Manager-less RnD: How to Promote People

Manager-less RnD How to Promote People
It’s been more than two years since we threw the gambit of having manager-less R&D. Now we’d love to share with you a couple of lessons we learned on this journey. Figuring out promotions in the flat structure wasn’t anywhere close to the biggest obstacles of the transformation. However, it’s something we’re getting a lot of questions about. So here goes!

The Art of Promoting People

Having the proper job title not only informs others what to expect from you but also contributes to employee recognition. While it could be a great experiment to lose the titles entirely (and some companies have), there’s a bunch of research proving that promotions make sense. Studies suggest that promotions have positive effects on job satisfaction, commitment, performance, and retention1. We decided to take a minimalistic approach. No stuffed corporate job titles. We simply have juniors, intermediates, seniors and principals in our Research and Development teams. Here’s a loose definition of what these titles mean to us:
Level Focus
Junior Building skillset and learning how to contribute as a team member.
Intermediate Cooperation on bigger product parts requiring cross-team effort. Soft skills, drive,  and business awareness are getting more important.
Senior Enabling people inside and outside the team to grow. Influencing the whole product. 
Principal Representing the company and giving back to the community – meetups, conferences, and community events.

Ready For your Promotion? Prove it!

There is no manager to nudge our developers toward working on their skills. Accepting an active role in ones professional development is the cornerstone of our new setup. If a developer feels it’s time to get promoted, they’ll need to provide a testament to support their request.  You may argue that not everyone who’s ready for a promotion is able to confidently ask for it. That’s true! What we’ve learned in many of these cases within Y Soft is that other team members will support and encourage their mates to actively seek out promotions they feel that they’ve earned. 

Here’s what needs to be done to get promoted:
  1. A self-evaluation. Our predesigned questionnaire helps employees figure out if they’re ready for a promotion.
  2. Ask others for feedback. The more senior role a person applies to, the broader the circle of people to ask for feedback from. That includes not only engineers from different teams but also Product Owners, people from Support, Sales, and Marketing (for principals). 
  3. Submit all materials. When an employee decides to move forward with the process, a committee comprised of junior and senior members from different teams, coaches, and HR evaluates if all needed inputs were collected (guarantees fairness and consistency of the process) and if the presented documentation supports receiving a promotion or not.

The whole system is designed to provide the employee with tips on what to do if they happen to change their mind or simply conclude they’re not ready during the promotion process. It may happen after the self-evaluation or after receiving feedback from colleagues. If the feedback from colleagues doesn’t support their promotion, they can pull the break at any time and focus on improvements. There are also other regulative measures in the system, e.g., announcing all promotions requests publicly so anyone can voice their concern if needed. We reached out to other companies and professionals for inspiration on this. 

The Corporate Rebels blog offers some further reading on the topic.

Promotion vs Salary Raise: Adding Money to the Mix

There are no dry promotions in our current setup. A new role always comes with a new salary range and thus with a salary raise too. On the other hand, there’s flexibility within the range. You can get a salary raise without being promoted. This allows us to be reflective of differences in individual contributions of people on the same level. Salary raises are in the competence of the only manager remaining in the system who holds the approving power for formal matters. The reasons for keeping one manager in the system are connected mainly to finance handling (employees in the Czech Republic have the right to keep their salary a private matter). The deciding power of our RnD members is over who’s roughly on the same level when it comes to their product contribution.

Food for Thought: Limitations and Risks

Every setup comes with limitations and hiccups. One of the funny ones (not unlike how it was quickly picked up that AI has biased tendencies) was the promotion committee who started to act like a manager. Instead of considering only the collected feedback, committee members had a tendency to make decisions based on their personal experience with the employee in question. It was necessary to discourage this a couple of times. Also, adding the public announcement and call for objections helped. The committee members should submit their feedback before they start with the evaluation, the same way as other people in the teams. 

Also, our promotions work retrospectively. In other words, you need to be there to get promoted. This setup doesn’t allow for motivational promotions when you put trust in someone prior to seeing if they can do the job adequately. 

Another valid point is that the process can be time-consuming. Remember, it’s your developers now who must do all the feedback collection, decision-making, and communication. Our experience suggests that it’s worth it. The coding time loss is compensated by steep growth in their soft skills and business understanding.

So Far So Good

Employee surveys prove that developers are mostly happy with the new setup. From an HR perspective, we see that the amount of promotion requests correlates well with the number of employees who are indeed ready for promotion. In detail, we’ve seen the following results:
  • 23 colleagues in RnD have requested a promotion
  • 20 of those were approved the first time around
  • 3 requests were rejected with feedback on what to work on
  • 2 of those 3 were promoted later that year
  • When facing rejection, colleagues accepted and worked on their feedback  

That makes about 20 promotions in our roughly 100-headed RnD in two years. It seems that our RnD reached a new internally induced balance. Now we’re keen to see what happens next!

Wayne, S. J., Shore, L. M., & Liden, R. C. (1997). Perceived organizational support and leader-member exchange: A social exchange perspective. Academy of Management Journal, 40(1), 82-111. 

Podsakoff, P. M., MacKenzie, S. B., Moorman, R. H., & Fetter, R. (1990). Transformational leader behaviors and their effects on followers' trust in leader, satisfaction, and organizational citizenship behaviors. Leadership Quarterly, 1(2), 107-142.

Colquitt, J. A., Conlon, D. E., Wesson, M. J., Porter, C. O., & Ng, K. Y. (2001). Justice at the millennium: A meta-analytic review of 25 years of organizational justice research. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86(3), 425-445.