How Mayden Got Rid of the Managers

In: BlogDate: Nov 27, 2019By: Claire Lickman

In 2013, Mayden decided to become a self-managing organisation, comprised of autonomous teams. Their three line managers had left the organisation, gone on maternity leave or moved to a new role within the organisation, so it seemed like the perfect time. But it wasn't without some teething problems at the start.

In this short video from the 2019 Happy Workplaces Conference, Alison Sturgess-Durden explains how they created the structures and processes to enable this system to be a success.

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How Mayden Got Rid of the Managers

The first few years were OK, we were growing, but we kind of had this explicit strategy to not talk about it. Everyone would just get it, wouldn’t they? The culture would do the work and everyone would just understand how to work without managers. Fast forward three more years, we got to 2016 and everyone was feeling the pain. We probably had about 50, 55 people by this point. People were really struggling. People didn’t know how decisions got made and that meant that more decisions than ever were going up to the three directors of the business. So we ended up being more hierarchical and more of a bottleneck than ever before.

We then had our worst staff survey results that we’d ever had. They weren’t terrible, but for us they were pretty terrible. That really gave us the permission to start working consciously and deliberately on, ‘if it’s not hierarchy, what is it?’ And we realised if you don’t have the scaffolding of hierarchy, you still need scaffolding, you still need to design that structure and process.

So this is our organisational chart. This is the best way that we’ve come up with for representing how it works at Mayden, how we’re organised. So across the top we have our autonomous self-managing teams. So each team will have an embedded coach. Some of these are agile software teams so they will have a scrum master. Other teams work in a different way, but they will still have a team coach. The team coach is not the line manager, they are not the decision maker, they are not the supervisor. They are literally there to coach the team and make sure that it’s functioning effectively and functioning well with other teams.

Then across the bottom we have a series of cross-cutting groups. So a couple of years ago we decided to disband our executive management team and our operational management group because they were inherently hierarchical. In their place we put these functional groups. So the strategy group for example has got a mix of people from across the teams who are our best strategic thinkers, and it includes one of our receptionists.

Then we also spin up and spin down a whole load of Task and Finish groups. If something needs doing in the business, even around how we’re working as a business, then we’ll spin up one of these Task and Finish groups.

And this is me. So the Director’s team is just another team alongside all the other teams. We have our own work to get on with. In fact, in terms of the role of the Director, we’ve had to give this a lot of thought and it really boils down to these three things.

The first is to set the direction. We’ve talked about clarity of purpose today and that is our role as Directors. Now, clearly, in a really flat organisation we will only do that having heard all the voices within the company, done the analysis, taken external advice as well. But at some point someone needs to decide which direction we’re going in and that’s the Director’s role.

Then our role is to assure ourselves that that direction is being pursued and is actually being realised in the way that we imagined.

Then finally, and mostly, it’s to get out of the way, because as these sailing boats show, if you get in the way of someone’s wind they’re going to die; it’s going to take the wind out of their sails. So if you do that you might find yourself having to generate an awful lot of wind to get them going again. (And I’ve just realised how rude that sounds!)

At first, Alison and the rest of the Director's team decided not to explain about the lack of hierarchy — they thought that the culture of the organisation would do this for them. Unfortunately, this didn't work, causing confusion and for the Directors to make all of the decisions.

"We realised if you don't have the scaffolding of hierarchy, you still need scaffolding, you still need to design that structure and process," says Alison.

While there are no line managers, there are still support structures in place. Each team has a coach, who helps the team to work effectively — both within the team and with other teams.

"The Director's team is just another team alongside all the other teams. We have our own work to get on with," she says. "But at some point someone needs to decide which direction we're going in, and that's the Director's role. Then our role is to assure ourselves that the direction is being pursued and is actually being realised in the way that we imagined.

"Then finally, and mostly, it's to get out of the way, because as these sailing boats show, if you get in the way of someone's wind they're going to die; it's going to take the wind out of their sails."

Resources and related content

  • 16 Companies That Don't Have Managers — It's not just Mayden that have got rid of the managers. Henry Stewart lists 16 companies that are self-managing, including Gore, Medium and Semco.
  • How Buurtzorg is Delivering Great Service to Patients — Buurtzorg  is probably the most well-known self-managing organisation. Based in the Netherlands, it has over 9,000 nurses who all work in self-managing teams. In this two-minute video from Happy's 2016 Transforming the Public Sector Conference, Alieke van Dijken explains how Buurtzorg operates without managers.
  • Dear CEO: Let Your People Choose Their Managers — If you aren't ready to get rid of your managers just yet, why not consider letting your people choose their manager instead? Henry Stewart explains more in this letter, originally written for Thinkers50.

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About Alison Sturgess-Durden

Alison, once an NHS manager, is now, as Director of Mayden “changing what's possible for clinicians and patients with insightful information technologies”. Starting as a management trainee in the NHS, Alison held a number of operational and strategic management positions, in acute and community sectors before moving into management consultancy with Finnamore (now part of GE Healthcare), one of the UK’s leading healthcare consultancy firms. She completed an MSc in Strategic Management at the University of Bristol. Her research was in the relationship between organisational identity and strategy, including in the particular context of a spin-off from the NHS to other organisational forms such as social enterprises.

“Because of how we are choosing to work at Mayden, I have a particular interest in 'flat' organisational structures and practices.”

Mayden is a software company based in Bath, which is exploring how to become a self-managing organisation. “Together, we’re building the kind of company we want to work for. For us, that means an agile, open working culture, a flat structure and shared responsibility."

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