How to Create a "Flat" Organization

Tips from Github on how to "optimize for happiness."
Managing Editor and Producer, Behance Inc.
March 12, 2013 GitHub, the online code depository is growing. Fast. Since its founding in 2008, the company has taken on a $100 million investment and now has over 150 employees. Github's employee count is doubly interesting because it is completely flat organization. There are no bosses, no managers.

nGen's Rachel Gertz spoke with Github's Steven Smith, whose company was recently acquired by Github. Smith talks at length about the company's unique culture and how other companies can work out a similar arrangement:

On how they stay motivated: 

We’re building software for us—stuff that we enjoy, and that we think is going to be great for the people using it. Rather than doing work to satisfy a boss, we find ourselves doing the coolest, best, most ridiculous work we can to impress our friends who work with us. 

On hiring the right people to work in a flat organization: 

 You have to be a certain type of person. You don’t have to be an introvert or extrovert. It’s about a willingness to communicate, a desire or passion for what you do; a passion to constantly get better at what you do; being able to take criticism well....I always said: people can learn new schools in a technical environment, but no one’s going to become less of an [jerk]. 

On why "flat" doesn't mean "working alone"

We have this concept for ‘team’ at GitHub. We like to say: “Never work on a project alone because there is this flat structure and an absence of someone checking in on you. For your own sake, don’t work alone on stuff.” It gets really boring and difficult. It’s hard to finish things. It’s hard to do it well when you’re on an island.

On optimizing for happiness:

But I think for most things, happiness in what you do is always going to produce better stuff. Happier salespeople would sell better. Happier factory workers would do more effective work. We found that at GitHub our CEO would always say, “We optimize for happiness” in every way. For our customers and for us. Anywhere we can make someone happy, we do our damnedest to make it happen. 

On building a culture of shipping:

Whether or not it gets used, you have to finish something. The worst thing you can do is start a bunch of things, get halfway through, quit and start something else. You’re not going to be happy. Ship stuff.

On what he would say to someone considering a flat organization:

I think the encouraging words would be, “it’s okay to let go…”

Read the entire piece at nGen.