Taking down the hierarchy one self-managed team at a time

Courtney Dutton, 5 min read

Taking down the hierarchy one self-managed team at a time

I’m new to Yarno. About a month. It’s been a transition. Who knew that working at a learning company would require you to learn so much? My head is so full of new information, I’ve developed a chronically sore neck from holding my big brain up all day. I’m not joking. I have a chiropractic appointment this weekend.

Besides the sore neck, the biggest transition for me has been acclimatising to Yarno’s “Teal” organisational structure, and in particular, it’s use of self-managed teams, rather than the traditional hierarchical business structure.

What is “Teal”?

“Teal” was coined by Frederic Laloux in his book Reinventing Organisations. It’s an organisational concept that goes against the traditional hierarchical model of business management. Instead, it advocates for a more fluid, self-managed organisational structure. There is a lot more to the Teal philosophy, and I won’t even scratch the surface today. So, instead of attempting to do it all at once, I’m just going to focus on the self-managed teams aspect of the Teal philosophy, and it’s integration at Yarno.

Hierarchy vs Self-Managed Teams

We all know what hierarchy that most of our social, governmental and business structures are deeply ingrained in hierarchy. For Government you’ve got the Queen, then the Governor-General, then the Prime Minister, Ministers, Public Servants, and so on down to the people who hand you flyers telling you how to vote. With everyone reporting up the line, and giving decisions down the line. It’s a pretty well established tradition, going back to the beginning of society or so.

But it’s not the only way to structure an organisation.

The alternative is self-managed teams. Rather than everyone reporting all the way up to the Queen, The CEO, the school Principal, instead, you can form self-managed teams who focus on one specific area of expertise each, and make all the decisions within that area. Frederic Laloux uses the example of a human brain; the brain isn’t arranged so that a bunch of underling brain cells all report to one big boss brain cell who makes all the decisions. Rather, it’s divided into lots of different sections which focus on specific functions, such as memory, critical thinking, or remembering where you left your keys (those guys do tend to drop the ball a bit, though).

At Yarno, we divide into teams focused on one specific area of the company, but all working towards Yarno’s evolutionary mission: to Level Up. For example, I’m on the marketing team. It comprises myself, Holly, Tess and Paul. Within that team, we all divide responsibilities ourselves, rather than having Mark or Lachy delegating specifically to us. It means not only do we have more freedom, we have more responsibility. The marketing buck stops with us.

Why use self-managed teams?

At this point you might be asking, “why”? Everyone knows that businesses are consumerist greed-machines designed to exploit the proletariat. Why would they ever stray from the ever successful hierarchical business model? Every company has a CEO, every army a General, every McDonald’s has a manager telling some kid on $13 an hour to cook more fries, and faster! When the hierarchical model has been proven to be good for business, why would anything ever change?

The problem with the hierarchy model, our co-founder Lachy explained to me, is expansion. As companies grow, the people in charge are asked to make more and more decisions, about things they have less and less context about. Self-managed teams not only alleviates this problem, but also allows Lachy to focus on what his strengths are. It’s simply more pragmatic. Lachy doesn’t need to focus on whether I’ve used the correct form of “it’s” when he could be implementing Yarno’s next product development.

Subordination vs Autonomy; Hierarchy vs Self-Management

Credit where credit’s due - hierarchical models do make decision-making pretty easy. Let me rephrase that; hierarchical models make decision making pretty easy for the underlings. If you’re not the one making the decision, the pressure’s off. Kick back, cool off, the pressure’s been taken down a notch. Is it the right decision? Doesn’t matter, not your problem. There’s a couple problems with this, however:

1. The person making the decision is often quite separated from the     problem at hand.

Career politicians decide how much minimum wage should be. Heads of NGOs in Australia decide what aid is needed in Syria. The Department of Education decides whether the kindergarten curriculum should be all letters and numbers, or if they should chuck some finger-painting in there too.

As organisations get bigger, the person or people making decisions get further and further away from the situation which they’re deciding. More often than not, this leads to the wrong decision being made.

2. When you’re not making the decision you don’t have the responsibility, yes, but you also don’t have the freedom. This leads to people being less inspired, and performing below their capabilities.

Why try at a job where you have no autonomy, no stake in the process? If you work at McDonald’s, you’re not a chef, you’re just flipping burgers. People train for years to become a chef, but I don’t know anyone who dreams of flipping burgers. What’s the difference? The ingredients, yes. But also, the amount of freedom to decide what to do with those ingredients.

Who actually makes decisions in a self-managed team?

The short answer: everyone.

The long answer: anyone and everyone with expertise in the area being decided about, and everyone who is going to be affected by that decision, contributes to that decision.

Here’s an easy example: applying for leave at Yarno.

Instead of the traditional leave process where you put in an application to HR and them sending you back a big green “yes” or a big red “no”, instead at Yarno, you just talk to your team about it.

It’s simple, you just figure out what days you’d like or need off, and then talk to them about how it will affect them. If it’s not going to drag your team down, or you can make accomodations so it wont, off you go.  

Ultimately, this method is better (and simpler) because it’s not some HR rep coming in and telling your colleagues that they’re one of them is going to have to cover your shift. You work out how it’s going to work together. Maybe someone picks up some of your work while you’re away, and you reciprocate for them another day. Most of the time, though, this is unnecessary. You already figured out together what arrangements can be made so your holiday doesn't affect the whole team.

So yes, it’s been a big transition moving into Yarno’s self-managed teams, but it’s a welcome one. Here, the focus isn’t on getting a “yes”, “no” or a “never darken my Dropbox folder again” from a higher up. It’s about conversation and collaboration. By having an open medium, and a more logical decision-making framework, Yarno fosters a collaborative environment, rather than one fuelled by hierarchy.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Teal philosophy, you can check out the Reinventing Organisations wiki here.

Courtney Dutton

Courtney is the face behind the Yarno blog. She’s our fact-finding expert, Instagram connoisseur and the only person we know who can write 1500 words and fix a fence in the same half hour.

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