For Pivotal Labs, the only reason to have a process is to get a result. Productivity is the mantra, and it's all based on three simple, core values: "Do what works," "Do the right thing," and "Be kind." But wait, where are the managers? Oh, that's right, there are none.

Addition, Not Subtraction

Pivotal Labs never tried to reduce or get rid of managers or create "self-managed teams." Instead, CEO Rob Mee, who co-founded Pivotal in 1989, based his culture on extreme programming, and designed the most efficient project team structure for getting things done fast and well. It's focused on "balanced teams," and managers were never part of the mix. And it worked.

Today, Pivotal has over 2,000 staff members in nearly 20 locations around the globe. Clients like Twitter, Mercedes, GE, Philips, Humana, and Southwest Airlines lead a Who's-Who list of companies that have benefited from Pivotal's commitment to results over process. And their technologies and tools touch billions of users every day.

Pairs, Teams, and Generalists

Pivotal Labs structures their workplace very simply, with teams of people working on projects together. Pairs of programmers switch out almost daily to work with other people and on other projects. Cross-functional pairs can also be comprised of user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) designers, product managers, and engineers. Rejecting the specialized assembly line method, there is an emphasis on everyone learning how to do everything. Mee says, "At Pivotal, every developer works on every level of the system, from HTML and JavaScript to Ruby and down to the database. The argument that specialists will be better at a particular layer of the system if they're allowed to focus on it doesn't really hold water."

Shaping Cultures, Not Just Building Apps

The company's success speaks loudly to that belief, and others have taken notice. Pivotal has been credited for shaping the cultures of some of Silicon Valley's most influential and valuable companies. This is a result of their own belief that building better software is as much about creating a better culture as it is about creating new products. So companies regularly reach out to Pivotal not just to build an app but also to get help with rebuilding their own software development cultures.

Productivity Drives the Absence of Managers

Pivotal Vice President Drew McManus says, "Few software companies truly operate as self-managed workplaces. Putting agile development principles into practice is harder than it looks. It's not about Ping-Pong tables in the break room, but about productivity. Rather than providing Ping-Pong or other games as a 'perk,' they are used as strategic breaks from staring at computers by employing other motor skills. People are happiest when they are being productive, and productivity drives everything we do here." Which is why they don't have managers.

The idea isn't new. In the late 1950s, Bill Gore created his company, W. L. Gore and Associates, to produce Gore-Tex fabrics and other great products. Today, Gore's revenue is north of $3 billion annually, and it has over 10,000 staff members. Gore called it the "Lattice Organization"-if you need something from someone, go get it. Pivotal Labs didn't study Gore, or any of the thousands of other companies running without managers. They focused on getting the best result as fast as possible, and simply arrived at the same conclusion: most corporate layers slow things down without adding value.

Empathy-Based Teamwork

But Pivotal isn't a rugged individualist culture, either. They don't hire programming "unicorns," working in the middle of the night propped up by caffeine, headphones, and Doritos. If you can't program in pairs and work as part of a team, Pivotal won't hire you. Again, Rob Mee addresses this myth. He says the most important thing they hire for is "empathy." "Collaboration is the most important thing we do, and it doesn't matter how smart you are if you can't relate to how other people think."

Janice Fraser, director of innovation practice, says a group of people built the concept of balanced teams together in 2010. "For the best outcome, ownership should be with the team, not with one person," she notes. As a result of the work environment they've built, McManus says, "Pivotal's best sales tool is the tour, because they see people working without managers. Large corporations say, 'I want this. Come show us how to do this.'" They're not just writing software, they're helping change organizational structures from traditional top-down hierarchy to teams without managers.

Conversations, Not Communications

Every company struggles with communications, but Pivotal approaches it differently. Fraser says, "Our organization is built to create conversations, not just communications. Word of mouth is the best way to communicate. So we give people lots of landing spaces and encourage interaction." To put feet to creating conversations, Pivotal provides free breakfast every morning and everyone takes lunch at exactly the same time. They also work from "stories," not architecture, which also facilitates conversations. "Our office sounds like an bustling caf," says McManus. "Face to face conversations are encouraged. Pivotal Tracker also triggers conversation. Live interaction saves us a lot of time. It happens ad hoc, so we have very few meetings."

Part of building a culture of conversation is ongoing "AMA" (ask me anything) sessions with leadership. And sideways communication is facilitated by software they developed called Feedback, short tweet-like shout-outs with timely responses. All of it is designed to eliminate latency between identifying an action item and completing it.

Trust Is Everything

Fraser sums up Pivotal's unique culture, "Think about who else will be affected and get them involved. We all strive to act like grownups. Balanced teams works on the principle that the right decision is made by the right person who has the right information at the right time. It's all about trust."

That's real leadership. And all without managers.

Published on: Dec 9, 2015