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= Valve, the 'bossless company' produces games, a 'social entertainment platform' and a production tool to make games; it is famous for its horizontal work culture



Michael Abrash:

"Valve has no formal management or hierarchy at all.

Now, I can tell you that, deep down, you don’t really believe that last sentence. I certainly didn’t when I first heard it. How could a 300-person company not have any formal management? My observation is that it takes new hires about six months before they fully accept that no one is going to tell them what to do, that no manager is going to give them a review, that there is no such thing as a promotion or a job title or even a fixed role (although there are generous raises and bonuses based on value to the company, as assessed by peers). That it is their responsibility, and theirs alone, to allocate the most valuable resource in the company – their time – by figuring out what it is that they can do that is most valuable for the company, and then to go do it. That if they decide that they should be doing something different, there’s no manager to convince to let them go; they just move their desk to the new group (the desks are on wheels, with computers attached) and start in on the new thing. (Obviously they should choose a good point at which to do this, and coordinate with both groups, but that’s common sense, not a rule, and isn’t enforced in any way.) That everyone on a project team is an individual contributor, doing coding, artwork, level design, music, and so on, including the leads; there is no such thing as a pure management or architect or designer role. That any part of the company can change direction instantly at any time, because there are no managers to cling to their people and their territory, no reorgs to plan, no budgets to work around. That there are things that Gabe badly wants the company to do that aren’t happening, because no one has signed up to do them.

Hardest of all to believe is the level of trust. Trust is pervasive. All of Valve’s source code is available to anyone in Perforce, and anyone at Valve can sync up and modify anything. Anyone can just up and work on whatever they think is worth doing; Steam Workshop is a recent instance of someone doing exactly that. Any employee can know almost anything about how the company works and what it’s doing; the company is transparent to its employees. Unlike many organizations, Valve doesn’t build organizational barriers to its employees by default; it just trusts them and gets out of their way so they can create value.

To be clear, Valve hasn’t magically repealed the realities of developing and shipping products. 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 certification (although shipping for the PC is much more flexible, 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.

Also, don’t think that people randomly come in every day and do whatever they feel like doing. It certainly wouldn’t be okay if a programmer decided to move to an empty room and start weaving straw hats (although if they wanted to write a tool to let people weave and sell virtual straw hats, that would be fine). People commit to projects, and projects are self-organizing; there are leads, but they’re chosen by informal consensus, there’s no prestige or money attached to the label, and it’s only temporary – a lead is likely to be an individual contributor on their next project. Leads have no authority other than that everyone agrees it will help the project to have them doing coordination. Each project decides for itself about testing, check-in rules, how often to meet (not very), and what the goal is and when and how to get there. And each project is different.

It’s hard to believe it works, but it does. I think of it as being a lot like evolution – messy, with lots of inefficiencies that normal companies don’t have – but producing remarkable results, things that would never have seen the light of day under normal hierarchical management. The games speak for themselves – and then there’s Steam (and no, Steam doesn’t have formal management either). Valve’s long string of successes, many of them genuinely groundbreaking, is strong evidence that the hypothesis that creative people are the key to success is in fact correct, and that the structuring of Valve around those people has been successful."

The rationale:

"When he looked into the history of the organization, he found that hierarchical management had been invented for military purposes, where it was perfectly suited to getting 1,000 men to march over a hill to get shot at. When the Industrial Revolution came along, hierarchical management was again a good fit, since the objective was to treat each person as a component, doing exactly the same thing over and over.

If most of the value is now in the initial creative act, there’s little benefit 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 first 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." (


A new type of bossless firm

Yanis Varoufakis:

"There are two kinds of non-capitalist firms: (a) Mutual, co-op like, firms whose ownership is formally dispersed among members (who may be customers, employees or both); and (b) Valve (or similar companies) where management is completely horizontal (i.e. the company is boss-less) even if ownership is held in the hands of a selected few.

Valve is, at least in one way, more radical than a traditional co-operative firm. Co-ops are companies whose ownership is shared equally among its members. Nonetheless, co-ops are usually hierarchical organisations. Democratic perhaps, but hierarchical nonetheless. Managers may be selected through some democratic or consultative process involving members but, once selected, they delegate and command their ‘underlings’ in a manner not at all dissimilar to a standard corporation. At Valve, by contrast, each person manages herself while teams operate on the basis of voluntarism, with collective activities regulated and coordinated spontaneously via the operations of the time allocation-based spontaneous order mechanism described above.

Regarding remuneration, both the co-op model and the Valve model differ substantially from conventional capitalist corporations. Capitalist firms is organised along the principle that the owner is the residual claimant once factors of production are paid their market-determined prices. E.g. shareholders are assumed to retain dividends that equal total revenue minus fixed costs, minus labour costs, minus interest on capital borrowed, minus planned investment, minus all other variable costs. Employees thus receive income that is determined by the conditions of the labour market at large and which is a reward for their labour time (estimated at the market determined price of it). Bonuses blur the distinction between profit and wage income but, to the extent that they constitute a stable proportion of one’s wages (and are incapable, courtesy of imperfect monitoring, of being properly tied to individual marginal or average productivity), they can be thought of as part of wage income (except for CEOs and the like whose position of power over the shareholders creates the well known tensions resulting from the ‘managerial revolution’, which saw ownership separate from hierarchical control). In contrast, co-ops and Valve feature peer-based systems for determining the distribution of a firm’s surplus among employees.


Having spent a few months working at Valve, I can testify to the truth of its own self-image as a boss-less corporation. As a political economist who spent a great deal of time debating alternatives to capitalist corporations, working at Valve is affording me a valuable opportunity to watch one such alternative corporation in action. In this post, I attempted to place Valve’s quirky management structure in the context of time-honoured debates and perspectives. Central to my narrative of ‘Valve’s way’ was the notion of an ‘alternative spontaneous order’: one that emerges within a corporation (as opposed to within a market-society) on the basis of individual time allocations (as opposed to price signals). The tantalising thought arose, during my musings, that this organisational structure may be as scalable as a market mechanism (assuming that the right technologies are in hand, ensuring transparency and low communications’ costs within the company).

There is one important aspect of Valve that I did not focus on: the link between its horizontal management structure and its ‘vertical’ ownership structure. Valve is a private company owned mostly by few individuals. In that sense, it is an enlightened oligarchy: an oligarchy in that it is owned by a few and enlightened in that those few are not using their property rights to boss people around. The question arises: what happens to the alternative spontaneous order within Valve if some or all of the owners decide to sell up? Granted that Valve’s owners do not intend to do this, the question remains, at least at the theoretical level.

One possibility is that Valve will divide and multiply into a number of different Valve-like companies, as its talented employees leave for greener pastures and, possibly, with the intend of re-creating the horizontal management structure that they grew happily familiar with. Another possibility is that the owners may actually sell their stake to Valve employees, thus combining the features of a co-op with the Valve management system.

Whatever the future of Valve turns out like, one thing is for certain – and it so happens that it constitutes the reason why I am personally excited to be part of Valve: The current system of corporate governance is bunk. Capitalist corporations are on the way to certain extinction. Replete with hierarchies that are exceedingly wasteful of human talent and energies, intertwined with toxic finance, co-dependent with political structures that are losing democratic legitimacy fast, a form of post-capitalist, decentralised corporation will, sooner or later, emerge. The eradication of distribution and marginal costs, the capacity of producers to have direct access to billions of customers instantaneously, the advances of open source communities and mentalities, all these fascinating developments are bound to turn the autocratic Soviet-like megaliths of today into curiosities that students of political economy, business studies et al will marvel at in the future, just like school children marvel at dinosaur skeletons at the Natural History museum. I trust that Valve’s organisation will become, if not a central chapter, at the very least an important footnote in this historical turn." (

The Distribution of Tasks or self-allocation of labor at Valve

by Yanis Varoufakis:

"If I were asked my opinion of what Valve’s symbol should be, I would recommend a depiction of a wheel, like those which every desk at Valve comes equipped with so as to enable us to move about the company at will, to join whichever working group we want, to form new ones spontaneously and without seeking anyone’s permission. The said wheel, at least in my eyes, symbolises Valve’s attempt to create, within the company, a successful ‘spontaneous order’ based not on price signals but, rather, on decentralised, individuated, time allocations.

Many enlightened corporations do a song and dance about their readiness to let employees allocate 10% or even 20% of their working time on projects of their choosing. Valve differs in that it insists that its employees allocate 100% of their time on projects of their choosing. 100% is a radical number! It means that Valve operates without a system of command. In other words, it seeks to achieve order not via fiat, command or hierarchy but, instead, spontaneously.


A corporation that tries to function as a type of ‘spontaneous order’ (i.e. without an internal system of command/hierarchy) seems like a contradiction in terms. Smith’s and Hayek’s spontaneous orders turn on price signals. As Coase et al explained in the previous section, the whole point about a corporation is that its internal organisation cannot turn on price signals (for if it could, it would not exist as a corporation but would, instead, contract out all the goods and services internally produced). So, if Valve’s own spontaneous order does not turn on price signals, what does it turn on?

The answer is: on time and team allocations. Each employee chooses (a) her partners (or team with which she wants to work) and (b) how much time she wants to devote to various competing projects. In making this decision, each Valve employee takes into account not only the attractiveness of projects and teams competing for their time but, also, the decisions of others. The reason is that, especially when insufficiently informed about projects and teams (e.g. when an employee has recently joined Valve), an employee can gather much useful information about projects and teams simple by observing how popular different projects and teams are (a) with others in general, (b) with others whose interests/talents are closer to their own.

Just like in a marketplace, everything in Valve is in flux. People move about (making use of their desk’s wheels), new teams are formed, new projects are concocted. All this information is observable by the naked eye (one notices an empty spot where David’s desk used to be, and then finds out that David moved to the 4th floor to work with Tom, Dick and Harriet), on the company’s intranet, in cross-team meetings where teams inform each other on what they are working on). People learn constantly, both by observing and by doing, the value to them of different projects and teams. These subjective values keep changing, as the time and team formation signals that are emitted by everyone else are updated.

The idea here is that, through this ever-evolving process, people’s capacities, talents and ideas are given the best chance possible to develop and produce synergies that promote the Common Good. It is as if an invisible hand guides Valve’s individual members to decisions that both unleash each person’s potential and serve the company’s collective interest (which does not necessarily coincide with profit maximisation)." (

Flat doesn't scale

by Philippa Warr:

"Former Valve employee Jeri Ellsworth has spoken of the company's famous flat management structure, calling out several shortcomings as part of an interview for the Grey Area podcast.

Because of Valve's success and profitability, the unconventional management structure -- or, more accurately, the lack of one -- has achieved a kind of legendary status. The much-circulated Valve employee handbook [PDF] explains: "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."

It's an idealised presentation (well, it is a handbook designed to enthuse and welcome new employees) and Ellsworth says as much. But she goes on to describe in greater detail shortcomings she observed during her time at Valve.

"It is a pseudo-flat structure where, at least in small groups, you're all peers and make decisions together," she said. "But the one thing I found out the hard way is that there is actually a hidden layer of powerful management structure in the company and it felt a lot like high school. There are popular kids that have acquired power in the company, then there's the trouble makers, and everyone in between."

One of the most frustrating aspects for Ellsworth was the hiring process. "I was struggling in the company to make a difference and to make the hardware group move forward. We were having a difficult time recruiting folks. We would interview very talented people but they would be rejected by the old timers at Valve as not fitting the culture."

The hiring process in Valve's flat structure is a curious one and is described in detail as part of an Econtalk podcast interview with Yanis Varoufakis, Valve's former economist-in-residence. Varoufakis' explanation is lengthy, but it makes it easy to see how problems might arise if the need being filled is contentious:

"Let's say you and I have a chat in the corridor or the conference room and the result of this chat is that we converge to the view that we need an additional software engineer or animator or artist or hardware person. Or several of them. What we can do is we can send an email to the rest of our colleagues at Valve inviting them to join us, forming a subcommittee that actually looks for these people. Without seeking anyone's permission in the hierarchies, because there is no hierarchy.

"Then we form spontaneously the search committee and we interview people, first by Skype; then we bring them, if they pass that test, to the company for a sort of face-to-face, personalised interview. Anyone who wants to participate does participate and then during that day -- usually a day-long event -- emails are fired all over the place with views whether this person should be hired or not, until some consensus is reached where there is effectively no one vetoing the hiring of that person."

Asked whether these problems arose as part of a company desire to move away from hardware she responded: "I have no definitive proof on that but they pretty much killed off our project." That project was CastAR -- augmented reality glasses which Ellsworth is now working on as a separate project, having been handed the legal rights to do so by Valve. Referring to a press release saying that no projects were being cancelled she added, "I guess it was cancelled by proxy of none of us being there."

Ellsworth's experiences have not put her off flat management entirely, however. According to the interview it works well for small groups like her hardware team. The problem as she sees it is one of scalability. What works for five or 20 people doesn't necessarily support 300.

Ellsworth prefaces her remarks with praise for a number of her colleagues: "I have a lot of friends at Valve, there are some great people there especially in my team, the hardware team. We were really close knit." But the disparity between the handbook and her experience has left a bitter taste. "[Valve] promised me the world and then backstabbed me." (

Audio interview at, see: Jeri Ellsworth on Problems with the Flat Management at Valve


The Valve Employee Manual

Comments via the "More Human" blog:

(valve manual excerpts are preceded by -)

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." (

More Information

  1. Spontaneous Order
  2. valve handbook for new employees