Lessons in horizontal work culture from the Valve Employee Manual

The MoreHuman Tumblr blog has a running commentary on the employee manual of the ‘bossless’ gaming company Valve.

The Valve excerpts are preceded by the “-” sign.

Discussion on Emergent Excess Social Capital and Value in Horizontal Networks


Conditional membership

Biggest difference from emergent social networks like Occupy: conditional membership. The handbook focuses a great deal on hiring, which is a power everyone in Valve holds, and makes clear that they feel the success of their model relies on whom they choose to invite into the organization.

– Hiring well is the most important thing in the universe. Nothing else comes close. It’s more important than breathing.

For an organization that is, like Valve, looking (in part) to build discrete and shippable products, this makes a great deal of sense. There’s no downsides to gatekeeping the doorway, because unlike in movements to create global change, including the world in your structure isn’t a built-in goal. And the upsides are obvious:

– At Valve, adding individuals to the organization can influence our success far more than it does at other companies —either in a positive or negative direction. Since there’s no organizational compartmentalization of people here, adding a great person can create value across the whole company.

Yet the right kinds of inclusion are still non-negotiably important:

– Missing out on hiring that great person is likely the most expensive kind of mistake we can make.

So the inclusion of “the right people” is a priority. This should inform networked political movements priorities too, and is fodder for another blog post, but I’ve subscribed for awhile now to the idea that the most important people to include in any movement for justice are those at the margins of society. This is another whole very specific challenge, but perhaps we can approach it with the same kind of clarity of purpose that Valve has — with a different sense of “the right people”.

The dangers of hierarchy.

Throughout the handbook, there are cautions about experimenting with hierarchy, and some insight as to why the urge can develop in a horizontal organization.

– When unchecked, people have a tendency to hire others who are lower-powered than themselves… In some ways, hiring lower-powered people is a natural response to having so much work to get done… The other reason people start to hire “downhill” is a political one. At most organizations, it’s beneficial to have an army of people doing your bidding. At Valve, though, it’s not. You’d damage the company and saddle yourself with a broken organization. Good times!

Good times, indeed. Here, in a movement context, maybe we can think about hiring as outreach. When we are looking for people to join a project we hope might become, or already is, a growing and productive part of a social movement, who are we looking for? Our concept of “uphill” might be different — maybe focused less on raw talent than on interest and commitment, for example, with the known caveat that we then need skill development to make sure that everyone is equally competent and trained. But our concept of “downhill” is maybe more important: what are undesirable reasons for you to have for choosing a collaborator? “Hiring down” is still a thing in a movement context, and while it can make bottomliners feel safely in control, it can stifle just about everything else along the way. And that’s the concern that Valve employees have about hierarchies:

– [The] problems show up when hierarchy or codified divisions of labor either haven’t been created by the group’s members or when those structures persist for long periods of time. We believe those structures inevitably begin to serve their own needs rather than those of Valve’s customers. The hierarchy will begin to reinforce its own structure by hiring people who fit its shape, adding people to fill subordinate support roles. Its members are also incented to engage in rent-seeking behaviors that take advantage of the power structure rather than focusing on simply delivering value to customers.

Leading to the “broken organization” mentioned above. So: empowerment matters. New people should hold the baton and the speaking rock at least as often as anyone else, and they shouldn’t be asked to join a project because you anticipate, even unconsciously, they they’ll agree with your priorities. They won’t contribute to their full potential, and they’ll help incentivize you to behave badly. If you and the other people collaborating on the project agree that there are needed barriers to entry, state them outright, and be conscientious that their level of outspokenness or independence is not one of them.

So what does this look like in practice? How do things actually get done at Valve? One of the constant arguments for more hierarchy is because it is easier to “get things done.” Valve makes an unbelievable amount of money – perhaps up to $800 million in 2011. That’s a pretty good indication that they’re very competent executing their form of getting things done. Activists usually want to generate other kinds of capital, and we lack good systems of measurement, but we often feel frustrated that ROCK and TALK seem so out of whack. Valve’s structures actually look a lot like our own, which to me says that the devil is in the details.

First, again — they begin with an assumption of universal autonomy.

– [W]e don’t have any management, and nobody “reports to” anybody else. We do have a founder/president, but even he isn’t your manager. This company is yours to steer—toward opportunities and away from risks. You have the power to green-light projects. You have the power to ship products.

This comes up quite a few times, actually, and the reason is explained near the beginning of the book:

– A flat structure removes every organizational barrier between your work and the customer enjoying that work. Every company will tell you that “the customer is boss,” but here that statement has weight. There’s no red tape stopping you from figuring out for yourself what our customers want, and then giving it to them.

AHA! That’s — that’s one of those moments I’ve had recently where I’m reading about someone else’s anti-authoritarian organization, and it sounds just like my life! I wrote something to this effect the other day on an Occupy Sandy listserv, discussing the question of whether part or all of Occupy Sandy’s ongoing scope should be networking NGOs and how that might relate to its original scope of networking individuals:

– [I realized the importance of individual autonomy d]uring week two, when I attended a meeting in Red Hook where OS folks hosted the Guard and other governmental reps. These folks were well-intentioned, as we ourselves would be if we were part of an institution, but they were crippled by the hierarchies they were apart of. Whereas we were liberated to make human commitments to other humans, they were not. They couldn’t make commitments to us and they couldn’t make commitments to individual folks who needed relief – in fact, the interests of their institutions mandated separation between them and those individual folks. They require guns to be with them when they knock on people’s doors; they require uniforms to remind people that they represent not themselves as neighbors but a physical manifestation of their institution, their hierarchy- the state. Anything they want to do, they need to ask permission to do.

– OS organizer: “Well, in the end, we’re all here to help people.”

– Guardswoman: “No, you’re not getting it: a soldier’s job is to do what they’re told.”

That disempowerment and subjugation of human commitment and care is the inevitable result of being part of a hierarchy, including an NGO.

Their desks have wheels.

Which is such a cool way of making it easier to realize the real flexibility of autonomy:

– You’ll notice people moving frequently; often whole teams will move their desks to be closer to each other. There is no organizational structure keeping you from being in close proximity to the people who you’d help or be helped by most.

And they have a tool to reduce some of the downsides of chair mobility, which reminds me of some of the mobile street tactics tools I’ve daydreamed of:

– The fact that everyone is always moving around within the company makes people hard to find. That’s why we have http://user—check it out. We know where you are based on where your machine is plugged in, so use this site to see a map of where everyone is right now.

So, OK — they’re autonomous. How does the work get done? Employees pick their own projects based on asking themselves “the right questions”, including (but not limited to):

– Of all the projects currently under way, what’s the most valuable thing I can be working on?

– Which project will have the highest direct impact on our customers? How much will the work I ship benefit them?

– Is Valve not doing something that it should be doing?

– What’s interesting? What’s rewarding? What leverages my individual strengths the most?

Transpose out the capitalism and these sound pretty familiar — and reading this, I asked myself: but, Valve, what about when everyone wants to do the sexy direct action planning and no one wants to do outreach or housing? And then I read on (emphasis mine):

– Because we all are responsible for prioritizing our own work, and because we are conscientious and anxious to be valuable, as individuals we tend to gravitate toward projects that have a high, measurable, and predictable return… when there’s a clear opportunity on the table to succeed [in the near-term]… with a clear return, we all want to take it. And, when we’re faced with a problem or a threat, and it’s one with a clear cost, it’s hard not to address it immediately. This sounds like a good thing, and it often is, but it has some downsides that are worth keeping in mind. Specifically, if we’re not careful, these traits can cause us to race back and forth between short-term opportunities and threats, being responsive rather than proactive.

This is strikingly super-reminiscent of my experiences in Occupy.

Problem: everyone wants to do the immediately affirming, good-feeling, ego-driven, and occasionally guilt-driven thing, leaving a small number of people feeling obligated and overwhelmed with a thankless task.

Problem: overreacting to threats, completely dropping balls when faced with a new crisis (repeated so many times in #OWS a way that I do think was still generative).

Both of these experiences were reflected in the OWS #S17 Debrief: some people in Occupy recognize and act on — and frequently suffer for — unmet long-term community needs, while others tend to run between crisis and instant gratification.

Valve’s solution?

– So our lack of a traditional structure comes with an important responsibility. It’s up to all of us to spend effort focusing on what we think the long-term goals of the company should be…

…we want you to learn how to choose the most important work to do.

This feels like a pretty concrete lesson. Developing a culture that develops and communicates broader perspectives – and motivates and values work done for the long-term — seems like an envisionable prospect.

Valve has a civic value we could easily decide to borrow. All we have to do is try to learn together “how to choose the most important work to do.”

And then once having chosen that work, how do individuals work together at Valve? The abstract term “decision-making” is never used in the handbook in any permutation — except for once:

– There’s no secret decision-making cabal.

Instead, the manual — right at the outset — frames the Valve collaborative process as one of choice:

– This handbook is about the choices you’re going to be making and how to think about them.

Aha — so the Valve process is not about imposing a structure, it’s about an emergent one that arises from a certain way of thinking about individual choices.

Valve does have certain culturally-embedded structural habits. The main one is their concept of teams, which they call cabals. Valve had a really clear reason for forming the first cabals during the development of Half-Life, as described in a Gamasutra article by Valve developer Ken Birdwell — and a really familiar one.

– We looked at hundreds of resumes… but no one we looked at had enough of the qualities we wanted for us to seriously consider them the overall godlike “game designer” that we were told we needed. In the end, we came to the conclusion that this ideal person didn’t actually exist. Instead, we would create our own ideal by combining the strengths of a cross section of the company, putting them together in a group we called the “Cabal.”

Ha! In Occupy-speak, they’d be the game designer they were looking for.

– Cabal meetings were semi-structured brainstorming sessions usually dedicated to a specific area of the game. During each session, one person was assigned the job of recording and writing up the design, and another was assigned to draw pictures explaining the layout and other details. A Cabal session would typically consist of a few days coming up with a mix of high level concepts for the given area, as well as specific events that sounded fun.

So: collaborative emergent creation, much like an Occupy working group meeting at its most productive. An additive process, where ideas build together into something greater — where emergence happens.

Birdwell goes into some really interesting description of how this process worked for them. I found it particularly interesting that creating artificial constraints helped them to be more effective and creative; this certainly reflects my experiences in OWS.

But what happens if there are disagreements? If someone becomes attached to something others are determined to get rid of? If someone has a principled objection? The manual doesn’t specify a process for resolution, and since deep-seated political priorities aren’t in play, objections may tend to be less of a big deal.

But from the Gamasutra article, it sounds like the answer is a lot like ours in Occupy: communication, communication, communication, via lots of meetings.

– The Cabal met four days a week, six hours a day for five months straight, and then on and off until the end of the project. The meetings were only six hours a day, because after six hours everyone was emotionally and physically drained. The people involved weren’t really able to do any other work during that time, other than read e-mail and write up their daily notes.

Cabals do often have what Valve calls “Team Leaders,” which is basically the same as what in Occupy Sandy we termed a greaser:

– Often, someone will emerge as the “lead” for a project. This person’s role is not a traditional managerial one. Most often, they’re primarily a clearinghouse of informa- tion. They’re keeping the whole project in their head at once so that people can use them as a resource to check decisions against. The leads serve the team, while acting as centers for the teams.

Also a bit similar to a spoke in a spokescouncil — someone whose job it is to be a point of connection, with a responsibility to “keep the whole project in their head at once.” And within teams transitory and temporary roles may develop, just like we did in the early days of Occupy Sandy. And look how they distinguish between ways individuals with roles interface with the outside, hierarchical world, as opposed to inside Valve:

– Traditionally at Valve, nobody has an actual title. This is by design, to remove organizational constraints. Instead we have things we call ourselves, for convenience. In particular, people who interact with others outside the company call themselves by various titles because doing so makes it easier to get their jobs done. Inside the company, though, we all take on the role that suits the work in front of us. Everyone is a designer. Everyone can question each other’s work. Anyone can recruit someone onto his or her project. Everyone has to function as a “strategist,” which really means figuring out how to do what’s right for our customers. We all engage in analysis, measurement, predictions, evaluations.

So, built right in is the understanding that titles serve, at Valve, only to meet outward-facing tactical needs. No one should mistake those titles as operative inside the network, and, importantly, Valve employees are able to trust each other to remember that, making it not a threatening move but something considered normal, within bounds.

Unanswered questions about decision-making:

I’d love to know more about how conflicts are resolved. There may even be more than one “process” for doing so.

How are collective assets handled? Who tweets? Who makes short-term budgetary decisions? I can see a cabal handling long-term promotional decisions, but what if there is a need for quick response?

I hope you’ll leave your own thoughts in the comments, dear reader — maybe we can brainstorm a communique to our comrades at Valve, and begin some productive mutual skill-sharing.

Other interesting tidbits.

On balancing work and other life-time:

– While people occasionally choose to push themselves to work some extra hours at times when something big is going out the door, for the most part working overtime for extended periods indicates a fundamental failure in planning or communication. If this happens at Valve, it’s a sign that something needs to be reevaluated and corrected.

On failing upward:

– Screwing up is a great way to find out that your assumptions were wrong or that your model of the world was a little bit off. As long as you update your model and move forward with a better picture, you’re doing it right. Look for ways to test your beliefs. Never be afraid to run an ex- periment or to collect more data.

On collectively-wisened navigation via inclusion:

– Over time, we have learned that our collective ability to meet challenges, take advantage of opportunity, and respond to threats is far greater when the responsibility for doing so is distributed as widely as possible. Namely, to every individual at the company.

And finally, some pretty familiar challenges are listed in a section titled “What is Valve Not Good At?”

– Helping new people find their way. We wrote this book to help, but as we said above, a book can only go so far.

– Mentoring people. Not just helping new people figure things out, but proactively helping people to grow in areas where they need help is something we’re organizationally not great at. Peer reviews help, but they can only go so far.

– Disseminating information internally.

– Finding and hiring people in completely new disciplines (e.g., economists! industrial designers!).

– Making predictions longer than a few months out.

– We miss out on hiring talented people who prefer to work within a more traditional structure. Again, this comes with the territory and isn’t something we should change, but it’s worth recognizing as a self imposed limitation.

There’s a lot more in here, including about measuring value and determining compensation, which probably deserves a whole other post bringing in some other examples and ideas.

Yes, Valve is a game company. Activists I know aren’t about creating monetary value, although many struggle with generating the bare minimum needed to survive. Our work tends to generate social, political, and/or physical capital, not financial capital, and in my experience their conversion into financial capital raises a number of new dynamics that we may or may not want or need to opt into having to deal with, in our networks and projects.

But I think one big lesson here is that for those of us who find ourselves working in (sometimes-) anti-authoritarian networks, our means of production (shout out to Karl Marx and DJ Engley-E) of this capital are those networks themselves, and the culture in and through which they operate. If they work well, they generate an excess of social and political capital — more than any of us could ever create individually or via a hierarchy — through emergence.

If they don’t work well — well, Valve’s cautionary tales of hierarchies subverting the collective’s mission seems to be a data point that supports an assertion I like to make: that to whatever extent our culture accommodates hierarchies, efficiency can be gained, but at the cost of individual autonomy. And then the loss of individual autonomy stifles the emergence that generated and energized the network to begin with. And as that hierarchy expands more and more of the network will be operating for the interests of that hierarchy and not in the interests of recreating emergence, so new groups and projects are less likely to bloom.

When we can’t believe how much we (as a whole) are getting done, it’s because we are successfully creating emergence, and the network is thriving. When we feel like we are stuck in the muck, our efforts aren’t giving us the returns they once did, we’re getting nowhere, and the circle is closing, it’s because emergence isn’t happening. Staying emergent will be an ongoing challenge, and a central focus of this blog. Valve has managed to excel using emergence for more than a decade, focusing mostly not on one specific process but on creating the cultural conditions for healthy and emergent process to occur. Let’s borrow some of these ideas and approaches and see what we can build when we don’t feel lost, alone, in a sea of unanswered questions and doubts. It can work — it can really, really work.”

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