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.

Teams Without Managers
This is a guest post by Swanand Pagnis, CTO of co-learn. You can follow him on Twitter here -> I've known Swanand for years — he's been an active member of the Indian Ruby community and is known for his love of Deep Work and SQL. A consummate engineer, here's him sharing his wisdom on running teams without managers. If you like this stuff, leave a comment so I can get Swanand to do part 2.

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.

Picture this:

  • 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.

Society without managers

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.