotte January 21, 2014, 12:31 pm

    Hi Pawel,

    Just read this for the first time, really interesting article. I’m curious how you feel the performance metrics of work output should relate to a manager-free structure?

  • Pawel Brodzinski January 21, 2014, 1:00 pm

    Hi Charlotte,

    We don’t use any individual performance metrics. Performance metrics we use are always related to a team. After all does it really matter for a client how much each of the team members contributed to their project?

    For internal reasons we base on feedback. It’s not quantitative so strictly speaking it isn’t a metric. It gives us extremely high value though.

    The feedback part it tricky though. Evolving organizational culture toward one where everyone shares feedback freely with everyone else is damn difficult. We don’t expect to make it in one jump though. Basically all the time the goal is to share more feedback with others.

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