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Valve's Way

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Abstract

What can we learn from outliers? While statisticians rightly warn us against their non-representativeness, we believe it is also true that thinking carefully about what makes them atypical may improve our understanding of the typical case. This is the premise behind the Organization Zoo series. Valve Corporation (Valve) is an unusual firm. It is a rare example of a firm that appears to operate without any formal hierarchy in its organization. What can we learn about the viability of authority hierarchies from Valve’s way of organizing? We wrote a brief account of Valve based on public information sources and asked several renowned organizational experts to comment on this unusual firm. We asked them to write a short commentary on what the Valve example means for organizational theorists and practitioners. Thankfully, they all accepted, and we are excited to present the results of their thinking in this first “exhibit” in the Organization Zoo.
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Journal of Organization Design
JOD, 4(2): 2-4 (2015)
DOI: 10.7146/jod.20152
© 2015 by Organizational Design Community
VALVE’S WAY
PHANISH PURANAM • DORTHE DØJBAK HÅKONSSON
Abstract: What can we learn from outliers? While statisticians rightly warn us against their
non-representativeness, we believe it is also true that thinking carefully about what makes
them atypical may improve our understanding of the typical case. This is the premise behind
the Organization Zoo series. Valve Corporation (Valve) is an unusual rm. It is a rare example
of a rm that appears to operate without any formal hierarchy in its organization. What can we
learn about the viability of authority hierarchies from Valve’s way of organizing? We wrote
a brief account of Valve based on public information sources and asked several renowned
organizational experts to comment on this unusual rm. We asked them to write a short
commentary on what the Valve example means for organizational theorists and practitioners.
Thankfully, they all accepted, and we are excited to present the results of their thinking in this
rst “exhibit” in the Organization Zoo.
Keywords: New forms of organizing, organizational forms, non-hierarchical organizations,
self-organizing teams, boss-less organizations
Valve Corporation (Valve) is a global leader in the video game software industry. In many
ways, Valve constitutes an unusual or even improbable form of organizing, whose functioning
seems to be at odds with much received wisdom on how organizations should work. And yet
function it does, and quite well at that.
Valve was founded in 1996 by two ex-Microsoft employees and had grown to about 400
employees in 2014.
1
Valve is behind highly successful video games such as Half-Life and
Counter Strike, the world’s largest online gaming portal Steam, and the widely used game
programming environment, Source, through which it allows users to modify (or “mod”) its
games. In 2014, Valve was privately held and estimated to be worth upwards of USD 2
billion. Its estimated revenue per employee was higher than that of Google, Amazon, or
Microsoft. Valve describes itself as non-hierarchical. As one employee noted in a blog:
If most of the value is now in the initial creative act, there’s little benet to traditional
hierarchical organization that’s designed to deliver the same thing over and over, making
only incremental changes over time. What matters is being rst and bootstrapping your
product into a positive feedback spiral with a constant stream of creative innovation.
Hierarchical management doesn’t help with that, because it bottlenecks innovation
through the people at the top of the hierarchy, and there’s no reason to expect that
those people would be particularly creative about coming up with new products that
are dramatically different from existing ones quite the opposite, in fact. So Valve
was designed as a company that would attract the sort of people capable of taking the
initial creative step, leave them free to do creative work, and make them want to stay.
Consequently, Valve has no formal management or hierarchy at all.
2
There are no job titles, no job descriptions, and no employees called “bosses” in Valve.
Instead, employees are encouraged to work on “what interests them and what brings value
to Valve.”
1 This account of Valve is drawn entirely from secondary sources and closely follows that of P. Puranam,
“Managing without authority: Notes on the romance and reality of non-hierarchical organizations.” Available at
http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2495910
2 http://blogs.valvesoftware.com/abrash/valve-how-i-got-here-what-its-like-and-what-im-doing-2/
Phanish Puranam • Dorthe Døjbak Håkonsson Valve’s Way
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SELF-ORGANIZING VIA SELF-SELECTION
At Valve, employees are free to choose how to use their time and talents. Every employee can
initiate projects and choose which projects to work on. As a consequence, self-selected teams
of individuals form spontaneously around topics of interest. There is no manager or system
architect to oversee or control these choices. The ofcial employee handbook is subtitled:
“A fearless adventure in knowing what to do when no one’s there telling you what to do.”
In making their decisions on which team to join and how much time to devote to the various
competing projects, employees take into account not only their own interest in particular
projects and teams but also the decisions of others. Because Valve employees are rewarded for
their contributions, there is an incentive to be part of successful projects. Projects perceived
as risky may not be able to attract talent and thus may not be adequately staffed. Team size
and composition are constantly in ux, reecting which projects are believed to be “hot.”
INFORMAL LEADERSHIP AND COMMUNICATION
Teams at Valve do not have formally assigned leaders. Projects do have “leads”, but they are
chosen by informal consensus. Insiders claim there is neither prestige nor money attached to
the label. Each project makes its own decisions about testing, check-in rules, how often to
meet, and what the goal is and how to get there. Employees are empowered to the extent that
they can “ship” their own products (provided two or more other employees agree). There is
no separate marketing or quality assurance department in Valve. The company does not have
any formal top down or lateral communication channels. It is up to the individual employees
to talk to others in the company to nd out what is happening. To coordinate with each
other, employees simply move their wheeled workstations to be physically proximate to team
members.
DISPUTE RESOLUTION THROUGH CONSENSUS
Dispute resolution at Valve is mostly handled through consensus. An employee stated on a
blog:
We’re all human, so teams sometimes argue (and sometimes passionately) about what
to do and how to do it, but people are respectful of each other and eventually get to a
consensus that works. There are stresses and more rigid processes when products are
close to shipping, especially when there are hard deadlines for console certication
(although shipping for the PC is much more exible, thanks to Steam). Sometimes
people or teams wander down paths that are clearly not working, and then it’s up to
their peers to point that out and get them back on track.
3
All decision-making is initially attempted within the team, with peers outside the team getting
involved if this does not work.
BONUSES FOR TOP PERFORMERS
Employee performance is assessed by means of a peer-reviewed performance system where
peers review others’ performance and rank them. Top performers receive generous bonuses
and raises. Pay is very high by industry standards.
FORMAL AUTHORITY AND EMPLOYMENT
RELATIONSHIPS
Technically, Valve is not hierarchy-free because the founder-owner, Gabe Newell, has formal
authority over his employees. He can re an employee but an employee cannot re him.
The employee handbook acknowledges this, tongue in cheek, when it denes the founder as
follows: “Gabe Newell – Of all the people at this company who aren’t your boss, Gabe is the
MOST not your boss, if you get what we’re saying.”
Another domain in which the founder exercises considerable authority is in hiring. After
taking extreme care with multiple rounds of interviewing by many employees, as well as
3 http://blogs.valvesoftware.com/abrash/valve-how-i-got-here-what-its-like-and-what-im-doing-2/
Phanish Puranam • Dorthe Døjbak Håkonsson Valve’s Way
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performing the usual due diligence that precedes any hire, Valve’s founder makes the nal
decision. However, Valve does have a nearly at formal authority hierarchy, and Newell
also seems to have delegated a lot of his authority to enable employees to make their own
decisions on how to organize.
SIMILAR SPECIMENS
There are other examples of non-hierarchical organizations like Valve. Perhaps the oldest is
W.L. Gore and Associates, the maker of Gore-Tex fabric. Also, Morning Star makes tomato
paste using low-skilled workers. Both rms eschew a formal managerial hierarchy. But it is
in the world of software start-ups, inspired as they are by Valve and the open-source ethos,
that there appears to be a lot of interest building towards non-hierarchical organizational
models. GitHub, which offers a sophisticated system for managing distributed software
development, claims its objective is to “maximize happiness” and was valued at $750 million
in its Series A valuation. Menlo Innovations, a software development and consulting business
has its developers work in pairs two to a keyboard writing code together and switching
partners every fortnight or so, and says it is in the “business of joy.” Neither has a managerial
hierarchy.
A CHALLENGE TO HIERARCHY?
What are we to make of the success of non-hierarchical formal organizations like Valve?
Do they offer a new blueprint for organization design that is likely to be more acceptable
in an egalitarian Zeitgeist? Is there anything fundamentally new here? Impressive as Valve
is, several potential problems perhaps lurk beneath the surface these are problems beyond
those that would arise for any atypical system of organizing, such as the missing ladders of
status, opportunity, and mentoring, and associated difculties of interfacing with a hierarchy-
infested labor market. First, there is the problem of possible under- and over-provision of
effort (not only within the teams but also at the level of the rm). Since rewards are peer-
driven, individuals may want to work on visible rather than truly promising projects. This
has an increasing return dynamic that may crowd out truly useful projects. Second, there
is a question about scalability. It is worth noting that all start-ups look like self-selected
teams but switch to conventional authority hierarchies as they grow. Does that mean there are
natural limits on scale for this kind of organization? Could this form of organizing work in a
public limited company? In a browneld context? Third, while leaders in Valve are those who
acquire popularity, this may lead to “in-crowd” phenomena and give rise to cliques. Social
inertia may lead to team composition and even division of labor being determined by history
rather than what is appropriate for the task at hand. Being overruled (or even ostracized)
by a community of peers may not necessarily feel better than being overruled by a boss.
In fact, does the boss not serve as a symbolic common focal point of dislike that unites the
subordinates? Fourth, the speed of decision-making may be slower as consensus takes time
and does not guarantee a stopping point for a discussion (unlike vertical escalation, which
does).
Perhaps there are other problems at Valve, but the question remains: what are we as
organization design theorists to make of Valve’s way?
PHANISH PURANAM
Professor
INSEAD-Singapore
E-mail: phanish.puranam@insead.edu
DORTHE DØJBAK HÅKONSSON
Associate Professor
Aarhus University
E-mail: dod@icoa.au.dk
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