The Year Without Pants: and the future of work (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013)

Spontaneous order provides “a more efficient allocation of societal resources than any design could achieve.” F.A. Hayek

I forgot when I added this book to my reading list but I’m guessing it was during a conversation with the great folks over at Buffer.

I have a fascination for technology and all things based in the web and for companies that don’t subscribe to the normal corporate top-down structures.

Automattic fits each of those.

You could say Matt Mullenweg is the founder of WordPress. But you’d be closer saying Mullenweg was the conductor of a symphony of programmers that created WordPress.

Mullenweg started Automattic in 2005. They serve a global blogging community and ensure millions have the opportunity to share their passions with the world.

I’ve used WordPress on a number of projects. It’s a great platform and, beyond blogging, makes developing websites easy and affordable.

The Year Without Pants is a story of Scott Berkun‘s experience at Automattic. Berkun had previously worked at Microsoft and was the team leader in the development of Internet Explorer.

Berkun offers a unique perspective coming from a company with more rigid structure and moving to a company with a flat structure.

Berkun refers to two these two extremes as:

  • the cathedral style where an architect directs all activities and the system is hierarchical.
  • the bazaar style, where management is removed and each individual is empowered with decision rights.

Companies are a combination of the two but most I have seen tend to lean toward the cathedral.

A growing number of startups, especially in technology, are selecting style closer to the bazaar. I love learning more about these businesses and how they operate.

Most important is the culture and vision within in an organization and Berkun shares his immersion in Automattic’s.

When explaining the structure, Berkun recalls the ant nests he would discover as a child. Individually they “seemed so dumb” but their “collective choices” produced an “organized chaos” that produced everything the ants required to survive and carry on.

Berkun wasn’t calling Automattic’s programmers dumb but was making the comparison that each employee, and each team of employees, had a say in the direction they headed. As long as everyone maintained the culture and vision of the company, their activities would undoubtedly create progress for Automattic.

Automattic avoids the bureaucracies that often form by empowering its employees rather than creating “jobs that are tied strictly rules and procedures.” Employees are given the freedom to create value for the customers.

The safeguards many companies put into place, the quality controls, are also missing. Any programmer has the ability to push code live at any moment. “A major reason it works at Automattic is belief in a counterintuitive philosophy: safeguards don’t make you safe; they make you lazy.” You have the power to act but you are also responsible for your actions.

Automattic is also entirely remote, each employee living and working where they desire. Berkun works through the many issues created by this policy, communication being one, but also shows the advantages of it – employees having the freedom to balance their work and personal life to a far greater degree.

This also means each employee feels a higher degree of fulfillment in their work. Knowing they have a degree of autonomy within a shared vision allows them to focus their talents on what most excited them.

Most surprising were the similarities of the corporate structure between Koch Industries.

Charles Koch also promotes spontaneous order within his own companies. In Good Profit, Koch explains, “The intention of [Market Based Management] is to set the conditions of an organization – a framework consisting of a structure, a way of thinking, and a culture – to bring about a spontaneous order that produces miracles.”

Working with government and policy issues, I couldn’t help but wonder how our state government might look if it ran more like Automattic or Koch Industries.

Would standing in line at the DMV be a better experience for both the customer and the employee?

A system where the employee doesn’t even have the authority to help the customer.

State assemblies are generally comprised of citizen legislators. Maybe, someday, we’ll have enough individuals working for companies like Automattic that suggesting government work in a similar fashion won’t be a foreign idea.

If we find amazing the production of ants through organized chaos, imagine the success and prosperity we would see applying these same natural laws.

Continue reading » | | Posted in Books
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