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Corporate culture

How we run the show at OSEDEA (without any bosses)

Ivana Markovic
Jan 19, 2022 ∙ 6 mins
Colleagues working in a brainstorming session

At Osedea, we have a very unique organizational structure. We’re inspired by humanocracy, an approach coined by Gary Hamel —a researcher at Harvard University. His data-driven argument is about making efforts to bypass bureaucracy, forgo managers, and shift an organization’s DNA to give team members an equal chance to learn, grow, and contribute.

This is a new experience for many people in the workplace, so we wanted to share our thoughts and answer any questions you might have about joining a company like ours that operates with this kind of structure.

First things first, what is a bureaucracy?

Bureaucracies originated in the 18th century. They were designed around position and individuals to address nepotism (assigning positions of power by way of favouritism to friends and family members). Bureaucracy was also designed to have rules, practices, and principles to maximize compliance of a group of people. Later in the 20th century, sociologist Max Weber remarked that, “bureaucracy is more perfect when it’s more dehumanizing.”

You’ve likely worked in a bureaucracy, as the vast majority of organizations are structured this way:

  • There’s a formal hierarchy (a top-down approach and many levels)
  • Power is vested in positions (people with certain roles have more power than others)
  • Managers assign tasks and assess performance
  • Everyone competes for promotions and compensation correlates with rank

Gary Hamel’s research showed some concerning data about bureaucracies:

  • 79% of people polled said bureaucracy significantly slows decision-making
  • 68% said, in their organization, new ideas are met with skepticism or outright resistance
  • 76% said political behaviours highly influence who gets ahead, not competence or potential

Maybe you've even been frustrated in a traditional hierarchical environment? Here’s why organizations stick with it:

  • They’re a familiar way to organize humans into action
  • It’s hard to imagine alternatives
  • They work to a certain extent; things get done, we’re able to control/coordinate, and to have consistency
  • As bureaucracies have been around since the 18th century, millions of careers have been built around the desire to climb corporate ladders and attain positions of power; we’re reluctant to change as humans

Letting go of the familiarity of bureaucracy requires courage, creativity and a desire for a more humane organization. As a society we can work towards this.

From bureaucracy to humanocracy

Osedea was structured around the individuals within our organization, as opposed to a corporate structure. In our opinion, bureaucracies can be dehumanizing. They can encourage bad behaviour in people, power plays, and politics. Those who get ahead aren’t necessarily rewarded for behaviours that are helpful to the organization. Senior management tends to reward people who prioritize their self-interests, those who excel at “managing up,” and people who are good at reading management moods/meeting their manager’s needs (as opposed to the organization’s needs).

At Osedea, we decided on a “structure without managers.” This is a bit different than a “flat structure,” which is a widely-, but oftentimes incorrectly-, used term to describe a structure with only a few layers of management and a short chain of command, that can hardly survive growth and appears to be the dream but ends up being a logistical nightmare and chaos. Interested about learning more, here are you a few things that you might not know about a flat structure.

Why we chose a structure without managers

  • This type of structure is in line with our vision of creating a world of opportunities for our team while making their work life enjoyable.
  • It boosts creativity, learning and autonomy.
  • It fosters “horizontal” instead of “vertical” ambition. "Vertical" ambition is the usual career-path trajectory, in which a newbie moves up the ladder from associate to manager to vice president over a number of years of service. "Horizontal" ambition is where employees who love what they do are encouraged to dig deeper, expand their knowledge, and become better at it. This doesn’t mean horizontal has no evolution. Instead of rewarding high performers with managerial responsibilities—which often drives people further away from the job they are actually good at—we reward them with responsibilities closer to the work. We complement that with values, benefits and autonomy.
  • People can make contributions at Osedea no matter what their experience level is.
  • It drives results faster.
  • It removes the negative impacts of bureaucracy.

This is not to say that everything in our structure works perfectly—we have to remember that organizations are always a work in progress. We have a destination but there will be challenges. Some will be easy to fix, some will stick around, and new challenges will pop up. It’s sometimes hard to imagine how an institution could function without a formal organization, but we should try.

Some common misconceptions about our structure

Without managers there are no leaders.

It’s important to understand that a manager isn’t necessarily a leader. At Osedea we don’t believe in assigned leadership, we believe in leadership that is built through high quality work, curiosity in building towards our company vision and natural influence with others. There’s always a “lead” on each project or initiative team—someone who is responsible for holding everyone accountable to the delivery of the project and who is the go-to. But, we don’t believe in a structure where there’s a person who is a boss of devs, a person who is the boss of designers, a person who is a boss of sales, etc.

Without managers there is chaos and decisions are impossible to make.

We organize everything through efficient processes, team expectations and natural leadership. You might think that without a boss who is the final decision maker, we can’t move forward, or that everyone gets a say in every decision. People who have ownership over a specific project and full understanding and information of context should contribute. But in the end, someone makes a decision based on information, input and what’s best for our company vision, values, stakeholders and business needs.

Without a manager I can’t have a career progression and there is no mentorship, coaching, or feedback.

We believe in a career of achievements and that there are several paths that lead to success, not only the management path. And even though we don’t have managers, we have processes and metrics in place to ensure that our people grow to their full potential and get proper feedback, that performance is evaluated, and team members get coaching.

Because I can’t get promoted, there are no incentives for me to perform and contribute.

At Osedea, strong performance is rewarded financially and with additional growth opportunities (e.g. when we send our developers to speak at international conferences, even if they aren’t the most senior in our company, or how our full stack developer was given a chance to work 1:1 with Spot the robot). We’re agile, we think outside the box, we reward paths that aren’t on a traditional career ladder, and we ask team members to contribute where they’re strongest and reap the most enjoyment.

Your current structure is fine now that you’re under 100 employees, but there’s no way you can maintain it as you grow.

Growth is key for every company, but not for us if it risks bringing down our humanocracy approach. Can a structure like ours survive long term: YES! Does it mean there won’t be adjustments and improvements? NO. We have to constantly work on it. We stick to our vision, but it doesn’t mean our day-to-day will always be the same.

Today, we have offices in Montréal, Canada and Nantes, France, with another opening soon in the UK. Our international offices are independent but united around the same mission, values and strategies. This way we can ensure that, as we scale up, we maintain our humane approach.