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The Nightmare of Valve’s self-organizing “utopia” (2018) (medium.com)
74 points by kiyanwang 64 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 27 comments

The article briefly touches on the fact that this system worked when the company was small. I also frequently see people talk about the growing pains startups face when they exceed around 3 dozen people. When groups are smaller i think people do have an inherant preference toward more "egalitarian" strategies because its still possible for an individual to grok the social dynamic of the full group. Being in a small flat organization brings the same potential anxieties, but its possible to relieve them because its still possible to have a real relationship with other stakeholders.

One of the purposes of heirarchical structures seem to be to just divide people up into smaller working groups for this same purpose. I wonder if its possible to subdivide a company to get this benefit while keeping it flat. For example, maybe the company consists of 30 fixed groups of people, and those groups coordinate with each other via some type of structured interface without heirarchy... Or maybe having a heirarchy is ok at that level of abstraction.

If you divide the company into 30 fixed groups of people and then each group appoints a representative to the other groups, you've just created a hierarchy. If you want to avoid hierarchy at all costs, that means not allowing any one member in the group to be the leader or the representative to the other groups. I don't see how that's even possible, given that in almost every group of human beings you're going to have someone who wants to take charge.

You can rotate the leadership positions regularly. The chair of a university department is more of a custodian than a lord.

An apt analogy in that much of the chair's time is spent cleaning up sh*t...

What if the (rotating) role of representative is explicitly of lower status, lower authority, than the other people in the group? Not leader; lower-status representative. Administrative servant to the group.

Well, honestly that sounds like hell on earth for the unlucky person. I think that would disincentivize inter group cooperation.

That's basically what my team's administrator does; in the old days the role would have been called "secretary". He doesn't seem to be living through a "hell on earth" and has a cheerful, chirpy demeanor, but I'll double-check tomorrow that he's not about to top himself.

One option is, instead of a single representative communicating with all of the other groups, a group can appoint a different ambassador for dealing with each of the other groups. Most people then will have both their normal job and also be responsible for one inter-group communication channel, jointly with their counterpart from the other group. I imagine this sort of a structure would have plenty of its own faults and idiosyncrasies, though.

Perhaps the right answer is to have those 30 groups each with equal say in the direction of the company and within each of those groups the the structure is flat.

It's impossible to have zero hierarchy in a group of human beings. It is, however, possible to have an illegible hierarchy within a group of humans, one only available to the most socially perceptive and/or sociopathic.

illegible hierarchy

I like this term, it really packs a lot of meaning into two words. Original?

Late response but the coinage is only sort of original. I got obsessed with illegibility because of this blog post: https://samzdat.com/2017/05/22/man-as-a-rationalist-animal/

I suggest giving this video a look. Fair warning, it's pretty long, but I found it incredibly interesting and relevant to this topic.


I think more simply it's about communication overhead, not necessarily social dynamics.

But adding hardware to the mix changes things. "When it's done" no longer works as well as with software.

Plus, the other big companies in Seattle are hyper-political, and train people to be that way. Hire someone like that into an egalitarian structure that is cracking at the seams (because of size), and it's like a wolf among sheep...

Like capitalism?

> Indeed, in July 2018, Harvard researchers Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban studied two Fortune 500 companies making the switch to open office plans. The results were damning: face-to-face time decreased by around 70 percent across the participating employees, productivity had declined, employees found it harder to concentrate and were overall less satisfied with their job.

I think the worst condemnation came from an ex-Valve friend of mine: "After almost two years I finally learned who my boss was when she fired me."

If there's no overt structure there is politics (ex Valve person told me that).

If there's a person who can fire you, but you can't fire them, then they're your boss.

Still sounds like every other big organization out there (the politicking, the backstabbing, the fiefdoms, the barons, the bullies, the serfs, the hidden true powers, the untouchables, the 'safe' hiring, ...) just lacking the 'formal' hierarchy on the side.

Values are dependent upon hierarchy because values have to and enforced. The attempted removal of hierarchy minimizes and/or obscures the company's values and prevents them from being lauded. In its nature, the flat model is not forthright to its workers. This is why its employees function with suspicion in the dark.

There's an echo of something I remember Marx saying here, about the futility of trying to abolish capitalism, in private, behind its back. Ultimately, the two stress points ruining the whole project are that the workers have to be productive, and non-productive workers must be fired. That drives both the crunch, and the lurking threat of being fired. These both have the same source - whatever organizational structure Valve chooses, it is a for-profit company with a limited hiring budget.

If nobody was being paid, nobody had to be fired, and nobody was worried about money, their system probably wouldn't give rise to any cliques, barons, and so on - simply because there would be no need for this sort of defensive politics.

So... not that much about Valve, but quite a lot of parallels with other structureless entities. Seems like a clickbaity worthless read. Used to not have those on HN.

There were numerous direct references to Valve, explanations of issues in the context of Valve, and commentary from Valve employees.

As someone who really liked the ideals and concepts of the Valve handbook but struggled to see how to extend them to my own (hierarchical) workplace, I found it quite enlightening.


I don't see how the number of submissions is relevant. People should be able to point out a (perceived) decline in quality without immediately being hit with "well I don't see you fixing things either!".

One submission, and 58 points, in eight years; not exactly a high-engagement community member on a website I'd consider to be community-driven. If you're not part of the solution, and all that.

One could argue that refraining from submitting low quality content is being part of the solution. Some people would rather this site have only a few submissions per day than be filled with low-quality content.

I have 5725 points and I consider that most of them are the equivalent of small talk. Points are worthless, except to inflate your ego.

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