Aug 4 2022

Our Operating Philosophy – the Mostly Self Managed Organization (MSMO)

Last week, I wrote about the concept of the Operating Philosophy, and how it fits with a company’s Operating Framework and Operating System and defines the essence of who you are as a company…what form of company you are.

While we had a loose Operating Philosophy at Return Path, we never really crisply articulated it, and that caused some hand-wringing at various points over the years, as different people interpreted our “People First” mantra in different ways. So this time around at Bolster, we’re trying to be more intentional about this up front. We have labeled our company a “Mostly Self Managed Organization” or MSMO (pronounced Miz-Moh). We made those up.

Our Operating Philosophy – we are a Mostly Self-Managed Organization, or MSMO (pronounced Miz-Mo, a term we just made up). The MSMO is the product of years of work, research, practical learning, and thinking on our part.  Self-Management has been important to me my whole career as a manager and leader.  Over the last 15 years, the team and I have studied various forms of self-management with interviews and onsite meetings at Netflix, Gore, Nucor, Morningstar, and Zappos.  While we implemented some aspects of it at Return Path, we are trying to take the implementation a step further here at Bolster from the beginning.

Of all those companies, what we’re doing is probably closest to the Operating Philosophy of W.L. Gore & Associates, which you can find written out online without a name but with the description that “individuals don’t need close supervision; what they need is mentoring and support.” The embodiments of the Operating Philosophy at Gore may be different from those we create at Bolster, but the essence of the philosophies is pretty similar.

Why a MSMO?  We employ smart people, and smart people crave autonomy, purpose, and mastery (according to Daniel Pink) and do their best work when they have those things in alignment.  

So, how do we define self-management at Bolster?  We aren’t going to be a DAO.  I don’t think that model works for a for-profit multifaceted corporation – complete Self-Management is too chaotic.  Leadership and mentorship matter and make a difference in guiding strategy, critical decisions, and careers. Holocracies or other unnamed structures like that of Morningstar are ok, but they are so rigidly ideological that they require an immense amount of work-around, or scaffolding, to be practical.

But we aren’t a traditional fixed top-down hierarchy, either.  We are going to run the business in a way that lets people co-create their work and be responsible for driving their own feedback and development with a support structure.  That’s the ideology we have. Letting talented people loose to do their best work is critical; but leadership, judgment, and experience matter, too. If not, why bother having a CEO, or a VP of anything? Why not just pay everyone the same thing and hope they can all figure out the complexities of the business together?

We believe the MSMO is the best operating philosophy to allow high performers to do their best work. 

At Bolster, we are leaning into things like social contracts, peer feedback, career mentorship, individuals translating our Operating Framework into priorities and work, flexible work streams and team leadership, instead of fixed permanent hierarchies, rotating chairs of key company meetings, and market-level-based compensation.  

What we are steering away from are things like traditional titles, micromanaging or overmanaging, traditional performance reviews linked to compensation and complex incentive compensation structures, and fixed organization boundaries and structure.

We’ll see if our MSMO Operating Philosophy works. If not, we’ll iterate on it. That’s the good thing about adherence to an ideology of philosophy as opposed to an ideology of practices. Who knows – maybe the MSMO concept and even its quirky name will catch on!