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Company Culture

Early Reflections on Buffer’s Switch to Working Without Managers

About 3 months ago, we made a very exciting change at Buffer. Upon exploring our current setup as a company, and after Joel’s discovery of a truly transformative book titled Reinventing Organizations, we decided that we wanted to reinvent Buffer taking some inspiration from the book.

At its core, we’ve switched to a fully self-managed, self-organized team. There’re no managers or bosses and everyone on the team is encouraged to work freely on projects they are most compelled to work on, that they feel they have expertise and skill and that they feel Buffer needs at this point.

About 3 months in, we’ve made a lot of progress on a lot of different areas. There’re quite a few processes that we still need to adapt, and are in the middle of doing so. More about this further down.

To help with my own coping with the change, I wanted to write down a few reflections of things that have happened.

The joy of getting my hands dirty again

The first and foremost emotion I’m feeling is pure joy to be able to get stuck in with some exciting projects again and getting my hands dirty. Before the change, in my role as a more traditional COO (which I also thoroughly enjoyed) I was touching on a large number of parts within Buffer. It also created a certain level of pressure, one that Joel described very well in this post. I felt the urge to try and “keep everything together” and within an arm’s reach so everything would go according to plan.

With this change, I don’t feel like I need to do this again. I don’t feel compelled¬†to look after people as if they couldn’t do that themselves. Trusting everyone fully with making their own decisions is surprisingly freeing and let me focus on my own things that I’m trying to accomplish, as an individual instead of as a manager.

Rediscovering this is just a huge amount of fun.

Recognizing the urge to create new processes

Another observation was something that the book predicted with striking accuracy:

“Self-organization is not a startling new feature of the world. It is the way the world has created itself for billions of years. In all of human activity, self-organization is how we begin. It is what we do until we interfere with the process and try to control one another.”- Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers

Although this quote puts it a bit harshly, and it is often not our perceived intention to control one another, that was one of the first things to emerge. The author of the book, Frederic Laloux, pointed out that avoiding the creating of new processes is one of the CEOs/founders most important tasks, and so far, it’s been fantastic to see Joel point out a number of them.

Almost immediately, people on the team, myself included, started to come up with ideas for processes and regulations on certain work patterns. This seems so incredibly natural for us to do and takes substantial amount of awareness to recognize and then not act on.

I’m most curious about how this will play out in the future. Frederic’s prediction in the book is that self-managing team have this as one of their #1 struggles throughout their life-time and it never seems to stop.

Core ground rules we’re trying to fully figure out

Although we try to be largely free of most processes, there’s a number of “ground rules” that are required to make self-management work, according to the book:

“Self-management requires an interlocking set of structures and practices.”

With the help of the book, we observed only the following 4 ground rules necessary to be established. Here’s how far we’re at with them:

1. How decisions get made (done)

Steven has a fantastic quote that like to share often, which goes:

“Working on a startup is like riding a broken bicycle. You have to both ride and fix it at the same time.”

So, when we made this change, one of the first and foremost things needed to make sure the bicycle doesn’t stop was to still have a way for decisions to be made, even though there’s no manager. With the advice process, which we had luckily already had in place before the full change, we made sure that we were still working on important things for our customers, even as we are working through this change.

I feel that this part is working quite well right now.

2. How we give feedback and help each other improve (in progress)

Another core ground rule was how we help identify things we can improve and if certain actions completely misalign with our shared purpose, how we can give each other feedback. This one has been really fun to explore and we’ve made some good progress, although we’ve not fully settled on a process yet.

A key challenge we’re working through here is how transparent such a process should be, especially as we have almost¬†everything else already so transparent.

3. How much we get compensated for our work (in progress)

If you don’t have a manager or someone in an HR department that comes up with your salary, raises, stock options plan, etc., how does your salary get picked? It’s been fun to see Sunil spearhead this and we’ve not quite set anything down for this either.

What I’m most excited about is that this’ll likely be a completely different way of determining how someone gets paid – we’ll be sure to share!

4. What is our purpose (in progress)

This is likely the most high-level part of all processes: Identifying our shared purpose. What I liked most about how this was described in the book was that it’s not about “coming up” with a purpose. Instead, it’s about observing what Buffer is already doing and then simply naming that “thing” to make it easier for everyone to gather around the same purpose.

Fittingly, Joel is spearheading this and it’ll be really fun to watch and participate in this to see what might be our innate purpose for Buffer on a bigger scale.

Floating in space, some things naturally feel unclear

Another emotion I picked up in myself and in others is what feels like¬†we’re floating in space a bit. Since the change is so fundamental and a lot of things aren’t figured out, it’s quite hard to navigate yourself within Buffer currently, since nothing feels “fixed” and ever changing these last few months.

I do get the sense that this is somewhat taxing for the team (although that is just an assumption, I’d love to hear from people on the team on how this feels to them!), and figuring out our¬†core processes fully will provide some form of relief and stability.

For me personally, I started to quite like this opportunity of feeling uncomfortable and being uncertain about quite a lot of things and it has actually made me feel more creative and productive in many aspects.

Have you ever had the experience of working without managers or bosses? How did it go? I’d be keen to hear about your experiences and observations as we continue our exciting journey!

  • Thanks for sharing your insights. It doesn’t sound like you have many to begin with, but I imagine this helps with breaking down hierarchy walls to enable better collaboration on projects between the people that are best skilled and most motivated to work on them. Have you found that to be the case?

    • LeoWid

      Hi Mike, great point and you’re exactly right. We didn’t have too much structural hierarchy in the first place, but the amount we had was broken down completely.

      Interestingly, by removing structural hierarchy, we’ve now given natural hierarchy a chance to bloom. People naturally still develop authority for the things they’re good at and for their expertise, so we’ve learnt that hierarchy can still be a very good thing. It’s just that no one gets appointed, but people instead decide for themselves who they go to for questions and advice as part of a natural hierarchy. Hope that makes sense!

  • Is an interesting model that we are also experimenting here at :, the most important thing is to have people with the right mindset, curious and interested to come with ideas.

  • Ryan Vanderbilt

    Love this post! I recently started reading Reinventing Organizations so I’m excited to get a glimpse of what’s to come in the book. It’s so interesting how consistently we all go in cycles of trying to create structure and then wanting to break that structure and be a bit more organic. I find this happens with organizations, productivity, physical health, mental health, etc. I always try to remind myself that everything is a mix of making things happen and letting things happen. It’s an endlessly interesting topic and journey, thanks for sharing!

    • LeoWid

      Wow, awesome contribution, thanks for sharing Ryan! Hadn’t thought of extending this to our own productivity, health, etc., but that makes so much sense!

  • John Santin

    I think this is a very courageous step. How do you distinguish between processes and structures and practices? I tend to be process-oriented when it comes to workflow (as an example) and am easily seduced by the Asanas, Trellos, and Podios of the world (along with various analog workflow management tools–my love of whiteboards knows no bounds). Other I’ve worked with? Not so much. I’ve found that having a grand, unifying process isn’t as important as I once thought as long as people take responsibility for organizing themselves. The tools we do use together then become more about reporting progress towards a goal than about process management. I’d love a peek into some of the processes that you’ve abandoned and what structures and practices are in place now that either replace those processes or obviate the need for them. Thanks!

    • LeoWid

      Hi John, great questions! The 4 “ground rules” outlined above are close to the only structures/processes we’re trying to create, + a few more.

      Every person can still organize themselves with whatever tools they prefer. Right now, we have in fact lots of tools at play, some task forces using Trello more, others Hackpad, others email, others might be starting to use different tools that no one is using right now.

      We’re abandoning processes all the time – for example we’ve made 4-5 different attempts on creating bug boards, whenever it gets too overwhelming we often just leave them behind. Another example is meetings (monthly, weekly, etc.), or any sort of recurring meeting really, we’ve all completely abandoned (save for a weekly mastermind every team member has with one other peer and a daily pair call).

      Right now, we’re trying to catch processes early enough so they don’t get implemented in the first place, which has been another fun challenge!

      • John Santin

        Thanks for the quick reply! Just started ‘Reinventing Organizations,’ I’ll be interested in seeing how this evolves for Buffer.

    • Samantha Bell

      Hey Leo, love your posts and wondered if you might be doing a form of holacracy!

      Buffer is impressively showcasing fun and productivity to encourage other organisations… Well done!

      Looking forward to hearing more of your exploring & discoveries…

      • Holacracy was the first thing that came to my head too. It’s still a concept I don’t know much about but from the little I know Leo’s post sounds similar.

  • Hey Leo, I really liked reading through this post! I think you hit the nail on the head when you described a certain air of “floating in space” with our new process or, um, lack of process!) I remember the first few days of trying this out I felt kind of unmoored, not certain what to tackle next or how to proceed. It felt a bit uncomfortable, and I even remember discussing that with Kevan as a challenge in our mastermind. After I sat with that feeling for a while, it started to feel more liberating and less challenging! Now it’s incredibly exciting to be able to set my own priorities and move in the directions that make sense for me each day!

    • LeoWid

      Hey Courtney, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts here, that’s so great to read. Makes a ton of sense that you’ve felt that way and it’s encouraging that the mastermind was a way to keep some footing – I did the same thing and discussed some of these challenges with Joel, almost every week for a few weeks.

      And yup, it reads like to me, you’re coming out on the other side of the process liberated and excited to do what you feel is right, that’s so awesome to hear! :)

  • The day of reckoning would be when you have no designations as well..

  • h/t Leo – what you write resonates with two work experiences of my own where there were no managers (at least close by).

    One was being head of operations of the flood help in Dresden back in 2002. The flood rushed through the city, and there was literally no time to establish structures in the common way. Dedicated people found their way into the helping process, and (in my case) leading positions but not by title but rather by overseeing the processes, getting things aligned, taking the help calls and finding the opportunities on how to best help.

    Shortly after that I joined BMW for bringing up their new plant in Leipzig (the i3 and i8 are now coming from there). I worked remotely in the Regensburg plant, seeing my boss (a woman from the U.S. with German roots) who was based in Munich only once a week or even more seldom. There was a clear set goal: get the first BMW 3 Sedan out in 100% quality on May 2005 and scale from there to 700 cars a day.

    Back in the day I felt like a fish in water, working across different disciplines, able to bring solutions to last together with colleagues across the board is the work style I am most familiar and comfortable with. Getting operations right, and prepare for scaling up the name of the game! Information was shared, and public across departments as sometimes it wasn’t clear how to best solve an upcoming problem. An onlooker form outside would have said, “Chaos” – but as in a hive there was “structure” aligned to the purpose of the mission: build BMWs at best possible quality at a certain day and scale from there.

    My take-away:

    – not all people can live with the uncertainty such working processes bring along
    – (formal) bosses as somebody is in charge on top have to have trust in their people
    – enable people to learn by themselves, with colleagues (especially from other departments)
    – provide the best tools to make communication easy
    – establish a short, crisp, and effective feedback process on issues that not run as they should
    – something I learned from a Finnish management school, do a Motorola or #PresencingStatus (1. What was good? 2. What was tricky? 3. What have I learned? 4. Next action?) after such feedback meetings, and capture it on paper and electronically

    Very interested to hear how things have evolved so far at Buffer, getting curious even more on how to join.

  • Leo, as a long-time believer and practitioner in the power of self-organization, I can totally relate to your blog post. To me, management hierarchy is a relic of the industrial past, as much interesting and necessary it was during the times of Henri Fayol and Fred Taylor and the last hundred years since then, there is limited utility of it in knowledge industry (and which industry isn’t a knowledge industry already?). As an agile leadership coach, my approach is for the team to evolve its own process, tools and leaders – let the self-organization evolve rather than we imposing one single known way to teams to solve problem – even if that happens to be the best known method. I look forward to reading more about your journey

  • Awesome write up, it’s great to see another company showing that Teal processes and ideas ARE a valid form of structuring your company. It certainly requires a high amount of trust in your colleagues, but ends up with much more thorough and productive relationships with the team as a whole, and with each part of it individually.

    Looking forward to hopefully being a part of that soon =]

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