Main content

mmhmm CEO Phil Libin - 'No one should ever work on something they think is stupid'

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright January 23, 2023
Digital work requires a different management style with minimal supervision. Here's how Phil Libin, CEO of video meetings app mmhmm, organizes work in distributed teams.

Phil Libin CEO mmhmm & All Turtles working outdoors
Phil Libin (mmhmm)

New, digitally connected ways of working that emerged into the mainstream during the pandemic are challenging traditional notions of how enterprises should manage work. On a recent visit to London, I caught up with Phil Libin, founder and CEO of mmhmm, whose software helps people create recorded and live video for business meetings, to find out his recipe for managing people in a wholly virtual enterprise.

The topic of trust comes up almost immediately. Businesses that are now starting to bring employees back into the office in search of higher productivity are showing a troubling lack of trust in their staff, he believes. He says:

How can you possibly say, you have to come back to the office, because otherwise I can't trust the worker? That doesn't make any sense!

The old model of work assumed that because people were in the office, they were being productive. But Libin argues against this low-trust assumption that people have to be in the office so that managers know they're working. He likens it to the eighteenth-century concept of the panopticon, a prison in which a single guard has direct oversight of every inmate. He elaborates:

That's basically where we're at — company design starting to mirror a carceral system, prison design thinking. How do you make it so that a small number of people can watch a large number of people to make sure that they're not misbehaving? ...

I would never want to put myself in a situation where I'm in an environment where my company doesn't trust me. I would find that intolerable. I think a lot of people accept it, but no one likes it.

High trust model

For organizations like Libin's that have no offices and are highly distributed — 88 people work on mmhmm, spread across 16 countries — a different approach is essential. Rather than constantly checking in on employees, it uses a high-trust model that leaves people to get on with their work. He explains:

We're not asking people to be in the office. We don't care when you work. We don't even necessarily care how you work ... We're not measuring inputs, we're trying to measure your impact over the course of months. So we basically try to be very clear about what you should be doing over the next couple of months. That's the level. We don't particularly care on any given day or week.

This high-trust model is followed at mmhmm and its parent product studio All Turtles, which Libin also leads. Employees are trusted to get on with what needs doing — but they're also responsible for making sure it gets done. Libin explains:

If I'm just working I shouldn't be checked up on. I shouldn't have to do status updates. I shouldn't have to prove that I'm working other than through the results. But then I have to deliver the results ...

It's very much a symmetrical relationship, where the employees have to say, 'Yes, I understand this is my responsibility.' And at the same time, expect to be treated like autonomous human beings.

Employees take responsibility

That symmetry demands certain behaviors from employees for this high-trust model to work. All Turtles has distilled these to four norms — clarity, confidence, autonomy, enthusiasm. The first, clarity, strongly illustrates the onus placed on employees, as Libin explains:

If something's important to me, and I feel like I'm not clear, I have to get to clarity, that's my job. That's a really important thing, I think, in the company culture. It's my job as a manager ... to set up an environment where you have clarity, but I can't get into your head. I can't know if you're clear about something or not. You have to know and to say, 'This thing is important to me, but I don't understand it. Therefore, it is on me to understand it.'

Confidence is about acting even in the face of uncertainty. He says:

There's uncertainty, that's okay. But there should be no lack of confidence, because being timid, being half-assed about something, doesn't actually result in good outcomes.

The third component is autonomy. This doesn't mean that people are cut off from each other — they should still collaborate as part of a team, but ultimately each participant is responsible for their own contribution. He explains:

We want to have a community, we want to have people talk to each other, we want to have mentorship, we want to have helpmates. But the core principle is autonomy. It is everyone's individual job to manage themselves, and to have enough information to do whatever to make decisions, and the company has to trust the people doing that.

The final element is enthusiasm. Libin believes that it's fair to ask employees to be committed and excited about the purpose of their work and the company's goals — with the corollary that, once they lose that enthusiasm, it's time to move on. He elaborates:

It doesn't mean you can't have a bad day. It doesn't mean you can't be frustrated, of course. But you have to really be enthusiastic about the work that you're doing. Again, that's bi-directional. Of course, it's up to the company to be working on things that people could be enthusiastic about. But it's also up to the people. [If they think] 'This is stupid, and I don't like it, and I don't care' then leave, immediately. Don't do that to yourself. Don't do that to your co-workers. Find something that you're enthusiastic about.

The four behaviors all reinforce each other. Libin sums up:

If I've been tasked with doing something, and I don't feel confident on doing it, I have to acknowledge that I'm not confident and I have to ask for help and guidance. That's fine. It doesn't disrupt autonomy — because it's on you to make an honest assessment about whether you have what you need to be successful, and if you don't, then you have to go and get it. The company should set up an environment where that's encouraged, where that's possible.

But no one should ever be working on something that they think is stupid. No one should ever be working on something that they don't understand why they're doing it. No one should ever be working on something that they think couldn't possibly succeed, they're on a fool's errand, it can't work out.

But when you think about what most people do, in most companies, it's exactly those things. That's on the company, that's on the management, but it's also on the employees, because they are tolerating this condition. Ultimately, they're the only ones who can get into their head and see whether or not they feel that way.

Extending the model to established companies

But can this model work for every business? Libin concedes that it works best for jobs that can be done remotely, rather than those that are tied to a specific location, such as a retail or factory worker. It works for All Turtles and mmhmm because of the nature of their work and size of company. He says:

Most of our companies are sub-100 [people]. We are doing that intentionally. I really think that for our industries, which is basically software, you shouldn't need to have a lot of people, you shouldn't need to scale headcount ...

If you're going to only have 100 people, your company doesn't have to be the best job in the world for everyone. You just need to be the best job for 100 people. There's eight billion people on the planet.

How it could work for larger companies is going to be up to those other companies to work out for themselves. He says:

I think bigger companies, this is a little bit above my paygrade. Let's figure it out for smaller teams, and then see how it's extended. My supposition is that bigger companies will have high-trust and low-trust teams within them. You can't look at it as one monolithic entity, it has to be how various teams function.

Probably a company like WalMart really is a constellation of small and medium-sized teams. But again, I'm not an expert. We're going to try to figure it out for us and for companies like us, and then help bigger organizations find what the answers are for them. But at the end of the day, unless you're running a prison, you should be striving to be a high-trust environment.

Libin believes there's an opportunity to really change the nature of work over the coming years so that most people can choose to live and work better. He notes that, having moved out of Silicon Valley to a new location, he personally is more productive and effective — "We can be better at our work, because we live somewhere nice." He argues that no one should be forced to live somewhere they don't want to live, or face a two-hour daily commute they hate, because of their work. He concludes:

That's the real societal work over the next few decades. Make it so that as many people as possible, as many minutes in the day as possible, are doing what they want to be doing.

My take

Digital work requires a different culture to be successful than the traditional enterprise mindsets of the industrial era. Modern digital tools can give workers huge levels of support to perform their jobs, but that must be accompanied by trust and autonomy, otherwise the human creativity and decision-making skills that people can bring is wasted.

Libin's recipe for a high-trust work environment makes sense. It certainly matches how we work as a team at diginomica. It's easy to see how it can work for small teams of knowledge workers. It's less clear how it can translate to other types of work and larger organizations, as he concedes. But that doesn't mean it can't work for those organizations and workers. Making it work requires significant changes in management structures and culture, but perhaps that's a necessary adaptation to the digitally connected patterns of work that are currently emerging. The next few years are going to an interesting journey as more and more organizations begin to adapt to these new ways of working.

A grey colored placeholder image