Here’s How We Manage Decentralized Decision Makers

At Atomic Object, we strive to create a culture of high trust. We believe in our employees’ (Atoms’) abilities to make decisions that serve the best interests of our clients’ projects. To build a flexible, scalable business, we’ve created a structure that decentralizes decision-making down to the team and individual levels. I’ll explain some company cultural norms that have helped us succeed and grow as a business whose strategy has always been, “Hire smart people, and trust them.”

Company Structure, Responsibility, and Support

One unique aspect of our company structure is our setup as an employee-owned business. Atomic now has more than 50 employee-shareholders, and every shareholder is a W2 employee at our firm. This means every decision matters and impacts our collective success to some extent. When Atoms make decisions, they aren’t just for the sake of a project — they’re investments in our clients’ success and the prosperity of our company. This ownership mindset instills a sense of responsibility and dedication in our team, compelling them to go above and beyond.

Professional service firms like Atomic should strive to empower their team to feel responsible and confident in their decision-making. The alternative is an unscalable command and control approach that isn’t as conducive to employee career growth. Growth enables us to do better work for our clients and drives up employee satisfaction, but it requires investing in and trusting individuals to make decisions they believe are best in the course of their work. Investing in individuals also means supporting them to give them the confidence and advice they need to make smart decisions at work.

In some jobs, I’ve had a single manager who I’m expected to go to for help, but I have found people get the most value out of multiple layers of support. Sometimes, people are more comfortable going to a peer rather than a direct manager. To accomplish this more formally, we provide several avenues for help:

  • Career Development Managers (CDMs): Atomic CDMs aren’t direct managers who have hiring and firing responsibilities. Rather, they are provided as mentors to individuals within our company. CDMs meet regularly with their CDM-ees and advise them on career growth, help problem-solve, provide an avenue for venting, etc.
  • Functional Managers: Directly manage employees, have hiring authority, provide performance feedback, mentorship, etc.
  • Peer support: A culture that encourages asking for help and giving help to others.

Organizations should consider creating these connections beyond an individual’s functional manager.

Favor Guidelines over Byzantine Rulesets

In custom software, every project is a new adventure. A rigid rulebook wouldn’t work for our teams and wouldn’t be possible to write. Instead, we lean into a few hard and fast rules (generally grounded in our company Values), supported by comprehensive guidelines and “playbooks.” These resources act as guardrails, providing insights, best practices, and frameworks while allowing room for adaptability and creativity. They’re not strict directives but rather tools that our team can use to navigate the twists and turns of each unique project.

Priority in Decision-Making

When it comes to decision-making, I advise Atoms to follow a hierarchy of priorities, thinking about what’s best for each in order:

  1. The Client, Product, and the Product’s Users
  2. The Team (project team, Atomic as a whole)
  3. The Individual

First and foremost, great consultants should focus on what’s best for their clients and the products they’re building. We dive deep into understanding our clients’ goals, needs, and aspirations to ensure our decisions add value and drive success. Next in line is what’s best for our team and company. We believe that a thriving team translates to better outcomes. This involves decisions that foster collaboration, growth, and a supportive environment for everyone involved.

Last (barring emergencies, health considerations, etc) is the individual. That isn’t to say we should neglect individual needs, but they should be subordinated to the larger objectives of the project and company. We win or lose together.

We’re committed to fostering a culture where trust, responsibility, and empowerment drive Atoms’ decision-making processes. We believe in the power of collaboration, continuous learning, and a shared dedication to delivering excellence. How do you navigate decision-making in your work?


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