Last fall I wanted to get rid of teams and their managers at our IT department. I have talked about holacracy and #nomanagers. Unfortunately nobody followed through and nothing changed.
Holacracy in general is a new way of looking at the company structures and how it works. It tries to find ways for creative people, superstars and high performers to be more effective; to remove artificial boundaries and made up hierarchies. And while you may read a whole lot about it I just wanted to make a little step in Docplanner’s IT dept — remove teams and their team leaders.
I had no intentions to alter the company as a whole, to evangelise other departments and tell them how to do their work. I looked at what was happening in my room and decided that we needed that kind of change. At the time we were about 10-11 developers including the head of IT, and we were divided into 4-ish teams (I say 4-ish because there was two two-person teams, so that hardly counts).
What was wrong with that setting
- It created divisions between people (and it still creates them to this day). Suddenly someone became a team leader, not just a friend from the next desk. All of the managers surely may have earned a lot of respect amongst us all, but suddenly their role has changed. We weren’t sure if we could have a different opinion now. Or if it were appropriate to give remarks.
- Team leader’s tasks began to act as excuses. „Yeah, you’re right, we shouldn’t do this or that, but my manager said differently”. It was getting harder to use arguments in a discussion whit that kind of approach. Nobody taught any of us how to behave, so most of us assumed that they just have to follow orders. And this kills creativity and makes people stagnant.
- Teams were too small to be effective, and there were no rules for cross-team projects (it was a little awkward to work on those). We were lacking proper communication; and we weren’t thinking about our teams and structures. They just happened and we hoped they would work out of the box.
- I can’t say for others, but I haven’t really had any real control over my team. I was a manager but my hands were tied. I had to run almost every decision by my manager — I acted as a telegraph pole. And I had to enforce rules I didn’t fully understand.
What values did I try to introduce
I always wanted to work in a friendly environment. I can’t imagine having managers amongst friends. There are authorities. There are responsibilities for certain tasks or areas. But there is no artificial hierarchy. Naturally this was my goal here too.
- I wanted a flat structure — this is a great environment for creative professionals. They aren’t always playing nice when there’s an imposed structure and they have to answer to someone just because they have a certain job title.
- The roles would be fluent and change from project to project. This time you’re responsible for project management, but you’re only the engineer the other time. If it’s your idea, lead it. If it’s not, don’t force yourself on something you don’t feel or understand.
- There is a huge struggle between the maker’s schedule and the manager’s schedule. Today half of our team is involved in management this way or another and thus unable to focus on making stuff without neglecting their teams or projects. Yeah, I love to get in the zone when coding, but it’s impossible for a manager to phase out for a day or two without feedback.
- I felt that it would be better to create mentoring roles instead of manager roles.
- I needed all the „because they are a team leader” kind of arguments to stop. I value knowledge and good arguments highly and it’s impossible to get the best results with this kind of politics going on. I don’t care if it’s the fucking queen of England — if they’re trying to sell me bullshit I’m not buying it.
- I like to work with independent and versatile people. If you need management on this level I can’t enjoy making things with you. You won’t ever get to be a great manager if you’re being actively managed yourself. Discover your own path and make your own decisions. Take care of the things your manager would otherwise do for you yourself. And you have to leave your comfort zone if you want to progress.
What would change?
I proposed that I would step down as a team leader with the following effects:
- I would stop communicating messages from top to bottom — this is an artificial requirement. We are far to small to have vertical communication issues. Besides this would still be one of the responsibilities of our CTO.
- Settling disputes — I have the authority to settle disputes without a job title.
- Managing careers — I can only give advice, but my hands are tied otherwise. This would in fact open up a dialog and make the company more transparent in this matter. For more than a year now I stated that I’m not making any decisions regarding the structure or salary, etc, and directed people to our CTO instead.
- Keeping my team motivated and happy — I hardly think a decision-less manager can motivate people in any way to balance the frustration of themselves and their team
- Shielding their teams from things they didn’t think they needed to know — If we really needed to do this for some reason — I am to much of a babbler to do it anyway. :)
Unfortunately after I talked to my superior about this, the only conclusion coming out of this was that I needed to continue to oversee my teams projects statuses and summarise them at the end of the quarter. It seems like my arguments didn’t fall through.
So nothing really changed in the last year. At least not with alignment to my proposals. We have one more two person team… In fact we have three two person teams now. And that means that we have more managers than workers. We are yet to figure out our managing culture, but already promoting new managers — out of necessity, politics, personal deals or other reasons, but for sure not basing on authority or wisdom. We didn’t solve our long lasting problems. We didn’t even acknowledge them and now we’re introducing a new generation into the process.
And this leads to conflicts. Team leaders aren’t associated with authority any more — and if someone had little authority as a software engineer, they would most certainly lose all of it as a manager. In the end nothing is gained, but our professional culture is deteriorating. It kinda sucks.
Maybe I’m tired of running teams and this time it just doesn’t cut it for me. I personally don’t mind who's „in charge” and I’m currently trying to work with everyone across the board based on their merit. I try to act as if there were no teams and no one to lead them. I just hope that the new politics wouldn’t get in my way.
I’m planning to write more on software engineering culture I’m trying to build around me. I have a few topics in mind, for example I’d like to share more about my point of view on so-called A-players or high performers. In the meantime, here are some articles about #nomanagers at other companies:
- Show How, Don't Tell What - A Management Style — Ryan Tomayko of Github
- Holacracy at Zappos
- Why they removed bosses at Threehouse
- How Medium is building a New Kind of Company with No Managers
- How Github (no longer) Works — a nice writeup about current status of Github by Zach Holman