Turn the Valve, reap the rewards


Allow me to introduce to you to Valve Software. A company which in effect breaks away from not just typical methods of leadership, but also as a whole is a unique example of a company which is able to succeed based on their unconventional methods of structure within their business.

Now for those of you who may not know what Valve is, it is a video game company that in 2011 was valued to be worth between 2 to 4 billion dollars. Yes, that is a ‘B’. On top of that, the company’s CEO, Gabe Newell, has stated that his company earns more money per employee than Apple or Google. This is all due to how Valve has become the leader in video game distribution with its iTunes like game purchasing system of Steam along side it’s reputation for quality. But why do I bring this company up?

Specifically, it is because of Valves ever unique approach to organizing its internal structure. For most game companies, though an artform, there is an expectation that the creation of a video game involves “openness, cooperation, and self-management.” (9) However this has been found not to be true, most video game companies are under strict leadership and these hopeful ideas are “discouraged in (favor of) the pyramid organization of the postwar corporation… which emulated military-style secrecy and discipline” (9) As a result, many video game developers are pressured by strict deadlines and budgets while at the same time expected to turn out quality products to boost revenue. On top of this, many developers are encouraged if not required by their parent companies to have ‘micro-transactions’ in game. For those of you who may not know what these are, they are the bane of avid video gamers, where you can pay to either gain things in game you absolutely don’t need or worst, you pay to win the game, zapping the competitive spirit from video games.

So let’s go back to Valve, what makes them so special? Well a lot. See Valve has an iron clad ideology that they will never release a game until it has met their ‘it’s done when it’s done” philosophy. This has allowed Valve to own some of the most played, best reviewed and profitable games in existence (Counter Strike, Half-Life, Left 4 Dead, Dota and Portal) but it at the same time it has infuriated it’s audience by waiting up to and beyond ten years to produce sequels to beloved titles. It should also be noted that they are not innocent from micro transactions, they simply do it in such a way that doesn’t force it upon their audience or make it a requirement to play.

Some games from Valve

Some games from Valve

To encourage this sense of perfection with game development process, Valve has implemented a leaderless system to manage (or rather, not manage) their creative endeavors. Even though Valve technically has a CEO, there are no leaders, no managers, and no bosses in Valve, the whole company see’s itself as equal to one another. If an employee wants to help on a project, they can without asking permission. Employee’s are encouraged to learn new skills to help them adapt to new projects and given the opportunity that 100% of their time can be spent on what they love rather than what is assigned to them.

But why this system? As Gabe Newell states, he worked for Microsoft for 13 years and realized that in his line of work, managers just didn’t work. So when he founded Valve in 1996 it was aimed at creating an environment that was specifically built to encourage artistic and constructive game development.

Even their employee manual is built around this, I’ve left a link to it HERE, and it’s a good read and creates some fascinating conceptions of the work place promising massage rooms and free food.

The progression of organization at Valve

The progression of organization at Valve

What's going on in your company?

How to find out what’s going on at Valve

This idea right here is geared toward the concept that “Employees were regarded as if they were clients, and internal branding involved putting the company’s philosophical stamp on all services within the organization.” (29) Granted the system does have flaws. Unlike other jobs, Valve isn’t looking for the cheapest labor, they joke that they are looking for the most expensive, as they aim to fill their ranks with the most talented. This does restrict employment of new workers into their workspace but at the cost of guaranteed quality. Another flaw lies in it’s lack of awareness when someone isn’t doing their job well, but flaws are expected to come with any system. The manual even admits that a military top down organization does do well with making planning and repeatability easier, but that’s not what the company is about. It is about creating something new and fascinating for it’s audience.

But why look at Valve? Well it helps to emulate that a top down structure doesn’t always work, especially in a creative market.


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