Valve’s No Management Culture

Loved this essay.

Valve is one of the most successful independent game developers, and they’ve consistently pushed the form out to the edges, right to the point where you can feel a new art emerging. (See 1998’s release Half-Life for the origins of this approach.)

If most of the value is now in the initial creative act, there’s little benefit to traditional hierarchical organization that’s designed to deliver the same thing over and over, making only incremental changes over time. What matters is being first and bootstrapping your product into a positive feedback spiral with a constant stream of creative innovation. Hierarchical management doesn’t help with that, because it bottlenecks innovation through the people at the top of the hierarchy, and there’s no reason to expect that those people would be particularly creative about coming up with new products that are dramatically different from existing ones – quite the opposite, in fact. So Valve was designed as a company that would attract the sort of people capable of taking the initial creative step, leave them free to do creative work, and make them want to stay. Consequently, Valve has no formal management or hierarchy at all.
— Michael Abrash, Valve: How I Got Here, What It’s Like, and What I’m Doing

In my own experience, the best work outcomes have happened in just these kinds of environments, ones where teams of creative people (across disciplines) are entrusted to do what they do best, and where management mainly works to support the playing field for the team. These situations are only possible when there’s massive trust in the capabilities and judgment of every person on the team, which Abrash also writes about.

Hardest of all to believe is the level of trust. Trust is pervasive. All of Valve’s source code is available to anyone in Perforce, and anyone at Valve can sync up and modify anything. Anyone can just up and work on whatever they think is worth doing; Steam Workshop is a recent instance of someone doing exactly that. Any employee can know almost anything about how the company works and what it’s doing; the company is transparent to its employees. Unlike many organizations, Valve doesn’t build organizational barriers to its employees by default; it just trusts them and gets out of their way so they can create value.

I think this perspective only works in practice if the leadership of a company operates from a view that every employee in their organization merits this kind of trust and respect — and this perspective itself presumes a baseline positive orientation towards human possibility that I see emerging in many new companies.

That’s huge, and exciting.