I remember a conversation with Joel, when we first heard about a company operating without managers. We were absolutely baffled. There was no way, we thought, that Buffer could ever work in that way. How can any work get done without managers? We concluded that this is one of the things we will just never understand. I remember us saying that possibly, in the same way that people are baffled when they hear Buffer is a distributed team, we are baffled that some companies work without managers. And that’s where we left things at and moved on.
Fast forward some years later, Buffer is in the middle of becoming fully self-managed. And whenever we throw the word “self-management” or “no managers” around, we get seemingly similar baffled looks to how we ourselves first reacted to the idea of being fully self-organized without bosses.
The best explanation I’ve found to date, is one that describes a simple analogy that everyone already knows well: A forest. From the book, reinventing organizations, this quote describes it very fittingly:
“In a forest, there is no master tree that plans and dictates change when rain fails to fall or when the spring comes early. The whole ecosystem reacts creatively, in the moment.”
Whenever I describe Buffer’s change to someone in that way, it seems to click for many and they can relate to many of the new ideas we’re implementing.
What I like particularly about the forest analogy, is that one can seemingly dive into any detail of the forest as an organism and relate it to how things are working at Buffer now. One element of that is that things from the outside look messy, if you walk into a forest, there’s leaves everywhere, and dead wood lying on the ground. There seem to be no paths to walk and everything looks chaotic. And yet, everything that needs to happen is able to happen, almost effortlessly. The only difference is that there’s no one that controls it.
One thing I believe is that the reason we organize many things in such a rigid way in most current organizations, is because people need to have control beyond themselves. If you need to control 10, 20, well as the CEO sometimes thousands of people, you need a structure that allows you to do that. If no one is in charge, then everyone can go and develop their own ways and what follows is an incredibly diverse set of workflows and initiatives.
Another question I like to ask myself, to find out whether we’re unconsciously falling back into the old methods of working at Buffer is “How would this work in a forest?”. It helps me to catch ideas that are putting constraints and processes onto others early and avoid working on them, and instead explore solely my own workflow and how I might want to change it.
And lastly, the aspiration to become the living and breathing ecosystem that a forest is, is purely a very happy imagination in my head, that makes me feel like we’re on the right track.