I got a great (if not entirely spontaneous) gift from my brother- and sister-in-law on Christmas: one of the Amazon.com books of the year, The Year Without Pants.
Scott Berkun, a management writer and consultant with experience developing Internet Explorer at Microsoft in the 90’s, accepted an invitation to join Automattic, the company behind the WordPress blogging software and the associated WordPress.com blogging site. [Disclosure: this site runs on WordPress, and I love it!] Prior to his hiring, Automattic was an extremely flat organization, with all 50-some employees “reporting” directly to the CEO, Matt Mullenweg. The company made the decision to install a minimal hierarchy, as the current structure had become too chaotic to continue growing, and introduce management to what had been a company culture of independence and autonomy. Complicating the task of management and collaboration, nearly every employee “tele-commuted”–living around the world, working on their own schedule, communicating via bulletin board-type blogs (“P2‘s”), IRC, and Skype. Physical meetups were rare.
Scott was able to grow into the culture, and adapt some of his management skills and principles to the situation. Among his accomplishments there was the development of Jetpack (without which this blog would be nigh on unusable), an improved comments system, and, most importantly, an greatly improved understanding of what management could provide to such a non-traditional company.
Some of his observations:
- The autonomy with which Automattic employees operated produced surprising results–even without much–if any–top-down direction, people collaborated, helped each other out, and generally produced great and timely work.
- Nonetheless, since employees weren’t explicitly organized, they tended to focus on small features and bug fixes rather than take risks on bigger projects that addressed more fundamental problems with WordPress. They also tended to avoid solving problems that were annoying/time-consuming. Certain aspects of the business, such as the design of the WordPress.com homepage, were ignored because nobody was explicitly responsible for them.
- The set of communication tools the company used were well-suited to their structure and culture; however, there was still friction in people not using the right communication method, or being intimidated to use a public forum for fear of embarrassment.
- The part of the company that provided real value (the programmers, designers, and customer service (“happiness engineers”) ) were seen as the main effort, whereas lawyers, accountants, and management were considered as support roles.
- A manager can make a real difference in this kind of culture as long as the manager knows where he can add value. The value he added in this situation was 1) the judgement to prioritize the work his team performed, both to get the important stuff done and to shield them from doing busy work; 2) coordinating multiple programmers’ efforts to knock out several big and tough projects, notably Jetpack; 3) providing direct feedback to his team on their individual performance; and 4) using strategically-selected physical meetups to bond the team and accomplish big chunks of their projects.
I think the subtitle of this book (“the future of work”) is a little bit grandiose. It IS a great case study that shows remote work arrangements can be extremely effective under certain conditions; it also shows that (competent) management still has an essential role in this newer, flatter type of company.
What the book doesn’t do is to really talk about how companies can transition to the Automattic model; nor does it talk about how such an arrangement could work in companies where at least some of the workers need to be physically present.
I did find myself noting that the principles that Scott applied were not new or unique–they were just the basics of good leadership, stripped of the trappings of traditional corporate management, such as titles, performance evaluations, and corner offices.
Definitely worth reading. This is much more informal that most business management literature, but the way you see Scott develop relationships with his team keeps it interesting and engaging (I read it in 4 days!)