Kathy Sierra over at "Creating Passionate Users" put up a post the other day called "Dignity is deadly." – Paul Graham. The discussion that followed in the comments focused mostly on the relationship between of innovation and professionalism. The question being debated is whether as companies grow, and typically become more "professional", do they lose their creativity?

I guess I weigh in on the side that being "professional" or "passionate/creative/innovative" is not inherently an either-or proposition. I believe that the important factor is authenticity. If "becoming professional" (however you wish to define it) is not your true nature, then it is the wrong approach. It is essential that you are true to yourself and true to your customers. If that means t-shirt and jeans, so be it.

Being authentic means never wondering whether or not you sold out.

[update: significant typo discovered! inserted "not"; underlined above. My apologies to anyone that read this and wondered what the H___ I was talking about]


The Power of Shared Vision

I just went back and read through the posts from my old blog and was somewhat suprised to see a common thread emerge, Shared Vision. More and more I am coming to the realization that the main job of organziational leaders is to create a shared vision within an organization. If everyone is marching to the same "What", there is much less need for leaders to deal with the "How".

Doc Searles posted yesterday On the continuing death of Business As Usual. Though not his theme, his story makes a great case for shared vision:

Want to know one reason why Wal-Mart kicked K-Mart’s ass? Three words: "Everyday low prices." That simple promise, made by Sam Walton himself and published on every Wal-Mart building, allowed the company to save billions while also keeping their customers safe from the evils of coupon addiction, which nearly bankrupted K-Mart while also narrowing their customer base.

Yes, maybe Wal-Mart’s business model is better than K-Mart’s, but I bet the typical Wal-Mart employee has a clearer understanding of Sam’s vision than the typical K-Mart employee has of the K-Mart plan. I think this has as much to do with Wal-Marts success as their low prices.

Old Posts

About a year ago I started a blog, but is was sporatic and not linked to anything else. I had just "discovered" blogs but had not yet "gotten the joke". I have spent much of the last year, mostly in the last few months, reading blogs extensively. I am starting to get the feel. This blog (inside conversation) is more focused on creating a conversation, the old blog was just a place for me to capture random ideas for future reference. I guess now is the future. I don’t expect anyone will ever read these but I am going to post these links to my old blog just for fun. Actually, there are some good ideas there, if I do say so my self. Posted in ascending date order, there is some progression of thought.

Why do big Organizations go “bad”?

I am adding Kathy Sierra to my list of people I would like to meet. I just read her post: Subvert from Within: a user-focused employee guide. Its funny how many times you come across a great piece that happens to be relevant to what is in your head at the moment.

Yesterday I was having a comment conversation with Kris in a post from Future Tense. We were debating, among other things, the nature of large organizations. I spent a good deal of time last night asking my self the question: Why do large organizations typically have such a hard time being personal? The story always goes, " … as a small company they were so cool and listened to users and employees enjoyed working there…then they got big and now they don’t care about people (inside or outside) just about satisfying Wall Street."

Why is this story so consistent and persistent?

One theory I have has to do with Passion and Vision. Start-ups ooze passion and vision. Founders start businesses because there is a visceral need to do what they are doing. If they do it well they make money, but money was not the primary objective, just a means to an end, delivering the vision. If things go really well, the organization needs to grow. At this point a lot of people join the organization because they see the money not the vision. Their main passion is for the money, power, etc., which are the artifacts of success, not the creators or drivers of success. We end up with the tail wagging the dog.

What I think happens is that the original founder(s) assume that all of the new joiners inherently share the same passion and vision for the organization, and therefore see no need to evangelize and spread the gospel. This is where the transition to big bad bureaucracy begins. The conflict between those with the vision/passion and those wanting money and power.

I think the way to avoid the trap in the beginning is that once growth begins, job one for the founder is to ensure that everyone that joins shares the original vision and founder’s passion. If, as is usually the case, this does not happen, you end up in the world Kathy described.

CEO Compensation

I too think it is ludicrous that the typical CEO is compensated at a level so out of proportion with all other workers. If you happen to know anyone that works in compensation, they will tell you that these salaries are absolutely necessary, or else you would not be able to hire the best candidates. The funny thing is that its not the money per se that really matters to the executives, it’s the power, image and ego-feeding that goes with having the “highest salary”. The real issue is shame on us all for letting this happen. Our belief and support of the “hero-leader” myth and our own desire for ever-growing returns of our mutual funds drive the exact situation we are bemoaning. If we want to see chance, we need to embody the change.

Blogs, Passion & Organizations

As I was reading Global PR Blog Week 2.0 it occured to me that the existance of blogs is another compelling reason for the senior management of any organization to treat all employees with respect. Now any employee can express their view, and the whole world can see inside the organization. The walls have become highly permeable. Just look at all the reaction to the BW article about Microsoft’s Deep Throat, Mini-Microsoft.

Top-down control is a thing (at least soon-to-be) of the past. Building a community is going to be the only way to build an effective organization in the future. The vision and passion of the organization will have to align with the passion of the individuals that comprise an organization. Trying to make employees the instruments of the organizations desires (primarily through financial incentive) will become less and less effective.

This approach is going to drive old-school managers crazy, well actually it probably won’t, as they will probably just ignore choose not to see what is happening right in front of them, to their own and the organziations detriment.

Teaching: the new Marketing

Kathy Sierra posted a great essay on a better way to market: TEACH. If you teach your customers as opposed to forcing information down their throats, they are more likely to become advocates for you and your product.

You know what, this is a great management principle also. Teach everyone in the organization about the essense of the organization. If upper levels of management are truely open and transparent, employees will get it! Create passionate colleagues, employees, suppliers. Teach them what is important about the business, not just how to do their jobs.

Human Performance Technology

I found this post describing something called "Human Performance Technology", and while I find it intellectually compelling, there is something in my gut that senses a conundrum. On the one hand there is a clear disposition toward whole systems thinking, linking multiple organizational infrastructure disciplines (HR, Communications, Training, Org Design). On the other hand it still feels too structured. Part of my thinking about using a systems approach to organizational dynamics is the need to allow free reign to the "network" which can give rise to emergent outcomes.

I think the part of HPT that gives me the most pause is:

…HPT has focused on uniform job/performance requirements, quick and efficient training, top-down management and an emphasis on compliance.

Top-down management and an emphasis on compliance, to me seem to be antithetical to the nature of a whole systems approach. I have some experience around HR functions and lord knows that there is room for improvement (and integration) and I think something like this could be effective, but there seems to be more work to do … if you are going to leverage systems theory you have to go all the way and not just use it in parts. (as Ty would say, "…be the ball.")

Inside Business Ethics

David Batstone with Worthwhile Magazine posted this essay on the evolution of business ethics. His closing paragraph says:

Compliance, transparency, sustainability, and customer engagement. It is clear to see that business ethics is no longer a trivial matter that senior managers can philosophize over at the odd moment of retreat. Business ethics is a strategic concern at the core of the business operation.

I agree whole-heartedly with his ideas, I just want to add one point. Where he has focused on external stakeholders, investors and customers, pretty much everything he says has application to internal stakeholders (employees, contractors, suppliers) as well.

Whatever it takes for organizations to get to a better place needs to account for and be accountable to all stakeholders.

(Disclaimer: I am an employee of GlaxoSmithKline.)

Infrastructure & Intent

For a while now I have been thinking about what a friend of mine calls the "the unified field theory of organizations". A couple of years ago I felt like I had taken another step toward gaining a better personal understanding of how organizations operate when it finally clicked that networks were a key ingredient. Interpersonal networks, technical networks, whatever, the key was fast information sharing and fast feedback. But still something was missing. During the same time-frame, I was immersed in training, books, discussions, etc. about leadership and vision. These words are so ubiquitous in organizations these days they tend to become invisible.

The events of the past week, Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, have pushed me once again into deeper thoughts about trying to understand the underlying issues about what happened with the relief effort. I started to put the thoughts of networks and vision together into the same thought process. This lead me to the conclusion that Infrastructure (networks, and Intent (vision) must both be considered as necessary but not sufficient conditions, when considered independently, to yield successful outcomes.

If you have a great and powerful vision but no mechanism to do anything with it, … no go.

If you have a perfect infrastructure, but a poorly guides direction, you can produce bad outcomes very well.

Only the combination of great infrastructure and great intent can provide great outcomes.