Life in the Atomic Do-ocracy

Autocracy – Rule by one person.
Plutocracy – Rule by the wealthy.
Democracy – Rule by the majority.
Meritocracy – Rule by the accomplished.
Do-ocracy – Rule by those who do.

During my first two months at Atomic, I spent a lot of time asking, “Who’s in charge of this project?” I was Atomic’s first Marketing Coordinator, so my position brought together a bunch of responsibilities that had been previously spread across the company.

I expected the question “Who’s in charge of this?” to turn up only management folks and other non-billable employees, but I was wrong. It turns out that non-client projects at Atomic are usually managed by… the person most interested in getting them done. Who tweeted from @atomicobject? One of the designers. Who managed the hiring pipeline? Two of the developers. Who talked to potential customers that called, asking about their projects? The executive assistant. Who designed that year’s t-shirt? Whoever had an idea and the time to do it.

Brittany, my Culture Pair, called Atomic a do-ocracy. The Burn BC Arts Cooperative describes the term well:

In Do-Ocracy if you see a void, you fill it rather than just sitting around endlessly talking about it and waiting for someone else to do it.

An easy example: You go camping with a bunch of people. You think people would enjoy the experience more if there were a campfire, so you gather wood and build a fire. You don’t stand around talking about how nice a fire might feel, or go find the organizer of the event and ask them to build a fire for you, or stand around complaining how cold it is and why “this sucks,” passive aggressively prodding everyone else around you to take responsibility for your experience.

You just check in with the right people and DO something about it. It’s okay to ask where a fire can be placed, or if there are any fire laws, or ask for advice from a more experienced fire builder. Then you make sure it’s a safe place to build a fire and “Just Do It!”

So who’s in charge of a non-client project at Atomic? Usually the person who chooses to do something about it.

Do-Ocracy Gets Things Done

Atomic’s do-ocracy is one of my favorite things about working here. It’s liberating, and it just makes sense. In do-ocracy:

  • There’s far less whining about things someone doesn’t like, since the logical response is, “Then why don’t you do something about it?”
  • Everyone feels a sense of ownership over the company as a whole, since there’s nothing you can’t contribute to, if you want.
  • People can use talents that don’t fit into their “job description.” You’re a developer who also loves art? Then you can be one of the people who helps decorate the office.
  • You don’t have to worry about bruising someone’s ego if you pitch in on a project they started or an area that’s traditionally “theirs.” We’re all volunteers.

Of course, a do-ocracy isn’t a perfect system either. For example:

  • Small projects occasionally get dropped and forgotten, and when you look into them two years later, nobody remembers what the password was or where the original files were kept.
  • If things are managed by a group of people, each person may have a different approach.
  • If the person in charge isn’t the sort to go back and periodically clear out the chaff, things can get messy.

But despite its imperfections, a do-ocracy is a great way to get more done — with more buy-in and less complaining. I love it, and I would never go back.


Three Essential Do-ocratic Attitudes

Because it doesn’t use leaders or hierarchies, a do-ocracy can only function in a specific set of circumstances. Just as a democracy thrives with equality, education, and a just application of laws, so a do-ocracy thrives with a sense of ownership, a humble attitude, and the ability to say “no”.

1. A Sense of Ownership

A do-ocracy must start with a group of people who care — not just about what the group can give them, but about the group itself. Everyone must believe in the groups’ goals and must feel responsible for the group’s success. Our goals at Atomic aren’t world-changing, but they’re things we all really, truly care about:

  • Make awesome software that helps clients achieve their mission.
  • Make the software industry smarter and stronger.
  • Create a fun and encouraging workplace.
  • Turn a nice profit for all of us to share.

Do-ocracy takes sacrifice, since it often means doing things outside of your regular skill set or in addition to your regular tasks. If members only come to work to earn a paycheck, they won’t be willing to make that sacrifice. But if they come to contribute to something larger than themselves, to accomplish more together than they could alone, then you have the right conditions for a do-ocracy.

2. A Humble Attitude

A do-ocracy can only thrive among people who believe that everyone in the group is important, and that no essential task is “beneath them.” If specialized or higher-paid employees think (consciously or subconsciously) that they’re too important to participate in the mundane work of a do-oracy, it will never get off the ground.

This is most important with leadership. When a vice president comes in early to help set up chairs for a meeting they’re leading, employees notice. At Atomic, we call this “sharing the pain.” I saw a great example of “sharing the pain” when Atomic’s Grand Rapids office was without an Office Coordinator for a few months, last year. Since there wasn’t anyone to make our all-important morning snack, we decided to take turns. Business Manager Mary O’Neill created the sign-up list, and she and COO Shawn Crowley led the way by volunteering twice as often as anyone else.

3. The Ability to Say “No”

Some companies attempt to impose something like a do-ocracy from the top down, pressuring employees to “volunteer” for non-work tasks (often so the company doesn’t have to hire someone to take care of them). This is not a do-ocracy. If group members don’t have the freedom to say, “I’m too busy” or “I’m not interested in that,” it’s just a passive-aggressive dictatorship.

The ability to say “no” is especially important for salaried employees. Pressuring someone to do more work for the same amount of money shows a profound lack of respect for their contributions, their worth as an employee, and the reality of their life outside the office.

Imposed volunteerism also takes the power away from the volunteers and gives it back to the organizer. “Those who do” are no longer ruling.

The Atomic Way

Atomic’s do-ocracy is constantly evolving as we grow and add new offices, but I don’t think it will ever go away. It’s a great reflection of our values “Own It” and “Share the Pain.” It’s a very Atomic way to be.