Bottom's Up Management

Joel Spolsky had a great post the other day laying out his unique approach to management at startups.  I’d recommend reading the entire post when you get a chance but I’ve re-blogged some of the key excerpts below.

Most TV management is of the “command and control” variety. The CEO makes a decision, and tells his lieutenants. They convey this important decision to the teams, who execute on the CEO’s decision. It’s top-down management. All authority and power and decisions flow from the top. How could it work any other way?

This system probably works very well when you are trying to organize a team of manual laborers with interchangeable skills to sweep up the ticker tape in the street after the Giants parade BECAUSE THE GIANTS WON THE SUPER BOWL IF YOU DID NOT NOTICE.

The “management team” isn’t the “decision making” team. It’s a support function. You may want to call them administration instead of management, which will keep them from getting too big for their britches.

Administrators aren’t supposed to make the hard decisions. They don’t know enough. All those super genius computer scientists that you had to recruit from MIT at great expense are supposed to make the hard decisions. 

Think about how a university department organizes itself. There are professors at various ranks, who pretty much just do whatever the heck they want. Then there’s a department chairperson who, more often than not, got suckered into the role. The chairperson of the department might call meetings and adjudicate who teaches what class, but she certainly doesn’t tell the other professors what research to do, or when to hold office hours, or what to write or think.

And yes, you’re right, Steve Jobs didn’t manage this way. He was a dictatorial, autocratic asshole who ruled by fiat and fear. Maybe he made great products this way. But you? You are not Steve Jobs. You are not better at design than everyone in your company. You are not better at programming than every engineer in your company. You are not better at sales than every salesperson in the company.

A couple thoughts:

This is a great post.  I love the idea of flipping management on its head in a knowledge organization.  Your most junior employees are highly paid and extremely intelligent.  They should have lots of authority over how they do their jobs.  But often what works in theory doesn't work in practice.  Employees need a strong vision from the top and often need to be motivated to push through the challenges that inevitably come up.  While I agree that "management" can come from the bottom up, strong "leadership" from the top remains critical.

One final note:  I see Joel's point on this, but the analogy of a university isn't a good one.  Most universities are extremely inefficient, particularly compared to a tech startup.  I wrote a post a while back on the inefficiencies of the university system.