Tuesday, April 24, 2012

visualizing org structure (or lack thereof)

The new employee handbook from Valve, a gaming company in Bellevue, Washington, has been making the rounds through the HR circle in which I work. It's an amusing read (complete with comics), meant to help new hires understand how to make their place in a company that's trying very hard not to be a company.

They use the following image to help demonstrate the organizational structure:

It is explained with the following text:

Hierarchy is great for maintaining predictability and repeatability. It simplifies planning and makes it easier to control a large group of people from the top down, which is why military organizations rely on it so heavily.

But when you’re an entertainment company that’s spent the last decade going out of its way to recruit the most intelligent, innovative, talented people on Earth, telling them to sit at a desk and do what they’re told obliterates 99 percent of their value. We want innovators, and that means maintaining an environment where they’ll flourish.

That’s why Valve is flat. It’s our shorthand way of saying that we don’t have any management, and nobody “reports to” anybody else. We do have a founder/president, but even he isn’t your manager. This company is yours to steer—toward opportunities and away from risks. You have the power to green-light projects. You have the power to ship products.

Personally, I look at the visuals and accompanying text with a mix of fascination and fear. Given my affinity for structure, this sounds a bit like anarchy to me. It's also unclear to me how this would scale: it may work for a start-up, but will it be possible to maintain as the company grows? In any case, I do think the visuals do a good job supporting the text (and vice versa). I'll leave it at that.

If you're interested in checking out the handbook, you can find it here.


  1. Wow, the PDF was fascinating. I really do wonder how well things get done with such a loose structure and 300 employees. Oh to be a fly on the wall at that organization... although I might rather be an employee sipping Stumptown ;)

  2. [I'm posting this comment on behalf of David at the Dept. of Homeland Security]

    A few months ago there was a great article about a completely flat tomato processing plant in California in the Harvard Business Review. Folks might also look at the book The Future of Management by Gary Hamel. At the plant, employees essentially write service level agreements with each other every year. They elect compensation boards who do an annual review to set compensation levels. You get more $ when you assume more responsibility. You don't compete for promotions. I'm in a hierarchical federal government position, but these ideas make me think every day about what value I bring to the team as a supervisor.

  3. Thanks Cole! This way of visualizing the org structure is fantastic, as is the handbook itself--thanks for that link! It is inspiring reading! I attempted something similar with the handbook at my very conservative and hierarchical organization, but this is so much more impressive to me. Especially the reference to the "noob" part of the graphic in their section on "what they don't do well." I love that vulnerability. I've shared this already in a presentation regarding our company's approach to employee engagement, and it was very well received.