From boss-free to hierarchy: the strange case of GitHub

Reporting to your boss, who reports to her boss? Business as usual. But some companies are doing things differently, downplaying the role of hierarchy or even eschewing it entirely. One Silicon Valley firm's story sheds light on what hierarchy (and the lack thereof) means, in practice and over time.

This is a guest post from Maciej Workiewicz, coauthor with Richard M. Burton, Dorthe Døjbak Håkonsson, Jackson Nickerson, Phanish Puranam, and Todd Zenger of GitHub: exploring the space between boss-less and hierarchical forms of organizing, published in the Journal of Organization Design.

While hierarchies offer many benefits (hence their ubiquity), they are also often a target of complaints from managers and the managed alike. Increasingly, employees—especially younger ones—find the very concept of formal authority unappealing. Ask people working in big companies how they feel about hierarchy and you’re bound to hear the view that it’s oppressive and stifles creativity. Words like “red tape” and “bureaucracy” usually come up.

Office workers usually dislike hierarchy, in theory.

As early as 1977, in an article called “Almost Random Careers,” James C. March and James G. March (a son and father) invoke the “myth” of managerial importance, arguing that humans tend to attribute special meaning to people at the top (whether in business, in the military, or elsewhere), referencing the traditional image of hierarchy as a valuable tool for realizing a leader’s vision. In their Harvard Business Review article Strategic Intent, Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad raise a similar point about the elitist view of hierarchical management: “The myths that grow up around successful top managers—“Lee Iacocca saved Chrysler,” “De Benedetti rescued Olivetti,” “John Sculley turned Apple around”—perpetuate it”.

Could one conclude from all this that the traditional role and importance of CEOs, managers, and hierarchy is only a myth? Hamel, also a professor at London Business School, seemed to espouse this when he wrote, again in HBR, that Bureaucracy Must Die. In fact, in some organizations bureaucracy is already dead.

Over the past few years, several companies have decided to eliminate hierarchy and managers: Valve, WL Gore, GitHub, and Morning Star, just to name a few. Among those, the American software company Valve, as described by Puranam and Håkonsson in the 2015 article Valve’s Way, is among the foremost examples of this new trend. There are no bosses at Valve, and employees join whichever projects they find interesting and are able to help with. In fact, the desks at Valve have wheels so that employees can move them and physically join the team of their choice throughout the day.

For certain, a boss-less organization has its benefits. Occasionally it touts them itself: the Valve New Employee Handbook argues that a company that “spent the last decade going out of its way to recruit the most intelligent, innovative, talented people on Earth, telling them to sit at a desk and do what they’re told obliterates 99 percent of their value.” Positioning themselves on the other end of the spectrum, they write, “We want innovators, and that means maintaining an environment where they’ll flourish.”

In GitHub’s early days, employees were their own bosses.

Like Valve, GitHub is a multi-billion-dollar software developer employing some of the most creative and talented people in the business. Since its founding in 2008, the company has grown rapidly, propelled by the success of its software product: a platform that facilitates development of software for individuals and other companies. Some of the biggest software companies and open source projects rely on it. And the company is often called “Facebook for developers” for its importance in facilitating collaboration and giving visibility to computer programmers across the globe.

The story of hierarchy at GitHub adds a counterpoint, or at least some noteworthy nuance, to the narrative that free-flowing, boss-less structures are the way forward. Like Valve, GitHub has been a fierce proponent of its boss-less form of organizing. In the years right after Tom Preston-Werner and Chris Wanstrath founded the company, there were no official managers and few real rules. Founders and early employees sometimes gave presentations and wrote about the virtues of having no bosses.

But that changed in 2014, when the company made a 180-degree turn and abruptly abandoned its cherished boss-less structure. Today GitHub has project managers, planning sessions, and the other trappings of a traditional hierarchy.

Our article looks closely at how GitHub’s relationship with hierarchy has unfolded. From multiple angles, we begin to answer an important question: what can GitHub tell us about the potential limits of a boss-less form of organizing—and the challenges of traversing the path from boss-less organization to hierarchy and back?

Read the paper here.

GitHub: exploring the space between boss-less and hierarchical forms of organizing is part of the Journal of Organization Design‘s Organization Zoo series. Since 2012, the Zoo has been a forum for leading Organizational Design researchers to analyze “rare breeds” among firms. Sometimes disagreeing, they dive deeply into the theoretical underpinnings and hash out the practical significance of the noteworthy company on display in the proverbial zoo.

Additionally, the Journal welcomes submissions to an ongoing Special Collection on fading hierarchies and the emergence of new forms of organization.

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