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Using a DIY management strategy pulled from the open-source world, GitHub has built a product that coders everywhere love. There is at least one company that has been experimenting to get closer to the ideal: GitHub. GitHub is a privately owned, for-profit company, but it’s built (like a lot of software companies) on an open-source project. This is a story about how to run a company, but more specifically, how to run a company that embraces open-source culture—and how the seemingly counter-intuitive principles behind open-source culture seem to be good for GitHub, which is growing quickly, and also apparently just good for its product. Since humans first figured out agriculture, we have been pondering what to do with surpluses. When I spoke to employees, they told me the most attractive thing about open allocation was its accessibility—they liked the option to work with whomever they liked on something they thought was cool.
There are four essential problems with systematized innovation, and in most businesses, structure can be a solution. But surely those companies would never have implemented such rigid structures if they didn’t work, would they? In other words: How do you get the same old people in the same old company to keep cranking our novel, valuable things?
As soon as you try to reproduce your successes, you run into four problems, which are succinctly outlined in that same paper I linked above.
Managing Attention: People and their organizations are largely designed to focus on, harvest, and protect existing practices rather than pay attention to developing new ideas. Getting Units To Work Together: As a new product or service comes to fruition, ideas, people, and transactions proliferate quickly, which means you need more people to pitch in and help. Institutionalized Leadership: Some innovations are so vital that they rightfully require the structure and practices of management to change radically. If anyone can join any project, then workers need readily accessible training materials and documentation—otherwise, switching projects comes with too much friction as the new person struggles to get oriented. In some ways, the structure of a company like GitHub is just a distribution network for information about the purpose of this company and how it works—and subsequently what it should be making. As one GitHubber will talk about later in this story, this process was exemplified when the company bought a 3-D printer and he slowly began spending all his time with it. The rest of this monstrous, 8,000-word piece consists of interviews with GitHub employees and founders about how open allocation takes care of innovation, training, marketing, and hiring—with far less overhead than might be required in a traditionally organized company. It’s a fan-out structure of strategic communication, so that each individual team leader knows, well, where is the company trying to go? Scott Chacon: We try to move decision-making capabilities to people closest to the problem. You first identify what’s important to you as a company, through strategy, and then each team does that as well.
So then step two is within those teams, allocate themselves to whatever’s important.
Peter Furia: There are a number of companies that have this 20% rule where employees are encouraged to work on stuff they are personally excited about outside of their main responsibility 20% of the time. I started splitting my time more between what I was originally working on and that, and as that progress has grown, I’ve definitely phased myself off from what I initially would have done.
It’s a pretty awesome assignment for me to come from a world of needing to really work with whatever brand came to us, regardless of how we may have felt personally about their company or brand.
I think that a huge part of [all this] is making sure people are always working on stuff they’re personally excited about and invested in and I think that that just leads naturally into innovation. In addition to this talk series we are producing some mini documentaries about these women where we kind of look at what’s their Passion Project, what are they working on, how did they get into it. Scott: We can record things for people when they come on later, new hires and things like that, that they can go back and watch important talks or important all-hands meetings and that people can watch offline asynchronously.

Our video room in the new [office] is much larger and so it’s more sound absorbent or soundproof. There will also a small room within that room that has all of the post-production capabilities including audio post-production and things like that. By allowing self-organization, Kami Richey and her team of three people have supervised the execution of hundreds and hundreds of GitHub events all over the country—far more than they would have been able to if they planned everything themselves.
After you have a drink-up or another event, we encourage people to talk about it internally. Because we are so distributed, we need a way to stay in communication about what people are doing. Building a lean startup often involves having an idea of the business model and system strategy that can help while building the customer and process flow and allow for feedback loops to marketing and management that allows the company to flourish. Feel free to join the discussion by leaving comments, and stay updated by subscribing to the RSS feed. GitHub is a collaboration platform for software developers, used by 3 million people and quickly getting adopted by businesses. Theirs is called Git, originally authored by Linus Torvalds, the dude who made Linux, and released under GNU General Public License in 2008. And the outcome has been a product that is universally beloved and relied upon among technology-industry types and university computer science groups, which are bunches of people who can be (ahem) somewhat picky. Unlike traditional companies where projects are assigned top-down, GitHubbers tackle whatever projects they want, without any formal requests or managerial interference. The question this story seeks to answer is: What makes this strategy effective for GitHub, and can it actually work anywhere else? But the kind of surplus that most evades us is the surplus of creativity that exists in all our brains. When I visited GitHub’s office at the end of the summer, I met a design and UX researcher named Chrissie Brodigan, who had recently been hired away from Mozilla, the free-software community that makes the Firefox web browser, to do a new, clever form of UX evaluation called deprivation testing.
Open allocation is one theory that answers one of the most crucial questions for any company: how to innovate and make that innovation repeatable.
McKinsey says that 62% of corporate executives report manipulating company structure to drive innovation efforts.
You had a great idea and a pool of interested users, and through vigorous iteration, you managed to achieve product market fit.
The more successful an organization is, the harder it is for them to pay attention to new ideas, needs, and opportunities. The more individuals get involved, the easier it is for them to individually lose sight of the whole innovation effort. Big software companies throw away billions on R&D on floundering products, while small, capable teams are creating enormously valuable businesses with just a few million bucks in seed capital in software and (increasingly) in hardware. Now his main project involves making GitHub repositories better handle 3-D file collaboration. When your company communicates internally with polished, clear, and well-produced content, it is easy to repurpose that material for external communications. Instead of trying to find a candidate with exact skills to fill a specific role, open allocation management allows people who are hiring to select for only one essential attribute—the ability to be a self-starter.
So people are identifying things that interest them, and aligning to one of the things that’s important. I think in some ways you can say GitHub has a 100% rule, which is basically always be working on stuff you are personally excited about or that you find fulfilling. Like how is anyone actually doing anything good for a company?" I think that we select people to bring on to the team, bring into the company, who are naturally self-motivated, naturally passionate about what they do and about technology.
Now I work on displaying different file formats: The three model formats that 3-D printers normally use to figure out how to print an object.
Everything that we do communication-wise is designed for mass consumption of people within the company.
Well, actually there is a lot of internal video that I’m working on, but there is also a lot of external video that is in its infancy but that I think a lot of people are really excited about. The general philosophy here is one of open allocation, and I think it is a term a lot of people use, and so initially there was a need for streaming.
We had to try to make something that would get buzz or would be well received on the Internet. We do all-hands meetings every week, but people are all over the world, so there is no time that’s good for everybody. And that means that instead of everyone being the same, you embrace that everyone is different, and you look at the strength of connections between people, the communication channels, and how information travels amongst them, and then you can draw a diagram. Every part of these gatherings is produced internally; GitHub employees even perform the musical acts. Something that we’ve discovered is that strategic discussions should happen synchronously, meaning in real time, either face to face or on the phone or on Google Hangout, or something like that. If we're working with a conference or a user group, we have them broadcast it out to their community too.
The question I was interested in when I started this story was: What is the connection between the structure of the startup and the quality of its product?

Sure, GitHub is only 175 employees, so there are limitations to this experiment, but Valve Software (400 employees) has grown to be a $2.5B company with a very similar open allocation structure. They’d rather leave than fight an organization into tolerating them, because they always wanted an excuse to go freelance.
The kind of communication that is required for self-organization will end up producing all the events, schwag, and content you need to build and publicize an authentic brand. It’s about enabling communication between a broader set of people than would otherwise be efficient.
Find ways to make it fulfilling and exciting or allocate your time on stuff that you feel excited about.
Everything will always have some aspect of it that will benefit the company or that someone believes will be of benefit to the company.
Now there is clear a big appetite here for videos that will strengthen our culture as well as kind of share our culture and our companies philosophy with the rest of the world. We try to make everybody feel as much a part of the company as people that are in San Francisco or people that aren’t. Adding comedy to our video content is a way to take ideas or products or initiatives that otherwise might only be super interesting to people who really understand them well and making them understandable or interesting or compelling through stories and comedy. Training is a time-suck, and great content can serve as a platform for people to teach themselves. There’s also a location [map] so you can see where every GitHubber is in the world, physically.
This requires systems that are not dependent on the founding team and can quickly and easily be transferred to new employees.
With all your new resources, you want to keep reproducing the process that got you success in the first place.
That leaves you free to hire as many people as you want and know that the noobs won’t wander around the office asking people how to turn on the bathroom light or work the coffee maker.
Mapping out and documenting the systems is a quick and easy way to find holes and fill them. Once the destination has been set, there must be a clear plan to take the company from here to there. You can’t just let people do whatever they want all the time and expect to get anything valuable done.
One of the internal projects that I have been working on are what we call the Caffeine Training Series, and these are videos designed to educate employees about how to use the various caffeine-oriented things in the kitchen of GitHub, coffee and tea mainly. This is actually much worse, because this is effectively the waterfall process.The Waterfall Development Process. CC BY-SA 2.5 , via Wikimedia Commons.Remember the bad old days when people spent months writing the market requirements document (MRD), product requirements document (PRD), and functional specifications before moving into design, implementation, verification, and maintenance? All ideas are generated inside the building without continuous access to customer insights. The strategy is limited to the team's understanding of the market and of customer needs, wants, and expectations. To implement a two-year program plan is to commit to running open-loop on a giant investment without reality checks. By the time the company has something for the market to react to, the market will have moved and the deliverable may no longer make sense.How can we avoid the trap of slipping into a waterfall process and ending up with an irrelevant strategy? The rate of learning is accelerated by minimizing the total time spent running through the loop.The build-measure-learn loop in Lean Startup. Strategic planning at the corporate level is fundamentally a big-team exercise involving business leaders, not developers.
How can we take the essence of what makes agile development effective and apply it to strategic planning to make the process nimble and responsive to change?Drawing analogiesIf we stop being dogmatic about agile and start looking at its core benefits as a development methodology, it really comes down to one key takeaway.
The methodology creates frequent, testable deliverables at the end of each short sprint (typically one to two weeks).
They also include internal stakeholders, including senior management, the board of directors, and leaders of functional organizations.The user story captures the fundamental needs of the stakeholders. The sprint is the process to develop a testable deliverable that hints at solutions that meet those needs (such as a product brochure). The standup meeting is a mechanism for cross-functional synchronization between leaders of different organizations (such as the head of marketing, head of engineering, and head of professional services).Staying close to customer needs with strategic planningIn this light, we can see how strategic planning can take the long view and still stay tightly integrated with market and customer needs.
Rather than spend months writing up a strategy and years implementing it, spend only days coming up with a first-pass strategy and only a couple weeks per sprint creating and testing components of the strategy in the field.When we take this approach, we invariably invalidate many early assumptions in the first few sprints.
If we inject the discipline of Lean Startup and agile development and make time for integrating customer insights into the process, it will dramatically improve the probability of success.

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