Moonlighting managers ain’t got no time for bullshit

The problem with management in small teams and businesses is that it’s often not a full-time job. Smart, capable workers need some direction and follow-up, sure, but they also thrive on autonomy. Frivolous management frequently encroach on the latter for no better reason than having free manager time to fill.

One way to deal with this is simply not to have any full-time managers. That’s the road we’ve chosen at Basecamp. With fifty people and just a handful of teams, we’ve so far not needed any true full-time managers. Instead, we have people doing the actual work moonlight as managers to varying degrees.

Jason Fried still does lots of design, writing, and marketing. I still do lots of programming, writing, and marketing. Everyone else with managerial responsibilities at Basecamp still also do the work they’re designated to manage of others.

This is not a path without pitfalls.

While the stereotype of managers, especially middle managers, is that they meddle, bother, and over-manage their team, the reverse can also be true. Not enough management, not enough direction, not enough follow-ups. But if you are to err on one side or the other, err on the side of slightly too little management rather than too much.

It’s also true that management in itself is a skill. One that needs study and practice. But in my travels, I’ve found at least as many incompetent full-time managers as I’ve found lacking moonlight managers. More, actually. So this isn’t a problem reserved to either style, but certainly one to pay attention to.

The payoff that makes all these caveats worth navigating is that the reluctant, moonlighting manager has better things to do than come up with, propagate, and tolerate bullshit procedures, policies, and busy-work. When the choice of time is between creation and management, the favorite activity tends to be the former.

So rather than dream up elaborate plans and complex policies, the moonlighting manager tends to pick the simpler, easier road that doesn’t require them to constantly steer the buggy. That’s a path that invites delegation of responsibility and autonomy. Fewer sign-offs, fewer check-ins, fewer bottlenecks.

The moonlighting manager’s best work is when their work is not needed at all. When people are entrusted to simply do the right thing the bulk of the time, and that we only need to calibrate occasionally, not constantly.

Manage less, create more.