Les invasions barbares

Some reflections about the controversy generated by the changes at Basecamp, diversity and the power that tech workers have.

Les invasions barbares

As the co-founder of a tech company, the recent news about Basecamp gave me a few things to think about.

First of all, I must say I have much respect for Basecamp and what they have accomplished. Having co-founded a small company myself, I know firsthand it’s not an easy task. Throughout all these years, they have been able to build successful products, as well as making major contributions to the open-source community; product management methodologies; and the workspace culture.

I have never met David and Jason personally, but I assume they are very smart people. Which is the reason why I find it so difficult to understand the rationale behind their decision. It looks like underneath it is the benevolent dictator ideal, which assumes that a single person can make a better decision for the benefit of the whole group than the group itself. The irony is that their supposed intention was to increase diversity by not excluding people who think differently. However, the decision of banning political discussions is political. So, they have immediately chopped off diversity by excluding a big number of people who are on the political spectrum that thinks those discussions are important and companies cannot be agnostic to them.

A couple of years ago, at our company, we began to have discussions around hard topics, such as the male-predominant tech industry, small-scale male chauvinism, and diversity in general. The outcome of these discussions was the creation of a diversity committee and hiring some consultants with more experience in these matters. The committee, with the help of the consultants, wrote a set of guidelines to promote an inclusive culture with a gender perspective, which was later reviewed and approved by the rest of the company. Their work is still going on, and more initiatives have been started inside the company, such as groups of men gathering to discuss topics around new masculinities.

In retrospect, I think there were a lot of things that we could have done better. However, reading about what happened at Basecamp, I feel we did a pretty good job. Perhaps, because one big difference is that at our company there is neither a CEO, a CTO nor any single person or small group capable of making those decisions on their own. We follow a model we call horizontal organization which has several similarities with sociocracy, holacracy, and other Teal organizational models[1]. At 10Pines all decisions are made in groups, and for the most important ones, everyone participates.

I am not surprised that several of Basecamp’s employees decided to leave the company. On the contrary, I am surprised that this doesn’t happen more often in other tech companies whose executives make much worse decisions. I don’t think there have been many times in history, where workers had as much power as tech workers have right now. Maybe one of the reasons why tech employees don’t leave their companies after the executives make some of these terrible decisions is because we are not fully conscious of this power yet. Individually we feel powerless, but if we act collectively, as a group, then we can turn the tide. I am sure after what happened at Basecamp, many CEOs will think twice before implementing a similar decision to ban political discussions in their company.

CEOs are human beings like everybody else. They are not better or worse than the rest of us. When they make decisions they also make mistakes. Similarly, when a group of people makes a decision, they can also make mistakes. However, top executives have much more at stake, so it’s harder for them to acknowledge their mistakes and move in a different direction. Basecamp’s employees were able to recognize the mistake they made about the list of names, reflect and discuss it. They were ready to start a healing process that involved not only the discussion about the list of names but also included harder discussions about diversity in the workplace, biased attitudes, and other kinds of unacceptable behaviors. Basecamp’s top executives were not able to take this path. Making decisions in larger groups also helps us to stay true to our values and ethical commitments. I am quite sure that some of the worse decisions made by large corporations wouldn’t have happened if their employees had been able to participate in those decisions. For example, it’s hard to imagine Facebook’s employees accepting the decision to sell their users’ private data to generate fake news and manipulate public opinion in multiple elections around the world.

On Basecamp’s policy change announcement, their CEO ended by saying something like “We’ve been around 20 years and we’ll continue to be around for much longer”. In my opinion, it is a mistake to assume that our past successes guarantee our future. I wonder if Honorius didn’t say something similar. I can imagine the emperor standing in front of his frightened court and yelling at them: “The Roman Empire has been around more than 400 years and we will be here the next centuries as well”. Meanwhile, Alaric and his barbarian hordes were standing at the gates of the city, ready to enter and sack Rome.

Big cultural changes take a long time. The decline of the Roman Empire, for example, spanned over 100 years. Therefore, I don’t expect the end of the CEO to happen any time soon. However, I imagine there will be more responses such as the one Basecamp’s employees have taken. I hope more companies will start involving their employees in the important decisions and start moving in a more horizontal direction. The tech industry is in a privileged position to become the spearhead of this movement and I truly hope we won’t let this opportunity pass us by.

  1. For more information about these type of organizations see: https://reinventingorganizationswiki.com/pages/tealconcepts/ ↩︎