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I work for a large software company and our division has created a newly formed team, and at the moment we all report directly to the VP. The VP has other responsibilities, so this team is just one area of his overall charter. He is not involved in day-to-day activities, but we also don't have a clear team leader or manager. There is a project manager who handles a lot of the coordination with other teams, but our VP is actually his skip-level (he reports into a different manager).

Those of us who are on this team doing the work day in and day out are all senior, and while we work well together it's a bit confusing that we don't really have a "lead" per se. I've spoken to our VP about this, and he feels we can work this out ourselves and that we should see each other as equals.

For now this is OK - we have a rough understanding of how we split up the work, but there is also a lot of overlap between us in terms of ownership from a business and technical perspective. It also leads to challenges such as if I get invited to a meeting and others from the team don't, should I always forward the invites? If someone comes and speaks to me, do I make sure to always include others?

Because we all transferred from existing groups I can see that there might be hesitation for our VP to start compartmentalizing us due to political reasons, and while this structure might be OK in the beginning as we're getting the project off the ground, I can't see it functioning in an efficient manner six months from now.

Am I wrong in thinking that a team needs an explicit leader, whether official or unofficial (e.g., not actually having direct reports but still being designated as the team lead)?

  • Hey Ryan, I see that your question lacks a goal that we can help you achieve. Asking if "you are wrong" is quite opinion-based and hard to answer. Please, rephrase your question – DarkCygnus Mar 14 at 18:08
  • @DarkCygnus I edited the title a little. Does that help? – JimmyJames Mar 14 at 18:09
  • Yes - it’s called government but function and produce useful results may not be the same... – Solar Mike Mar 14 at 18:11
  • Hey @JimmyJames I think that such title is still opinon-based and even company-specific (some teams may, some may not). I think it's best to let Ryan rephrase the question (not only the title, the one in the body also) to something that has a goal. – DarkCygnus Mar 14 at 18:11
  • @DarkCygnus Hmm. I think it's objectively answerable and it's something I think comes up a lot, especially in technical teams. I'm not sure it's company specific. I think it's more team specific. – JimmyJames Mar 14 at 18:26
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Yes, it's possible. It may or may not be a good idea.

First, it's possible. There are even formal organizational styles (scrum) that do it. There are workplaces where the engineering team is full of people who don't want to be in charge that manage to make it through well enough on separation of roles and consensus. That doesn't mean that it's always a good idea, or that it's a good idea in your case.

For your particular case, you need to have a meeting, sit down, and iron out some ground rules. Right now, your respective roles are ill-defined, and it's starting to cause some issues. One way of handling that is to have one of you get picked as leader, and let that person decide, but it may be that no one wants to give the spot to someone else, and it may be that no one wants the spot to begin with. The problem isn't that you have no leader (at least for right now). The problem is that you have no way to settle the gray areas.

So, at minimum, come up with a list of concerns. Ask your teammates to do the same. Have a meeting in which you lay out the concerns, talk about whether or not you want to have someone take a leadership role, step through each of the concerns, and come up with agreed-upon group answers. If you can come to an agreement of how to do things more or less by consensus, then great. If you can't, you're probably going to need someone in at least a nominal leadership role.

Incidentally, it sounds like you personally would be more comfortable with a clear leader. That's reasonable. I will say that if you're going to advocate for having a clear leader, it strengthens your position somewhat if you're not also advocating that you personally should be that leader. (Of course, if everyone agrees in principle, but no one wants to take it on....)

  • I've found it can work to have the leadership split between people, so long as the leaders agree on the split. Most of my experience along those lines were in groups where the two people who were candidates for the team lead had complementary competencies as well as complementary incompetencies - they each could do half the job well, and knew it, but it wasn't the same half. Since neither felt like they could do the other's half, there were no arguments. – Ed Grimm Mar 14 at 22:27
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    I agree with this answer, and I would like to add from personal experience another drawback to "leaderless" teams. Regardless of how capable the team is, other parts of the organization may take advantage of the team because there is not a single point of contact to prioritize work. Aggressive PM's especially are apt to directly contact individuals and make urgent demands without regard to other projects and responsibilities that individual may have. This can happen even with weak managers/team-leads and it is only worse if there's no one to act as a barrier. – teego1967 Mar 17 at 17:20
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There is a management system that got a lot of press some years back called Holacracy which purports to eliminate the need for management hierarchies. This is the approach that is/was used at Zappos. The idea is that you have 'circles' of accountabilities. I spent a little time trying to understand this and I'm wasn't completely sold on the hole thing but I do think there are some extremely useful concepts here. I think I've read things that claim you have to buy into it completely but I find that hard to believe since these are pretty big general ideas and I felt like I was reading Robert's Rule's of Order when I looked over the rules and procedures that are packed into it.

Specifically, in your case, I think it's possible to get away with not having a single leader if you and your colleagues can decide how to classify parts of the work and agree to who owns each part. It's also crucial that people follow through and take these decisions seriously. If you can't do this, then you probably need a leader.

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    @ManuelRodriguez Do you have a reference? – JimmyJames Mar 15 at 16:19
  • If I understand you right, the guess is that horizontal organizations are known from the management literature but aren't available in real life. The surprising fact is, that it's the other way around. That means, the amount of literature about the topic is small while real companies are acting with that principle in mind. The best example is the mentioned scrum principle which was introduced first by the programmers, while the literature is behind the schedule and has problems to describe the phenomena in detail. – Manuel Rodriguez Mar 15 at 20:54
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    @ManuelRodriguez If I understand your initial comment, you are saying something about my answer is incorrect (what exactly?). If it's the terminology, I've linked to the definition of holocracy and I noted it is (AFAIK) in use at a real company. It's not clear to me what your point is exactly. You've provided no reference that backs up your claim that you have the 'correct terminology'. So far, I'm not terribly impressed. – JimmyJames Mar 15 at 21:02
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    @ManuelRodriguez Yeah. That's the point of what i wrote in the answer. What's your point? – JimmyJames Mar 15 at 21:13
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    @ManuelRodriguez You've lost me. What does that have to do with "Sorry, but the correct term is horizontal organization" and the question about a small team in a big company? – JimmyJames Mar 15 at 21:30
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Hierarchies have some bad sides, but they also have advantages. For example:

  • they dramatically reduce the coordination effort and potential for conflicts. Even if the team is managed quite democratically, it's normally a good idea to have someone who takes the final decision in case discussions stalemate

  • they create clear responsibilities; if there's a failure it's normally evident who's to blame. Some people would argue that's actually problematic about hierarchies, but I don't think so. Yes, fingerpointing can be a problem. But lack of accountability creates toxic environments. It's sometimes enough to have one colleague who fails to deliver/ behaves uncooperatively for the atmosphere to sour. There's simply no way to sanction uncooperative behavior.

I've worked in an organization proud of no having hierarchies. This organization wrote "equality" and "democracy" into its program.

It was the most toxic place I've ever worked in. Yes, decisions were taken "democratically". This meant there were plenty of conflicts and politics taking place before votings (we took all main decisions by voting). Also, there was no sense of continuity or accountability. Disparate decisions were voted for, depending on how the power structure looked like on the day of voting.

After that, I always had bosses: some good bosses and some bad ones. But I would never accept a job in an organization without hierarchies again.

An important point is that in some organizations there are structures of reporting although there are no formal chains of command and leaders. For example, I know organizations in which you always report to your project manager on the project you currently work on. Although officially you don't have a leader, you actually do. This is a completely different situation to the one I describe above of course.

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I work for a large IT-company. Just from my own experience. This kind of setting has dragged our team of three senior developers into a situation where one has quit the company and I was prevented from quitting by a promotion and a significant salary increase.

It simply did not work for us and the management was blind to it for 2 straight years until the first one quit.

To make matters worse, it turned out that our manager has long time ago, chosen the lead secretly, without informing the other two of us.

  • Depends on the people and situation. I've also been on teams where all were relatively senior, respected one another, and we organized the work between ourselves. If the work is being done with a minimal confusion, a formal leader isn't needed. If people are confused about the goals or unable to self organize, then appointing one is a good idea. Although appointing one in secret is... yeah, that ain't gonna help anyting. – Gabe Sechan Mar 17 at 8:17
  • I agree. It might work in some cases and not in others. I guess one has to very closely monitor in the first peiod to see if it works and quickly intervene if it doesn't. Yes, the lead was secrtely appointed and it spoke a lot about our manager. I guess it deserves a thread of its own. – Eval Mar 17 at 12:07
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Anecdotally speaking, this happened to me and the result was chaos. Our manager told us to self-organize, but as there was no natural way to split the work into chunks of equal value/opportunity for career development, competition ensued. If some work is more valuable than other, running by consensus decision without a manager will not work. There is just no incentive to give in.

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