When I first encountered the work of each of these three original thinkers, it blew me away. Their insights on organizational and management behaviors were like a breath of fresh air compared to the C-suite pandering, jargonized junk that business schools spew and pop business icons like Tom Peters promulgate (no offense Tom, I like some of your ideas).
Managers who are skilled communicators may also be good at covering up real problems – Chris Argyris
AFAIK, there’s nobody like this trio of intellectual giants left standing (maybe they’ve won?). There are, however, a handful of second string, accessible, truth-tellers out there. Henry Mintzberg, Sam Culbert, and Steve Denning come to mind. Who can you add to this list?
Every once in a blue moon, BD00′s conscience compels him to apologize to the guild of 20th century management for his non-compliant, “unacceptable“, online behavior . Here’s this year’s mild BD00 apology:
I’m really glad my conscience periodically crashes the Ackoff-Deming-Argyris-Senge-Hamel-Semler-Nayar-Hsieh anti-management party that rocks on in my brain. It gives the non-BD00 half of me the comfort of knowing that he’s not an apathetic, tunnel-visioned psychopath… errr does it?
Even though it has a title and cover design that only a Harvard MBA could love, I picked up Robert Austin’s “Measuring and Managing Performance in Organizations” on a twitter tip from Torbjörn Gyllebring. As soon as I cracked the cover, I knew it was gonna be a classic. The foreword was written by one of my all time favorite software authors, Tom DeMarco.
Mr. Austin discovered perhaps the first recorded instance of the well worn “schedule is king!” management law:
Such scenarios, in which program managers or contractors attend to measurements of timeliness of delivery to the exclusion of all else, are reported as early as 1882. In that year, the newly built U.S.S. Omaha was discovered to have onboard-coal-room for only four days’ steaming; in the rush to stay on schedule, no one had been willing to force notice of this defect at a high enough level to ensure its correction.
Every once in a blue moon, I finish a book so engrossing that I immediately reread it before cracking open a different one. Mr. Austin’s MAMPIO is one of those gems and I’m well into my second romp through it. Since it’s loaded with a gazillion ideas for blog posts, expect more over-the-top BD00 distortions to come. W00t!
You are in the future. You were sent by a magical wormhole as you entered the elevator, What do you see? The remains of your company, destroyed… The only clue to what happened? An organizational chart where all boxes read: “Manager”. They’ve finally done it, they’ve destroyed the company by turning everybody into a manager – Random Manager
It took forever, but I finally received my POTM T-shirt from my Germany-based e-friend, Vasco Duarte (@duarte_vasco). W00t!
You can get your very own copy of the POTM masterpiece here: POTM T-Shirt.
If you haven’t seen the following hilarious and entertaining “I Quit” youtube video, then you’ve been living in a cave for too long. It’s gone viral with over 14 million hits as of this writing.
The fact that so many people tuned in says a lot about how organizations operate in the 21st century. Sure, there’s been some progress in injecting more humanity into the workplace since the dawn of the 2oth century, but there’s so much more that can be done.
Sadly, the dudes who have the power to get it done don’t want it to get done. It’s all about ego, loss of control, loss of stature, yada, yada, yada. Take your pick.
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it. – Upton Sinclair
So, do ya think that the losses in flexibility and capacity for learning are forgone conclusions as an org increases in size (i.e. adds more managers, directors, executives)? If not, got any examples that demolish the theory?
One of the great tragedies of life is the murder of a beautiful theory by a gang of brutal facts. – Benjamin Franklin
In Scrum, one of the three questions every team member is supposed to answer at the daily standup meeting is: “Are there any obstacles in your way?“. BD00 often wonders how many people actually answer it, let alone really answer it…
And no, BD00 doesn’t really answer it. Been there and done that. As you might surmise, because of his uncivilized nature and lack of political savvy, it didn’t work out so well – so he stopped using that industry-best practice. But for you and your team, really answering the question works wonders – right?
The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded that you don’t care. Either case is a failure of leadership.” – Karl Popper
After discovering Valve Inc. earlier this year, I wrote several posts (here and here and here) praising their flat organizational structure and unique management practices. Well, as the saying goes, “nothing ever is as it seems“.
In February, Valve laid off a group of hardware designers and one of them has spoken out against the company. Jeri Ellsworth, the former head of Valve’s hardware division, is that person:
In a podcast interview, Jeri said the following unflattering things about the company:
There is actually a hidden layer of powerful management structure in the company, and it felt a lot like High School. There are popular kids that have acquired power, then there’s the trouble makers, and then everyone in between. Everyone in between is ok, but the trouble makers are the ones trying to make a difference.
Now we’ve all seen the Valve handbook, which offers a very idealized view. A lot of that is true. It is a pseudo-flat structure, where in small groups at least in small groups you are all peers and make decisions together.
Their structure probably works really well with about 20 people, but breaks down terribly when you get to a company of 300 people. Communication was a problem. I don’t think it works.
They have a bonus structure in there where you can get bonuses – if you work on very prestigious projects – that are more than what you earn. So everyone is trying to work on projects that are really visible. And it’s impossible to pull those people away for something risky like augmented reality because they only want to work on the sure thing. So that was a frustration, we were starved for resources. And I probably was [abrasive] but I just couldn’t find a way to make a process to actually deliver any hardware inside that company.
If I sound bitter, it’s because I am. I am really, really bitter. They promised me the world and then stabbed me in the back.
Despite my naivete and gullibility, I originally thought that Valve was an exemplar case. With over 300 employees, they seemingly proved that flatness and egalitarianism can scale. It seemed magical. But sigh, according to Jeri, who admittedly is only one data point, it doesn’t.
In light of this sad, new information, I no longer think flatness scales. At a certain (but unknown) size, hierarchy is required for sustained economic viability in for-profit enterprises. When you arrive at the (unknown) size where you need a hierarchy, tis better to have a visible, transparent pyramid than a hidden, privileged one.
The trouble with unwritten rules is that you don’t know where to go to erase them. – Unknown
I’m glad to be part of an org with a visible hierarchy instead of an invisible one. At least I know who to suck up to (which I do well) and who not to piss off (which I don’t do well).
Hierarchy will never go away, never. – Tom Peters
Because they may be called to account for their hypocritical behavior, you may find people in authority saying things like these, but you most likely won’t find them written into the Employee Handbook:
“Providing the freedom to fail is an important trait of the company— we couldn’t expect so much of individuals if we also penalized people for errors. Even expensive mistakes, or ones which result in a very public failure, are genuinely looked at as opportunities to learn. We can always repair the mistake or make up for it.”
“But problems show up when hierarchy or codified divisions of labor either haven’t been created by the group’s members or when those structures persist for long periods of time. We believe those structures inevitably begin to serve their own needs rather than those of Valve’s customers. The hierarchy will begin to reinforce its own structure by hiring people who fit its shape, adding people to fill subordinate support roles. Its members are also incented to engage in rent-seeking behaviors that take advantage of the power structure rather than focusing on simply delivering value to customers.”
“…for the most part working overtime for extended periods indicates a fundamental failure in planning or communication. If this happens at Valve, it’s a sign that something needs to be reevaluated and corrected. If you’re looking around wondering why people aren’t in “crunch mode,” the answer’s pretty simple. The thing we work hardest at is hiring good people, so we want them to stick around and have a good balance between work and family and the rest of the important stuff in life.”
“Our profitability per employee is higher than that of Google or Amazon or Microsoft, and we believe strongly that the right thing to do in that case is to put a maximum amount of money back into each employee’s pocket. Valve does not win if you’re paid less than the value you create. Over time, compensation gets adjusted to fit an employee’s internal peer-driven valuation.
The title of this post sounds like the stodgy name of some inhumane, BS, corpo process under which “supervisors” evaluate their children, I mean, induhvidual contributors. But wait! It’s the Valve way.
You don’t know who Valve is? Valve is a company that creates massive, multi-player, online games. According to “economist-in-residence“, Yanis Varoufakis, Valve rakes in $1B in revenue even though they have a measly 300 employees. Also, according to Yanis (and their employee handbook), they are totally flat chested. There’s not a single boob, oops, I mean “boss“, in the entire community. D’oh!
The employee handbook spells out the details of the “Stacked Ranking“ process, but in summary, peers rate each other once a year according to these four, equally-weighted metrics:
Skill Level/Technical Ability
Notice that there’s no long list of patriarchical, corpo-BS ditties like these in the four simple Valve metrics:
- Takes initiative and is a self-starter
- Knows how to acquire resources when needed
- Manages time well
- Knows how to prioritize tasks
- Yada, yada, yada
As you might guess, the stack rankings are used for salary adjustment:
…stack ranking is done in order to gain insight into who’s providing the most value at the company and to thereby adjust each person’s compensation to be commensurate with his or her actual value. Valve pays people very well compared to industry norms. Our profitability per employee is higher than that of Google or Amazon or Microsoft, and we believe strongly that the right thing to do in that case is to put a maximum amount of money back into each employee’s pocket. Valve does not win if you’re paid less than the value you create. Over time, compensation gets adjusted to fit an employee’s internal peer-driven valuation. - The Valve Employee Handbook
Whenever I serendipitously discover jewels in the rough like Valve, SAS Institute, HCL Technologies, Semco, Zappos.com, etc, I always ask myself why they’re rare exceptions to the herd of standard, cookie-cutter corpricracies that dominate the business world. The best answer I can conjure up is this Ackoff-ism:
The only thing harder than starting something new is stopping something old. – Russ Ackoff
But it’s prolly something more pragmatic than that. Since corpo profits seem to keep rising, there is no burning need to change anything, let alone blow up the org and re-design it from scratch to be both socially and financially successful. That would be like asking the king to willingly give up the keys to his kingdom.