We don´t need bosses

I know a company that has completely banned the idea of bosses. No one says what you should do. No job descriptions. No quarterly targets. No one will tell you how much are you allowed to spend. No one will impose a deadline you have to meet. No one will tell you whether you should hire someone, nor what is the max you can pay for that job. This company is called VALVE. It is a real thing, I'm not making it up. For video game players the name will be familiar. They own some landmark titles like Half Life, Counter Strike, Portal or Left 4 Dead. They've also created the digital distribution platform Steam. Any PC gamer knows what I'm talking about, it's immensely popular. Finances are not public, but nobody doubts this is a highly profitable company.

Some years ago, Valve's Handbook for New Employees leaked, to everyone's stupor. That company has truly banned the concept of structure. The handbook is worth reading. The inevitable reaction at every page turn is: "But, can this really work?!?" Apparently it does. Structure emerges organically as people gravitate freely around projects. Leadership is natural, not structural. Truly an anarchist dream come true.

Valve's way raises a thousand questions (especially about managing the company under distress, I'd say.) But while this may be an extreme case, it also puts a question mark on those assumptions we've taken for granted in the rest of the organizations:

  • A pyramid is required to enable decision making at the higher levels. Execution happens at the bottom.
  • Decision making is a riskier, more sensitive task, and therefore requires scarce quality people to perform it.
  • Execution, on the other hand, can be procedurized (I don't think this is a word but you get the idea) and performed by anyone.
  • Something that can be performed by anyone is, by definition, cheap, which is a good thing for shareholders when a lot of executors must be employed.
  • A successful career path means climbing the pyramid, accessing ever more privileged positions, so that you can feel chosen.
  • Inhabiting higher levels of the pyramid develops your network of similarly ranked individuals, even higher ones, so that your prospects also improve. By definition, the bottom is more anonymous.
  • In essence, climbing is a good thing, and therefore a natural selection will happen, guaranteeing that only the best get up there. This filtering process will maximize the quality of decision making and, as a result, improve the health of the company.

It sounds intuitive. So organic it is biological, indeed. In fact we have been able to achieve great things as a species by organizing this way, so no complains.

But in the last decades some shifts happened in the nature of our jobs and in the development of society that may impact the effectiveness of hierarchies.

  • Execution (of the standard anyone-can-do-it type) has either robotised to moved far away.
  • Companies are now full of knowledge workers (I hate the name) whose layering is much more fuzzy.
  • Top management is becoming more accessible as new generations populate those heights, making networking less of a casta’s game.

Even though I´m having a hard time articulating in words, I can feel the traditional supervisor-subordinate game is coming to an end (or at least to a new cycle). Interestingly enough, it´s been a long time already since I felt that I was actually the right person to make a decision. The depth of knowledge required made me rely heavily in my team over and over again. I don´t remember the last time that I set course in a different direction than what the team was suggesting. I decided to think long ago that the role of the manager is not to make decisions, but to support the decisions made by his team (I hope I didn’t reach that conclusion to justify my own incapacity).

It seems to me that the old model was that up there someone decided the WHAT while down in the floor others worked out the HOW. Today, I see myself mainly thinking about HOW can I enable my team to do WHAT they´ve decided is the best way forward.

This change in paradigm comes with tough implications for the manager. Let´s talk about something embarrassing. You are invited by senior manager to a meeting to discuss a topic some member of your team has been working on, and you have a very limit knowledge about it. You can handle it 2 ways.

  1. Ask your colleague to debrief you, prepare the meeting as well as you can, then show up.
  2. Ask your colleague to join you and, when the time comes to speak up, acknowledge you are not the right person and hand it over to your colleague.

Most people do 1 (don't lie to yourself). You have been invited by senior people. The very same people that chose you for your privileged senior position. The topic falls under your responsibility. You are supposed to have a view. Doing 2 takes balls. Doing 2 is sending a message: I'm not supposed to know the things that I manage. Which is a tough statement. It sounds better if you add ...because I trust the people behind it. Doing 1 wastes your time and your colleague's time, which is a capital sin. But tell me you've not wasted your time nor wasted your team's time this way.

But talking about tough implications for managers, this new model hardly justifies the often significant compensation differences between layers. In today's world, the only way to thrive is by empowering everyone, by offering everyone the possibility of becoming indispensable. In an efficient market dynamic, compensation should reward indispensability. The new role of a manager is not more important, it is different. I don't see a reason why I should make more money that anyone from my team. This wrong axiom has a terrible side effect too: when the only way to reward (economically) a good performer is by offering access to managerial positions, probably destroying the person, the performance and the management in the process. But indispensability is harder to measure than the level you´re sitting in our organisation, and so we settle for a sub-optimal approach that at least is simple.

Valve´s way may be too extreme, or this time too soon, but when I look at the compass, it points in that direction. While we all learn and adjust, make yourself a favor and enjoy a game of the masterpiece that Portal is.

Cheers.

That was a long one, I hope you find it enjoyable on a Sunday. Always thinking of you ;)

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