3 hidden secrets about product management in flat organizations

After 15 years in hierarchical organizations I joined a flat one. With small task forces that make their own decisions. This seemed like product management heaven. All dotted lines erased! Now I can guide dev’ work directly using the power vested in me by the Holacracy Constitution. I can decide on priorities, manage sprints, call the shots. It’s like I’ve been given R&D resources at my product disposal without having to go through any managerial red-tape. So, where is the catch?

Self-management models don’t simply delegate authority from one person to another. They distribute leadership from a person to a process. So, even though we had all the resources we needed to execute the product, I was not the one in charge of calling the shots. We had a process in place. The task force had to decide on priorities, resources allocation, and even product design questions.

Luckily, our task force was staffed with highly skilled individuals, each an expert in his/her domain. Our wisdom of crowd outweighed any individual decision I could have made. It took us a little while to open up to each other and figure out how to run meetings, but once we did, we were on a role. The only problem was, we fell in love with group decisions, and were soon at risk of taking much longer than originally planned. We were heading away from an agile (lean) methodology into the never ending chase of a perfect product.

This is when we introduced 3 concepts:

Hard and external deadline 

Everyone needs a deadline, even the worst procrastinators pony-up at the last second. But our deadline needed to be external, one that we could not talk our way out of. I’ve seen before how the promise of a killer-feature postponed product launches. So we committed the company to showcase this new product at the leading conference 3 months out. Now we had no choice…

Delegated decisions

As much as we enjoyed group discussion for every decision, we had to cut down on lengthy meetings. So we started timing our meetings. We assigned each one an area of responsibility as an individual producer, and empowered each one to make decisions within this scope. This reduced a lot of the hindsight tension of ‘I told you so’. It was an individual’s responsibility to decide what to bring back to the group for a ‘2nd opinion’.

The writing on the wall

This was our guiding light. The concrete statement of our goal for the coming weeks. Obviously our first writing on the wall was: to have a product ready for live users by the conference. That helped each one make the delegated decisions along this principal. Knowing that any decision that might risk this principal needs to be brought back to the group. Later this writing evolved to having users (even a few) come back to use our product over and over again.

So, whether you’re a product manager joining a flat org, or an executive looking to change your organization to self-managed, consider these 3 principals to help you get things done!

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