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How do they manage?

Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) thinks about the ‘management-free’ organisation:

Recently I heard that Valve, a highly successful video game company, has four hundred employees and no management structure. According to all reports, they make that model work.

I spent a lot of time trying to imagine working for a company with no management. How do they resolve conflicts, set priorities, measure performance, fire laggards, and all the rest? I couldn’t picture it working. Keep in mind that I earn my living by shouting that management is mostly worthless, yet even I couldn’t accept the idea that management is 100% unnecessary. I was skeptical.

I agree, it’s hard to imagine a world without managers. It’s also hard to imagine why we need them. They are, in a very real sense, a form of unproductive labour. For the last several decades, management has been taught as a set of general principles, the thinking being that running a hospital, an investment bank, a university, a supermarket and a cosmetics company amount to pretty much the same thing. The specifics don’t matter, and would-be managers are taught to rise above the day-to-day concerns of the organisation (i.e. what it actually does), the better to focus on management. What management amounts to is minimising risk. Managers exist to avert catastrophe, which, in their defence, they do pretty well. But the price of this is almost always a drift and disconnect from the organisation’s true purpose, frustrated and disengaged staff and a creeping culture of mediocrity.

It’s a high price to pay to secure a sense of certainty that is only a mirage anyway. Adams continues:

But before I passed judgment, an inconvenient realization entered my brain: I’ve been working on a start-up for over a year and we have no management whatsoever. I’ll tell you more about the start-up in coming days. For now, the interesting part is that I never once – in the course of an entire year – noticed that we have no management until after I heard the story about Valve.

Who’da thunk?