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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Road to No Management

It’s not a destination; it’s a journey.

I mentioned it a number of times by now that the way I want Lunar to evolve is to no management model. One thing I keep realizing is that I fail at clearly explaining my thinking behind the idea and it kinda backfires on me occasionally.

Let me start with that: I don’t think there is a single, universal model to what no management is. A few examples of companies famous for their no management approach would be Semco, W.L. Gore or Zappos (to mention just a few). While there are common things across these examples each of the companies is doing it differently.

This basically translates to the fact that our no management will have a different flavor as well.

One common denominator for each no management story I know is autonomy distributed across the whole organization. One common challenge that each of these companies has to address is providing enough structure and constraints so that autonomy doesn’t turn into anarchy.

That’s the key thing I keep in mind whenever I’m doing anything around no management at Lunar.

The other thing that is an important challenge in our case is that people are not good at giving up power. Throughout our lives we are mentally programmed that power is a scarce resource and once we get it we don’t voluntarily abandon it unless we are exceptional and can be beyond that.

Well, I’m not exceptional. When I joined my role at Lunar could have been defined as a benevolent dictator. With close to none hierarchy I was asked to make a lot, even tiny, decisions. That translates to a lot of positional power. It’s not easy to give up.

In fact letting power go in a binary way is an impossible trick to pull for me. It would just kick me way to far from my comfort zone.

I still want to get there though. I just plan for s gradual, evolutionary process and not for an overnight change. The basic pattern is I pick areas where it seems easy to distribute decision making process and try to define constraints that make the change a safe to fail experiment. Then we see how it goes and eventually constraints are loosen and thus more power gets distributed.

It was so e.g. with recruitment process. First we just opened interviewing process for internships so everyone could run an interview. Then we tried an alternate “interviewing” when Przemek was joining, where everyone was invited to take part in that in a way they want – be it a chit chat, pair programming or a more classic interview. Since then we adopted that as a standard hiring technique. Then we opened screening process to everyone as well. By now from a process when I was almost an ultimate decision maker my voice is only one of many.

This example is good as there’s been a number of issues along the way. It is expected as there’s simply no way to easily translate my mental guidance I’ve been using when hiring to everyone in the company. This was visible when we were discussing hiring another graphic designer. While we focused a lot on skills of the candidate I somehow felt we lost a perspective of economic feasibility: do we really need another designer? Would such a decision be financially justifiable? Basing on the dynamics of the discussions about new potential candidates I assume that many (most?) of us take that perspective into consideration already.

The long story short, we didn’t change hiring process at one point redefining the rules. It was happening in a series of experiments and adjustments to the process. These changes were sometimes vague, sometimes counterproductive but at the end of the day our hiring process is way more participatory than it used to be.

A similar thing happened with all sorts of in-company initiatives: craftsmanship, css styleguide, dojos, workshops and what have you. It used to be so that I was asked: “Can we organize this, this or that?” By now some of you even mock my “Can you?” answer but at the same time stuff keeps happening and I’m frequently barely know that it does.

Again though, it didn’t happen overnight. I was giving up decision making power further and further seeing that everyone understands the context of economic feasibility of such events. After all hosting a hackathon every other week would be kind of a hit on the financials, wouldn’t it?

In the meantime we’ve also did some deep stuff here and there that goes way beyond everyday decision making process. The further we are from the discussion about values during the first company retreat the more profound I consider its outcomes. What we achieved there is we defined what are values really are, not what is an official claim or pretense about values. It’s has authenticity that almost all organizations out there lack.

We’ve had an open discussion about the company size. We ended up with basically no change in strategy on that account so one could say that it wasn’t much of an experiment. From my perspective it was. One, everyone was invited to voice out their opinions. Two, it was a challenge to me to even start such a discussion in the first place.

In fact, we’ve had a sort of follow up on that when I was kicked in the butt to finally start doing something to rebuild our mobile development capabilities.

Each of these cases have a common denominator, which is that not necessarily everyone gets involved in specific discussions. The way the change happens is that everyone is invited to take part in decision making in a specific area but not everyone has to do that. That’s exactly how I envision the change. I don’t expect everyone to have an opinion about everything. I expect everyone to have opinions about some things and giving them a chance to influence them.

It also means that I don’t think about the end state as democracy. I think about it as of a combination of autonomy in making decisions, accountability for the results of these decisions and respect for everyone who is impacted by them. I think of an environment where bold moves are possible and yet we don’t start stepping on others’ toes.

In fact, my role in the process is nothing like in democracy. What happens is I pick areas when I (uneasily) give up my power and invite you all to take it. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we need to wait till we officially change the rules. When you believe doing something means doing the right thing, just do it. If that moves me too far from the comfort zone I’ll react, but chances are that I won’t. In either case it will be a contribution in bringing us closer toward the end state.

What is the end state then? I don’t know exactly. I want everyone to participate in leading the company. Not necessarily all the areas but at least those that you care about. It is asking about a lot – what I really want is to have everyone to act like a general manger of Lunar.

How far we will make it and how you all will influence the course it is to be figured out. I don’t set the goals in terms of how fast we should evolve. This part is a function of everyone being ready to take a next step in each case.

Ultimately no management is a journey, not a destination.