I caught the article Why There Are No Bosses at Valve from BusinessWeek today. In my geeky household, developer Valve and their award-winning games (Portal, Half-Life) are very popular, but I never knew that their work environment is as innovative as their games. Of course now I can’t stop thinking about working in a collaborative environment like this within a law firm.

The company’s employee handbook expressly addresses hierarchy and organizational structure. Valve eschews departments, divisions and delineation in favor of self-selected project teams, self-defined “jobs” and delivering value to customers. The message is: “We hire good people to do good work. If you are here, then you know what to do, so jump in and create value for our customers. Don’t worry about the rest.”

Valve Employee Handbook (PDF)
“Valve is not averse to all organizational structure — it crops up in many forms all the time, temporarily. But 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.”

The handbook also addresses what Valve is not very good at – namely, tracking performance and training n00bs. But a training and monitoring program is not the environment the company wants to develop – they want to make amazing games with top-flight talent – so they’re mostly fine with the trade-off. How different is that approach from the ages-old guild apprentice system still in use at most law firms? This model moves away from government-type job descriptions (Records Clerk II) and into a solutions-focused and empowered employee population.

With 300 employees, Valve has found a balance that works without a bureaucratic infrastructure. I wouldn’t argue that every industry or company could pull this off but we can take some of the best parts. Many law firms could follow this example with independent projects teams among staff departments, or an exchange program where team members switch off departments to spend time learning how other groups are working to serve clients – and how they can help. Anything to create more communication and collaboration – and less red tape.

If you’d like to talk more about collaboration, please consider joining our panel Tuesday 5/1 at 11a CDT for Practice Innovations Webinar: How to Collaborate to Drive Revenue and let us know what you think about lemons.