Sep 17



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On June 20th 2013, we decided that our 4-day work week at Treehouse was’t insane enough so we went further: We removed all Managers.

It was a bold move and one that not everyone was convinced of. We proposed to change the way the company operated and give all employees 100% control of their time and let them decide what they work on each day. From now on no one would tell anyone what to do, not even the CEO. (Me!)

This is not a new idea. Valve, GitHub, Gore Associates and Medium (and probably more) are all #NoManager companies. Knowing that someone has done it before us didn’t make it any less daunting or even any easier. This is the story of how we did it, why we did it, the highs the lows and a few pointers for anyone thinking this craziness might be for them.

In a series of articles, I’ll explain …

  • Part 1 (this article)
    • Why we removed our managers
    • What managers actually do
    • What really motivates people
  • Part 2
    • How people choose what to work on
    • How priorities are determined
    • How Projects work and what tools we use
    • How budgeting works
  • Part 3
    • How career progression works
    • How compensation works
    • How reviews and discipline work
  • Part 4
    • How we communicate and what tools we use (I only answer 10 emails per day)
  • Future articles
    • The pros
    • The cons
    • The future

Why we Removed our Managers

We started the company in 2010 and operated in the normal command-and-control structure. By 2013 we had grown to 60 people with seven managers and four executives. As we added more people to the team, we noticed something disconcerting: rumors, politics and complaints started appearing.

Alan, my Co-Founder, and I started exploring possible solutions and considered removing the lowest layer of managers and asking them to go back into producing (which is what they were originally hired for). Then we went up the chain and asked hard questions about the value of the mid-tier managers, and then we kept going all the way to the executives at the top.

What if we removed all management and simply empowered everyone to choose what they do every day? We laughed at first and then the conversation turned serious. We had hired talented and motivated people. Did they need managers?

I can only speak from experience so I’ll limit this to my journey being an employee at two companies and running four companies.

In my experience, managers started off as workers and then moved up the ladder, getting farther and farther from the front line. They gained power but slowly lost their touch with the day-to-day realities of talking to customers and actually creating solutions to their problems. The manager’s team lost respect for them because they could no longer produce, which means they would set unrealistic deadlines.

Everyone was getting abstracted away from actually doing and instead focused all their attention on structuring.

As our team grew, we spent more and more time talking about priorities, aligning everyone and checking in on progress. The whole structure we designed was taking power and responsibility away from everyone on the front lines.

What do Managers Do?

In my experience, managers’ responsibilities were …

  1. Communicating messages from top to bottom
  2. Settling disputes
  3. Managing careers
  4. Keeping their teams motivated and happy
  5. Shielding their teams from things they didn’t think they needed to know

If we could find a way to replace the function of the managers and focus everyone on actually producing for our Students (customers) then it would actually be possible to be a #NoManager company. In my future posts I’ll explain how we’re doing this at Treehouse.

What Motivates People?

In my experience, people want to be amazing at their job. I can’t count the number of times that people had really great ideas but were powerless to implement them. I watched as they went from zealous excitement to indifferent cynicism.

If you have 10 minutes, please watch this video by Dan Pink: Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. I think it sums up almost all my thoughts on why we decided to remove management.

Good managers act like servants to their team but far too many like the power and let it go to their heads. If Treehouse ever grows to 500 people, we’d need at least 50 managers. If we were starting to have morale problems now, what would that be like? Blurgh.

Go time!

Alan and I decided that if we were going to do this, the company would have to enact it by a majority vote.

The Treehouse Team is spread over the entire United States (with one person in the UK) so we do most of our communication in an internal forum called Convoy. We wrote an epic post on Convoy called Radical new idea: No managers at Treehouse, took a deep breath and hit the post button. The whole company ground to a halt for two days as 447 comments were posted, upvotes and downvotes were cast and passionate opinions flared.

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After two days, we did a company-wide Q&A over video and at the end we asked everyone to vote via an online form. The votes flooded in and over 90% voted to go flat.

It was go time. Now the real work would begin.

Next up …

In the next article, I discuss …

  • How people choose what to work on
  • How priorities are determined
  • How Projects work and what tools we use
  • How budgeting works

Further Reading

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101 Notes

  1. dachrisch reblogged this from ryanleecarson
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  3. dajeste reblogged this from ryanleecarson and added:
    On June 20th 2013, we decided that our 4-day work week at Treehouse was’t insane enough so we went further: We removed...
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  5. chooake reblogged this from ryanleecarson and added:
    Love to try this out :-)
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  15. claireannq reblogged this from ryanleecarson and added:
    Really interesting article on the removal of managers in the work place!
  16. jasonratcliffe reblogged this from ryanleecarson and added:
    Brilliant article. Valve also use this mindset, and it seems to make perfect sense if you’re a knowledge worker. Love...
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