General New Work Press

A New Era at VSHN: Redefining Leadership in Self-Organization Without a Management Team

24. Jun 2024

Zurich, June 24, 2024

At VSHN, we are ushering in an exciting new chapter by moving beyond traditional top-level management. We are convinced that without a centralized management team, we can better serve our customers and improve our employees’ work environment. Instead of a traditional hierarchy, management responsibilities are seamlessly distributed among the roles and teams directly involved in daily operations and customer interactions. By dissolving the already largely unused “management team” structure, we are not just eliminating C-level titles or renaming roles; we are fundamentally fostering our self-organization. To fully understand this natural next step, it’s essential to understand VSHN’s roots, values and culture.

What Is Self-Organization – and Why Would You Want It?

Self-organization is an umbrella term for various practices, structures, and how individuals act and collaborate. It creates an environment within an organization where people and teams work semi-autonomously and make decisions in the organization’s interest without central or top-down authority. This makes the organization more flexible and adaptable, as things happen right where they should – at the front. In today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, this is a key quality for a company.

Self-organization primarily builds on people acting out of self-responsibility, supported by the practices and structures in place. Decision-making (both operational and governance) is distributed at the points where specific knowledge, direct experience, and often the “pain” of issues are, which usually results in more efficient and targeted problem-solving and execution and brings the “buy-in” of those who are affected by decisions. A highly valued practice is that decisions are not made by individuals in positions of power but through a process that seeks objections (arguments) rather than consensus, aiming to integrate what we learn from these objections to improve a proposal for solving a commonly understood problem. A common misconception is the attempt to please everyone and that everyone must have a say; however, this is usually neither in the organization’s interest nor efficient enough.

Roles and responsibilities within the organization are usually clearly defined, yet there are few to no fixed hierarchies, as seen in traditional organizational structures. The organization often resembles a network of teams and roles through which responsibilities and functions are clarified.

All this promotes the participation of all members and enhances engagement and a sense of co-responsibility. Continuous improvement based on regular feedback from stakeholders and peers is also a vital aspect of self-organization, with participants encouraged to question and adjust structures and processes as necessary. In addition to the resulting distributed, non-hierarchical responsibilities, distributed leadership is another key feature, where leadership is exercised situationally and based on specific expertise rather than through formal authority in “leadership positions” – those with the interest (the tension) to make something happen drive it forward. This is often described as “leadership in every chair.”

The number of companies that rely on self-organization is growing rapidly. We are in contact with many other organizations to share knowledge and learn from each other. Some of the following examples are heavily based on self-organized teams and roles and supporting practices:

How VSHN evolved historically and works now

VSHN has always functioned differently from traditional hierarchical organizations. Initially, with fewer than 20 people, decisions were made collaboratively at one physical, on-site table. As the company grew, complex challenges impacted structure, strategic direction, and bigger product decisions. Initially, as we didn’t know better, we handled them in the management team, a handful of people deciding – a traditional approach that soon showed its limits as VSHNeers felt disconnected from decision-making and, on some decisions, didn’t try to follow through.

We needed something that was flexible, not a rigid framework, and that also aligned with our identity, culture and values. VSHN’s company values emphasize positivity, effectiveness, integrity, curiosity, transparency, and accountability. They foster a high-trust environment where team members are encouraged to be optimistic, goal-oriented, honest, open to learning, and are driving things and acting out of self-responsibility. Our values aim to create a collaborative culture that supports personal growth and organizational success.

To address this, we began experimenting with patterns from Sociocracy 3.0 (S3) for decision-making and clarifying team responsibilities through explicit domain descriptions. This shift wasn’t a transition from hierarchy to self-organization; it was and still is more about cultivating our ways of working at a bigger scale and becoming more mature as a business organization.

Today, VSHN operates through self-organizing and self-governing value stream teams focused on creating and delivering the actual customer value, supported by teams and roles like People, Finance, Sales, Marketing, Customer Account Management, Customer Support, and Internal IT & Information Security. Until recently, we maintained a “General Manager” role, viewed as a safety net for overarching issues. However, this often led to a disconnect, as Markus and Marco, in that role, were too far from day-to-day operations, leading to unmet expectations and VSHNeers who felt unheard.

We realized that acting out of our “management hat” was more of a hindrance than a help. So we started to collaborate and not act out of management anymore. An extreme example came at the end of 2023, during a tight financial situation, while framed as a management effort, it was actually a collaborative effort involving many VSHNeers and the owners of VSHN to propose measures and make the tough, necessary decisions. This experience showed that the “management hat” was likely unnecessary and counterproductive. Still, for the management members themselves, the situation wasn’t easy, still being an escalation point for all sorts of challenges and being squeezed within “management decides too much” vs. “management decides too little” – even though we didn’t decide at all (arguments decided, we involved affected people). What contributed to that is the idea behind VSHN´s organization, that responsibility is distributed and no one should take the responsibility for others – this is also reflected in our current salary system and the new one we’re creating at the moment, no one gets more to “bear more responsibility”. We don’t believe in getting more money to “bear a burden” or “catch the blame.”

What is changing?

Although it may seem significant that we will no longer have General Managers or a “Management Team”, the impact on our day-to-day operations is likely minimal. There wasn’t even much surprise when we announced this change company-wide; VSHNeers understand that their daily responsibilities remain largely unchanged. For most, it feels like “just making explicit what is already reality.”

However, two major aspects are evolving. Firstly, the traditional safety net provided by management roles will be removed. The people in Finance, Strategy Execution, Organizational Development, Product/Marketing, and Customer Relations, who already share responsibilities, will need to navigate and drive complex situations and strategic decisions themselves. Since these teams are accustomed to collaborating and self-organizing, we are confident in their ability to manage these challenges – and it’s mostly the same people. Markus and Marco will be in many of these roles and keep acting out of our self-responsibility.

Legally, the responsibility shifts as well, but with likely minimal to no impact on the organization. The board of the privately owned company currently delegated management to “General Managers” within VSHN, this delegation will cease, placing overall legal responsibility back to the board. However, within the VSHN organization, the board has no direct relevance; the board’s role will be to observe and intervene, if necessary, if the organization fails in some aspects. Signing authorities within VSHN will remain unchanged, with several VSHNeers holding joint signing rights.

The real change lies in our personal mindset and behavior, starting with the former members of management and the owners. We must focus on supporting the VSHNeers and our collaboration while ensuring responsibility remains with those best positioned to handle them – if we own and solve issues for them, how can they own and learn how to drive things? By doing so, we further foster our culture of distributed responsibility and enable former management members to contribute effectively without the mantle of management.

Why should I care about this evolution?

The majority of the business world still works differently; that’s fine. How can you benefit from how VSHN works?

  • As a customer or partner of VSHN, you will benefit directly from our operational structure. Our engineers, sales, and account management teams can swiftly make significant decisions because the decision-making resides with those directly handling your projects, requests, or incidents. This means faster responses and solutions without the need for traditional hierarchical escalations. Even though our organizational structure intentionally lacks C-level titles, our processes ensure quick and effective decision-making.
  • As a (Potential) Employee: At VSHN, you are more than just part of the team; you are the organization. Everyone is treated as an equivalent contributor, focusing on collaborative problem-solving that benefits the organization and aligns with our goals. Our culture is purpose-driven and inclusive, placing decision-making power where the “pain” and most direct experience and understanding of the issues lie. Whether it’s about how much you work from home or in the office or project directions, you don’t need to seek approval from a higher authority; it’s about what makes sense for VSHN, figuring it out collectively.
  • Reflecting Our DevOps Philosophy: At VSHN, our approach mirrors the core principles of DevOps: “You build it, you run it.” This ethos extends beyond our technical operations to encompass our organizational structure. By shifting the power to influence decisions to those at the forefront – whether in development or operations – we eliminate the need for centralized authority. This structure ensures that those directly involved in the work have the autonomy to make decisions, fostering a proactive, responsive environment that mirrors the dynamic field of DevOps itself.

Final thoughts

At VSHN, we’ve embraced a path that deviates from traditional hierarchical models, a journey nearly a decade in the making. This approach isn’t just about keeping up with trends – it’s about creating an environment where flexibility and direct accountability enhance customer service and empower our team.

While we’re not alone in adopting self-organized practices – many large companies integrate similar strategies in some capacity – we believe our method suits our unique needs and culture. Challenges arise, as in any dynamic setting, but our practices allow us to address them agilely.

What about your organization? How are you adapting to the evolving demands of today’s business world? We’re eager to learn from others and share our experiences. Join us at upcoming meetups, or reach out for a chat. Let’s explore how we can all grow through innovative organizational approaches.

About VSHN

VSHN – The DevOps Company is Switzerland’s leading partner for DevOps, Container, and Kubernetes. VSHN (pronounced like “vision”) was founded to shake up the hosting market fundamentally. As a lean startup, we have focused on operating IT platforms through automation, agility, and a continuous improvement process. Completely location-independent and without our own hardware, we operate extensive applications according to the DevOps principle of agile and 24/7 on every infrastructure so that software developers can concentrate on their business and IT operations are relieved. Find out more on

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VSHN in the press

Inside-IT: VSHN schafft das Management ab

Netzwoche: VSHN schafft Hierarchien ab

Swiss IT Reseller: VSHN schafft Management ab

Computerworld: Neue Ära bei VSHN

com! professional: Neudefinition von Führung

Markus Speth

Marketing, People, Strategy

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