Bureaucracy Isn’t Inevitable – Airbnb

grafeiokratiaA month ago I wrote a summary about the engineering culture at Airbnb. This article described the freedom and responsibilities of the engineers, the team structure, the cultural standards in the development process, and the way individual growth is encouraged.

A few weeks ago Agile Innovator Jurriaan Kamer showed me another article written by Mike Curtis – VP of Engineering at Airbnb. This article is about how Airbnb beat the apparently inevitable bureaucracy growing companies have to deal with.

In this blog post I’ll share the highlights from the long read. Please read the original article for the full context.

About Airbnb

If you’re searching for examples of disruptive companies, chances are you bump into Airbnb. Founded in 2008, the company rapidly turned into a home-sharing empire and the largest lodging provider on earth. About 20 million people have used their services; 10 million in 2014 alone. This year, their website surpassed 800,000 listings worldwide, which means they now offer more lodging than Hilton Worldwide or any other hotel chain in the world[1].

Replace Policies with Principles

  • The antidote to unproductive bureaucracy is good old-fashioned judgment — having it, hiring for it, and creating conditions that allow people to exercise it.
  • Eliminate rules don’t make them.
  • Replace policy with principles that can guide fast, flexible growth and progress.

Bureaucracy – The Sh*t That Gets In Your Way

  • The curious thing about organisations is that having more people somehow doesn’t equal more output.
  • As size and complexity of an organisation increases, productivity of individuals working in that organisation tends to decrease.
  • As headcount grows, so too does the policy-and-paperwork stuff that gets in the way of rapid iteration and scale.

How to Avoid Bureaucracy?

  • To avoid bureaucracy from the very beginning of your company, you should adopt two particular tactics.
  • First, you have to build teams with good judgment, because you need to be able to put your trust in people.
  • Then you shape that good judgment with strong principles.

Build a Trustworthy Team by Hiring Trustworthy People

  • Minimising rules that become roadblocks in your organisation will only work if you’ve built a team that will make good decisions in the absence of rigid structure.
  • Your hiring process is where you can take the biggest strides toward preventing bureaucracy.
  • The most important question that you have to answer when you’re hiring somebody is ‘Is this person going to be energised by unknowns?’ When things break, you want people who will be motivated by solving problems.

Allocate a Culture Interview

  • Allocate at least 45 minutes to an interview that is entirely about culture and character.
  • Diversity of backgrounds and opinions is championed at Airbnb, so ‘Culture fit’ is about finding people who share the high-performance work ethic and belief in the company’s mission.
  • If people don’t share your conviction in the company’s success, they aren’t a fit.

Make the Most of First Impressions

  1. Remind new hires they’re working with the best. This is an effective way to build a sense of urgency and ensure that new hires hit the ground with positive momentum.
  2. Emphasise the value of moving fast. Get a bunch of code out the door, learn how things work, and then you’ll ship bigger stuff.
  3. Make imperfection an asset, not a liability. Make clear, that cynicism and complaints will not be rewarded.
  4. Review your engineering values. When you first start to build your engineering organisation, it’s good to codify the values that will guide your actions.
  5. Welcome new hires to the recruitment team. Make sure new team members understand that recruiting is a major and critical part of their job.
  6. Establish direct lines of communication. Open communication is a powerful remedy for unnecessary bureaucracy.
  7. Conduct a series of initial check-ins. One month and three months are the sweet spots for informal check-ins.

It’s much easier to shape how someone works early on when they first start at the company than when it’s solidified a year in.

Build the Managers You Need

  • “We have a philosophy that all managers start as individual contributors.”
  • “We believe that if a manager doesn’t spend a significant enough time in the code base, they’re not going to have an intuitive sense of what makes engineers move faster and what gets in their way.”
  • The goal is to give managers a chance to really engage with the code base. Let them ship something real and establish some legacy in the code before they take on management.

Getting Changes to Stick

The only way you can affect cultural change on an organisation is through positive reinforcement and social pressure.

A template for any paradigm shift:

  • Make it possible. Before you establish a new priority, make sure it’s feasible within your current systems.
  • Create positive examples. Enlist a group of well-respected engineers to lead by example.
  • Apply social pressure. Your best spokesperson for a new principle is a member of the team who’s already bought in.
  • Address stragglers. If you don’t get everyone on board on the first pass, don’t take it personally.

It really comes down to putting your faith in people with good judgment, making sure you hire good judgment, and then guiding them with principles.

That’s it; a summary of the way Airbnb handles bureaucracy. My most important takeaway is to replace policies with principles. Hopefully can also extract valuable information out the full article. Enjoy!