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"We look at our employees as adults."
March 6, 2014 5:02 PM   Subscribe

Sean Blanda asks, "Do We Really Need Managers?" He interviews one of the founders of Treehouse, a startup company which has transitioned to a structure with no one in a traditional management role. To show that such an approach can work in the long term, Blanda refers to Gore - managerless since 1958.

And, hey: for once Betteridge's Law agrees with the headline implication. :-)
posted by paleyellowwithorange (104 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite

 
"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

I don't like the idea that you can get fired based on two anonymous reviews.
posted by MoxieProxy at 5:12 PM on March 6 [8 favorites]


How does all the boring work get done?
posted by Foci for Analysis at 5:17 PM on March 6 [1 favorite]


I'm happy to do some of the boring work.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 5:19 PM on March 6 [5 favorites]


are you seriously comparing this to stalinism dude
posted by p3on at 5:20 PM on March 6


So ok, who does the non exciting and boring work?
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 5:22 PM on March 6


The Wikipedia page on Workers' self-management has a lot of really interesting info, including an extensive section on the fábricas recuperadas movement in Argentina. WSM fits very nicely with the co-op structure of ownership- capitalists insist that people only truly value what they own, and then do what they can to ensure ownership of the most important thing in most peoples' economic lives, their job and workplace, will be denied to all but the tiniest few.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:24 PM on March 6 [10 favorites]


So ok, who washes the dishes in your chore-sharing home?
posted by scose at 5:29 PM on March 6 [9 favorites]


In the comments section of How to set priorities, create budgets and do project management in a #NoManager company:
Ryan, Love this series! I can see how it's working for new projects. How do you deal with ongoing tasks, like making sure customer service emails get replied to?

Some roles (like you mentioned) work on ongoing "always-on" tasks like Support, HR, etc. Those folks don't create projects for these as it's understood they're always working on them and they won't have a finish date.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 5:30 PM on March 6 [2 favorites]


Oh, and speaking of the fábricas recuperadas movement, YouTube has The Take, a documentary with a history of the movement and interviews with self-managed workers. Very interesting stuff and well worth your time.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:31 PM on March 6 [4 favorites]


I love my management.

My company is in an extremely complicated space with a lot of external partners and clients. At all times we have to balance reactive client management, new business revenue chasing, operational efficiencies, and strategic development that'll keep us one step ahead of the competition.

I'm super glad my bosses are dealing with all that. They do a great job keeping me focused on making the biggest impact I can.
posted by Sauce Trough at 5:33 PM on March 6 [6 favorites]


Of course we don't need any managers! I love the idea of doing all the hire/fire paperwork, contract review, IP diligence, benefits management, product strategy, and quality assurance IN ADDITION TO coding the product all day. That sounds fantastic why did no one think of that before??! Oh yeah, that's right, Google also "didn't have any managers" and had a nominally flat corporate structure until like 6 years ago when they realized that place was being run about as efficiently as the monkey house at the San Diego zoo (except with more poop-flinging).

Look, all start-ups "don't have any managers" when they only have like under 10 people on staff. In a company of that size, everyone has to do everything and not get hung up on hierarchy because it is the only way to get everything done (and when you are at the stage when you're under 10 people, you better be busy as hell or it means you're not growing enough). And I am also fine with "workers' self management" as far as it goes, especially if it involves the people who do the work getting the profits, rather than taking on huge debts and/or selling all the equity to a bunch of VCs who then ride you into the ground. But the specialization of labor, allocating different tasks to different people, is the very purpose of creating a company in the first place, and once you do that you are going to need a layer of coordination, i.e., management.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 5:37 PM on March 6 [39 favorites]


Isn't this basically how a collective works? It's not mentioned in the article.
posted by Room 641-A at 5:38 PM on March 6 [1 favorite]


I used to have to hash things out with salespeople all the time. Now, I almost never communicate with our sales division. Good managers are awesome.
posted by koeselitz at 5:38 PM on March 6 [5 favorites]


Yes, Joey Buttafoucault, let's take it to the extreme and apply it to all businesses everywhere.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 5:39 PM on March 6 [2 favorites]


My main tenet as an owner is to treat other people like I want to be treated. We look at our employees as adults. The basic premise is we all should be able to make adult decisions and take care of ourselves. Everything comes from there pretty easily.

LOL!

As if anything dysfunctional is childish, and adulthood= everyone gets on with everyone with no politics or conflict or clashing interests
posted by Bwithh at 5:39 PM on March 6 [7 favorites]


Treehouse is a software company, so Joey Buttafoucault's experience is relevant. I'd concur with him, too: having had ineffective managers, such that I effectively had no management, I can say with certain that it is terrible. When you have a job that requires deep concentration and flow, having to do everything is horrific.
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:41 PM on March 6 [12 favorites]


you better be busy as hell or it means you're not growing enough)

Yeah I'm kind of curious about how investors respond to Treehouse's 4 day workweek policy too
posted by Bwithh at 5:41 PM on March 6 [1 favorite]


As if anything dysfunctional is childish, and adulthood= everyone gets on with everyone with no politics or conflict or clashing interests

Yes. When I was learning Go, one of my teachers told me: if it feels like the game is going easily, you are losing. An equivalent saying that my grandpa used was, "The man who thinks every man is his friend has no friends." Basically, if everything seems hunky-dory and free of conflict, you're probably not looking out for yourself enough.
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:43 PM on March 6 [12 favorites]


Awesome, thank you paleyellowwithorange and anyone posting relevant links! I love this!
posted by jeffburdges at 5:44 PM on March 6


I know someone who worked at a place that transitioned to a supposedly horizontal structure like this. He said that the upshot was more work and no room for advancement (title or salary wise). Sounded really lame.
posted by yarly at 5:49 PM on March 6 [3 favorites]


I think sometimes it turns into a "if by management, you mean..." problem. It's hip to envision a place in which every day is like a barn-raising, and for certain types of companies, something close to this works. Meaning that teams are flexible and hierarchy is not strictly enforced - the leaders are willing to listen to, and even follow, the experts regardless of rank. However, the fallacy is in thinking that managers/leaders are only there to police workers, to punish infractions, to keep people in line. I'm a manager, and I do extremely little of this. What I work on is helping to create processes so that for the most part people know what to do without having to wonder, and also help play traffic cop when the process breaks down or something comes up that isn't covered by it.

Any time I get into a situation where more than 2-3 people have to coordinate a set of tasks over any length of time, and no one steps forward to run that project, but rather everyone works off "consensus thinking," everything seems to go to hell, even if I like and trust everyone concerned. I'm a believer that if you hire the right people, they won't need babysitting, but everyone needs leadership.
posted by randomkeystrike at 5:50 PM on March 6 [17 favorites]


"4 day workweek" feels like it's kinda in tension with the company being "largely remote."
posted by Sauce Trough at 5:52 PM on March 6


I also don't like the "one strike and you're out" policy. I do like the idea of exposing everyone's salaries though.

Somewhat related (in terms of non-traditional business practices): a company that guarantees lifetime employment to their employees.
posted by triggerfinger at 5:55 PM on March 6 [1 favorite]


Do we really need? Pain hath no sting, and pleasure's wreath no flower.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:05 PM on March 6 [1 favorite]


I'm going to read the article, but before reading it, I am going to lay down a non-bet that this company outsources its janitorial work.

"We're all equal" is a lovely sentiment but it's hardly ever true. Some part of the company's functions are still being fulfilled by people who get paid poorly and treated with no respect and have no power, in almost every place that claims to have done this. It's just that those people are suddenly now contractors, not employees, and thus not even considered part of the team, when their work is in fact quite important to the actual vision of the company, which probably does not include getting ants.
posted by Sequence at 6:07 PM on March 6 [41 favorites]


One danger of a lack of management and structure - and this happens in all kinds of organizations - is that in the absence of official structure, you end up with ad-hoc structure where unofficial power structure means that it's harder to analyze and figure out what's working and what's not working.

This is laid out way better than I could say in Jo Freeman's The Tyranny of Structurelessness: "this apparent lack of structure too often disguised an informal, unacknowledged and unaccountable leadership that was all the more pernicious because its very existence was denied."
posted by rmd1023 at 6:08 PM on March 6 [25 favorites]


Of course we don't need any managers! I love the idea of doing all the hire/fire paperwork, contract review, IP diligence, benefits management, product strategy, and quality assurance IN ADDITION TO coding the product all day. That sounds fantastic why did no one think of that before??! Oh yeah, that's right, Google also "didn't have any managers" and had a nominally flat corporate structure until like 6 years ago when they realized that place was being run about as efficiently as the monkey house at the San Diego zoo (except with more poop-flinging).

Having no managers doesn't mean you don't have different departments. There are several manager-less companies with thousands of employees that are profitable, and with the advent of modern technology, there's even less reason to add a layer of hierarchy that does nothing but complicate and slow down decision making with their bias and political infighting.

In some systems, each department interacts though other departments through contracts. And just like contracts create a rigorous and defined interface between two companies -- when they are working together, and not suing each other -- these inter-departmental contracts allow each department to consider the costs of every input.

This method automatically professionalize every position. You are no longer showing up to give orders. You are showing up to fulfill your team's contract, which you voted on. So even if your job is to take care of the cleanliness of a facility, you get to decide the tools and the kind of investments that you use to get the job done. And you don't have to worry about a long-term manager still picking his friend's contract so they can drink bourbon together on the company dime. The typical excuses of management for wasting money disappear, because if you spend a time of your team's budget, everyone is going to see it.

In my opinion, hierarchy in any form is detrimental to the health and well being of any organization. Hierarchy can only represent and imbalance of power, and that imbalance of power will always lead to exploitation and corruption.

I have seen little startups and been near the sausage-making portions of some very, very large corporations. And the first thing I would do if you handed me any company is systematically eliminate management and replace their poor decision making with the more realistic expectations and plans of the people actually doing the work.
posted by deanklear at 6:10 PM on March 6 [15 favorites]


Er, to be clear, I'm talking about a risk of the tyranny of structurelessness - it can and has happened in all different kinds of organizations. There are some folks who manage it, but it can very easily run off the rails.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:16 PM on March 6


My co-founder

The premise of the article literally falls apart in the first two words. There are founders, they own the company. They are the bosses.

This seems like nothing but another cute little fake-progressive startup scum trick, like saying they have "unlimited vacation days" - which sounds great until you realize that vacation days are compensation which must be paid to you when they leave, and what your oh-so hip company has just done is cut your pay, while still leaving itself completely free to deny your vacation requests whenever it likes.
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:22 PM on March 6 [9 favorites]


Hmm... Thew thing that occurs to me is that a great deal of law regarding workplace policies, harrassment, etc are based on the idea of some amount of hierarchy. I'm curious whether this makes the company more or less exposed, if, say, one employee sexually harasses another.
posted by gryftir at 6:25 PM on March 6


ps

You have to have a communication tool like Flow and Convoy which are the two internal tools we built. Because you cannot do email. It just won’t work if you try to operate as normal with email.


The purpose of this article is actually snake-oil sales. They've created some products and are now out to convince people that email is somehow flawed and they should be buying their tools instead. Pure garbage.
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:26 PM on March 6 [5 favorites]


I'm sorry for my sarcastic comment above; that's not how I want to behave here on MetaFilter or elsewhere.

I greatly value some (but certainly not all!) of the managers in my large organization; these people are adept at what they do, and I'd be sorry to lose them from my workplace. Still, it's interesting to contemplate alternatives to the traditional ways of doing things, even if they aren't applicable universally. In my employment experience, a great deal of useless angst had been expended as a result of closed-mindedness to new alternatives.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 6:26 PM on March 6


This method automatically professionalize every position.

So... serious question, not snark: Are the places that do this well hiring only cleaning staff with college degrees (or at least some business skills to handle all that budgeting and such) and paying them all a comfortable living wage? I mean, I'm very fully in favor of the idea that the person scrubbing toilets should get treated as just as valuable as (and paid as well as) the person doing QA.

But, say, Valve's list of super-valuable people has only one janitor, and he quit his job to become a programmer. And I did go and look, after reading, and I see nobody at Treehouse who does cleaning, clerical work, building security, gardening, whatever. The low-level employees haven't been promoted compared to a traditional structure--they're just plain gone. But I'm sure there's still someone scrubbing the toilets and I'm sure it's not the founders, so I strongly suspect that it's still some lady with a Spanish surname who gets minimum wage to show up after everyone else has gone home, after they've all patted themselves on the back at how egalitarian they are.
posted by Sequence at 6:29 PM on March 6 [7 favorites]


now out to convince people that email is somehow flawed

I have no opinion about TFA, not having read it yet. But they don't actually need to do anything to convince people that email is somehow flawed: email is absolutely flawed. Actually, that doesn't even do it justice; email is absolutely and utterly fucked for getting things done in an organization.

(And they're not the only ones working on tools to replace email. There are a bunch of companies in that space right now. Because lots of people think that email is flawed.)
posted by asterix at 6:32 PM on March 6 [3 favorites]


Gandhi suggested that the people who use the toilets should be responsible for cleaning the toilets. Granted, he was addressing the caste system in India at the time; but I wouldn't mind pitching in to do the necessary cleaning at my workplace. Especially for office-based employment, it could be valuable physical exercise away from the office chair and PC.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 6:38 PM on March 6 [3 favorites]


Calvin and Hobbes - July 28, 1993
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:45 PM on March 6 [7 favorites]


This article kind of reminded me of this piece. Obviously there are managers, even in a supposedly "manager-less" company -- in this case there just aren't many middle managers. But there's no way on earth the founders are getting voted out the door by the employees. It also just seems really disingenuous to pretend that the founders and investors just care about the happiness and autonomy of their employees and nothing else. Yeah, that's a piece of the puzzle, but there are a lot of other less inspirational things going on like giving the suits who funded the startup their money back and then some.

Of course the flat management structure is basically a marketing/recruiting ploy (have you heard of Treehouse now? Mission accomplished) that will go out the window if the startup actually succeeds and grows any larger.
posted by leopard at 7:00 PM on March 6


Flat organizations, past a certain size, turn into a collection of fiefdoms.
posted by Mister_A at 7:06 PM on March 6 [5 favorites]


BUT reduction/elimination of the professional manager class is probably not a bad thing at some companies.
posted by Mister_A at 7:06 PM on March 6


I've been blessed with more good managers than bad ones. I now manage people and I've always tried to obey the golden rule in management. This kind of flat organisation would likely drive me mad as people failed to make a decision. I'm glad my managers are there to insulate me from aspects of the business that don't interest me.
posted by arcticseal at 7:06 PM on March 6 [1 favorite]


Okay, business school professor here, albeit one who studies entrepreneurs, but still probably part of the establishment machine - so take with a grain of salt.

So, I think managers are extremely under-rated, especially middle managers. Even in tech companies. In larger organizations, it turns out that there is a huge amount of tension between tactical and strategic goals. The people on the front line need resources and have plans, the head office has constraints and coordination problems. You can't balance these effectively without having people whose job it is to reconcile the two sides, even leaving aside division of labor.

The dismissing of middle managers is also detrimental to firm performance - good managers make a huge difference. In my research looking at $3B worth of PC game industry revenue, I found that the difference between who is middle manager at video game companies accounted for 22% of the variation in game performance, more than all other positions combined.
posted by blahblahblah at 7:08 PM on March 6 [23 favorites]


sonic meat machine: I'd concur with him, too: having had ineffective managers, such that I effectively had no management, I can say with certain that it is terrible.

Bad managers make more work, not less. It's not equivalent to no management at all, because a bad manager takes your time away from you, while increasing your duties/indicators, and instituting behaviours that are detrimental to workflow.

I know that in my small team, when I stopped 'managing' and we approached it as a team, everything went much more smoothly. Beyond anything else, there was a lot more clarity on 'shit to give to geek and she can work with it' and 'shit to give to geek to deal with' - there were things that I dealt with better because I was a professional (not a para-pro) and there was stuff that I had to deal with as the professional (not the most experienced). Getting some clarity between those two things meant not only did my team value me, they valued themselves because it wasn't about me being 'better' it was about skills and about how we interacted with a bigger hierarchy around us.

This was also the workplace where my supervisor described a negative incident requiring a talk with the director as a 'kicking' that she was now giving me and that I was then required to give my assistant (who had caused said incident) because 'that's how management works'. My desire to make sure said incident didn't happen again via changes in processes/assisting my assistant to put in place some processes in her work? Pfft. Give her a kicking, that'll work. It's worked so well every other time, right?
posted by geek anachronism at 7:27 PM on March 6 [1 favorite]


It's like no-one has ever heard of a co-op before, and everyone thinks that the very idea of a democratic and egalitarian (as opposed to autocratic and heirarchical) organization is some kind of wild and impossible fantasy rather than something that has been done successfully countless times throughout the entirety of human history. Bizarre.

I love you MetaFilter, but I don't always understand you.
posted by Scientist at 7:27 PM on March 6 [20 favorites]


It's like no-one has ever heard of a co-op before, and everyone thinks that the very idea of a democratic and egalitarian (as opposed to autocratic and heirarchical) organization is some kind of wild and impossible fantasy rather than something that has been done successfully countless times throughout the entirety of human history. Bizarre.

Who provides the seed capital for this democratic and egalitarian organization? Does everyone make an equal amount of money that they pay out of their own pockets as they are all equal partners in this venture? This particular startup has raised $12 million so far. Do you think that the providers of that money may have some sort of outsized role in making decisions about what the company should do? How easy is it for the founders to be overruled by the people they hired? One person, one vote?
posted by leopard at 7:37 PM on March 6 [2 favorites]


I do wish companies were encouraged to at least think about what management means rather than just having management positions in order to justify paying people more money for more experience. In my industry, if you spend 8ish years becoming a great consultant with the kind of experience that is basically unteachable, you are rewarded with a better title, more money, and spending a quarter to half of your time reviewing timesheets, plugging names into project plans, and putting together metrics for the CEO, while still trying to maintain 60-80% utilization (which is often dealt with by doing junior-level work at midnight because you don't have time to walk the junior-level staff through the task during business hours). It's bullshit, and now I understand why some of the best consultants in our little niche industry switch teams to sales where they can make bank for not doing the work but also not pulling imaginary features straight out their asses.

This is often a problem in software; your best minds are lost to budgeting and HR tasks and making pretty spreadsheets and hosting staff pep rallies. I mean, budgets need to be budgeted, and I guess spreadsheets gotta be spread, but there could be people doing that work who aren't the only ones in the company who know how to [do that really hard thing that a mid-level person is going to have to spend three sleepless nights teaching herself to do, poorly, by herself]. That's not a reward, and I am doing the opposite of leaning in so that I avoid getting rewarded, but it means I've had to carve a meandering and often-underpaid path through my career.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:49 PM on March 6 [4 favorites]


a democratic and egalitarian (as opposed to autocratic and heirarchical) organization

I think this is a false dichotomy. There are a lot of ways to build organizations, and the type of organization you build is heavily influenced by what the organization is trying to do, and the environment in which it operates.

All formal organizations have to solve three key problems:

Division of labor: Outside of a startup, no one person can do everything. So you need a way of figuring out who does what. Do you group activities by products or by customers? Do people specialize vertically or horizontally?

Coordination: How do you coordinate, and with whom, in order to make decisions? What is the approach to supervision, formal rules and procedures, plans and budgets, liaison roles, training, hiring etc? What are the boundaries of the organization, and what is done inside versus contracted out?

Decision rights: Who decides what happens? Are you centralized or decentralized? Who ‘specs’ new products, marketing or engineering? How do you avoid allocating decision right to myopic, self-interested parties?

There are lots of ways to solve these problems, including coops. Each has advantages and disadvantages associated with where and how they operate. A coop is great in some circumstances, but a bad way to run an oil company.

The result is that we have a lot of solutions to the problem, depending on circumstances, and these tend to be pretty efficient at what they do. The modern diversified organization is often called the "M-form", and it grew out of the railroads of the 19th century, where many complicated moving parts had to be managed by many people. It turns out that the M-form dominated large corporations because it was more efficient, non-M-form companies underperformed.

And, by the way, you can be egalitarian and hierarchical, by, say, limiting the pay differences between top and bottom employees, including strong worker input, and so on. Formal organization !=capitalist nightmare. That doesn't mean there isn't a better way, but anyone who just says "we don't need managers" will still need to figure out how to efficiently solve these problems.
posted by blahblahblah at 7:57 PM on March 6 [16 favorites]


Hiring managers is the hardest HR challenge I have with 50+ staff split into small teams. I just fired my most senior manager because he wasn't adding any value and was basically riding on the competence of the team managers. Replacing him is a challenge because of the local job market where senior staff who are competent are very sought after. But for middle managers - such a difference when the middle manager is good. I've got three who are just so so good at co-ordinating complicated schedules with multiple teams, both in planning and responding, and the difference in Getting Stuff Done is huge compared to the other okay managers. They earn their salary by improving the program's efficiency and keeping staff turnover low.

And a big part of being a good manager is recognising people's limits and flaws. I like the idea that everyone can be in charge and work together as a team, but not all your staff are going to be competent and good people. You can try to hire the best and you can work intensively with them or adjust your work around them - I had one staff who was great at a few specific things but literally refused to speak to other departments, and we designed a job around her strengths, and another similar case where we are doing a department transfer but the same jerkiness means I will probably have to fire the guy in a month if this doesn't work out.

All this flat management - who is identifying and training, transferring or firing the people who aren't able to do their work then? It can't be purely by popular votes, because office friendships mean people will try to cover for incompetence or bad fits or mistakes.

And what about the actual class/gender stuff? Who's enforcing no harassment, no gender preferences, and so on? Or are all these people just miraculously People with No Biases? A big chunk of my work is looking for jerk behaviour at work and training people out of it and actively preventing it, and my staff are mostly really good people. Offices I've worked at have always had jerks and straight out weirdos, and management was who dealt with them so the rest of us could focus on our actual work.

We actually work a lot like the company named - teams and lots of shared decision making. But someone has to do the power/boss stuff. 99% of my team would rather scrub the bathroom than have to fire staff or enforce leave policies (No, you cannot take two weeks off last minute and shut down your department) or any of the other negatives because it sucks. Deciding on budgets is pleasant, cutting budgets, watch the room clear.
posted by kittypaw at 8:08 PM on March 6 [6 favorites]


How does all the boring work get done?

I once worked at a job where I went out of my way to take all of the boring work and I made it my own. It was the stuff that other people groaned about when they had to do it and my bosses noticed that I liked doing it so they let me do ALL the work that my colleagues bitched about. It was the happiest 2 years I've ever had working for someone else. Then one day people starting bitching that I was taking all the good work because I made the boring work look good. Before you know it I was under fire by my colleagues and bosses and it led to me leaving and starting my own business where these days I do some fun stuff but by and large it's the same kind of boring stuff I used to do. Those same people now tell me how lucky I am to be my own boss and how they're envious of the work I do. It's ridiculous. The opportunities are right in front of them but they keep waiting for the sexy high profile stuff instead of just taking what's in front of them and making it rock.

As for the no management thing, it's really a no-brainier if you've ever worked in a company with lots of middle management. I believe you need a few people to steer the ship at the top but middle management is where good ideas and creativity go to die.
posted by photoslob at 8:08 PM on March 6 [8 favorites]


If the basic ethos of a company (or any human organization for that matter) is "love it or leave it," I think it is safe to say not all is well with that company.
posted by borges at 8:09 PM on March 6 [1 favorite]


Impact of Management on firm productivity in India was a much talked about study that seemed to show that middle management increased productivity.
posted by kittypaw at 8:09 PM on March 6 [1 favorite]


For the record, I manage 8 people in our office and I make sure I take turns doing the dishes and the other clean up stuff. Setting an example of how to be courteous to others by keeping the place clean is also part of my job.

My ambition is totally to develop a self-managing group and then bugger off and do it again somewhere else.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:15 PM on March 6 [6 favorites]


In my best job ever, some of the best managers ever put me underneath a co-worker they hated, just so they could fire him. I quit. My boss' boss' boss asked me why I was quitting and what it would take to win me back. I really respected her, so I said, "I bought a house a state away, and got a job in that same state, even tho my commute is worse if you measure it, but you won't." I didn't say, "Next time, just demote the guy to an engineer and leave me out of it. Yes, I do the work of half the department. Yes, he's realized I was the one who caused his old division to disappear, leaving him a manager rather than a division head when I did all of his team's work as well as my own. I've never been written up once in my professional life, and once he did it, I was GONE."

So, even the best managers are still managers.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:33 PM on March 6 [1 favorite]


And the first thing I would do if you handed me any company is systematically eliminate management and replace their poor decision making with the more realistic expectations and plans of the people actually doing the work.

How often is it so binary, though? I am a person who is "actually doing the work," but at the same time I am a manager who supervises staff. The people above me do managerial tasks but also do output-work also. The same is true with the companies I deal with as well -- I don't actually interact with any purely deadweight managerial types that I can think of.

And having said that, I'd also say that of the work I do, the managerial work is the most valuable. Sure, I can produce X amount of practical work in a day. Or, in the same time, I can help my staff and coworkers find smarter solutions and get way more done. Not everyone seems to have that ability to see the larger picture and find efficiencies and opportunities -- it's a needed competency, whether or not you use the term "manager."
posted by Dip Flash at 8:51 PM on March 6


I mean, budgets need to be budgeted, and I guess spreadsheets gotta be spread, but there could be people doing that work who aren't the only ones in the company who know how to [do that really hard thing that a mid-level person is going to have to spend three sleepless nights teaching herself to do, poorly, by herself].

So it sounds like what you want is some sort of person, whose job it is, to ... humm ... manage all of that stuff. So that the specialist people could keep doing their jobs.

I wonder what you'd call such a person, if they existed?
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:34 PM on March 6 [2 favorites]


Part of the terminological issue we have here is that decision-making, leadership and administration are usually all part of what we understand a manager to be, yet those roles can be split out into different people and indeed groups of people. We need management, but whether we need an ever-more authoritative hierarchy of people who unite those functions is a different question.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:47 PM on March 6 [6 favorites]


Also, I don't see the practises outlined in TFA scaling beyond the Dunbar number. There are many possible structures other than a trad line managed company, but problems of co-ordination need to be solved somehow.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:52 PM on March 6 [1 favorite]


I mean, I'm very fully in favor of the idea that the person scrubbing toilets should get treated as just as valuable as (and paid as well as) the person doing QA.

I agree, but only because there is far less difference between these two jobs than one might think.
posted by MrBadExample at 9:54 PM on March 6 [5 favorites]


Are you familiar with the concept of “Dunbar’s Number?” It’s the amount of people supposedly we can keep a relationship with. People theorize it is anywhere between 120-150.

This works for me as one in an occupation which is probably not of much interest to those on the thread. I'm not a businessman, a start-up guy, a tech worker…I'm a teacher. In some of my best years, I had about 120 students. I got to know each student and their strengths and weaknesses in their skill set, especially, given that I teach English, in the sets of critical thinking, close reading, and strong writing. When I have 170 or so students (like now), some of them - their thinking model, their family circumstances - well, it falls through the cracks in the folds of my brain. I can't keep 175 stories straight in my mind.

By the way, schools larger than micro-schools (pick your own number) need managers, in my opinion. I guess a school's management team (principal, any number of assistant principals/deans) is necessary to provide a humane environment for the staff and students in the face of an uncomfortably powerful and numerically centered Downtown Administration. Someone also needs to make teachers feel valued, important considering our culture's present guilty-until-proven innocent attitude towards members of our profession. We need managers. Plus, I couldn't handle scheduling worth shit.
posted by kozad at 9:55 PM on March 6 [1 favorite]


I have to chime in since I have some experience with this. I've worked with large companies with many layers of management, and I've worked for small startups where, as Joey Buttafoucault mentions, everyone has to do everything because there just aren't enough people.

And let me tell you, I really, really, hated the former and loved the latter.

Then somehow I ended up working for a very large company, where our particular group has an entirely flat organization. It is a reasonably large, multinational group. When I was first hired, I went to the corporate web site to figure out who I worked for. It showed the VP. "What the heck?" I wondered. Then I noticed that everyone in the building worked for the VP. There were zero middle managers.

This isn't a marketing ploy, since it is pretty much hidden from the world, even the rest of the company. But it really works, and I really enjoy it.

rmd1023 mentions Jo Freeman's The Tyranny of Structurelessness how there is a disguised informal unacknowledged leadership. But in our case this is all true except for the 'disguised unacknowledged' part. People develop areas of expertise and others learn to respect it. Some are better in certain types of leadership and others as followers, and they naturally form into the required elements for any project that comes up. People develop reputations that others respect. But because it isn't formal, it is a heck of a lot more flexible and there is zero red tape. To a certain extent everyone becomes leaders in whatever area they are particularly good at and enjoy. And everyone is responsible for all parts of the project they are working on so all the boring stuff gets done (kind of like the household chores concept scose mentions.)

One thing I think makes it work in our case is a very strong Steve Jobs type leadership, but without the micromanagement. If something goes wrong or doesn't get done in a project, and you are responsible, you will become noticed, probably first by the informal leaders around you, then ultimately by the one layer of management above you (the VP). Having a strong personality in this position keeps everyone in line.

Another way to think of it is the spin-out startups that companies like Cisco creates, that they later spin back into the company. As mentioned, as a startup, it has to be a flat orgainzation, yet it ultimately is part of a much bigger company. There's a reason that much of the innovation occurs in these spin-outs. I think that ultimately many layers of management and bureaucracy and red tape is stifling.

I very much disagree with anyone here extolling the virtues of middle management.
posted by eye of newt at 10:05 PM on March 6 [11 favorites]


Worker Co-ops can have managers.. The difference between a coop and a company with flat hierarchy is in the coop the workers are the owner and share the profit... A big motivator for being involved in decisions.
In some coops management duties rotate but in others it operates much like traditional business, except the shareholders work there.

I always find the no-bosses rhetoric in a normal business odd... If we're all equal I want to be an owner !

CBC radio just featured a story about a Toronto company describes as a halocracy and I had a similar response.
posted by chapps at 10:57 PM on March 6 [1 favorite]


This really depends on size. I worked for a company with 100,000 employees. Not having managers would have been completely unworkable there.

Now I work at a company with 300 employees. We have managers, some of which seem to be quite unnecessary. But some if these managers are indeed valuable because they ARE leaders and they especially excel at Getting Shit Done which is harder than it should be most of the time.

If your manager is basically just Human Email, then yeah that's ridiculous. I work with a team that has a manager like that. They are inefficient and have high turnover. My team, on the other hand, has a manager who not only gets in the weeds when needed, but spends the rest of his time advocating for his people, fighting battles that nobody else wants to fight, and leveraging every angle he can to meet project objectives on time and under budget.

It's highly valuable and I can't imagine trying to do my job without it, or doing all that unquantifiable stuff on top of my actual work. If that happened I would likely quit.
posted by Doleful Creature at 11:27 PM on March 6 [2 favorites]


The HR-ish blog Flip Chart Fairy Tales has some interesting posts on Hierarchy:
There has been a lot of excitement about Zappos new hierarchy free, self-organising, boss-less organisation. The holocracy, as it’s known, is all very zeitgeisty. My Twitter timeline is full of articles about smashing corporate hierarchies and getting rid of executives...

Look a bit more closely, though, and the ‘death of hierarchy’ claims are overblown. Here’s Steve Denning at Forbes:
The first nonsense in this discussion is the notion that holacracy is non-hierachical. Holacracy, a management practice developed by the entrepreneur, Brian Robertson, in his firm Ternary Software and introduced to the world in a 2007 article, puts a lot of emphasis on consensual, democratic decision-making and getting everyone’s opinion. At the same time, holacracy is explicitly and strongly hierarchical. If you read the introductory article or the Holacracy Constitution 4.0 (2013), you will see that holacracy is hierarchy on steroids: the hierarchy is spelled out in more detail than in any conventional organization you have ever seen.

Basically, in holacracy, there is a hierarchy of circles, which are to be run according to detailed democratic procedures. At the same time, each circle operates within the hierarchy. Each higher circle tells its lower circle (or circles), what its purpose is and what is expected of it. It can do anything to the lower circle—change it, re-staff it, abolish it—if it doesn’t perform according to the higher circle’s expectations...
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:55 AM on March 7 [5 favorites]


A lot of questions about boring jobs. There are no boring jobs, only inflexible, underpaid jobs.

I cite my own case. In my spare time I study economics and ancient history, and sometimes paint and program stuff. So I like stimulation as much as the next person. But my day job (actually night job) is stacking shelves. Past shelf stacking jobs were as mindless and frustrating as you can imagine, but this current one is well paid and crucially they treat us with respect and give freedom. It's "this is the objective, see you in nine hours". There's enough choice and flexibility to not get boring, and I can let my mind wander and plan my free time.

Craftsmanship is possible in any job. Its just a matter of job design and respect.
posted by EnterTheStory at 2:16 AM on March 7 [6 favorites]


Also I'm reminded of this bit from Louis L'Amour's autobiography, "Education of a Wandering Man":
They put a number of us to digging holes four feet square and down to hardpan for concrete piers to support a building soon to be erected. There were at least a dozen of us on the job and the ground was partly frozen. After we got down a short distance, water had to be bailed out, so progress was slow. There was a husky young German, a couple of years older than I, and we got into a contest to make the work more fun. The average was two and a half holes per day, while several were doing three. The German and I were doing four holes a day apiece.

Our boss was an easygoing Irishman who saw what was going on and wisely stayed out of it, but the management in its wisdom decided he was not gung-ho enough as a boss and brought in a new man.

Knowing nothing of any of us, he came suddenly into the area and found the German and me leaning on our shovels, having just finished our second holes for the day, while nobody else had finished one. He promptly fired both of us for loafing, along with another chap who had been doing three holes a day. In his first day on the job he had fired his three best men.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 2:56 AM on March 7 [9 favorites]


It's like no-one has ever heard of a co-op before, and everyone thinks that the very idea of a democratic and egalitarian (as opposed to autocratic and heirarchical) organization is some kind of wild and impossible fantasy rather than something that has been done successfully countless times throughout the entirety of human history. Bizarre.

Yeah, it's very strange. There are plenty of different kinds of cooperative and they generally do actually work. And software might well help with that, although there are obviously complications depending on the size and purpose of the company. Seeing people act as if they are unthinkable is a bit like someone reacting by saying "Voting for your leaders? No state religion? Then who will ensure that society is Godly and devout? Hah! I'faith, 'tis utterly absurd to contemplate. There must always be someone to do the truly hard and complex work, which is of leadership."

We really need to rethink the basis of company law and company structures, because they are clearly garbled and stupid and only work to create an inefficient and inequitable oligarchy. Acting as if any change at all will instantly precipitate a worse state of affairs, or as if the people proposing these changes are too stupid to have realised that maybe organisation and administration are important, is just incredibly boring and leads to having the same conversation over and over again.

Some content:
- The Democracy at Work project
- Richard Wolff, an American economist who heavily promotes cooperatives
- Mondragon corporation in Spain, a long-standing worker self-directed enterprise
- The Campaign for UK Cooperatives
posted by lucien_reeve at 3:59 AM on March 7 [7 favorites]


This has been a fascinating conversation to read. More enlightening than the actual article per se.
posted by infini at 5:09 AM on March 7 [3 favorites]


The dismissing of middle managers is also detrimental to firm performance - good managers make a huge difference. In my research looking at $3B worth of PC game industry revenue, I found that the difference between who is middle manager at video game companies accounted for 22% of the variation in game performance, more than all other positions combined.

And let me guess: you didn't ask a single person in any company how satisfied they were with their lives or with their management, or compare the hours worked per person in these firms. Examining a capitalist enterprise for how well it crushes people to benefit the hierarchy and giving it approval for doing so isn't much different from taking an uncritical look at feudalism and declaring success as long as the lord is fat and happy.

Other thoughts: did you consider that comparing larger firms -- who have been around longer, and have more IP and a larger customer base -- to smaller firms is going to make the ones stuffed with middle management look better, even though the luck of the draw with game titles probably has more to do with their success than anything else? If you didn't compare the management styles in similarly sized companies, in my opinion, you didn't research or discover anything other than those with a ton of money and industry connections make more money. That's one of the major reasons startups can still beat corporations: they are not saddled with the problems of petty middle management. I guarantee you there are people inside of Microsoft who saw the horrifying train wreck of Windows 8 and tried to stop it, but The Boss is Always Right, and the underlings are not allowed to speak out of turn. The efforts to market and sell Windows 8 and the Surface have lost billions, but it's still easy to make money when you can lose a bet on 10 digits and still win.
posted by deanklear at 5:10 AM on March 7 [2 favorites]


Yeah. The flip side of Structurelessness is a structure so rigid that it breaks. Properly done, a big part of leadership is to be of service to the folks being led - both to enable them to get their stuff done, but also to make sure they're being heard. And that gets lost in things like a MSFT departmental reality distortion field. (I say this as a former msft fte - I've seen it in action. I think it's the corporate equivalent of "unskewed polls".)
posted by rmd1023 at 5:24 AM on March 7 [1 favorite]


deanklear - I don't think you actually need to take such a hostile tone, but I think your points are good ones. I should also point out that most business school academics, at least in the sub-fields I am in, have strong concerns about fairness, equality, and happiness. You shouldn't assume we don't care about workers, don't study critical theory, or are just corporate shills where profit is the only driver. Okay, on to your points:

And let me guess: you didn't ask a single person in any company how satisfied they were with their lives or with their management, or compare the hours worked per person in these firms. Examining a capitalist enterprise for how well it crushes people to benefit the hierarchy and giving it approval for doing so isn't much different from taking an uncritical look at feudalism and declaring success as long as the lord is fat and happy.

I totally agree with this concern, though I did not ignore the problem as you suggest. While I did not attempt to quantify satisfaction in these studies, I did both do tons of interviews with employees and also quantitatively looked at people as they moved across firms. The interviews suggested that good managers are generally less extractive and make employees happier. They also take their skills across firms, suggesting that even in other firm environments (with different hours, ways of doing things, etc.), good management skill retains its ability to motivate. With white collar and creative work, which is what the study was about, all evidence is that affect and work experience have huge outcomes on success. You can't just yell at everyone to "type faster" or "think harder" and get good results.

Other thoughts: did you consider that comparing larger firms -- who have been around longer, and have more IP and a larger customer base -- to smaller firms is going to make the ones stuffed with middle management look better

Yes, of course. I controlled for firm size, firm age, number of employees, and all of that other stuff.

Overall, I want to again say that everyone has had bad managers (I wasn't always an academic, either!), and there is a difference between bad managers versus bad firms versus "all management is bad." All the evidence shows that practices that involve more employee engagement, where there is a sense of justice and equality, and where employees have choice over their own situation do better. We need to teach managers and companies that this stuff actually matters, both because it is the right thing to do, and because it actually helps them succeed.
posted by blahblahblah at 6:03 AM on March 7 [13 favorites]


Human nature gets around systems -- descriptions change , titles change, buzzwords change. Good employees can thrive in any system, bad ones can manipulate any system once they break its code, and the mediocre ones will use any system as an excuse for being mediocre.

People are highly adaptable creatures who can go through peace, war, anarchy, monarchy, democracy, socialism, prosperity, recession, and depression and there will never be a shortage of meddlers trying to sell you snake oil that System A is now broken beyond repair, but System B will change everything for the better.

Every system has problems. Deal with it.

If you want something to improve, change yourself first and stop trying to think up new excuses -- you aren't fooling anybody with at least one functioning neuron...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 6:17 AM on March 7


Can anyone suggest collaborative solutions like the Flow software solution used by Treehouse. The company I'm employed at definitely suffers from organizing through email-hell.
In this small business, family-owned working environment, there is a lot of care and attention given to workers at all levels yet the underlying managerial format is based on hierarchies and titles. It's easy enough to see how projects and initiatives disappear as the managers are single sources of control, communication and understanding. You can see how workers, absent the managers, tend to self-organize, start creating solutions and taking on responsibilities.
In the presence, of managers, many or most decisions are kicked up the chain of command where one person is needed to make a decision which ends up being some version of their skill set rather than an organically evolved solution by the people who are actually closest to the problem or need. Just an observation that managers have a definite self-interest in maintaining the status quo as they would have to justify their roles in the flat hierarchy workplace which would be largely subsumed by individual and group initiatives, projects and contracts.
I wonder if any hybrid organizations exist that try to meld the better aspects of the flat organization and the hierarchically organized one?
posted by diode at 6:30 AM on March 7 [2 favorites]


We need managers, just nowhere near as many. Too many middle-management jobs are there purely to provide artificial "career progression" - a fact business axemen know well, and demonstrate consistently when times get tough and the axe has to swing.
posted by Decani at 7:00 AM on March 7


"We look at our employees as adults."

Which is fine, if they are.
posted by kjs3 at 7:41 AM on March 7 [1 favorite]


It's always a mistake to isolate one practice from one organization and imagine it perfectly fitting into another. Organizations are cultures and every culture is unique, even ones that use the same methods.

There are a growing number of companies, including Treehouse, that:

- Minimize the importance of hierarchy
- Encourage remote / distributed work
- Avoid email in favor of chat/blog/IM
- Allow employees to release work to the world regularly /daily
- Have open vacation policies

Github, Automattic (WordPress.com) and dozens of other companies check off many items from this list. Many but not all of them are software companies.

In isolation these things policies are unusual and to cherry pick one and expect it to work in a traditional company with a traditional culture is a mistake. The "that would never work here" response is natural, but loses the real question: is anything working well where you are working? Most of our assumptions about workplaces are decades old and were never grounded in science or reason to begin with (dress codes, 9 to 5 working hours, evaluation based on hours not output, etc.)

But if the list about were in an organization early enough it dramatically changed the types of people who were hired and their expectations of each other and "management".

I was fascinated enough about this trend that I spent a year working for WordPress.com to find out for myself how all this worked, or didn't, and I wrote a popular book about it.

To cut to the chase I found the experience mostly wonderful. Most of the items in the checklist reflected the generous attitude from the founders of WordPress.com to their employees - the attitude was "we hired you, which means you are talented and an adult, we will mostly get out of your way" which was exactly how I always preferred to be managed. This isn't for everyone, but the genuine attitude of enabling employees to decide for themselves how best to work (an attribute of most companies that depend heavily on remote workers) made the traditions of most workplaces seem infantilizing by comparison.

I left that experience extremely suspicious of the founding assumptions of most workplaces and with deep judgement of managers and leaders who aren't actively experimenting with how to lead, manage, hire, and reward. Nothing will work everywhere, but in many workplaces nothing is working well and the status quo is shameful.
posted by Berkun at 8:18 AM on March 7 [6 favorites]


Interestingly, Certified Genius Scott Adams has been lately devoting his Dilbert comic to a takedown of Holacracy, which is another system for distributing decision making authority throughout an organization.
posted by tommasz at 8:35 AM on March 7


Responding to a couple of points from kittypaw's comment:

All this flat management - who is identifying and training, transferring or firing the people who aren't able to do their work then? It can't be purely by popular votes, because office friendships mean people will try to cover for incompetence or bad fits or mistakes.

People generally have a pretty good sense of whether a particular coworker is able to do their work and whether they're pulling their weight. They can handle the tasks you mention perfectly well when they have a genuine investment in the organization and the autonomy to actually make those decisions together. Office politics can be a problem, but managers can have favorites too. If you need an impartial look at something, pull in someone from another team as part of the process.

And what about the actual class/gender stuff? Who's enforcing no harassment, no gender preferences, and so on?

There's nothing preventing a flat organization from having someone to handle harassment. If anything, it might be better to have that as a designated, specialized role, rather than just subsuming it into the many functions of the manager.

We actually work a lot like the company named - teams and lots of shared decision making. But someone has to do the power/boss stuff. 99% of my team would rather scrub the bathroom than have to fire staff or enforce leave policies (No, you cannot take two weeks off last minute and shut down your department) or any of the other negatives because it sucks. Deciding on budgets is pleasant, cutting budgets, watch the room clear.

Sure, most people don't want to do that stuff. But in your organization, most people don't have to; they defer it to management. Again, it comes down to investment and autonomy: if something has to get done, and people are genuinely committed to the organization and empowered to take action themselves, they will take care of it. At least, that's been my experience in multiple non-hierarchical groups.
posted by twirlip at 8:57 AM on March 7 [3 favorites]


Just a bit of anecdata - I applied for a position at Treehouse, got "We'll be in touch as soon as we've had a chance to review your application." and then haven't heard from them for over a month now. I didn't chase them down because I was in serious talks with a couple of other companies (and signed with one), but on seeing this post, I did think it was kind of funny that getting back to candidates seems to be one of those things that can fall through the cracks without a manager.

That said, though, I do think a managerless company is viable and preferable to a company with anything other than stellar management. I'd rather deal with the hidden hierarchy, than both the de facto and de jure hierarchies, and I'd rather do the work myself than rely on people who can't seem to coordinate with each other.

The very worst sort of manager is the one who is always communicating upwards in the hierarchy and rarely listening downwards. Those people can sink great companies, and I sooner get rid of them without replacement than leave them in place to fester.
posted by bashos_frog at 9:40 AM on March 7 [1 favorite]


There are always managers. You may not call them that, but there are always people who, in the absence of leadership, will step up and do what's necessary. If everyone's in charge, no one's in charge.
posted by Kokopuff at 9:56 AM on March 7


> but there are always people who, in the absence of leadership, will step up and do what's necessary.

That's fine and good, but what we don't need is to have those particular people be given special privileges and extra pay and be allowed to shape the organization around them largely for their own protection and benefit, which is what modern corporate culture does.
posted by Space Coyote at 11:36 AM on March 7 [2 favorites]


A good manager (or management structure) takes care of bullshit so I can concentrate on the stuff I'm paid to do.

A bad manager (or management structure) generates bullshit that distracts me from the stuff I'm paid to do.
posted by Foosnark at 12:56 PM on March 7 [4 favorites]


One issue is that when you don't have people who are anointed to be the official-unpopular-decision-makers, the people who do make unpopular decisions then become targets. This is a problem in badly managed organizations, too, but it's also often correctable with a few management changes. Let's say that there's a really annoying guy who tries to flirt with all his female coworkers, but women are less than 10% of the team. He's well-liked by the men. In a functioning organization, the manager will hear the complaint of the women, reprimand him in private, and that's the end of it; if it isn't, the manager can fire him with cause. The weight of the organization is behind him.

Without managers, this becomes "that's just the way it is," "he is harmless," "he's really a great guy, you should get to know him," and so on. The old, stupid social consensus.

Without managers, there's no one to say: "This project is useless, will never pay dividends, and is vastly behind schedule. We're shitcanning it." Instead, you'd have a dogfight as the people who have it as their pet project try to save it. It'd lead to horrible factionalism. (There are politics and factionalism in management now, of course, but it can be managed. Good luck managing the egos of the team who lost their pet project when everyone is "equal.")
posted by sonic meat machine at 12:58 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]


Without managers, the women would be free to refuse to work with the annoying guy, and to say why. If they all did, the problem would be so obvious as to remove the need for private reprimands. The rest of the team could decide whether the ostracism was enough, or if they just wanted him gone.

Without managers, no one would decide to work on the useless project, and it would die of starvation. If it was someone's pet project and they refused to give it up, it would soon be apparent to the rest of the company that the person/team working on it was producing no value and they would be pressured to drop it or move on.
posted by bashos_frog at 7:38 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]


Now this is starting to sound like garden-variety libertarianism. "Without government, we wouldn't have any of these problems, they would just magically go away on their own." People in workplaces have to deal with conflicting incentives, incomplete information, and the reality of scarce resources whether or not there are middle managers around. This is not to say that every corporation is magically run in an optimal way, but middle management exists for a reason. I also don't understand these comments that everyone knows exactly how productive everyone else is, most people are completely unqualified to pass judgment on most of their coworkers. Typically the best judge of how someone is performing is their boss.
posted by leopard at 8:06 PM on March 7 [2 favorites]


The best judge of someone is the person that requires daily and weekly status reports just to know what they are doing? I don't think so.

I think the disconnect here is there are some people who have worked on teams made up of all A players, who know that A players can manage themselves and their projects just fine without help. There are others who have always seen B and C players on teams, and know that they need babysitting and traffic control just to maintain any sort of productive environment. Both camps are right.

Basically it comes down to hiring the right people and getting out of the way, or hiring the first available people and actively managing them.

One more data point - Valve, with it's no-bosses approach, has the highest profitability per employee of any company. A lack of middle management is not hurting them. They're not without issues, as the firing of 25 people indicates, but I worked at a similar sized (~360) company with 4 levels of management between me and the CEO. They were not profitable yet, and for me, it was a toxic culture of meetings, TPS reports, substandard work product and copious politics.
posted by bashos_frog at 9:19 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]


I don't necessarily think that managers are the best judges of how someone is doing (they're certainly not for programmers), but they are the best collators of peer assessment, because their ego is not involved in the assessment.

I think the disconnect here is there are some people who have worked on teams made up of all A players, who know that A players can manage themselves and their projects just fine without help. There are others who have always seen B and C players on teams, and know that they need babysitting and traffic control just to maintain any sort of productive environment. Both camps are right.

I think even teams made of "A players" can benefit from management, because there are times when different groups have different priorities, and you need someone to make the call for prioritization. If you are completely in a silo, with no external dependencies or shared resources, fine, but if multiple groups are trying to share a scarce resource, conflict develops.

One more data point - Valve, with it's no-bosses approach, has the highest profitability per employee of any company. A lack of middle management is not hurting them.

They also, notably, don't do very much. Valve is in a unique position as the ultimate middle-man in the gaming industry. They single-handedly revolutionized content sales and distribution, and as such basically can sit on their pile of cash from the exploitation of their infrastructure. I'm not saying this is bad, but it's not something that can be used as a model for other companies; it's the classic first-mover problem.

I'll note that they do have a very serious problem, if you take their original "mission" into consideration: they can no longer deliver games. They're terrible at it. The last game of note that they released was Portal 2, going on three years ago.

Without managers, the women would be free to refuse to work with the annoying guy, and to say why. If they all did, the problem would be so obvious as to remove the need for private reprimands. The rest of the team could decide whether the ostracism was enough, or if they just wanted him gone.

This is not the way it would work in practice. In practice, the women would just be frozen out of the company because, as I said above, the harasser is well-liked by the men. This is not a hypothetical situation; it's exactly what happened in previous eras when there were no protective laws against sexual harassment, etc., and is the reason for those laws.
posted by sonic meat machine at 7:26 AM on March 8 [2 favorites]


There's never been an instance in a company with managers where a sexual harasser wasn't swiftly reprimanded, resolving the problem efficiently and painlessly. This is because managers, by virtue of being managers, are infallible dear leaders. The notion that people could ever make decisions for themselves, or elect representative leaders to make decisions on some issues, is a fantasy. It just can't happen. Mangers GET SHIT DONE, while workers are bumbling fools that need constantly to be coddled.
posted by MetalFingerz at 9:10 AM on March 8 [1 favorite]


That is a fallacious argument. You don't get to say "because sometimes it doesn't work, there is no advantage in having a manager." There are good managers, and bad managers, and sometimes there are bad outcomes in either scenario; but the probability of having a good outcome is significantly higher if there is a good manager.

Your tone is also pretty typical of the people who sink many projects. Get out of our way, people who are managing risk, taking care of the mundane, and planning, and let us get shit done! Never mind that in three months we'll have a software product that nobody in the real world actually wants to buy, and we've paid $70,000 in salary to our engineers for the privilege.
posted by sonic meat machine at 10:11 AM on March 8 [1 favorite]


The A/B/C talent thing is a red herring, as are dumb know-nothing bosses who need weekly updates.

Look, say you are the CEO of a large growing widget company with offices all over the country. You spend most of your time talking to investors and key suppliers and distributors. You also need to figure out which markets are the best targets for growth and come up with a good marketing strategy. Oh, and someone on your board mentioned that a lot of your competitors have been upgrading the technology behind their inventory systems and their sales monitoring systems and there are some potential efficiency gains to be found there.

So you decide to improve a couple of your IT systems. How are you going to go about doing this? Quite frankly the most obvious way to do this is to have somebody reporting to you who you hold accountable for getting stuff done. This person makes budget requests and manages your expectations and that's basically all your involvement. You trust him to take care of things and if things aren't working out you hold his feet to the fire.

Maybe you should get to know all the programmers personally and soak in this universal knowledge about which ones are really good at figuring out bugs. Or maybe you can just have a 5-minute conference call with your programming team and they'll just figure out what to do on their own because they're seasoned professionals and would never deliver a software product that wasn't the right solution for your business unless middle management got in the way. Or, I dunno, you're a pretty busy guy, all you want to do is give a 1-minute update to your investors next year that your tech systems are up to snuff, maybe you can make it somebody else's job and then give him the resources he needs to do the job you want (but not more -- which may be tricky, but maybe it's better for you to play this game with one guy instead of the entire tech staff individually).

Even if everyone is a super genius hardworking A talent, it's still hard to evaluate how much each person is contributing to the bottom line, especially when there are a variety of non-overlapping job functions. How are programmers supposed to evaluate marketers and vice versa? By the quality of happy hour conversations? As I said above, middle management exists for a reason.
posted by leopard at 11:19 AM on March 8 [1 favorite]


but the probability of having a good outcome is significantly higher if there is a good manager

Based on what, though? What's the incentive for a manager to upset the majority of his employees by firing one worker who a minority don't like? What's underlying your assumption that a "good" manager is going to make the decision to side with the small minority of workers?

Get out of our way, people who are managing risk, taking care of the mundane, and planning, and let us get shit done!

I don't think anyone's suggested that these roles can't or shouldn't exist, just that those performing them should be accountable to their peers.

Even if everyone is a super genius hardworking A talent, it's still hard to evaluate how much each person is contributing to the bottom line, especially when there are a variety of non-overlapping job functions. How are programmers supposed to evaluate marketers and vice versa?

Since it's hard to evaluate talent, it's best that that duty be performed by one person always?
posted by MetalFingerz at 1:41 PM on March 8 [1 favorite]


What's the incentive for a manager to upset the majority of his employees by firing one worker who a minority don't like?

The minority might be in the right, and the offence might be such that the person needs to be fired. The manager is a person who the harassed can go to in order to lodge a complaint, and trust that it will be dealt with fairly. If there is no person in this role, the only thing the harassed employee can do is reveal everything to the group. If she's less liked than the guy she's saying harassed her, there is no good outcome – not even an effective reprimand. She's just as likely to be completely ignored or to lose the respect of her coworkers.

In the best outcome, in fact, the harasser isn't even fired: the manager has a private conversation with him, he stops, and that's it. Who is supposed to do that, in the absence of a manager?

I don't think anyone's suggested that these roles can't or shouldn't exist, just that those performing them should be accountable to their peers.

The problem is that managing risk is sometimes a higher priority than the day-to-day battles that the workers might be fighting. Project A may have a huge potential for profitability and value; Project B may not. Project B gets canned. Suddenly, Tim, who created Project B and thought it was the bee's knees, is furious at whoever made the decision to kill his pet project. Fine. If it's a manager, Tim has some angst, the manager unruffles his feathers however might be appropriate, and life goes on. If it's not a manager who cans Tim's project, he'll view it as a "faction" being biased against him. Eric and Steve, those assholes, killed his project! Their project is still continuing! Obvious bias!

If everyone is a "peer" and nobody is empowered beyond that level, everything devolves into politics.
posted by sonic meat machine at 2:03 PM on March 8 [1 favorite]


Since it's hard to evaluate talent, it's best that that duty be performed by one person always?

Well, nothing is really stopping that one person from asking around and soliciting feedback from a number of people. On the other hand, if I have a marketing job, I really don't think the guys sitting at their computers all day should sit around and have a vote on whether I should be fired or not.
posted by leopard at 7:30 AM on March 9


In broad strokes, administration, management, etc. should be positions that collect services that independent workers might desire to make themselves more productive, but amalgamate these roles into a position of power. We should instead attempt to provide all these services via automated tools, wikification, etc.

As a class, software developers have done a relatively good job at limiting management's authority because they automate many related tasks. As an example, we could imagine addressing bugs through administrators who keep notes and help tell developers what to do, but instead software developers use bug tracking software keeps them in nice lists so that developers deal organize fixing them themselves.
posted by jeffburdges at 10:48 AM on March 9


Another model to consider is the professional partnership often used by engineers, accountants, lawyers, etc. In these kinds of firms, administration is a relatively lowly function and employees have high levels of autonomy. An interesting question is why this model can't be adapted to other areas.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:17 PM on March 9


i_am_joe's_spleen, as someone who's worked a fair bit with both accountants and lawyers, the thing is, that autonomy only tends to exist between people who are working on totally different clients. If I have my clients and you have your clients, you do your thing and I do my thing. If you have all the clients and I am helping you with work on your clients, I am totally expected to do what I'm told, and the sorts of people who make lots of money have generally come up through a structure that was a rigid and many-layered hierarchy, with the usual management woes.
posted by Sequence at 6:48 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]


... interesting question is why this model can't be adapted to other areas.


There are plenty of theories about why different orgs in different industries have different structures, levels of hierarchy, bureaucracy etc. One that is fairly illuminating is the Mintzberg Model.

It goes some way to making sense of why some people in some situations are saying "We don't really need managers at all" and others are saying "What? That's ridiculous."

Smallish orgs with highly skilled, highly motivated people, a strong culture and doing creative or innovative work are the most likely to do well with less in the way of overt management.

It's hard to imagine running an entire airline for example with minimal management. Though there could be some parts of even that kind of org that could be run as mostly self-managed teams.
posted by philipy at 12:40 PM on March 13 [5 favorites]


I am noticing a parallel with programming.

In programming a lot of times people want to identify something as a "Manager". More experienced programmers would tend to avoid that because "Manager" is seen as a vague concept. Good programming is about recognizing which component is responsible for what actions, and limiting those responsibilities. The naming should reflect those limited responsibilities with more specific things. nstead of having a "MemoryManager" you might have a "MemoryCache". Instead of having a "MessageManager" you might have a "MessageRouter". Using a more vague name inspires programming where the "Manager" component takes on more responsibility than necessary which is one thing that makes programs harder to understand.
posted by Green With You at 8:18 AM on March 14 [2 favorites]


It's hard to imagine running an entire airline for example with minimal management. Though there could be some parts of even that kind of org that could be run as mostly self-managed teams.--philipy

Interesting example, because I found this (pdf) case study that compares Southwest's flat management organization with American's. (Southwest's cross-functional teams give it the advantage).
posted by eye of newt at 9:04 AM on March 14 [2 favorites]


The Southwest case study describes something that is a long way from not having any management.

Btw Southwest is notable for having a very high profile leader who set out to build a particular culture. None of what is there just spontaneously emerged.
posted by philipy at 11:57 AM on March 14


No management at all? Spontaneously emerging flat management? Is this what people talk about? That seems like an academic exercise.

As I mentioned before, having experienced many layers of management and flat management (but, certainly not the lack of any management) I would hate that the advantages of the latter get overlooked by people discussing theoretical (and unusual, in the example of Treehouse) extremes.
posted by eye of newt at 7:52 PM on March 15


How many management jobs are there? How many people have any clue at all how to manage people? There's the problem.
posted by thelonius at 10:39 AM on March 17


Since when is dealing with a manager politics-free, safe, or trusting in any real sense?
posted by xammerboy at 4:14 PM on March 17 [1 favorite]


NY Times Magazine: Who Needs a Boss?
Arizmendi and its five sister bakeries in the Bay Area are worker-owned cooperatives, an age-old business model that has lately attracted renewed interest as a possible antidote to some of our most persistent economic ills. Most co-ops in the U.S. are smaller than Arizmendi, with around a dozen employees, but the largest, Cooperative Home Care Associates in the Bronx, has about 2,000. That’s hardly the organizational structure’s upper limit. In fact, Arizmendi was named for a Spanish priest and labor organizer in Basque country, José María Arizmendiarrieta. He founded what eventually became the Mondragon Corporation, now one of the region’s biggest employers, with more than 60,000 members and 14 billion euro in revenue. And it’s still a co-op.
Mondragon, they always bring up Mondragon.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:32 PM on March 25


Being employee-owned and being managerless are two different things. John Lewis, mentioned in the article, is employee-owned but has management and organizational structure not too dissimilar to other companies of the same size and sector.

Both things are interesting in their own right, but as you imply there aren't a lot of examples of big companies that pull either of them off. The same names always come up: Gore, John Lewis, Mondragon etc.

The question then has to be whether there is something super-special about those few example companies that could not work elsewhere, or is it simply that the way companies get created in our world tends not to lead them in that direction?

One thing to note is that a lot of the examples we have arose out of founders who had particular values and chose to give away ownership and/or control.

Arguably most companies don't end up like that not because it could never work but because founders are by default absolute legal owners and it's not in their self-interest to give away ownership to employees, so only a few exceptionally high-minded ones do that to any great extent.
posted by philipy at 10:49 AM on March 27 [1 favorite]


The elimination of management works in proportion to how feasible it is to eliminate specialization. If it's possible for every worker to be proficient in nearly every function at the company - which happens at some places - then it's relatively easy to eliminate management and let things work themselves out. But when specialization is necessary, people naturally break into groups, and the groups need intermediaries. The intermediaries are generally either subservient to or equal to the groups. That seems like the ideal of management to me.
posted by koeselitz at 2:44 AM on March 29


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