Posted on by & filed under leadership.

Last week I wrote about some of the challenges with the concept of organizations with “no managers”. This post continues that exploration but in a different direction; today I want to look at the question – what does it take to be successful without managers?

There are companies operating today with no managers, and clearly things run differently under those circumstances. But how? And what skills should you be focused on if you want to succeed and thrive without formal authority or management?

Defining purpose & authority

At some level, someone has to set the goals and vision for the company, team, or organization. This may be done by the board, investors, founders, CEO, executive team, or a committee of sorts – but someone has to set the goal and purpose of the organization. For the purposes of getting to the main point of this post (since organizing the company vision is another issue entirely), let’s assume that in our scenario here, it is already taken care of and there is a clear vision and mission at the highest level.

So, within the organization, someone is in charge of (or at least held accountable for) making forward progress toward the mission and vision. This person likely is the authority. They are tasked with making sure people are working towards those goals, and seeing that corrective action is taken if people aren’t working towards those goals.

In organizations with managers, this responsibility flows downward from executives to managers to teams. In teams without managers, people make this a group responsibility. Either way, in both situations there is someone at the top who is defining the purpose, and who holds the authority to enforce against deviants from that purpose.


Translating value

Once the purpose has been defined, someone has to translate it into the day-to-day activities of people doing the work. This is a skill unto itself in my opinion.

When your work has direct impact on the end goal, the translation is easy (i.e. our goal is to make money, and I work in sales and close deals). However, there are two places where value can be hard to measure:

  1. Work done for long-term value. Sometimes projects are staffed for future big bets, but the value isn’t always clear right away, even after a year or more.

    One of my friends (who also happens to be a mentor and one of the most accomplished and impressive leaders I know) told me a story where he bet on someone by putting them on a project that wouldn’t bear fruit for two years. He recruited a director from another team in the company to leave his large team, and the director came along because he had vision too.

    Ultimately, this vision helped the director build a whole new business unit and achieve a lot more success than he would have staying in the same big team. But this was only possible because he had more foresight than to judge contributions on their perceived value alone. If he had judged his value on a 6-12 month timeframe he would have been disappointed and might have skipped it – but looking back, it was smart to bet on the vision, work patiently, and let things play out.

    Based on this story, then, it appears that companies need leaders or employees with two important skills: having vision and communicating their vision in such a way that other people will buy in.

  2. Work that is important but not glamorous. Every organization has important projects that go on every day to keep things running, but whose value can be hard to quantify. Specifically I think about IT organizations. Great IT organizations are invisible. Things just work. These are critical functions we need people to do, but if they are done well, they aren’t usually noticeable until there is a problem.

    And this is something a lot of technical managers struggle with at times. You want people to do this work (you need them to do it) but it can be a thankless job with little to no recognition (except when something goes wrong of course). Therefore, there needs to be someone who understands, recognizes and rewards the value this work brings to the organization.

    Therefore to be successful then you (or your team’s advocate, who recognizes the value of your work, no matter how unglamorous) need to be capable of:

  • translating and defining a localized purpose for your work

  • communicating the value your work generates (or has the potential to generate long term) with regards to the company as a whole and its established overarching goals


Working together

Another key tenet of manager-less organizations is the emphasis on self-organizing teams. Self-organizing teams are those that work well together and can execute democratically (or agree to submit to someone who is the leader, or manager for that team/project). These are teams where the members help each other grow and are focused on the core mission of the company above their own personal goals.

Individuals on these teams have some of the following skills:

  • Great communication. People are open with one another when they don’t understand, and others are patient enough to keep everyone on the same page (one of my favorite quotes from my old boss was “leadership is keeping everyone on the same page” and it can definitely be a lot of work to do well). People are provided with all the information they need to make good decisions, as someone is proactively communicating status, risks, and issues. People are truthful and unafraid to speak their mind.

  • Decisive decision-making. Group decision-making is hard. I gave a talk recently with some ideas and strategies, and there are a ton listed on this Wikipedia page. People on self-organizing teams are good at driving consensus, pulling great ideas from the group, and then making sure people are on board with the decision and the direction.

  • Integrity – in a big way. You have to do what you say and lead by example. It doesn’t matter what your role is; when working as part of a team, it is imperative that your teammates trust you, and that won’t happen unless you act with complete integrity. So no bad-mouthing, commiserating, slacking, or complaining – always be the bigger person.

  • Ability and willingness to deliver constructive criticism. Do you trust your teammates? How are your relationships with them? Is everyone pulling his or her weight? On a self-organized team, it is your job to build and nurture trusting relationships with every member of your team. To me this is one of the hardest ones to envision working successfully, since it took me years to get good at feedback. And even now I still screw up sometimes.

    I actually worry that this skill is one that managers will always be able to do the best and is one of the reasons that “no manager” teams may struggle.

    Why? Not just because giving good feedback is hard, but because *not* being able to deliver feedback to your peers will erode trust and hurt your integrity and relationship with that person. If you aren’t willing to give sincere negative feedback to someone directly, and instead prefer to do it through anonymous channels, then it means you aren’t being authentic with that person. And not being authentic destroys trust.

  • Plays nice with others. This rolls a bit into the above point, but the ability to work with all types of people is important on these kinds of teams. People on self-organized teams know how to stop the know-it-all from derailing a meeting, or how to pull the introvert out of silence and into the discussion. Team members have a willingness to be open-mindedness and overcome differences – which sometimes means being able to disagree and commit (something I know I struggle with even today).

There are likely more too, but these ones seem essential to me (feel free to mention others in the comments).


Is it worth it?

All of this this leads me to wonder – if I am an engineer, do I want to spend time perfecting the above skills in order to work at a flat organization, or do I want to devote my time to deepening my mastery of my craft and leave the communication and collaboration skills to my manager?

Perhaps some people can do both (and that is ideal), but it seems like for many teams with engineers and other specialists, you will need leaders — managers — who can have decided to master these collaborative soft skills in order to serve as the glue holding things together.

Not every engineer wants to be good in meetings; as much as it might serve their career to do so, some people just aren’t interested in working on their other skill sets. Where would they fit in a flat organization? They wouldn’t, I think.

Not every employee is willing to master the soft skills necessary to thrive on a flat team. And the ones who can do this well will no doubt be successful in any organization, with managers or without.


Tags: change, communication, leadership, reflection, success, team, trust,

4 Responses to “Succeeding on a team without a manager [Part 2 on flat orgs]”

  1. Joe Zaynor

    Interesting post. While reading it, I kept thinking about people whose careers might suffer because they work for an organization whose structure or culture didn’t fit with their individual needs. If someone worked for an organization that really tried to nurture and develop their employees they might be able to go on to bigger and better things and achieve a certain level of financial and professional success. If, on the other hand, they worked for a more rigid, traditional company that was more concerned with the bottom line, that person might remain a lower level worker their whole career. Not to get too philosophical, but it’s too bad each of us just gets just one shot at this life thing without the ability to take a do-over from time to time.

    • katemats

      Thanks for your comment, Joe. I agree with your point, and it is one of the hard things about finding solutions to management problems — since some things that are great fits for some people can be really problematic for others. I think the best advice is to try as many different styles as you can until you find one that works (though that’s not always an option for everyone, of course). There are lots of issues to look at and they are not simple; it would be nice if we got more time or second tries to figure these things out! :)

  2. Jez Humble

    Great post, thank you. Your last paragraph reminds me of something that really stuck with me from reading Mike Rother’s _Toyota Kata_: “what is decisive is not the form of the organization, but how people act and react.”

    • katemats

      Thanks Jez – so glad you liked the post (especially because I am a big fan of your writing!)