I remember the first time I heard about companies operating with no managers.

During a conversation about it with Joel, we were both absolutely baffled. There was no way, we thought, that Buffer could ever work in that way. How can any work get done without managers? We concluded that this is one of the things we will just never understand.

I remember us saying that possibly, in the same way that people are baffled when they hear Buffer is a distributed team, we are baffled that some companies work without managers. And that’s where we left it.

Fast forward some years later, Buffer is in the middle of becoming fully self-managed. And whenever we throw around words like “self-management” or “no managers,” the baffled looks we get remind us of how we ourselves first reacted to the idea of being fully self-organized without bosses.

How a forest is like a company

The best explanation I’ve found to date is a simple analogy that everyone already knows well: A forest. This quote from the book Reinventing Organizations describes it very fittingly:

“In a forest, there is no master tree that plans and dictates change when rain fails to fall or when the spring comes early. The whole ecosystem reacts creatively, in the moment.”

Whenever I describe Buffer’s change to someone in this way, it seems to click for many and they can relate to many of the new ideas we’re implementing.

What I like particularly about the forest analogy is that one can seemingly dive into any detail of the forest as an organism and relate it to how things work for a company with no managers.

One element of that is that things from the outside look messy, if you walk into a forest. There’s leaves everywhere, and dead wood lying on the ground. There seem to be no paths to walk and everything looks chaotic. And yet, everything that needs to happen is able to happen, almost effortlessly. The only difference is that there’s no one that controls it.

One thing I believe is that the reason we organize many things in such a rigid way in most current organizations, is because people need to have control beyond themselves. If you need to control 10, 20, sometimes thousands of people, you need a structure that allows you to do that.

But if no one is in charge, then everyone can go and develop their own ways. What follows is an incredibly diverse set of workflows and initiatives.

How would this work in a forest?

To find out whether we’re unconsciously falling back into the old methods of working at Buffer. I like to ask myself “How would this work in a forest?”

It helps me to catch ideas that might put constraints and processes onto others early and avoid working on them, and instead explore solely my own workflow and how I might want to change it.

The aspiration to become a living and breathing ecosystem like a forest is a very happy imagination in my head. It makes me feel like we’re on the right track.

Have you had the experience of communicating a unique way of working or thinking about work to others? What analogies or metaphors make the most impact to you?

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Written by Leo Widrich

Co-founder and COO at Buffer. I enjoy writing about Buffer’s lessons learnt, social media tips and updates to Buffer. For some more personal posts, check out leostartsup.

  • Dalice T

    I’m really enjoying following Buffer’s foray into alternative systems :) I have recently re-read Ricardo Semler’s 2nd book. He seems to be saying that it relies on self-interest. Everyone wants the system to work because if it doesn’t the company will fail and they won’t have jobs. It all seems logical, but so many managers struggle with losing control. All the best with life in your forest.

  • Coen Rispens

    Leo, I find this a very interesting topic. I never thought companies would be able to work without managers or a clear structure of hierarchy, like you state. During my studies in economics, many professors were always explaining how hierarchy, management, directors work in a company. But never we studied anything like this. Until I ran into the Valve Corporation, I read their handbook, stating they work without hierarchy as well. Super interesting, they are currently a 300 employee company.

    Now Buffer as well, which I find very interesting to follow, possibly part of a paper I want to write. Mind if I tweet you about this? Thanks for sharing! Coen

  • Daven Sprattling-Mathies

    I probably shouldn’t admit to this, but… this reminds me of playing Ultimate Frisbee in college, which is a self-officiated sport. People always wondered how disputes could ever be resolved without a referee as an impartial observer, but it actually worked quite well. Of course, everyone was just waiting for the game to end so they could open up a beer, but still.

  • Karen Meyer

    I love this Company! From the moment I heard about it I wanted to become part of it. The sheer genius of marketing through Social media turns my marketing senses on! My greatest joy is working from home, independently, and changing lives managing and growing my team. Some people work well without a manager. They are motivated by the joy and success they give others because a part of them thrives on the innate ability to serve and help others. I am using this I two of my businesses and I would recommend it to anyone wanting to increase their growth in business. I have been getting an average of 2-3 new customers or people calling me per week to become a representative for one of my companies. It all because of Buffer. If I had a chance to head up their Customer Service I would jump at it. The dealings I’ve had with their people have always been polite and quickly pointed me in the direction of success. Well done Buffer! Hats off to your integrity and ingenuity!

    Karen Meyer,
    Avon Recruiter and Real Estate Investor
    Scottsdale, Az

  • Brendan Hufford

    I love this, Leo. I think that, because you put the work you do into your hiring process, the forest analogy works quite well as you laid it out. Smart!

  • SashaBondareva

    Interesting, where former project managers fit in this paradigm. Is there any role of somebody like a communicator or organizer? Or will project management be totally out if the paradigm will spread around?

  • Tim Wong

    I would be curious to know how employees get promoted. If everyone is wearing a lot of different hats, and how do you recognize the people who are “going the extra mile”? Additionally, if people are promoted, do they then take on additional responsibilities?

  • Phil Jackman

    I love the idea and the metaphor yet a forest is not an entity with a single common purpose. In the forest each tree competes with every other for resource and only needs to ‘consider’ other trees when it comes to sex. The patterns within the forest arise from the chaotic behavior of the different players. I don’t mean this as a negative but only to stretch the metaphor.