Valve, GitHub, and Anarchy in the Workplace – How Your Preconceived Notions are Holding You Back

There are any number of articles detailing Valve and GitHub’s approach to “anarchy” in the workplace, which is to say, no formal leadership or management structure:

When I share these on Facebook with my friends or talk about it to other managers, I get the same response from most people ranging from late-20’s to early-40’s:

  • Well that might work at Valve, but never here!
  • Bah, that’s easy to say on a blog, but I bet it doesn’t actually work that way
  • Yeah, well, they are very selective on their hiring for that express purpose!

If you think this way, you are an idiot. (Sorry, I’m not much for empathy for the ignorant.)

You’re an idiot because you have preconceived notions that you cling to in hopes that you won’t be disrupted. You are comfortable reporting to a middle manager and bossing around a few direct reports of your own. On some level, you really like bitching about nothing getting done because of bureaucracy – because it gives you a good excuse as to why things aren’t moving at the speed of light. You like saying: “If I were in charge…”

Let’s rebut some of the more common arguments.

It can work at Valve, but not here!

This isn’t an argument. I’m not spending time on this dismissal which reflects poorly on your creative processes.

If for some reason you think success in shipping millons of lines of code for wildly successful games is somehow different than success in writing a stupid web application that a few thousand users actually look at – and that your process is better than theirs – then yeah, you are an idiot.

…I bet it doesn’t actually work that way.

Same thing as above. Yeah, Gabe Newell and everyone else is lying. OK.

…They are very selective on their hiring!

This is also stated as “we have a bunch of morons working here and that would never work because of them. But not me, I’m not a moron. Seriously.”


Anyway, the fact you have a bunch of substandard corporate roleplayers at your company is a problem on its own. Just because your company opens up a bunch of headcount doesn’t mean you should fill it with every random guy off the street that can write a few lines of Java and pass some Interview 2.0 questions.

The best hiring decisions are the ones that are incredibly hard to pass, so much so that very good candidates are accidentally rejected. The worst decision you can make is to fill a spot with someone who is substandard simply because you felt you needed to employ someone.

“But I can’t finish a project unless I hire two more devs!”

Newsflash: That project is going to suck if you hire two bad devs. Better to not hire anyone than to hire a bad dev.

That’s the root of the problem, isn’t it? You can’t see an anarchy-style workplace delivering results because you don’t trust your employees; you think you have a bunch of slackers who need to be whipped periodically to keep them in line. Well, my friend, your problem isn’t with the anarchy-style of management, but rather the fact you hire garbage people (or you’re a bad manager, though both are likely to be true).

Do not hire people just because you think they are passable. This is the best way to add labor debt to your payroll, and labor is the hardest thing to purge at a company.

My suggestion to managers out there who are scared of this style – but intrigued enough to do it – is to form a small splinter group with employees that you selectively target. Find the employees who display entrepreneurial traits or ones who have side projects outside of their work – perhaps troll their LinkedIn accounts? – and ask them if they’d like to be part of a “Black Team” where they get to ship whatever they want and do whatever they want on their schedule, and monitor the results.

I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised – though be prepared to hear answers that you may not have heard otherwise. (For example, you may find out a bunch of internal metrics or revenue projections were very wrong. Truth hurts.)

At Avalara, I am being given this opportunity while I work in the Strategy Group. We have several open heads, and if I’m being honest, we haven’t even come close to filling any of them. It’s not easy to find people who think entrepreneurially, and we know that. Do I need an architect to help me with all this sysadmin crap I hate doing? Absolutely. Do we need better analysts to find interest in the product and turn up some interesting reports internally? Yeah. Have we had candidates who might be able to complete those roles competently? Sure.

But it’s not about that. I’ll gladly work overnight and take the 1:30 AM ferry to Bainbridge Island to talk with my co-worker on strategy and development and put in long hours doing stupid server maintenance that I’m not cut out for because I believe in the end goals for our team – and I don’t want to pollute the team with substandard employees who can’t think for themselves and need their hands held.

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