Company Culture
Employee Experience
8 min read

Alternative management structures

Belle Beth Cooper

Co-founder, Hello Code

Reading Time: 8 minutes

As more companies try out alternative management structures and prove that they can work, others are warming to the idea of experimenting with them. Initiatives can range from a different approach to 1:1 meetings to a full restructuring of a company.

Here we look at some of the alternative approaches being implemented at various companies.

Medium’s approach to company structure is to completely do away with managers. According to Medium’s CEO Evan Williams, one of the most important parts of this approach is “to make the implicit explicit — tons of it is about creating clarity”. Williams says having no managers doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no structure, but in fact his approach at Medium is to find a balance between structure and flexibility.

Technically, Medium is following a process called Holacracy. The idea of Holacracy is to distribute power and decision-making throughout the organization, and empower employees to act with more autonomy. According to, “The work is actually more structured than in a conventional company, just differently so.”

Medium’s team is made up of a “hierarchy of circles”, says Medium employee Jason Stirman. Circles of people focus on different areas, and are nested within each other. For instance, both the Reading and Discovery circle (dedicated to the user’s reading experience) and the Creation and Feedback circle (focused on content creation) are nested within the Product Development circle.

Each circle is made up of roles determined and assigned by the “Lead Link”. Employees can take more than one role depending on what they can handle. This approach lets employees work in different, though related, areas, as required by the overall goals their circle has, rather than being pigeonholed by a single job title.

Medium’s approach also allows for organic expansion: if a role becomes too big for one person to handle, it can evolve into a circle of its own.

Buffer is known for a few unusual approaches to company management: remote work, transparency, and a big focus on company values. Recently the company shook up its entire structure further adding to its reputation as an organization that does things differently.

In a similar approach to Medium, Buffer did away with its typical management hierarchy, and split the company into various product teams:

  • Onboarding
  • Android
  • iOS
  • Browser extensions
  • Dashboard + Awesome (premium) plan
  • Buffer for Business

Each team sets its own goals and schedule, and makes its own decisions based on four important questions:

  • Growth: What are our intriguing numbers we can pursue to grow Buffer?
  • Research: What are our customers biggest problems (in the area of our intriguing numbers)?
  • Product: How can we solve this problem in the most efficient and useful way?
  • Tech: How can we implement this problem efficiently and successfully for our customers?

With just one person making the final decision in each of these four areas, the entire process to bring a product improvement or new feature to life is a group effort. Buffer places special emphasis on asking for advice when making decisions, to ensure this autonomy for decision-makers doesn’t endanger the quality of decisions made. Simply put, the bigger the decision you’re making, the more advice you’re required to seek out.

Co-founder Leo Widrich points out that Buffer’s new decision-making-with-advice process can be hard for a founder to get used to: “You need to be able to give people advice, with the real option that they might not take it and go a different route, and you have to be fine with it. All things considered, I believe this might have been one of the hardest things for me to do so far. Whereas before your word as a leader or manager might have been the definite way to go, it is now only one piece of the decision maker framework.”

Widrich also says realizing when you’re making a big decision can be tricky: “Being self-aware and at times going a tiny bit slower than you’d like can substantially improve the decision making of everyone in your company.”

More recently the Buffer team added an extra dimension to their self-management strategy: self-managed salaries. Once a year team members “are invited to reflect on their salaries and get advice on changes from their teammates and a dedicated Salary Sounding Board”.

Finally, in March 2015 Buffer started a pilot program to allow employees to conduct self-reviews without relying on managers. Each team member reviews their own performance before inviting three close colleagues to offer advice and suggestions for improvements.

Basecamp, who used to be known as 37 Signals, have always had a “flat” company structure without managers. Co-founder Jason Fried says employing managers seemed necessary as the team grew, but it turned out to be a bad way to add the structure the team needed. Now, Fried says, “when groups do require structure, we get them to manage themselves”.

A team within Basecamp, for instance, the customer service team, can take turns being the team leader each week. This way there’s structure and leadership without a hierarchy. “Each week, a new leader sketches out the agenda, writes up the notes about problems and performance, and steps up to handle any troubled customer interactions” says Fried.

This approach lets everyone feel what it’s like to be both manager and managed. “Because we rotate management duties weekly, everyone is more empathetic toward one another,” says Fried. “When you’ll be management soon, you respect management more. Same with labor.”

This rotating management approach also means Basecamp focuses on promoting employees horizontally, rather than vertically. Promoting vertically, according to Fried, can lock in those who aren’t promoted: “If there are three or four people capable of managing (in a traditional sense) and we promote just one of them, the teammates might feel stuck. We would rather everyone work together in an environment in which everyone has a chance to move proudly and thoroughly sideways.”

Treehouse, an online platform for learning to code, has a flat company structure with no managers. Their process for getting things done involves projects which are proposed by team members and completed by recruiting other employees to help get them done. “Anyone can have an idea and propose a Project. Projects do not have to relate to the core expertise you were hired for. Example: A Designer could propose a project to teach a course.”

To begin a project, a team member can use Treehouse’s internal tool, Flow, to propose the idea. Then they’re tasked with recruiting other employees to fill the positions needed to complete the project. If there’s not enough interest to get a full team together, the project proposal is abandoned.

Treehouse iOS development teacher, Pasan Premaratne, shares a great example of why this approach is so useful: “(Treehouse CEO) Ryan came up with a marketing/PR campaign recently and proposed the project. Not only did no one join it, half the company actively opposed it saying it wasn’t a great fit for us, forcing Ryan to go back to the drawing board. Would it have been possible to dissuade Ryan before we went flat? Maybe, but probably not. He said so himself (citing it as proof that going flat was a good thing).”

Team members can work on various projects, but it’s up to each individual to ensure they’re not overcommitting themselves and letting their project teams down.

Together, project teams are in charge of ensuring their work is up to Treehouse standards before it’s shipped, and for maintaining their project once it’s live.

Premaratne also points out that this new approach has improved the efficiency of work at Treehouse. “In my experience our flat structure has resulted in better project quality and faster turnaround times. Premaratne says this is “a direct result of people owning the projects they create”.

Each project team decides how they want to work. They can elect a leader if they want to, or allow a leader to naturally emerge, or work collaboratively without any leader.

To ensure employee reviews are fair, every three months Treehouse team members anonymously review any colleague they worked with closely, €”usually within a project team. This means employee reviews are based on actual working interactions with colleagues.

“We’re still a relatively small company with an awesome team which makes for fertile ground for experiments like this,” says Premaratne, “But the benefits far outweigh any negatives and so far, it’s been great working in such an environment.”

The common thread throughout the alternative setups of these companies is their willingness to experiment. Although experimenting with new structures or processes can be nerve-racking, each of these companies is a great example of why it’s worth trying new things.

In the case of Basecamp, their experiment with hiring managers didn’t work out, and they had to turn to another option. Sometimes trying new things will seem like running into dead ends, but finding out what doesn’t work for your company may be the only way to find out what does. Contact Culture Amp for information on alternative management structures.

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