[This is part 5 of an 8 part series: The Barefoot Philosphy. It is based on my experiences as the founder of a business—Barefoot Software—which I ran for 12 years. Please start with the intro.]
Valve has a more colorful phrase for this: “Welcome to Flatland!”1 Either way, it amounts the same thing: there’s no real corporate structure, no titles, no heirarchy. No org chart.
For Barefoot, this was an oversimplification. The truth was, we had managers, just like anyplace else. But your position as a manager was on a given project. Today you might be a manager; tomorrow you might be back to a grunt coder, and the person you were managing yesterday is now your boss. Even more weirdly (well, it was weird for some people), you might be both a manager and a managee at the same time, if you were working on two projects at once (which happened sometimes). So we actually had titles, and positions, and structure; it was just fluid, and not really relevant in the bigger picture.
There are a hell of a lot of advantages to this approach (just as there are for the other cornerstones). For one thing, it gives people a chance to try out new things. Maybe you think you’d like to try your hand at project management. In a corporate system with a traditional org chart, you’d need to give up your current job and try out for a new one as a project manager, possibly in a whole different department, with a whole new boss, and all new politics to learn. At Barefoot, if you wanted to try out being a project manager, you just had to convince a self-forming team that you could handle the job, then you did it for one project. If you liked it, and were any good at it, it would be easy to convince the next team to let you do it again. If you didn’t like it, no worries: you never had to do it again.
It also further reinforces the theme of equality. There were many occasions when I was working right at the bottom rung of a project team. Sure, I was often the boss, but I was just as often (okay, almost as often) working for one of my employees. See, we’re all the same here.
In fact, our positions within the company were so fluid that we actively discouraged nesting. That is, no one had their own desk. All the computers were basically just terminals: all your files and configuration and all the technical bits that make your workstation yours were on the network, so you could walk in, pick any old computer, and just get to work. Of course, this wasn’t ideal; some people felt a bit too transient, not having a permanent place to call their own. I notice that Valve solves this problem rather neatly: everyone has their own desk, but all the desks have wheels.2 Instead of moving from desk to desk, you just move the whole desk around. If I were going to start a new company today, I’d totally steal that idea.
What’s wrong with corporate structure? I can’t say it better than the Valve handbook:
Valve is not averse to all organizational structure—it crops up in many forms all the time, temporarily. But problems show up when hierarchy or codified divisions of labor either haven’t been created by the group’s members or when those structures persist for long periods of time. We believe those structures inevitably begin to serve their own needs rather than those of Valve’s customers. The hierarchy will begin to reinforce its own structure by hiring people who fit its shape, adding people to fill subordinate support roles. Its members are also incented to engage in rent-seeking behaviors that take advantage of the power structure rather than focusing on simply delivering value to customers.3
If you’re completely wedded to the idea of the org chart, this may seem bizarre to you. What about performance evaluations, you may ask? With no bosses, who evaluates the employees? Well, the way we did it was that evals were done quarterly, and were conducted by three of your coworkers. One of the employees had to be someone who had managed you that quarter, unless no one had. One of the employees had to be someone you had managed that quarter, unless you hadn’t managed anyone. And the final employee had to be someone who had worked alongside you in a parallel position. (If you were only at the top or bottom of your projects, we filled in with another of your reports or another of your parallels, as appropriate.) Nowadays we’d call that “360-degree feedback”. At the time, we weren’t aware of that term; this just made sense.
Even more crucially: without organizational structure, how are decisions made? Well, generally we made decisions by concensus. This is easier to arrange than you might think. But, if we couldn’t reach concensus for a project decision, the manager for the project made the call (after all, that’s what they were there for). But what about decisions on the company’s future in general?
We’ll have to start with the staff meeting. Staff meetings at Barefoot were held monthly. All employees were required to attend (contractors could attend if they chose, but didn’t have to). It was more than just required attendance though: it was required participation. Participation in staff meetings was considered akin to voting: not just a right, but a responsibility. Every staff meeting followed a simple, three-point agenda:
- What are we doing right?
- What are we doing wrong?
- What can Barefoot do for you?
Point #1 is #1 for a good reason: always lead off with the positive feedback. Get everyone in a good mood, give out those well-deserved kudos right off the bat. Recognition is important.
Point #2 is where we did our soul-searching, what some businesses will call a “retrospective” or a “post-mortem.” Only this isn’t for a particular agile iteration, or even for a whole project. This is for our everyday, day-to-day business activities. And we resisted the need to rephrase it to “what could we do better?” If we’re wrong, let’s admit we’re wrong and not try to couch it in softer words. More important that identification of the wrongs, however, is figuring out how to do better in the future. This is really hard to do. In every other corporation I’ve worked with, this has always been the stated goal, and it always devolves into the blame game. Since I’ve moved from the East Coast to the West, it’s changed from open finger-pointing to an odd little dance where we try to point out that it wasn’t our fault while carefully not offending whosever fault it actually was, but that’s not materially different. Only at Barefoot have I seen people actually put in the effort to avoid discussion of whose fault it was (which, after all, doesn’t really matter, as long as they’re aware of their mistake) and concentrate on how to make it better.
Point #3 is simply a verbal suggestion box. What are we not doing at all that we should be doing? What can the company do to make you a little happier? What new policies would you like to see? What new resources would you like to see the company buy? (And here you can see how the financial transparency comes in handy; every employee knows that they need to—and how to—figure out whether the company can afford something before suggesting that we buy it.)
Everyone is (or at least can be) involved in every decision. Valve puts it more succinctly: “it’s your job to insert yourself wherever you think you should be.”4 Now, we also had meetings of our executives, and we also had board meetings. But employees were always invited to attend those too, if they liked, and offer their input. (And sometimes employees would get elected to the board and participate even more directly.)
I’ve likened my own role at Barefoot to open-source “benevolent dictators” such as Larry Wall or Linus Torvalds. At the end of the day, it was my company and I could make the call if I wanted to. But everyone got a chance to contribute, and really be heard, and actually influence the direction, if they so chose. And even my benevolent dictatorship was open to change, as we’ll see next week.
Lack of an org chart meant that everyone was responsible for the success or failure of the company. And everyone took that responsibility very seriously. Next week we’ll look at the final piece of the puzzle that explains why.