Middle Management Saves the Day

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Key Lesson:  When experiments fail, be quick to acknowledge the facts and move on.

Like any good CEO, Ryan Carson is interested in creating an environment where workers are happy, engaged and productive. And like many CEOs, he experimented a bit when he founded Treehouse Island, an online coding school based in Portland, Oregon. At Treehouse, staff enjoyed four-day work weeks, only worked on projects that interested them, were rarely required to send email and had no direct bosses or managers.

Though Carson had been very public in his advocacy for managerless companies, as Treehouse grew, it was apparent that the system wasn’t working:  projects were languishing, roles and responsibilities were not clearly understood, and the company began losing ground to competitors. Without managers to champion successes and put mistakes into perspective, staff tended to toil in anonymity. And while the company also allows employees to pitch projects, without managers to sponsor and guide new initiatives, it was hard to get things done. That could be discouraging to some of the more productive people on staff. According one, “You just kind of felt like, ‘I can’t get these things done.” In the end, he says, he stopped submitting new ideas.

Once Carson understood the nature of the problem, it didn’t take him long to change course.  ”That experiment broke. I just had to admit it,” Carson told the Wall Street Journal. As the company has added middle managers, things have improved. Treehouse is producing more video content, revenue is up and customer inquiries are being handled twice as fast. With managers tracking projects, email has even made a comeback.

Ryan Carson is our Grounded Leader of the Week for endeavoring to do business differently, for graciously acknowledging that his experiment had failed, and for embracing a solution that he had once discounted as an unnecessary distraction.

 

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