Google is well known for its "20% time" approach, where employees get to spend a fifth of their time working on personal projects. Fewer people are aware, however, of how Meetup.com took this concept to the extreme.
In 2007, Meetup’s business was suffering internally. The company had great employees, who were bringing fantastic ideas to management, but the process for determining which features would get built was broken. Development – caught up in bureaucracy – was at a stand still, and employee morale was plummeting. The company was on the verge of failure – not because of a lack of money or a poor business model – but because of a management structure that was stifling its employees’ creativity.
The company had to make a drastic change, and fast. Announcing a six-week hackathon, Meetup put the fate of the company in the hands of its employees. Everything the employees were previously working on would be put on hold. During the interim, they could work on anything they wanted – so long as they got three people to work on it with them.
"Job title and seniority don't matter when it comes to authority," Meetup VP of Strategy Andres Glusman said in a talk at the SXSW Interactive festival. "Senior people don't need to be in charge of a particular project."
By flattening the hierarchy and empowering everyone to build what they believed needed to be built, Meetup's management identified and embraced the culture of their employees and, a few months later, released a flurry of new and useful features. The experiment turned out to be a huge success.
The purpose of Meetup.com as a web platform is to give users the ability to self-organize groups and events around shared interests, and by adopting this democratic approach internally, the company applied those same concepts to their own management structure. Over a year later, Meetup has since made this approach permanent, refining the method to the point that they are now doing weekly feature releases and sharing their progress with users.
But it's not total anarchy. According to Glusman, "You don't help self-organization by removing all structure. The right amount of structure is what enables self-organization."
This concept of organizational democracy is a growing trend in business management models. In his book, The Handbook to Get Things Done in Companies with Organizational Democracy, business consultant Alex Linsker notes, "It's not just a trick to get more productive, but it is having a healthier, better business, and you do get to discover and fulfill your deepest personal desires through work."
By trusting one's employees and properly empowering them to channel their personal passion for your products into healthy productive work, you can boost morale, increase production, and have a healthier, happier, and more successful business.
***This article is adapted from the research and writing of Tony Bacigalupo, founder of New Work City, a co-working space in New York City. Tony’s fieldwork feeds into the knowledgebase of the Behance Team, who run the Behance Creative Network, the Action Method project management application, the Creative Jobs List, and develop knowledge, products, and services that help creative professionals make ideas happen.