It’s not hard to pinpoint barriers to creativity in business: it doesn’t fit the project you’re doing, you are scared it won’t impress your boss, there is no time for it.
Valve, an entertainment software and technology company, has removed those barriers and many more. Its handbook for new employees explains the ‘flatland’ approach of having no hierarchy, no boss to impress of be scared to speak up in front of, no pattern of employing talented people and then just telling them what to do. Employees decide for themselves what they would like to work on, have a generous salary by industry comparison and have the chance to enhance pay just by being helpful to peers. Oh, and Valve puts its staff on a chartered flight to sit by a pool every once in a while.
It’s a brave leap that seems to be working well as Valve grows. The guide book states: ”our profitability per employee is going up, so by that measure, we’re certainly scaling correctly.”
Autonomy is given on the basis that everyone employed at Valve has the ambition to make great products and get them to the customer, therefore everything they do must benefit the customer and will therefore benefit Valve. By removing layers of authorisation and management and handing responsibility to some well selected, driven and trustworthy staff, Valve is putting its faith in the ambition of its employees.
They say themselves, it’s an extension of Google’s 20% Time:
"We’ve heard that other companies have people allocate a percentage of their time to self-directed projects. At Valve, that percentage is 100. Since Valve is flat, people don’t join projects because they’re told to. Instead, you’ll decide what to work on after asking yourself the right questions. Employees vote on projects with their feet (or desk wheels)."
Yes, the desks have wheels and staff can literally move to the project they want to work on. And if they happen to forge ahead with a wrong decision?
“Nobody has ever been fired at Valve for making a mistake. It wouldn’t make sense for us to operate that way. Providing the freedom to fail is an important trait of the company—we couldn’t expect so much of individuals if we also penalized people for errors. Even expensive mistakes, or ones which result in a very public failure, are genuinely looked at as opportunities to learn. We can always repair the mistake or make up for it.”
The Valve handbook is a shining example of how companies can give employees the freedom to think big. It could be criticised for its Big Lebowski-esque attitude but as they say, profitability per employee is on the rise so they must be getting more than something right. Is it too good to be true? We direct you to their answer:
“Sometimes things around the office can seem a little too good to be true. If you find yourself walking down the hall one morning with a bowl of fresh fruit and Stumptown-roasted espresso, dropping off your laundry to be washed, and heading into one of the massage rooms, don’t freak out. All these things are here for you to actually use. And don’t worry that somebody’s going to judge you for taking advantage of it—relax! And if you stop on the way back from your massage to play darts or work out in the Valve gym or whatever, it’s not a sign that this place is going to come crumbling down like some 1999-era dot-com startup. If we ever institute caviar-catered lunches, though, then maybe something’s wrong. Definitely panic if there’s caviar.”