Recently in the tech community, a palpable aversion to the idea of management has been developing. Stripe claimed to have no dedicated managers at a time when they had 31 employees, and Menlo Innovations designed a “bossless” atmosphere. I consider the much celebrated Valve company handbook to be the strongest nucleus of this movement, thanks to their Flatland vision (pages 4-5):
Welcome to Flatland
Hierarchy is great for maintaining predictability and repeatability. It simplifies planning and makes it easier to control a large group of people from the top down, which is why military organizations rely on it so heavily.
But when you’re an entertainment company that’s spent the last decade going out of its way to recruit the most intelligent, innovative, talented people on Earth, telling them to sit at a desk and do what they’re told obliterates 99 percent of their value. We want innovators, and that means maintaining an environment where they’ll flourish.
That’s why Valve is flat. It’s our shorthand way of saying that we don’t have any management, and nobody “reports to” anybody else. We do have a founder/president, but even he isn’t your manager. This company is yours to steer—toward opportunities and away from risks. You have the power to green-light projects. You have the power to ship products.
This is an exciting concept and a quite moving articulation of it, so it’s not surprising to me that it resonates with many. Whenever it comes up in conversation, however, I’m quick to ask if the person made it to the end of the handbook, where Valve discusses its own weaknesses:
My first thought when I saw this was “Wow, this transparency is incredible! Valve has such strong values.” Almost immediately after, I grasped what they had actually written and my enthusiasm waned. In exchange for freedom, they gave up *personal growth.* I can fully believe that there are people who can survive in such an organization, but I am deeply skeptical that they can thrive and reach their full potential. They are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. They tied one hand behind their back. The juice is not worth the squeeze. Pick your favorite metaphor; the point is this philosophy lacks balance. More importantly, I totally reject the idea that freedom and mentorship have to be mutually exclusive. Many people believe Valve succeeds thanks to this culture, but I suspect they actually succeed in spite of it and would be a better company if they backed off from such an extreme position.
The limits of a completely flat approach, as conceded by Valve, reveal the mental trap that is causing startups to reject management. With the reference to the military at the beginning, Valve makes it clear that they see management solely through the lens of command and control hierarchies: it’s there to establish bureaucracy in the name of consistency and order. This can be true, but need not be, and definitely should not be the only role that management plays. Instead, I think the most important value of a manager is to serve their reports: to unblock them, mentor them, and keep them pointed in a direction that best serves their needs and the priorities of the organization.
An alternative approach to creating structure and order that we employ at Asana is distributed responsibility, exemplified by our AoR (Area of Responsibility) program. Rather than have all decisions flow through the management hierarchy, we have the explicit intention of distributing them as evenly as possible across all employees. Unless we forgot about the existence of an AoR (which does happen) or otherwise make a mistake, the relevant domain owner has the final decision making authority, not their manager. Additionally, we try to promote an understanding of management as an AoR on par with other AoR’s, making the organization feel flatter.
Management still plays a very important role, however, as a backstop for all decisions. If an AoR does not exist or the most relevant decision maker is ambiguous, then decisions do flow through the management hierarchy. In effect, the CEO has the ultimate meta-AoR. In practice, this happens very rarely, but we save ourselves a ton of pain by having clear decision making authority when it does. Another way of putting it is that the managers fill the whitespace of the organization, making sure we have complete coverage. People tend to value that clarity rather than see it as a form of oppression. No one wants to feel like the ship is not being steered and, in my experience, organizations that lack identifiable decision owners tend to end up with more politics than those with traditional structures, rather than less.
Our employees also value that our approach emphasizes personal growth, especially through mentorship. One example of someone who benefited from this is Josh Smith, who joined us as a developer straight out of college, after first doing an internship. He already was great at some things related to his role, but will admit he was lacking in many others. Josh said that his manager, Jack, pushed him to test his boundaries in these areas specifically, “at a speed where I was constantly challenged, but not overwhelmed.” This ensured he grew quickly. After just a little less than a year as a full time developer, Josh has gained enough institutional knowledge and experience to become a program lead and begin playing the mentor role himself.
The point of these anecdotes isn’t to say “look at the perfect culture we have at Asana.” Our employees don’t always feel like stakeholders in all of the decisions around their work, and undoubtedly experience manager-induced stress from time to time. We don’t claim that we’ve nailed it (nor believe we ever will) and we frequently reflect and choose to iterate on our processes and structure. And that’s really the point. Building good management culture takes real energy and attention. It’s nuanced and difficult to get right. A single strong principle will not suffice.
That being said, we think it’s important to think about principles, and wanted to share the way we think about management to help others create the culture that will match the needs of their organization. Too much management blocks creativity and the ability of teammates to reach their potential, while a completely “flat” structure keeps people from growing as much as they could. A balanced, “just right” approach gives people the freedom they need to contribute at their full potential, while also providing the support that helps them grow to become even more capable.
I am starting to sense the pendulum swinging back in the culture toward more measured approaches and rhetoric, and I hope this post will help that continue. I know several teams that are softening their stance and starting to put people in explicit manager roles for the first time as they discover the need for them from first principles. Medium itself recently introduced a “Domain Lead” role to supplement its Holacracy system of governance:
These roles are called ‘Domain Leads’ and are filled by experienced members of various circles like design and engineering. In addition to mentoring, they’re also largely responsible for hiring and firing. They work closely with the ‘Lead Links’ who define and fill roles in their circles to assess performance. “Domain leads are responsible for the people, not the work,” Stirman says. “It’s something we’re trying out.”
You don’t have to squint your eyes very hard to see this as management rebranding, but personally, I think we’re setting ourselves up to waste a lot of time on semantics. I suspect that people who are decrying “traditional management” have really just had some bad managers in their past, or have been part of bad organizations. It is certainly possible that all management in the past was intrinsically toxic, but it seems more likely to me that there was a fair amount of bad management going on historically AND a fair amount of good management. You can almost hear the logical fallacy playing out at the founding of a new startup. “At my last company, my manager was constantly getting in the way and had no idea what he was talking about. We should just never introduce managers into the culture so we never have that problem, right?” It is easy to imagine that there are leaders at Valve who desperately want to provide some guidance to their teams, but have to walk on eggshells for fear of doing anything that could be considered an attack on “Flatland.” I encourage their team to reflect on how well this culture is serving them. Can you find a way to avoid the unwanted interference of bad managers (perhaps by never putting them into those roles) without eliminating the ability of your best people to actively lead?
As you continue thinking about these issues remember that — philosophical differences aside — almost everyone agrees that the best way to create great culture is to hire great people. No system—no matter how well-planned or well-executed—will overpower the effect of bad leaders or sour the goodness that comes with great ones. At the end of the day, good management qualities (empathy, attentiveness, honesty, wisdom, among others) trump philosophy, but some thought and planning can go a long way towards creating a culture that best supports your people and the goals of your company.
If you’d like to learn more about how we think about distributed responsibility and how Asana can help you achieve it, watch this video we recently made on the evolution of teamwork. If you’d like to read more about how we think about management generally, take a look at the internal doc that we posted that explains our management philosophy. Every company should have a system customized to their own circumstances and needs, but there are many principles outlined there that are universally applicable.