An office where group anarchy works

How one tech firm learned to listen to its employees.

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Every new feature on Meetup.com is one pitched by a staff member who has successfully recruited a team to build out the new addition.
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(Fortune Small Business) -- The high-tech industry is a tough place to be a tyrant. Consider: When I started covering the industry 12 years ago, I was writing about how the mighty Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) was trying to rule the Web by strong-arming tiny dot-com startups. How quaint that idea seems now.

Three years later I visited a startup that let engineers work on their own projects one day a week (the so-called rule of 20% time). That company, of course, was Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) - and today it credits 20% time for more than half of its total product launches.

Recently I met a Web company that had staved off disaster with an even more radical notion than Google's: 100% time. That is, its employees always decide which projects the company will develop. And it works.

Meetup.com is a Website that helps millions of paying users organize into local clubs. Meetup members have started plenty of grassroots political campaigns, most famously organizing Howard Dean's presidential bid in 2004. But for one awful year, Meetup Inc., based in New York City, governed itself like a military junta.

In 2007, as the fast-growing site passed the 40-employee mark, its executives imposed a command-and-control structure. Changes to the Website required approval from two committees. "It was crazy bureaucracy, and it makes me grimace now," says Meetup chief technology officer Greg Whalin. "Our productivity went through the floor. All our engineers spent time on [unauthorized] side projects. Including me."

Meetup found salvation in a peculiar feature of geek culture: the "hackathon." Coined by developers of open-source software, hackathons are chaotic gatherings of computer programmers who get together for days or weeks at a time and code whatever they feel like coding. Meetup decided to hold a six-week hackathon - to buy time while management figured out how to restructure. Employees pitched any idea they thought might add value to the site. If they could convince three of their peers, the project was on.

One programmer proposed that Meetup offer languages other than English. He built a team and got to work, and today content on the site is available in seven languages. "That project would have been killed before," says Andres Glusman, Meetup's VP of strategy. "The guy was too junior."

There was a price to pay. The majority of Meetup's project managers left the company because they couldn't stand being usurped. Investors had a hard time understanding that there was no longer a product road map. Management had created new rules to hold employees to their deadlines. Nobody could serve on more than one team at once, and every new feature would be tested by users.

Still, the hackathon was successful enough that it quickly became company policy. By early 2009 the number of users signing up every month had doubled from the previous year. Meetup now boasts a record 4 million users and 60 employees.

Could its approach work in other industries? I think so, and I'm not alone.

"Meetup decided to implement the system because it intuitively makes sense," says Traci Fenton, founder of WorldBlu, an Austin consultancy that tracks collaboration in the workplace. "Command and control worked well for the industrial age. I think we're entering the democratic age."

If so, it's about time. In a recent Zogby poll, 73% of U.S. workers describe themselves as "disengaged" - that is, doing the bare minimum required - and 80% say they want more freedom.

The same goes for their leaders. Whalin gleefully says he has become more of a mentor than a manager, with time left over to join ad hoc projects. "I love coding, so now I'm on the coding team," he says. "It frees you up to have more fun."

And who can begrudge him? Management deserves 100% time as much as anyone.  To top of page

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