Following on from my last post about the kind of company I want to build, I got to thinking about how to make the new business a remarkable place to work. Putting myself in the shoes of perspective employees, I started thinking about the kind of company I would want to work in, if I was looking for a job. As a thought experiment, I asked myself the question “why I don’t just get a job?”, rather than getting involved in all this start-up nonsense?
Putting aside financial motives for one minute, here are some of my objections to getting a “regular” job:
- The thought of being expected to turn up at an office somewhere, day after day, probably with a lengthy commute both ways.
- The prospect of putting in long hours “in order to get on”.
- The chance of finding myself in a pathologically broken organisation and not being able to change things.
- The idea of not being in control of my own destiny.
- The inevitable tedium of seemingly pointless administrative activities that always seem to be demanded in so many organisations.
- The prospect of sitting for hours in long, ineffective meetings.
- The thought of having to play corporate politics.
- The prospect of not being able to make a significant difference through my day-to-day work.
(In case some readers are wondering, this reflects things I see wrong with corporate life in general, not necessarily my most recent employment experience!)
So, then the question arises - how to establish an organisation and culture that consciously avoids these pitfalls? - and I’ve come to realise that one of the biggest issues within organisations is Management. Management as we know it today is all about getting people to do the stuff we need them to do, through an intricate system of rewards, punishment, persuasion, motivation, manipulation and such like. But at root of this is the assumption that left to their own devices, people cannot be trusted to get stuff done without all these external influences.
I think this assumption is just plain wrong, and by implication, much of the management structure we have in place in our organisations today is therefore redundant. I must confess I didn’t reach this conclusion alone. It all started for me when I read a book called Maverick by a Brazilian businessman Ricardo Semler. Semler was highly successful in the eighties and nineties in developing his father’s engineering business, not through traditional management techniques, but in large part by introducing an unprecedented level of democracy into the management of the organisation. I can strongly recommend the book, and its sequel, The Seven-Day Weekend: Changing the Way Work Works, but the following video, entitled Leading By Omission (recorded in 2005 at the MIT Sloan School of Management) provides an excellent summary of his thinking around management in 21st Century organisations.
NB I’m afraid it’s 48 minutes long, but you can fast-forward to 4:20 to skip the intro and some mic problems, and you can stop at around 40:40 if you want when the Q&A starts. In any case, it’s worth taking the time to watch.
Semler likens traditional management to a military style of command-and-control but I see it more as a hangover from the Industrial Age, where large numbers of less skilled workers were doing pre-defined tasks which needed constant, careful supervision. However, in the 21st Century, particularly in the West, our long-term wellbeing and ultimately our survival is tied up in our ability to be innovative and creative much more than in our capacity to be efficient producers. (See this excellent TED video for some more thoughts on the importance of creativity in the 21st Century).
The crux of Semler’s approach is that, given the right environment, people CAN be trusted to do what is best for the business, without external influences. A corollary of this is that eventually, just like Semler, founders like me become superfluous – what a great outcome for someone who has no desire to be King!
In short, individuals in a business can and should be treated like GROWN ADULTS! What does this mean practically for this business?
- There will be no standard working day at Cornerstone – staff will get to set their own hours.
- By implication, there will be no requirement to be in attendance at the company’s office from one day to the next.
- There will be no job titles, beyond what an individual needs to do business with a customer.
- There will be no hierarchy, beyond that which staff establish themselves for the effective running of the business.
- There will be no “secrets” – all company data, including financial figures and remuneration will be freely available within the organisation.
- Based on the free availability of information, staff will get to set their own salaries.
Now that I’ve written it down, it all sounds rather radical. But I did say I wanted to build a different kind of business, so I guess I better put my money where my mouth is. In that vein, I’ve just created my first internal wiki article: Companywide Remuneration. Sadly, there’s only one member of staff and his current salary is a big fat zero! Life at the top, eh?
What do you think about Semler’s approach to management? – is his firm SEMCO just a South American cultural anomaly or do you know of other firms that have successfully transitioned to (or even started as) truly democratic workplaces?