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What works may not be what works

Business conferenceGoing through the facilitation training to become certified to train Franklin Covey’s leadership module series plus my time in the workforce has given me the opportunity to observe a lot of management strategies meant to increase efficiencies and provide a better workplace for employees. One of the things I learned from The Year without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work is something that I have seen frequently in industry. You cannot force a culture into a workplace (Berkun 35).

Many of the successful companies rely on a culture. This culture is then studied by other companies who try and implement the same culture into their own company and falsely expect the same success.

What mighty management does not understand is that culture is kind of like a chef. While the recipe can be repeated, the uniqueness of the individual, or in this case the workplace if we are using the chef is a stand in for the “workplace,” cannot be easily re-created, if at all. Another challenge that faces many businesses is that talent is hard-to-find (Berkun 36), which often leads to the hiring of people who might be talented but are also selfish, arrogant or completely toxic to the workplace. While this might solve short-term problems it infuses the workplace with a slow acting poison. And no amount of cheerleading or lectures will overcome the struct of effects of poison (Berkun 36).

Culture is often the forgotten element in most successful systems and including the workplace. At wordpress.com, the culture, as it often does, grew one decision at a time (Berkun 35).

Another mistake that companies make, and that I have seen repeatedly, is letting the supporting roles of an organization drive how the company does business. The human resource department, IT, accounting, legal and other functional roles of an organization are meant to support the product or the service not drive its development and design (Berkun 38). IT dictating to the creatives the type of software they are required to use. Or, politicians telling the military how to fight a war.

Good leadership listens to the advice of supporting personnel, then makes a decision. When a functional manager makes a decision for a line operation, employee’s call BS and productivity or effectiveness suffer.

Everyone Hates Meetings (but why?)

Meetings, everybody hates them except the person who calls them. Technology, teleconferences and video conferencing has increased the effectiveness of employees in meetings because they can spend most of the meeting time checking their email or doing other work while pretending to pay attention but it hasn’t made meetings any more effective. Actually, even in live meetings most people are sitting with their laptops open or smart phones out, texting, catching up on email or telling everyone else how bored they are (Berkun 42).

At WordPress.com most of the “meetings” that Berkun describes took place over the IRC. Everyone could post their thoughts on essentially what was a chat room board, and share and exchange ideas throughout the day rather than calling one specific time to all get together. I absolutely love this idea and think that we have finally found a use for chat rooms, other than being a place where the news outlets can play stories and everybody with too much time on their hands can bitch about them.

But even the IRC was not the primary form of communication at WordPress.com.

Blogs accounted for 75% of the communication between employees while email and Skype accounted for less than 7% (Berkun 48).

Blogs were set up around projects where people could leave information, notes, web links and files on a particular project website. There was also a primary blog site known as P2 which had small window on the computer and if anyone had a question, idea ever complaint they could type something in the box and hit submit. Anyone else could pick up on the comment and post their own information or response (47).

Admittedly, all of this online activity has to be monitored by the individual themselves or else they will spend all day chasing the next shiny object, much the way many of us chase the email alerts for coming throughout the day. While IRC and blog postings seem to be better ways to manage projects without multiple emails CCed to dozens of people who don’t give a s*$!, it is still up to the individual user to set aside time to focus on a specific project so the actual work gets done. Berkun set up systems so that low-priority information was not pushed at him constantly, but that he could pull it when he was ready for it.

Bazaars, Cathedrals and oh those Wonderful Industry Seminars

Bazaars are characterized by a variety of merchants getting together with a common goal, sell stuff and make money. There are no big schedules, few plans and no enforced mechanisms for coordination, it is a sort of controlled chaos where problems are solved on the fly and deals are made with a quick negotiation. Collaboration often comes from proximity to other merchants. Some incredible innovations can come from chaos and bazaar style situations.

Cathedrals on the other hand are built from a master plan and characterized by numerous schedules, managers, supervisors all holding meetings to make sure everything is on track and everything is built to spec.  Cathedrals are good for building things to standard, like airplanes, and for procedures that are necessary to be repeated, like preparing a patient for brain surgery.

One problem is that companies that are organized around cathedral like structures often try to adopt some of the successful processes that come out of bazaars. However, many of these successful bazaar processes operate well on small-scale and in many cases, greatness rarely scales which is part of what makes it great in the first place (Birkin 54). The US aviation industry took about 20 years to realize this when they attempted to implement the security questioning process used by the Israelis.

In 1986, the Israelis caught a woman who was attempting to carry a bomb on board an El Al flight. She was stopped through the security questioning. The FAA thought this was a pretty handy idea and attempted to implement it in the US.

However, the Israeli aviation system is quite small as compared to the United States and when you try to scale something that works very well at a small level that is like trying to share wine with somebody by adding more water to it.

However, the US made several mistakes. First, the Israelis don’t use a predictable set of questions (the US did). The Israelis used security professionals trained to spot lying (the US didn’t). The Israelis operate an aviation system that is run by the government and is incredibly small (in the US airlines are for-profit companies and is the largest aviation system in the world). They eventually just became known as the “stupid questions” and were eliminated in about 2006, 20 years later and about 18 years after everybody figured out how ineffective they were.

Another important lesson that seem to work at WordPress was changing up the dynamic of the industry seminar. We all are familiar with industry seminars where we text, email, tweet and sleep our way through endless meetings, often conducted by people who are  ill prepared and with criminally poor presentation skills. Most of us are just waiting for the session to end so we can go connect with our industry associates and get some real work done.

WordPress seminars were characterized by the lack of elements that would make an event planner shiver with uncertainty. No nametags, no schedules, no digital projectors, no reading packets, forms, surveys or flip chart (Burkun 57). The workflow at a WordPress seminar focused first on selecting a problem, writing a launch announcement and support page, and then working on the problem with the idea to launch a project before the in the session. They essentially eliminated the seminars, PowerPoint presentations and facilitated roundtable discussions and just left the bazaar style of connecting of individuals, one-on-one, with the outcome of actually developing something useful.

Where did the exchange of new information come from then, if not from a PowerPoint presentation? I believe that in “this day and age,” where media deadlines are immediate, the 24 hour news cycle is being replaced by the immediate news cycle, and new information and insights are being developed hourly if not sooner, we cannot wait until an industry conference to get the latest and greatest. People have problems that need to be solved now.

Information needs to exchange digitally over chat rooms, ezines, blogs, and other methods, just like what happened at WordPress with P2 and their processes. When people get together at a conference, they should already be on relatively equal footing in terms of information and be ready to get together and produce some actual work. I would love to attend that type of meeting, but it won’t happen overnight – it’s a cultural shift and as with all cultural shifts, they begin with small decisions and small actions.

Berkun, Scott. The Year without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2013. Print.

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