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Airbnb's Management Style

Posted on:May 28, 2015career3 min read

It’s always interesting to hear how other companies are managed. It gives greater context for what I experience every day at work and broadens my idea for what people are doing to improve their company.

I’ve been reading First Round’s The Review magazine for a couple of weeks now. Some of the articles are pure recruiting fluff but a couple have some real interesting tidbits.

I found the recent article about Airbnb quite interesting. Two interesting points were made.

The first is about removing policies and replacing them with principles:

What It Means to Replace Policies with Principles

OLD POLICY: All expenses require pre-approval.

NEW PRINCIPLE: If you would think twice about spending this much from your own account, gut-check it with your manager.

“I can’t tell you how much pain in my life has come from expense reports,” Curtis says. Airbnb’s old policy was a cumbersome one: Charges big and small required approval before they could be submitted. So Curtis tried replacing it with a principle, simple good judgment, using $500 as a rule of thumb for when to get a gut-check. The result? No increase in discretionary spending (but a whole lot of time saved).

Rather than create a rule for every type of behavior desired Airbnb created guiding principles that afforded individuals the freedom to use their own judgement and not becoming bogged down by endless rule minutiae.

You try to hire people that you trust and think are smart, so giving them a general idea of what you expect them should be enough. In Airbnb’s case it is.

The other thing I loved was how Airbnb managed to enact change through a change in behavior as opposed to an edict:

Getting Changes to Stick

I have a theory that the only way you can affect cultural change on an organization is through positive reinforcement and social pressure.

A few years ago at Airbnb, pretty much none of the code being pushed to production was peer reviewed.

Create positive examples. Enlist a group of well-respected engineers to lead by example. In Airbnb’s case, Curtis asked a handful of senior engineers to start requesting reviews. “It created a whole bunch of examples of great code reviews that we could draw from to set examples for the team.”

In roughly two months, Curtis had made peer code reviews the overwhelming norm without establishing a single policy. “This is the power of positive reinforcement and social pressure to bring about cultural change in an organization. I didn’t hand down any edicts, I didn’t say ‘It has to be done this way from now on,’ I didn’t put any formal policy in place,” he says. In fact, code reviews still aren’t enforced in any way; an engineer could still go straight to production anytime — but no one does it.

Lead by example. Or in Airbnb’s case, get a group of people to lead by example and everyone else follows.

You can never underestimate the power of social pressure. Doesn’t hurt that the underlying change was positive.

Try changing a company from having free lunches to having employees pay for their lunch through social pressure. That sure as hell won’t work.