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Company Culture

Self Defined Self Management: How Our Startup Is Figuring It Out Together

Self-management was a bold and unique experience that we’re glad to have tried at Buffer. We learned a lot! Here are some of our self-management lessons as well as our current approach with natural hierarchy.

When I got my first job, it never occurred to me that there was more than one way to work. You went to an office, followed directions from a boss for 8-ish hours, and then went home.

That’s not quite how Buffer does things. During the¬†time¬†I’ve been lucky enough to be¬†on board, we’ve experimented seemingly every day with new elements of work that once seemed immutable: titles and¬†no titles, managers and no managers, office and no office.

We don’t work on a fixed schedule or from a fixed location. We generally don’t give or take orders, instead favoring collaboration and consensus.

The move to self management

So when we stumbled upon the book Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux, we were intrigued. Scratch that, we were enamored—so much so that the entire team voted and agreed to become self-managed. So much so that we gave away more than 300 copies of the book so others could feel as inspired as we had.

We made a lot of changes, including dropping all titles, stopping all official coaching and mentorship, and letting each teammate choose the goals and projects they wanted to work on (and what they wanted to pay themselves). On the marketing side, we tried to create a marketing plan without any goals.

It was a unique time to be at Buffer, to say the least.

Fast forward to present day, and things feel a bit different. We’ve brought back coaching and mentorship, we’re more metrics-focused than we’ve ever been before.

We haven’t exactly defined what we are now. Are we still Teal¬†(in the parlance of Reinventing Organizations)? Are there degrees of self-management?

How do we work today? What exactly are we doing?

I decided to go to the source and sat down with Buffer cofounders Joel and Leo for a chat on the triumphs and challenges of self-management.

self management update

Recalibrating from ‘overwhelming freedom’

“We learned a lot from the Teal experiment,” Joel said. “We discovered that¬†quite a few things should change based on what we learned there.”

And from Leo: “The way I would describe it is that the amount of freedom people had, with absolutely no guidance, expectations or accountability, was pretty overwhelming.”

Some key elements that have changed over the course of the experiment include elements of structure, leadership and mentorship.

Leadership: Bringing back mentorship

One big catalyst¬†for reexamining Teal was the departure of our former teammate Brian, who now works at Facebook. Before he left, he shared with Joel and Leo that he hadn’t been feeling as challenged and pushed toward growth as he previously had been.

“He said he felt like in the first year he learned more than the previous 15, and in the second year he didn‚Äôt learn that much,” Joel said.

After learning this, Joel and Leo chatted with many different teammates to discover that, generally, “people felt quite lost,” Joel said. “We learned that they¬†appreciate the one-on-ones that we used to have and¬†mentioned the guidance a lot.”

As a result, we brought back one-on-one mentoring meetings¬†with a¬†slightly different structure‚ÄĒinstead of performance updates, it‚Äôs become a more open-ended way¬†to work through challenges, get advice and brainstorm together.

Structure: Trading task forces for long-term teams

An even bigger change was in the structure of the way we work together.

During the Teal experiment, we moved away from long-term teams, instead opting for fluid task forces formed for a specific purpose and then disbanded.

Any teammate could propose a task force, and choose which task forces to be part of, and the sum of that is what made up their role. Here’s a look at some of our task forces during this time:

Buffer task forces

These roles could be across completely different areas of work, for example someone could be an engineer in a few product development task forces, but could equally be part of a customer service task force or a hiring task force.

We quickly discovered that our large variety of task forces across many different areas could become a bit confusing and overwhelming, and it was often tricky to figure out who was responsible for what on each task force, who would push things forward.

After Joel and Leo talked with many teammates to discuss their role, vision, goals, and commitments to the team, we started to transition away from the task force model and back to more stable, long-term teams.

“We learned how much people enjoy having more structure, and that structure¬†and hierarchy are not the same thing,” Joel said.

Re-prioritizing goals and metrics

During Buffer’s Teal period, we let go of most accountability in terms of personal metrics. Basically, the idea was that everyone one the team is smart and is already making many smart choices in their personal lives,¬†so they¬†can be trusted to make great decisions at work.

Here’s how Reinventing Organizations puts it:

“People don‚Äôt need pressure from above, but they still need to get a sense of whether they are doing well. Teal Organizations measure indicators like team results, productivity, and profit, just like other organizations‚ÄĒ except that they mostly tend to do so at the level of teams or process steps, and they don‚Äôt bother to measure individual performance (contrary to Orange Organizations that believe in individual incentives and therefore need individual metrics). The data is made public for all to see, creating emulation, a healthy form of peer pressure.”

Looking back, it seems we went a little overboard to throw all metrics out the window–even the ones that could help us get a sense of how we were doing and create that healthy emulation.

During this time, our team didn’t grow very much, and our Happiness response time numbers—one element that we tracked religiously in the past—got worse.

As we’ve transitioned to a more data-driven philosophy on the marketing side, it’s been interesting to see the results of our “year¬†without goals.”¬†Not a lot of growth¬†occurred on the blogs, and on the social media side, we saw a bit of a decrease in our numbers.

Was it because we weren’t motivated? Reflecting on this time period, I do feel a different mindset was present. It’s tough to be motivated in a vacuum, where it feels as if any action you might take is as good as any other. It feels great to return to metrics for context and wayfinding.


A change that’s quite related the above goals and metrics area is a return to more accountability.

Simply put, we’ve discovered that more accountability is more fun. Accountability is a powerful¬†intrinsic motivator to make stuff happen, and pretty much all of us at Buffer believe in the power of making stuff.

One big change that led the way here was Joel and Leo’s conversations with leaders at Zappos and their discovery of the Morning Star Self-Management Institute¬†(the company Morning Star is heavily featured in Reinventing Organizations for their inventive un-management practices).

“That’s when we started to apply a lot more structure and discipline to things,¬†trying to find the right way to structure ourselves,” Joel said.

Every year, each Morning Star employee negotiates a Colleague Letter of Understanding (CLOU) with those¬†most affected by her or his¬†work. A CLOU acts as the¬†operating document for reaching one’s work goals. It makes explicit all of a teammate’s¬†relevant performance metrics and can span as many as 30¬†different¬†areas.

You can see a bit of the influence of the CLOU model in Buffer’s new internal tool HQ, which has been a big way of bringing accountability back to Buffer.

Buffer HQ tool

Buffer HQ tool

Said Joel: “We learned from Morning Star and others that you can have a lot of structure and still be very autonomous.”

One big change we kept: The element of wholeness

One element of self-management that we’re so grateful to have discovered is that of wholeness.

This is the belief that we should be not only allowed but encouraged to bring our full self to work, including our passions and strengths, flaws and vulnerabilities. As Laloux describes it:

“We are all of fundamental equal worth. At the same time, our community will be richest if we let all members contribute in their distinctive way, appreciating the differences in roles, education, backgrounds, interests, skills, characters, points of view, and so on.”

wholeness at work

It’s something that feels obvious and simple, and yet is often surprisingly hard to do.¬†Here’s how Laloux describes it:

“Showing up whole feels risky. We put out our selfhood for all to see, and expose this most treasured part of ourselves to potential criticism, ridicule, or rejection.”

Wholeness has allowed the team to know one another on a deeper, truer level. It’s given us a great lens for thinking on topics of diversity and inclusivity, and paved the way for us to grow in our capacity for understanding and empathy.¬†Moreover, Buffer¬†benefits from the full range of skills of each team member.

What we misunderstood about self-management

So it seems we’ve undergone a pretty big organic shift. We kept one element of self-management, as we were defining it, and changed 4 really big elements.

Did Teal fail, or did we fail to interpret Teal (as many do)?

“I¬†feel like I‚Äôm more on the side of us misinterpreting it,” said Leo, who has written lots more about exactly how we misinterpreted it.

Joel agreed, adding that “We interpreted Teal as completely loose: the chaos, the forest. We¬†threw out the ideas of management, skills, leadership, experience. Those are some of the things that that we got wrong.”

“We almost did something else, not even Teal. Maybe we got a little bit more into the rainbows and unicorns aspects of teal and didn‚Äôt realize it. I think it was a great learning experience; it did set us back,” Joel said.

What’s fascinating to think about is that there are parts of the Teal philosophy¬†that we‚Äôre still fully on board with, like wholeness, and many other elements—like our values and respect for each teammate’s unique work style and schedule—that were naturally part of Buffer before we even knew what Teal or self-management were.

“Maybe what we had before Teal is quite Teal,” Joel mused. I think he might be on to something.

Where we are now

So what do we call the spot we’re in now? We still don‚Äôt have actual managers, although we have seen the emergence of natural leaders, high-level thinking and coaching and feedback.

“I don‚Äôt think we set out to become any specific thing, but every week we sense the changes that should happen. For the rest of the team, it might not feel right to say we’re still Teal,” Joel said. “In some ways it feels like such a step away from how it used to be; there was so much more freedom. It feels a¬†bit disingenuous to say it‚Äôs still Teal.”

So are we a naturalized hierarchy? Teal light?

Our journey to self-management hasn’t been a straight path. In fact, sometimes it looks¬†more like a circle, pointing us back to where we’ve been and helping us recognize it in a new light.

“We’re just what we want to be,” said Joel.¬†“It’s great that we‚Äôve set ourselves up to do the experiments, and we probably¬†will still do more in the future.”

It’s exciting to know that the way we work now might not be the way we work next month, or next year.

Our journey might not have an estimated arrival time, but we have the ability to invent and re-invent work together, every day.

Have you experimented with unique work structures like self-management, holacracy, flat organizations or others? How did the experience feel for you?

We’d love to hear your thoughts on self-management or any other workplace structure in the comments!

  • I’m curious, who made the decision to move away from the version of Teal you were using? From what you say it sounds like the team were unhappy, and some moved on, and some complained, but Joel and Leo were the ones to make the final decision. Is that so? If so does it suggest that the rest of the team didn’t feel they had the authority to change the model, and if yes, does that suggest you weren’t in actuality self-managing?

    • Great, great question, Laurie! You’re exactly right, Joel and Leo were the ones to make those changes. I’m not sure if that means that we weren’t entirely self-managed, if we possibly didn’t quite give ourselves long enough to make that evolution or maybe we just didn’t quite have the right tools in place. Definitely worth reflecting upon.

  • I love your openness throughout this process.

    A team of lone wolves might work for the Avengers, but even they have Nick Fury and Agent Coulson to keep in them in line, give them leadership, and help them move toward a goal.

    The idea of CLOUs speaks to me, as does the looser (but still structured) system that Dennis Bakke lays out in his book The Decision Maker. The other company Laloux highlights, Sun Hydraulics, might be worth a field trip for one of your teams. This is a brand new area for business and more hands on information couldn’t hurt.

    • Wow, that Avengers analogy really brings it home, Josh!

      • I’m glad the nerd reference hit home :-)

  • Zac

    Not to read too deeply here, but it strikes me that you guys made the decision to veer from self-management using wisdom. If being “Teal” was the goal, maybe you failed, but if using “Teal” to transform your company was the goal, then you got everything you needed from it.

    • Zac, that’s a really great point! I think it can be quite easy to get caught up in the concept of getting to”Teal” when it’s even more important to realize what we’re gaining along the way.

  • Catherine Diebel

    It has been fascinating to see how everyone at Buffer has been so willing to try new things, reexamine how things are working, sort through where things are working / not working, and then make appropriate changes. Good job!

  • Matt Aunger

    If you haven’t already, you all would really benefit from reading Bo Burlingham’s “Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big”. It’s all about Return on Values organisations, who focus on working to their values, and not to the common misguided approach of ‘growth for growths sake’.

    I can’t recommend it enough. As you already have your values firmly in place, I think it will validate the Buffer approach, if nothing else.

    • Tom

      Wow, Matt this is so cool. Going to request this book through our “Buffer Books” program! Thanks for the recommendation :)

      • Matt Aunger

        You’re welcome Tom.

    • Sounds like a great one! Thanks so much, Matt!

  • Paul Tucker

    Such a great read, Courtney! I have been fascinated by this whole self management project, now multiple that interested by a factor of “I’m currently reading Reinventing Organizations.” :)

    Keep these updates coming!

    • Ah, would love to hear what you think of the book! Lots of big ideas in there. :)

      • Paul Tucker

        Reading that book is sort of like stumbling across your soul-mate via overhearing them talking at the table next to you at a coffee shop: You’re trying to not lose your mind and look ridiculous, but your inner-self is shouting “THIS IS IT!!! THIS IS WHAT I’VE BEEN LOOKING FOR AND THE WORLD TOLD ME DIDN’T EXIST!” :)

        OK, maybe it’s not exactly like that, but in all seriousness, the inner-response of “wow, this answers so many questions I didn’t know how to even ask” seems to be a prevalent theme while reading.

  • On metrics: in academia, there’s a burgeoning movement called altmetrics that uses data from the social web to understand the reach and impact of research journal articles, datasets, software, etc.

    While some are talking about using metrics for evaluation purposes (i.e. to compare two candidates who are up for tenure), conversations at a recent altmetrics conference are pointing to the need to *forget* using metrics for evaluation, and instead to use them for *learning and improvement*.

    I expect–given Buffer’s awesome culture–the latter option is how you all will plan to use metrics, too.

    • Wow, altmetrics sounds like a fascinating concept, Stacy! Yup, i think another really interesting post might be exploring the various ways to “weigh” data at an organization and find the way that’s the best fit.

  • It’s so interesting to see how you’re making it through this experience. The things you’re learning can only come to light through practice. Theory can only take you so far. Kudos to everyone at Buffer for being open and willing to experiment, and thank you for sharing your feelings with us along the way. I’m really excited to see what happens next.

    • I totally agree, Helen! The theory is often quite different from the practice. Always fun to experiment!

  • It would be a dream for anyone to work for a company like yours. Well done.

  • This is fascinating, thanks for this Courtney! I can totally see how losing structure, guidance and accountability could be de-motivating (as opposed to losing hierarchy, which seems like it was empowering for the team). It’ll be fascinating to see how the CLOU model evolves with Buffer HQ. Thank you for sharing your journey and findings so openly! It’s so valuable to be able to learn from the experiments at Buffer :)

    • Thanks for reading, Katie! Sometimes writing things out like this is the best way for me to synthesize and understand them better. Another great benefit of transparency!

  • Three things struck me in this post – brilliant quotes, Courtney’s writing and the concept of a circle for businesses.

    Favourite quotes here: “Teal light” and ‚ÄúMaybe what we had before Teal is quite Teal,‚ÄĚ. It’s really empowering to be in a place where the leaders can all be so open about the experience so far.

    I also want to contribute on a different element of this – the fact that you took on this big thing Courtney – to be a person to write about it – that must have been a big challenge in itself as we all see things so differently.

    I think the circle analogy is spot on – different people in the team in different places in the experience at different times – and therefore it’s always going to be moving and to some extent evolving.

    Look forward to hearing more about the team’s experiences as you go forwards together.

    • Aw, gosh; thanks a million for the very kind words, Liz! This is a bit of an experiment right now with me working as the sort of “internal culture reporter” at Buffer, so I really appreciate hearing that the method is proving useful for you!

      • Hi Courtney – just spotted your reply – sorry for not following up sooner. Love the concept of your being an ‘internal culture reporter’ – it reflects so positively on the Buffer values of transparency and working without ego. Look forward to the next update :))

      • Lisa B

        I also felt that way! Thanks for the great reporting and pulling together the picture for others outside Buffer here, Courtney.

  • Vladimir Zotov

    Could you please fix the link for “Morning Star Self-Management Institute” to exactly (otherwise many will see a “Your connection is not private” page).

    • Thanks for the nudge here, Vladimir! This should be fixed up; my apologies!

  • Dianne Stott

    I’m really enjoying these updates. I wish more companies would take initiatives like this – whether they work or not – and learn what works from them. Too often companies maintain the status quo and wonder why employees leave, don’t feel challenged, or candidates decline offers! Be bold! Be brave! Be like Buffer!!

    • Oh wow, Dianne, that is so kind! Keen to keep updating you as we learn. :)

  • Mark Vletter

    We have been working without management and titles for three years now. After two years we did a big internal survey and where we scored really really well in nearly every area’s. There were two area’s lacking:
    1. Accountability and feedback
    2. Goals oriented work (measuring company and team performance).

    We started searching for a solution and decided Holacracy might be the right way to go. We gave all the people working at the company a book as well (Getting teams done, Dutch book) and decided as a company to become a Holacracy.

    We have been doing this for the better part of this year now and it really had an impact in the area’s where we could improve. Colleagues are even more entrepreneurial in their roles. We have also become less of a consensus organisation which really is a good thing. Consensus takes time and usually a lot of people have an opinion without having skin in the game. This makes teams less efficient and less learning. The build, measure learn cycle has become the default for every part of the company.

    Another advantage of adopting an existing system is that it costs less energy than building your own. We are already on the front end of technology which costs time and energy. We are also on the front end of how we want to interact which our customers (NPS > 55) which also costs time and energy. The fact that we can treat Holacracy as a proven system makes it easier. We also get a chance to learn from other Holacracy companies and adopt systems they have built on top of it.

    On the metrics side we have decided to start testing with OKR’s which we will be experimenting with in the upcoming month. We are trying to see if it could be the grounds for distributed tactical team decision making, which might be the basis for the strategy as well.

    • Holacracy sounds really fascinating; thanks so much for sharing a success story here!

  • Andrea Pacini

    I’ve just finished to read Reinventing Organizations. Very interesting to see what it meant for you to adopt certain measures. I believe “wholeness” is the right way to go. I’d love to work for a company where I can be 100% myself. Unfortunately, in most companies today we need to put on professional masks. As for self-management, I like the idea — especially because I work for a huge multinational where there is too much hierarchy. But I also think there are certain aspects of the traditional work place that are useful — e.g. I like my regular one-on-one sessions with my team leader. I think you found a nice “compromise” that’s perfect for you.

    • Thanks for much for these balanced thoughts, Andrea! Totally agree with all of this. :)

  • This was a fascinating read! It’s interesting, before you even got to the “accountability=fun” point, I found myself thinking, “But no accountability with all the freedom is overwhelming and can be boring!” I’ve been in more than one work situation without accountability, and it’s more exhausting and draining to work in that kind of situation than in one with accountability paired with wholeness like y’all now do at Buffer.

  • Mike

    Fascinating post, thank you for sharing Courtney!

  • I’m late to the party with this comment but hope you’ll reply. Once again hugely grateful to you guys for sharing your journey. Really great stuff and I wish you every success in your ongoing experimentation.

    I see you’ve retained Laloux’s Wholeness element and have evolved your own form of self-management. I’d love to hear a little about how purpose and vision work at Buffer now.

    It felt to me from previous posts like you were heading on a good path with the founders taking responsibility for the initiative they’ve started – less like Laloux’s evolutionary purpose which is a little flawed. How’s this working in practice, and how does it work between Leo and Joel? Obviously those guys are very close but they’re not clones so who makes the final call over what’s in and what’s out to avoid dilution of the vision between them?

    Some thoughts from me and Laloux here on this which you might enjoy:

  • Ashley McAlpin

    I absolutely love everything about this. The more I dig into Buffer, the more I LOVE you all! It is fascinating to see how much structural changes can impact creativity and influence success!

  • Robert Richman

    did you build HQ from scratch?

  • Davide Di Giorgio

    This is totally fascinating! I’ve been observing this concept (without exactly knowing of it) for many years as a classroom teacher in the arts. I’ve tried the fully open style where students get to manage themselves, I’ve done top down, and even bottom up models… I’ve experienced results ranging from ‘Lord of the Flies’ to supercharged groups that take on amazing challenges and experience great growth.

    Now, I even experiment with it through using yoga as a platform. I developed a method of training for high performance artists, and toyed with with different presentation styles, and found the same thing. HUGE ‘a-ha moment’ when you mention above the intrinsic motivator of accountability!

    In fact, when I look over my own experiments, this was exactly the factor that made a critical difference. The concept of WHOLENESS has also shown itself to be a major contributing factor in team success.

    When each individual (I’ve worked intimately with groups sized from 15 up to 200) understands and celebrates their personal individuality and place, AND they give up their need to be right for the need to be GREAT as a whole – the group becomes unstoppable! When individuals opt for personal righteousness, the whole decays, and even personal growth and even worth is diminished.

    I LOVE that I’ve been able to stumble onto Buffer and see that you are being so transparent with these kinds of experiments.

    Courtney, thank you for such a beautifully written post!

    Buffer, I’m watching you ;) Here’s to ongoing experimentation! Perhaps we will get to share results and create together one day soon.

  • Selim Arslan

    Hey Courtney,

    The link that you had written at the bottom of your article is not working. Can you write it again? :)

  • Eric

    Just curious, as I didn’t see a metric; do you have people on the team that identify any disabilities?

  • Woody Mataele

    Such an interesting company that you all have created and continue improve/extend further essentially providing a service that permits efficiency and growth/creativity. I am AMAZED and constantly impressed further as I dive into Buffer and all its extended facets and partnerships. But most of all, (honestly all of Buffer blows me away) I’m in awe with the values and ideals Buffer and it’s founders have in place and strive for, that to me makes the world of a difference and puts you all in a league of your own. To the #BufferTea, Thank you for a breath of fresh air and all your hard work, makes life for the rest of us a bit more manageable and FUN!

  • James Nussbaumer

    How do I apply to be hired by Buffer?

  • Jason Hall

    Courtney thanks for the fascinating insight. We’re undergoing our own Teal journey and have likewise hit some roadblocks (or maybe just speed bumps) along the way. So just curious who sets the metrics for the teams now? And is financial information available to the teams and apart of that equation?

    I’ll be sharing LitheSpeed’s teal journey at Keep Austin Agile next month btw.

  • Kai Mantsch

    Really appreciate that you are sharing what you are learning along the way. This is a very exciting time for reinventing the way that we work!

    I did find this idea particularly interesting: “Accountability is a powerful intrinsic motivator”. An externally applied metric is, of course, by definition not an intrinsic motivator. I’m wondering if you meant “transparency”, in that people can set their own targets and have metrics that let them get immediate feedback on their progress? Transparency into one’s own progress is a tremendous motivator, and certainly “counts” as intrinsic! (It’s also an essential quality in generating flow states.)

    Additional note on teams: in group development there are a series of known stages that are required before a team starts performing. In the Agile Scrum world it’s generally found that Scrum teams take a year to reach the point where they are really humming. The addition of any new team member means having to go back through the forming stages once more. Sounds like you got some first hand experience with this.

    I really appreciate seeing more real-world examples so again, thanks for sharing!

  • Katherine Mancuso

    Your process is interesting and it makes me happy to see that you’re experimenting with making people feel like stakeholders in their work.

    However, do you have HR? If you don’t have HR, do you have an accountability process for interpersonal problems that keeps people safe?

    As a minority technologist, the first thing I think about when I look at a company where everyone is supposedly “self-managing” is not that I will feel able to work on problems that I want to tackle and feel a sense of ownership (which is probably the ideal), but that I will not be safe if problems happen, and it discourages me from applying.

    It has not been my experience in the past that racist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, or sexist folks can learn to manage their own prejudices without outside guidance, or that sexual harassment will just go away if you ask the person, and for me to have to provide that guidance is a big imposition on me that takes away from my actual work.

  • Shirley Rodriguez

    Awesome blog! Love the vulnerability and introspection as to how and why things didn’t work and how to improve. Everything I have about Buffer has made me love you all even more! Thanks for sharing!

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