Digital Tribe: How Many Chiefs Does a Remote Startup Really Need?

How many Agile project managers does it take to change a light bulb?

None. They just sprint to a different well-lit room.

If you ever worked in the office I’m sure you’ve experienced this moment: the number of people you need to check in with is greater than the number of people that help you to do your job. According to the Wall Street Journal, more than two-thirds of workers around the globe have to consult with more that one manager to finish their project.

Office: Too many chiefs, not enough Indians

You’d be surprised, but the remote environment can be a complete opposite.

Remote: Too many Indians, where’s the chief?

Remote teams may seem even chaotic at first glance. Let’s talk about why that happens and whether it’s a problem or misconception.

Why Remote Startups Don’t Have Many Managers?

One might say, they are born that way. Most startups sprout in the heads of a few bright persons who were unable to find themselves in the office environment. The startup grows and after a chain of improvised managerial and hiring decisions in a rapidly changing environment, entrepreneurs end up having a spicey salad of programmers and marketers they have no idea how to manage. That is especially true for bootstrap projects with no external investors, for those would demand some kind of organization at the business plan stage.

Another reason is that the remote field is relatively new and there hasn’t been developed many methodologies for managing it yet. That is why often remote startups employ methodologies that seem to fit their development processes, e.g. Scrum or DevOps and let those to shape the managerial process of a remote company.

Lastly, there may be a psychological effect in place. Sometimes people are so fed up with their office experience that they backhand everything. Rigid work hours? Work whenever you want. Had too many managers in the office? Well, let there be none. Sort of a rebellion in a culture of work.

But What If We Really Don’t Want Managers

Simply saying that “everyone is having equal power in our startup” can be detrimental. Such claims are superficial and harmful, especially when founders believe that themselves.

While employees sometimes hold the idea that there’s no hierarchy in their remote startup, there always a hidden structure. Which is a problem, because you can’t fix nor improve something that is hidden.

In small startups often all key decisions go through the founder: how to work, what to buy, etc. That’s a clear hierarchy. Eventually, as the startup grows, the founder becomes its bottleneck: many questions and only one person has all the answers.

Here’s an example: you are working in a small startup. You are a content marketer. There comes an opportunity to purchase a guest post in a niche online publication, but you need to spend $200 in order to be published. As an experienced marketer, you realize the absolute necessity of that purchase. However, you have to consult with your founder whether they are willing to spend the money.

When it’s you and five other people, there is no problem. The founder will likely find time to address all the issues in time. What happens when there are 15 of you? By the time the founder reviews the post, the opportunity may be gone.

So, in order to prevent these situations, the founder has to distribute some of their power. The question is – where to?

Every department has someone other people are looking up to or calibrating their decisions with. It’s either:

Type 1: the most experienced member of the group

Type 2: the one that has the most power coming from other sources, irrelevant to the startup well-being, e.g. the oldest employee or a founder’s friend, or someone who talks the most…

With the hidden hierarchy you end up distributing power to the wrong people.

What you want to do is give more power to Type 1 employees and less power to Type 2.

Power, in that case, is the ability to call shots within a person’s area of expertise. It comes in a form of trust more than power, really: access to payment accounts, budget. The important note here is that the person will be calling shots with the team, not for the team.

So in the earlier mentioned case of a guest post, the lead content marketer will talk to SMM-manager on the ways of promoting the article, then they will discuss the ETA with one of the writers and involve one designer to help with illustrations. Now the lead content marketer (an experienced Type 1 employee) has all the information to make the decision – purchase the guest post. However, can she?

In order to provide the ability for the team to call shots, the founder has to set clear global goals for them.

The lead content marketer has a clear goal: to increase blog traffic tenfold within six months. She also has a budget to work within – say, $2000/month. If she truly believes that spending $200 will help meet this goal – then there’s no question. All she needs is the ability to make the call herself.

So Type 1 employees have experience, clearly defined goals and ability to call shots. Voila! That makes them managers.

And if you don’t like the word “managers”, you can use any other that fits your company culture the best, from “experienced members” to “Jedi’s”.

Everyone Is a Manager

Remote work presented us with this amazing opportunity to have people working without someone standing behind their backs. And every person is solely responsible for the work they do. In a way, everyone is his own manager.

However, in order to act, people need clear goals, and the ability to act within their expertise. Right now remote work attracts highly self-organized individuals, and we often see in job descriptions: the ability to set oneself goals and execute them. It works great with small goals defined for one person, but what happens when the collaboration of several team members starts going on?

Smaller startups can allow people to be that self-organized and solve problems on the go. Bigger ones have more global goals, more complex tasks involving many people and someone has to be responsible for that kind of collaboration to work. If founders don’t want to spend their whole day micromanaging everyone on the team, they should shape honest hierarchy of trust in their group, otherwise, the hidden (and often flawed) hierarchy will take its place.

Summary: remote environment needs managers as much as the office does, however, managers are of another kind–team member with clear global goals and ability to make decisions within their area of expertise.