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Early Reflections on Buffer’s Switch to Working Without Managers

Jan 5, 2015 5 min readOpen

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!

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