I just finished Scott Berkun’s The Year Without Pants, combination memoir and situational analysis of his year-plus working at Automattic, the company behind WordPress. It triggered a series of thoughts that I plan to write. This is the first.
Groupon, where I recently worked, has been labelled the fastest-growing company in history. In less than four years, it had 12,000 employees in 48 countries world wide. To manage that hyperinflation, the company adopted an hierarchical bureaucratic organizational model. For many, if not most, companies, such a model is seen as the default, as just how companies work.
However, corporate bureaucratic hierarchies were developed with specific purposes in mind, mostly around the development of railroads and mass manufacture. As such, they are products of 19th century Industrial Age contexts.
From my vantage point, the most important thing Matt Mullenweg and his team have done is question assumptions about not only how we work, but how we organize to do that work. And that begins with the recognition that the 21st century Connected Age is a much different context.
Automattic was born out of an open source project (WordPress) that had contributors worldwide. This lead to the company being a wholly remote/distributed organization. Most people work from home, and people work from all over the world.
However, remote work isn’t interesting in and of itself. You could be sitting in your pajamas, working from home, but still operate in a bureaucratic hierarchy with explicit guidelines about how to do your work.
At Automattic, remote work is the outcome of something even more revolutionary, which is the remarkable degree of autonomy granted team members. They choose not only where, but when and how they work. They figure out what they should work on. They set their own timelines.
Now, it’s not wholly emergent — Matt is still In Charge, and has authority to make certain things happen. But he seems to operate more as a benevolent dictator than a hard-charging CEO. And as the company grew, so did the realization they needed some organizational structure, so employees were grouped into a series of teams, each with a team leader.
It’s important to recognize, though, that even this structure emerged. It was not a top-down mandate, but a group realization. Most organizations don’t think hard their structure — they default to what has become a conventional assumption. What’s so liberating about Automattic is that, at every step of it’s evolution, it has been thoughtfully intentional about how the organization operates, recognizing that the company warrants the same type of design that their products do.
What’s also liberating is that such autonomy demonstrates a remarkable degree of trust in employees to do the right thing. Because, as I’ve recently learned, companies wield bureaucracy expressly because they do not trust their employees. Bureaucracy is seen as a safeguard to ensure nothing bad happens. But too often it simply leads to nothing happening at all.
(As I was drafting this, Scott made freely available Chapter 4, “Culture Always Wins”, which I believe to be the single most important chapter in the book. So go read it!)