At Makers Academy, Europe’s leading web developer bootcamp, we’re trying something different to the traditional top-down organisational hierarchy. Does it work? The short answer is – sometimes. I was inspired to write this blog post to try and communicate with our people what a self-managed company means to me. I’m publishing it in the public domain in the hope that others looking to learn about alternative ways to run a company will find it useful.
What are we trying to achieve?
We’re changing people’s lives by helping them find a job they love, whilst helping organisations solve their talent problem.
How do we do this?
Today, we do this by finding and training the best junior developers and being the glue that fixes the “digital skills gap”. But tomorrow, this could be vastly different. Changing people’s lives and helping companies solve their talent problem will be an ever-evolving problem which we will always need to adapt to.
How different is it from other organisations?
We have rapidly innovated our operation and evolved our existing offerings: from running a 3 year course to a 3 month course, from teacher-led learning to self-led learning, from classroom to pair-programming, from qualifications to actively placing students in jobs and charging companies for it, from rigidity to agility, from attracting people with specific grades to opening the doors for everyone*. In other words, we’ve innovated in three key areas: Education (in tech/coding), Recruitment and Inclusivity.
* on this last point, we are very aware that we’re not yet as inclusive as we’d like to be for people from lower socio-economical backgrounds. This is something we’re actively working on!
How can we innovate so well?
I believe that’s where the system comes into play. Innovation doesn’t happen by itself. It happens, not just because the system allows it, but because it is actively encouraged.
In other words, our paradigm shift to running the company in what we sometimes refer to as self-management, Teal or maybe Makers Academy Management (MAM for shorties) happened because the people within our organisation believed it was right.
What system are we building?
Though the original idea to try self-management was inspired by Frederic Laloux’s ‘Reinventing Organisations’, in practice we’ve found that each organisation must interpret the practical application of the theory in its own unique way. Rather, I’ll try and describe the system we’re trying to create and what it’s optimised for.
I’ll also share some of the downsides of our system. As I mentioned above, the system is imperfect, and will likely change as our organisational needs evolve.
Makers Academy is built on trust. I believe we’re using trust like a currency. There’s no obvious model/system/app that allows us to tangibly know what trust means, but I believe it’s the essence of our management style. Evgeny wrote about this in the early days, and that premise still remains.
As an example, when we hire someone, we’re effectively asking ourselves if we trust this person, else why would we hire them? And when we struggle with an employee, it’s because trust has been eroded over time, events, performance, and behaviour. Either that or the organisation doesn’t trust that this person is now the best for their role.
The by-products of trusting our employees are freedom and responsibility; the flip-side of the same coin. If we trust you, we trust you to be free to find the best way to add value to the organisation. We also trust you to be responsible about your choices, how you apply yourself and everything else you do inside the organisation. This isn’t easy. It requires a high level of self-awareness, emotional intelligence and ability to reflect on yourself rather than point fingers or blame.
By operating this way, we’re trying to strip away the belief that the people at the top or the people with most experience know it all. We’re trying to operate in a way which empowers decision-making at all levels, allowing anyone to make change and change the course of the organisation.
“Our warehouse is not as efficient as others but that’s not what we optimise for. We optimise for customer experience”
Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO
Why this particular system?
The system we’re building may not be the best to grow fast and make a lot of money. The system we’re building is optimised for innovation, adaptability and the development of our people.
Innovation is a process by which we avoid the obvious answers. It requires stripping things back to its core, or going back to first principle as Elon Musk famously coined the phrase. In order to do so, and for an entire organisation to behave like this, the system we’re creating forces everyone in it to carefully think about their work and bring change where they see it’s required.
It may mean we’re a bit slower, although I believe if we are, it’s because we’re not operating 100% smoothly within that system… yet. And to continue operating better, we don’t need to revert to another more “traditional” system like top-down management, but rather keep investing in making our system better every day.
“Sometimes you start putting in command and control structures because you think it’s appropriate – that’s what grown up companies do. And then you end up with hierarchy. We’re in the process of dismantling all of those and allowing them [employees] to thrive on the chaos and putting decision-making right back down to the lowest level.”
Nick Beighton, ASOS CEO
Let’s take Tesla’s electric car as an example. The “system” that is the electric car is far from perfect. They take longer to charge, they have smaller ranges, they currently still cost a lot more than their petrol counterparts. But it’s ONLY by investing, iterating, innovating and being adaptable that a company like Tesla will figure out how to make the electric car better than the petrol one. It takes guts and risks to go after an area nobody knows yet how to solve properly.
That’s what we’re trying to do, except in a completely different space. Unlike Uber, Facebook or Tesla, we handle human beings through a journey of learning. Standardisation, processes, scaling and more machines are not going to automatically help us produce a better developer. We’ve seen how trying to do “mass education” has failed. We want to avoid making the same mistakes. In order to do so, we need to come back to first principles and keep iterating slowly but surely, until we’ve cracked it, like Tesla has over many moons.
Does it work, in the context of what we’re trying to achieve, today?
I think overall it does.
Let’s just take one example: we’ve been able to improve the course very rapidly, not just in terms of including technologies but adapting learning styles from lecturing to self-led learning and pair-programming. This is important in the context of software development because it’s an industry that changes faster than most others thanks to the speed of technological advancements.
If we traded our system for a more ‘traditional’ one, we would be swapping one set of problems for another. My gut says we would more rapidly become a traditional education establishment and make the same mistakes they’ve made.
This being said, it’s true lots of things are not working as optimally as we’d like. This is no different from the electric car example I previously used: the first iteration is imperfect. Over time, with an innovative, adaptable and Agile mindset, it gets better and better. 1% improvement every day is a huge change over time.
How should we treat those imperfections?
For those things that aren’t working, I think the mindset to have is to try as hard as possible to understand why. This way we don’t jump to conclusions that aren’t fixing the root problem by simply patching the wound.
Let’s take the advice process for example. The advice process is the system through which we make big decisions at Makers Academy. The purpose of the process is to access collective wisdom in pursuit of a sound decision: the decision maker will be able to take the best course of action. The idea is to transcend top-down and consensus based decision making.
In practice, this means creating a post on Slack, our internal communication platform. The person looking to bring change is expected to write a thorough essay explaining the entire reasoning behind the change. We also expect our colleagues to come up with alternatives to the suggested proposal so we can see they’ve taken the time to weigh in the different options. The people most affected by that change and experts in the field are then expected to provide some thoughts and feedback. We’re not looking for consensus, but if there’s clear alignment, it makes the process smoother and faster to complete.
If the advice process is broken, we need to ask ourselves a list of questions to get to the bottom of what the issue is.
- Why is it broken?
- How do we know?
- Did we explain it properly to new joiners?
- Are we clear on how to run it best?
- What mistakes have we made with previous advice processes?
- Why, and how can we fix them?
Taking the time to understand and deconstruct the issue is a far more constructive approach than simply saying the advice process doesn’t work or the advice process is broken, and it makes decision-making impossible.
Systems are designed for specific outcomes and with a specific set of values. They’re imperfect by nature and therefore when you replace one system for another, you trade one set of problems for another. There are always trade-offs.
At Makers Academy, we’re building a unique self-managed system as we believe it will help us achieve our objectives today. Of course there are trade-offs, but I want to urge us to keep an open mind and consider what we gain when adapting to this non-traditional hierarchy. The structure of the business will likely change as the needs of the business changes, so learn, develop and reap what you sow – and we’ll all be a little wiser for it.