Top-down vs bottom-up structure

There’s the battle of all times, the energy-sparking conversation starter: does a development team need a manager?
The reality is rather complex (in a way, I’m trying to escape saying “It depends” — and failing, clearly ;) ) and the choices companies make vary. For some organizations, it’s difficult to organize the processes around a self-managed team; for others, it’s natural that decisions are made by collective effort and don’t come from the C-level only. Founders and employees find it comfortable to work in different environments and it’s crucial that, when looking for a new job, you get at least a bit acquainted with the management style of the company you’re considering to work with to make sure it’s also a good (or great!) cultural fit.

Over the past 11 years, we’ve tried and made work different flavors of self-managed organizational structures, so we’re debunking the most common myths about these management models.

Myth 1: you can’t succeed without a very clear hierarchy

This is a very common myth that’s supposed to shut down discussions about flat organizational structures. Without hierarchy, you can’t win, period.

That’s not the case. Hierarchy is not a must-have in organizations and is a concept that was created to impose obedience. While there might be structures that require this sort of organization, say the military, where there’s no space for discussing the best possible solution, companies can benefit from opening up to the ideas and needs of employees beyond the management board.

The lack of strict hierarchy doesn’t eliminate leadership. As organizations mature and expand their teams, it becomes natural that some people are treated as thought leaders — they inspire action, spark conversation, aid collaboration. However, these leaders usually don’t feel like managers: they don’t manage, don’t delegate tasks. Self-managed teams take ownership of their tasks and choose the best path to achieve their goals.

Myth 2: flat structure is not a long-term solution

Some managers will say that flat organizations are great but only for a while. Why do they think it’s a short-term solution? Some arguments include the fact that a team that’s growing needs clear leadership, others point to the flat structure being tiresome since reaching decisions is difficult with a number of voices with different opinions.

Addressing the leadership part: see myth 1 above. Flat = no strict hierarchical structure, but within teams, relationships are built to facilitate teamwork. This means that leaders are not designated, but emerge naturally, having the best skill set in given circumstances.

And is it tiresome? Decision-making in bottom-up structures is not in the hands of the few with “power” but is given to everyone on the team. In our company (flat since 2013), we’ve gone through some decision-making chaos — you can read more in this blog post. After a while, we’ve worked out efficient ways to reach decisions.

In 2019, we adopted elements of holacracy into our organization. For us, it means that we’re a company with no boss and no managers, we empower our team to be autonomous, we all follow the same rules and have equal rights to voice our opinions. Having grown our team, we’ve decided to identify people responsible for operations essential to the success of our company. These leaders, however, are not managers and are selected within departments, not assigned. This helps us build accountability and clarity within all teams.

Myth 3: self-management is selfish

Meaning that every employee has eyes on their own best interest only. Now, I’m pretty sure we all want what’s best for us and want the companies we work with to align with our professional goals. No matter what company we work with. However, it’s not true that we only look at what’s best for our interest (individually) — we do learn to make smart decisions. Bottom-up organizations require some level of involvement of all team members — it’s like we’re all CEOs ourselves, so we need to think about the company.

There is an inherent part of any organization that’s self-managed: trust. What does it mean for us in particular? We are fully transparent,otherwise, making informed decisions isn’t possible, and the founders trust their coworkers. We all know that together, we can build a great company (and we’re succeeding at that!), so we’re motivated to choose what’s right for the company.

Myth 4: decisions made by consensus make everyone unhappy

This myth is probably based on the idea that a compromise is the only solution that hurts both sides and leaves everyone unsatisfied. Do we sometimes compromise? We sure do. But what we find crucial in decision-making is that everyone is informed and well-prepared to make decisions and all voices are heard. We make sure there is room for everyone to weigh in and try to reach decisions that are accepted by everyone on the team.

Myth 5: any company can be self-managed, easily

No. Having no strict hierarchy is not the only characteristic of a flat organizational structure. It’s also trust and mutual respect, transparency, and collaboration. All these are required of all team members, but it’s imperative that the board believes in and lives by these values. There are different management styles and each of them can fit individual needs of a company. Not every management board might want to share all information (including financial) with all employees and in some organizations, team members do not feel like this information is essential to them. There are styles that introduce some elements of self-management, like leaving some decision-making to teams and keeping the most strategic and financial aspects in the hands of the management board.

source: The Teal Organization, Thevrio

There is no universally best way to manage a company: all organizations have their unique values and needs that have to be considered and addressed in the style of management and all operations. The right way is determined by various factors, including company culture and the extent of accountability that team members want to have.

Why software engineers love working in a self-managed organization

And you’ll love it, too!
There are plenty of reasons why you’d love working with us. Seriously! You can learn more about why it’s awesome in this article, but for now, let’s focus on the aspects related to our organizational structure that we appreciate.

We make our own decisions

Decisions about matters related to operations in the company (as described above) and decisions on how to solve problems we’re dealing with. We get to choose the tools and tech that we want to work with. We’re actively seeking the best solutions out there and contributing to open source.

We’re self-organizing in our collaboration

We learn to make the best of our teamwork, dividing the work based on skills and preferences — we’re not assigned with tasks, we choose them. Since we rely on close cooperation within teams, we pay close attention to team-building and knowledge sharing.

You can see some ways we organize team-building activities as a 100% remote company in this article on our blog.

We build strong partnerships based on trust

Both within our team and with our Clients. Trust is an essential part of our organization. It’s not something that you earn in our company, it’s just there, as it should be, and when we learn more about each other through collaboration, we build solid professional relationships that inspire continuous learning and transparency in all processes both within our team and with our clients.

And that trust is essential to our effectiveness in remote work!

We don’t believe in things like screen monitoring, we’re not checking on each other’s work every 5 minutes. We appreciate the freedom to do things the way we want, and, in turn, take ownership of the tasks we’re working on. Being a fully remote company, we’re aware that trust is the foundation.

Wrap-up

Self-management does work! Naturally, this approach is not for every company in the world, but it’s what works for us and what software engineers appreciate. Because of the way we operate, our team goes beyond their standard responsibilities and is interested in the company’s matters, too. Having access to all relevant information, we are able to make important decisions together and support the choices that have been made.

How would you fit in this picture? Check our open positions and let’s find out 😉

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