Jason Fried of 37signals, writing about what they’ve learned about management vs flat organizations:
What we learned is that adding a dedicated manager and creating a hierarchy is not the only way to create structure. Instead, we decided to let the team be entirely self-managed. There’s still a team leader, but that role rotates among the team every week. Each week, a new leader sketches out the agenda, writes up the notes about problems and performance, and steps up to handle any troubled customer interactions.
One of the things I like about the arrangement is that it frees us from the often toxic labor-versus-management dynamic, in which neither party truly understands what it’s like to be on the other side. This is where you’ll find a lot of conflict in companies. But because we rotate management duties weekly, everyone is more empathetic toward one another. When you’ll be management soon, you respect management more. Same with labor. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, by the philosopher John Rawls: “The fairest rules are those to which everyone would agree if they did not know how much power they would have.” Our support has gotten better, and our customers are happier. We’ve measured the difference, and we know it works.
Every time I hear something from 37signals, it’s inspiring, but I find myself asking how these startup/small business principles can scale to a large company.
I don’t think I have an answer to that yet, as a company of hundreds or even thousands can’t be self-managed. Google tried it and failed. So what should the role of a manager in a large company be?
The role of a manager isn’t to directly create, instead it’s to build a team of amazing creators and put the incentives in place to do great work. It’s their job to create a culture of success. The manager who gets in the weeds of the work is doing it wrong. The manager who drops by your desk to tell you how to change your page design is doing it wrong. If you have to manage the details, you have the wrong people on the bus.
Hire great people you trust, but don’t self-design your business. A manager is not always right if they hire great people.