I read this article with concern. Dustin Moskovitz, founder of Asana, took issue with Valve’s flat management structure and its lack of coaching:

Almost immediately after, I grasped what they had actually written and my enthusiasm waned. In exchange for freedom, they gave up *personal growth.* I can fully believe that there are people who can survive in such an organization, but I am deeply skeptical that they can thrive and reach their full potential. They are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. They tied one hand behind their back. The juice is not worth the squeeze. Pick your favorite metaphor; the point is this philosophy lacks balance. More importantly, I totally reject the idea that freedom and mentorship have to be mutually exclusive.

Dustin then argues that some kind of people-management is necessary to ensure personal growth, and proposes a few lighter management-that-doesn’t-look-like-management approaches, such as:

An alternative approach to creating structure and order that we employ at Asana is distributed responsibility, exemplified by our AoR (Area of Responsibility) program. Rather than have all decisions flow through the management hierarchy, we have the explicit intention of distributing them as evenly as possible across all employees. Unless we forgot about the existence of an AoR (which does happen) or otherwise make a mistake, the relevant domain owner has the final decision making authority, not their manager. Additionally, we try to promote an understanding of management as an AoR on par with other AoR’s, making the organization feel flatter.

Management still plays a very important role, however, as a backstop for all decisions. If an AoR does not exist or the most relevant decision maker is ambiguous, then decisions do flow through the management hierarchy. In effect, the CEO has the ultimate meta-AoR. In practice, this happens very rarely, but we save ourselves a ton of pain by having clear decision making authority when it does. Another way of putting it is that the managers fill the whitespace of the organization, making sure we have complete coverage. People tend to value that clarity rather than see it as a form of oppression. No one wants to feel like the ship is not being steered and, in my experience, organizations that lack identifiable decision owners tend to end up with more politics than those with traditional structures, rather than less.

Ultimately, each company needs to evolve its own approach to this and other similar culture issues, but my opinion is that going back to having “people managers” and a hierarchy is a clear step backwards. There are other solutions to the problems described by Dustin, that don’t involve setting up an official hierarchy, and I hope Dustin will consider them before letting the Asana ship sail too far in its current direction…

Dynamic hierarchy isn’t bad

First of all, it’s worth clarifying that I’m not opposed to all hierarchy, not at all. As I’ve written before, hierarchy is essential, it’s a natural way that people organise when facing a problem and if you try to make it disappear, you just make it harder to change. What’s problematic is not the existence of hierarchy, but the existence of a static hierarchy that needs to be maintained artificially in the face of changing circumstances.

In one context, one person might be the best leader. In another, it might be some other person. Someone new might join in and be better than someone who was previously in charge of something. If you have a static hierarchy in place, how do you get the new person to take over a role for which they are a better fit?

Unfortunately, a people-management hierarchy, especially one based on mentoring and ultimate decision-making, sounds exactly like the kind of static hierarchy that is very hard to alter and that easily turns into a career ladder. This may work for Asana, but I dislike that instinctively, because I know what those hierarchies end up looking like eventually. Static hierarchies usher in arbitrary decision-making and unfairness, which need to be justified by secrecy, which reduce trust, etc… We’ve been down this road before.

Mentorship and personal development don’t have to come from above

Mentoring people is not something that needs to be done by a boss. There is no need for a mentor to have management or decision power over the person they’re mentoring. In fact, arguably, a mentor who is also your manager is a far less effective mentor.

A mentor is simply someone who can give you advice and help you reflect on what you do in order to accelerate your personal development. Mentoring relationships often do imply some sort of seniority, but seniority does not have to involve management responsibility. I can be senior to one of my colleagues without being their manager.

As for personal development, I think it is ridiculous to imply that personal growth requires a hierarchy. Personal growth is one of our core values at GrantTree and it is doing perfectly well without a static, non-flat hierarchy. Personal growth is about growing who you are, what you’re able to do, your sense of purpose, your sense of achievement. How bizarre that an entrepreneur, who almost by definition is someone who finds personal growth without any management structure around him or her, comes to the conclusion that other people need a manager in order to grow personally?

If anything, traditional management stifles personal growth by imposing boundaries on it. Without reporting lines, everyone is free to grow in the direction in which they feel they wish to grow, and to push themselves as fast as they want with no speed limit.

Conversely, an open culture with a flat hierarchy liberates everyone to grow in whatever direction they feel inclined to, without needing to ask for permission or wait until they’re promoted up the career ladder. Open cultures encourage people to grow at whatever rate they’re comfortable. Combined with a good mentor, this should outperform the hierarchical approach to personal growth consistently.

Decisions don’t have to float upwards

Finally, Dustin also made the point that someone needs to take responsibility for making the decisions, which he feels is not addressed by a flat management structure.

However, built into that statement is the implicit belief that people in general cannot be trusted to take responsibility for the decisions they make. In an open culture, everyone can and does make decisions and takes responsibility for the outcome of those decisions. The presence of a manager who will take responsibility for your decisions is precisely what leads to the infantilisation of employees that then provides evidence that of course, people can’t be trusted to take responsibility for their actions, etc.

If it begins without trust, it is unlikely to end up with an open culture. I see this assertion that decision-power lines of responsibility are necessary as a big warning sign about Asana’s culture and its future.

A conclusion

I’m not saying that Dustin is necessarily wrong with his assertions. They may be correct in the environment of Asana. However, the dismissal of flat hierarchies as incompatible with mentorship and personal growth are flat-out (!) wrong, and doing so based on a quick extrapolation of an “employee handbook” which clearly gives only a very partial picture of life at Valve seems quite unfair (practically a straw man argument). At least, before making this point, Dustin should have contacted some current or former Valve employees to ask how things work in practice.

My main concern after reading this article, however, is that although Asana seems to have started with an open culture, it is adopting closed solutions to problems instead of doing the hard work of finding open solutions. Eventually, this is likely to erode trust and lead Asana to becoming a culture just like very other top-down, hierarchical closed culture. That seems like a shame, since Dustin appears to want to do the right thing in other areas of the business.