The Self-organising Business

Most businesses are quite capable of self-organising and reducing or removing management layers. With increased autonomy for individuals and a community of employees that contribute innovation back to the business the writing is on the wall for traditional managers.

Management is increasingly irrelevant

All of the big management consultancy firms will happily take $1000 an hour from you to tell you that ‘The Internet has changed everything’. The chances are that if you spend more than 30 minutes a day on the internet you already know this. You will have seen regimes topple, government surveillance schemes revealed, startups float for $13 billion and spacemen singing in space. So the web connects us all and makes it easier for everyone to have their say. We get that - lets move on.

The diminishing returns of management

Positions in businesses that just broker information between staff that want something done and staff that do something are increasingly irrelevant. These kind of management layers add little or no value. Indeed they often make projects more expensive and hinder the delivery of projects. Online project tools like Basecamp, JIRA, Pivotal Tracker effectively play the role of a manger now, but teams work together rather than being directed by one single person. With collaborative tools autonomous teams are perfectly capable of conducting their work in the open and delivering projects under their own steam.

This idea has largely been informed by the quasi-anarchy of the internet where anyone can say anything to anyone. There are no boundaries, no borders, almost no rules and no managers. It is chaotic, unordered and free.

Treating people like individuals

By liberating staff from a heavyweight management layer they instantly feel more empowered. Once they realise they are respected and treated as an individual regardless of their position they are far more likely to engage with being part of a community. Why would you offer a suggestion on how to do something better if you do not think it will even be listened to? The idea that innovation comes from the top is just plain wrong. It comes from a community that feels empowered to contribute and debate. It comes from an environment that instils respect but values dissent and change.

Learning from Open Source

Open Source Software has taught businesses that you don’t need a top down management layer doing nothing other than manage to organise projects. The web gives makers all of the tools they need to self-organise and create amazing things. Projects like the Linux Kernel, Firefox and Nginx are all projects that are created by a disparate group of individuals who assemble on the web, collaborate and get things done. These projects are self-organising, distributed and are simply amazing in what they achieve.

Teams become self-regulating

If you give teams autonomy they start to become self-regulating. A project team can be connected throughout the day via a chat room with bots pushing messages into the rooms around code commits, tickets being closed, and messages from monitoring software. Everyone is working in the open. The work that individuals are doing is transparent and each time code is pushed other members of the team can review it and comment on it.

This does not lead to a culture of surveillance but one of collaboration. A developer might review a commit from another team member and suggest a better way of doing it or a junior member of the team might learn from watching a more senior member. In this environment innovation happens all the time. It quickly becomes apparent when someone needs help or an area of the project is dropping behind. Although team members may have more experience they are all equal - there is no one that feels they cannot express an opinion to another team member.

Reviewing performance is easy

One traditional role of management is to monitor the performance of employees and conduct reviews of their performance. This might be subjective or based on project outcomes. For teams that embrace openness and collaboration reviewing performance becomes a 30 minute job. All of the artefacts that a maker has created are available for a team or manager to review. Code commits, designs, discussions in chat rooms. The chances are though that if you have been part of the team you already know how well that individual has performed and so do they. There is simply no need to employ someone to act as a surveillance agent on an employee and moreover it just feels plain wrong.

Management layers hinder innovation

Very rarely are managers true visionaries. Yet the idea that one person should be able to shape an idea and then employ underlings to create it is precisely the model of a management layer. They offer nothing to a creative process other than the idea that they are brightest mind on the project. If their vision is wrong then a horrible dystopia of delivering for a cretinous megalomaniac can evolve. Think David Brent. I’m sure you have an immediate or past experience of working with a similar character.

If you give a team autonomy and connect them together then light direction is all that is required. More often than not you will find that the team begins to generate more innovation than the initial direction could ever have imagined.


Businesses no longer derive value from management positions that broker information in the way they once did. Teams and individuals now have a vast array of tools to collaborate and create without the need for a single individual to orchestrate it. Traditional management layers are a dying requirement and businesses and individuals will be much better for it. Internet based businesses broadly understand this but it is high time that traditional businesses embrace this too.

The stock of people that make is going up. The stock of people that manage is going down.


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