“A fearless adventure in knowing what to do when no one’s there telling you what to do”

The gaming company Valve started in 1996, became initially successful with the award-winning game Half-Life, even more famous for the early multiplayer mods/games Team Fortress and Counter-Strike, expanded to change videogame distribution with the Steam store/platform, made the innovative/beloved genre-bending puzzle shooter Portal, and even recently released the powerful handheld gaming device, the Steam Deck.

But in addition to (or perhaps, enabling) all that commercial success, they have an unusually flat organizational structure.

We could summarize the approach as: hire great people and don’t stop them from doing great work. At Valve, employees themselves choose what to work on and how to be valuable.

So, from–of all things–the Valve new employee handbook from 2012:

On Choosing the Right (and Right Amount of) Work

What about all the things that I’m not getting done? It’s natural in this kind of environment to constantly feel like you’re failing because for every one task you decide to work on, there will be dozens that aren’t getting your attention. Trust us, this is normal. Nobody expects you to devote time to every opportunity that comes your way. Instead, we want you to learn how to choose the most important work to do.

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.

What a revelation: Working too much is a failure. Focus, flexibility, and rest are important.

If the work can’t done in a reasonable amount of time, then there is a problem somewhere in the process from the conception to scope to plan to execution.

Imagine the typical modern doctor charting at home on a routine basis after a full clinic day: this is an unadulterated system failure.

Dovetailing with Productivity is a Trap, this type of overwork often suggests that we are trying (or being forced) to do too many things. After all, good care is inefficient (also discussed here and here).

And while it’s not feasible in all work settings, at least for ourselves we can learn focus and self-accountability through the Basis of No.

On Failure

What if I screw up? 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. 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 experiment or to collect more data. It helps to make predictions and anticipate nasty outcomes. Ask yourself “what would I expect to see if I’m right?” Ask yourself “what would I expect to see if I’m wrong?” Then ask yourself “what do I see?” If something totally unexpected happens, try to figure out why. There are still some bad ways to fail. Repeating the same mistake over and over is one. Not listening to customers or peers before or after a failure is another. Never ignore the evidence; particularly when it says you’re wrong.

I like that Valve made a new employee handbook like this. How many jobs in healthcare have expectations and culture so baked in (and that anyone would actually read or believe)?

Cognitive bias is universal, but how you deal with it varies.  I don’t know if their culture of failure acceptance and learning works in real life as it does on paper, but something tells me people are more generous in this setting than the finger-pointing that our typical internal reporting and medical malpractice so often devolve into.

For reference on how not to create a culture of accountability and improvement: Simple Sabotage.

Growth is not a Purpose

We are all stewards of our long-term relationship with our customers. They watch us, sometimes very publicly, make mistakes. Sometimes they get angry with us. But because we always have their best interests at heart, there’s faith that we’re going to make things better, and that if we’ve screwed up today, it wasn’t because we were trying to take advantage of anyone.

We do not have a growth goal. We intend to continue hiring the best people as fast as we can, and to continue scaling up our business as fast as we can, given our existing staff. Fortunately, we don’t have to make growth decisions based on any external pressures—only our own business goals. And we’re always free to temper those goals with the long-term vision for our success as a company. Ultimately, we win by keeping the hiring bar very high.

The need for growth–growth as an intrinsic good, growth at all costs–has clearly ruined a lot of things. Compromising quality for growth poisons the well and destroys culture. It’s a short-term play that fundamentally changes organizations in ways that are often irreversible.

In healthcare, an old academic medical center turned into a sprawling regional healthcare network is almost unrecognizable. But there are so many other examples. The question we often forget to ask is: is this decision really good for patients?

In some ways, hiring lower-powered people is a natural response to having so much work to get done. In these conditions, hiring someone who is at least capable seems (in the short term) to be smarter than not hiring anyone at all. But that’s actually a huge mistake.

The typical business argument is: When you take a group of A-caliber people and hire a bunch of Bs, the non-stars don’t rise to the level of the old status quo, they inevitably drag the caliber down, bit by bit, hire by hire. If the argument that Bs hire Cs is true, then it’s no surprise that growth often results in dilution to the point of unrecognizability.

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