Teams Without Managers
A team without managers sounds like a ridiculous idea, but it's actually worth trying out just to see how much of management is 'real' and how much is just fear of shadows. In this post, Swanand Pagnis, CTO of co-learn, explores what it might take to get there.
Management overhead is minimal in tech teams with the right mixture of processes, competence, and personalities. These teams move fast, solve challenging problems, and produce phenomenal work. Rules like "one manager can have a maximum of 6-8 reports" don't apply.
I have had the fortune to be a part of such teams multiple times in my career.
- Inherited "legacy" codebase,
- zero tests,
- unfamiliar tech stack
- Systems periodically crashing +
- "bad data" issues every few weeks
- No monitoring or observability
- Product in pre-PMF stage, so constant "idea churn."
- Imminent burnout; because too few members
And then, 12 months later:
- The heaviest-used system has been rewritten into a familiar tech stack with 100% test coverage
- 30 members in the team, with a healthy on-call rotation
- All servers are humming like a well-oiled machine making the right noises #iywim
- Mixpanel dashboards are looking great;
- the next round of fund-raise looks like a foregone conclusion
- No burnout or boredom
During these same 12 months, one team changed managers thrice; one manager had 14 direct reports at peak, and we rolled out three out-of-turn promotions and raises.
So what did the managers do during this? You could say they were more leaders than managers — but that's a very combative dichotomy. And false too.
A manager's job in such cases is limited to providing the vision, keeping their head up, and ensuring direction so others can go heads down.
Focus, by its nature, is narrow and makes you miss out on the peripherals. And so, in such teams, providing leadership means more spotting problems and opportunities and less dealing with personal issues.
Perhaps you're tempted to call this "zen mode" or an "ideal state" and dismiss it as unachievable because it's seemingly far from reality. But that would be a mistake; it's straightforward to achieve this state with some training. Moreover, such teams can be found throughout big and small companies in the tech industry.
"But dude, this is not what I have experienced! Not at all."
No? Well, I bet you have. Here are the salient traits of such teams; I am sure you've come across these.