Engaging tip 7: Publish finances

If a government wants to alienate its population, one of the best ways is to create a lack of predictability. Thus, the ideal party member Tom Parsons ends up in jail (the Ministry of Love) in 1984. Or, you can prepare the renovation of your home perfectly, only to find you have to stop it because you missed a small piece of the law. At work, you can work on a project for months until it gets cancelled. It’s a good way to become alienated from the company you’re working for.

When people understand what happens, they get less frustrated. When the context makes sense, they can see that hard decisions need to be made. That’s why I propose to open up your finances.

Do you have an overview of the financial side for every running project? If not, wouldn’t it be helpful for yourself to make decisions? In software companies, a start could be to show all the sales versus the hours spent developing new features. Even a simplistic overview does the job: the point is relative comparisons, not absolutes. If this project only has about €100K pipeline, why should I spend more time on it than on this €500K one? And the discussion can start.

Another discussion that’s always interesting to have, is about salaries. There are companies who have completely transparent salary schemes (Buffer and Mondragon are just two). “Being open and transparent about how we compensate our team breeds trust amongst all people involved,” says the CMO of Buffer about it. I think it’s at least an idea worth of consideration for most startups.

Why wouldn’t you show people where the money went? If most was going to smart investments, nobody would protest. If a certain part was obscure but had a good explanation, no problems. But if many in the organisation agreed that a certain expenditure was over the top, then the organisation could benefit from reviewing that expense. Be it a project, a salary, or another expense. Let the discussion start in the open. Otherwise, the same discussion will still be held as gossip at the coffee machine.

MH370 & nasty surprises

In an opinion piece in Knack, Annelies Van Erp cites Matt K. Lewis from The Week when he compares the disappeared Boeing 777 with the murder of J.F.Kennedy. As Lewis writes in his original piece, “(b)oth undermined our naive faith in modernity.” Whereas Lewis says we expect some technician to follow and control every movement of a plane, Van Erp also refers to The Guardian who point out that we think we have full control of the surface of our planet. This is similar to what Arjen van Veelen writes in De Standaard: it’s disconcerting to find that we can’t just CTRL-F the plane.

In my opinion, it’s an overarching trust in systems. We are insured, we have a long-term employment contract, with a company car, we have a predictable mortgage to pay and our kids go to school and grow up. We know the system perfectly well, so we assume everything is covered. Until a black swan comes up, or a gadfly, or a jester. A Ronald Janssen. A Breivik. A Fukushima. A 9-11. An MH370.

No insurance in the world, no enterprise architecture, no social security and no government can keep the world out. There is only one solution: be open to what happens. Then we can face the unknown and try to accept it. Even when it is an extremely unhappy event, we eventually are faced with only one choice: acceptance. It is, unfortunately, what it is. We told ourselves that staying inside would be possible, but now more than ever before, it turns out not to be possible at all.

Engaging tip 6: Show everybody’s work

Do you know who can help you when you have a specific problem? Do you actually know what those around you have worked on? In most organisations, the answer to both questions would be a reluctant “more or less”. It’s a shame, because people are becoming the key element of an organisation.

So, bring it out! There is no better way to make somebody proud than to show how good his work is. You can make a portfolio page as part of your Intranet.

But are you sure that this is what your co-workers want to be remembered for? Why don’t you find out? You have a company mission. How about everybody thinks about a personal mission? Make it funny, quirky and to the point: it’s time to be yourself.

Next, broaden it to your entire life. What is your purpose here? In what way can you really help others? What do you do? And what are your means? Your competences? What are those topics that, when you get a question about them, you just can’t stop until you have a satisfactory answer? Is there something in your company that, if they ask you to help with it, you can’t wait to start?

Exposing unknown sides of your personality can make your job more interesting in many ways. For example, I got into an interesting situation in a technology company when they found out I knew Japanese. Their Japanese office was causing a few problems because of mutual misunderstanding. By liaising with the Japanese, I managed to smooth out a number of issues and improve communication. Unexpectedly, one of my hobbies turned out to be a great asset at work.

We are not used to exposing ourselves. When we talk about something we’re good at, it feels like bragging. Otherwise, we open ourselves to critique or attacks. But seriously, we’re here to help each other and organisations should reflect that. So open up, show what you’re good at, and show the good results. And above all, make good art.


Two-way traffic

Much of what I’m advocating on this blog comes down to two-way traffic. Traditional 19th century thinking is one way. The boss tells you what to do. Period. That doesn’t work anymore for many reasons that you can find throughout this blog.

The secret to internal and external communities is to listen with respect.

In teams, you need two-way traffic to engage your co-workers. That’s an underlying prerequisite in all of my engaging tips. For example, you need the input from your co-workers to get a realistic roadmap because the world is evolving to quickly to do it on your own.

When you move away from the traditional top-down teams, you end up with a community. A community is no longer a hierarchy but a meritocracy. When somebody picks up an important role, it’s because the others consider him the best for that job. This is an organic process and it’s normal. Communities are the base of the collaborative economy movement, which seems exotic until you think of Cambio, a typical example of sharing something you’d traditionally buy.

Shira Levine from Zynga has a number of tips ready on how to manage external communities. As she points out, communities require more than a marketing department that freaks out when a customer has a critical opinion. Big surprise! The secret, as usual, is two-way traffic and respect. For example, Modcloth “allows the company’s crazy passionate community to vote designs for sale into production”. Even better, DuckDuckLabs actually hires from the community. The CEO, Gabriel Weinberg, says it guarantees a better cultural fit than a standard hiring process.

Like the ideas in my blogpost on Pixar, these steps require a different relation with your co-workers and your customers. Your first step to achieve this, should be to step down. You’re no longer a manager, you’re a member of a community just like your co-workers and your customers. Get down and between the other folks who are passionate about what you do. Then do it together with them.

Engaging tip 5: Stop measuring time, abolish holidays

In my post on Pixar, I said: “If ideas are important, create a mechanism that says they are important.” This is a logical implication:

  • Ideas are important => we have a mechanism that shows this.

In most organisations, though, the mechanics aren’t about great ideas. One mechanism that is prominent nearly everywhere, is the time policy. On your first day, you get lectured what the expected working hours are. You can request holidays with your superior, at least three days in advance. And when you are ill (in other words, you spend time not at work), you should announce it by e-mail to HR. A highly visible mechanism about time has an impact on the organisation, which works in the opposite direction of the Pixar example:

  • We have a mechanism about time => time is important

Not surprisingly, many of the discussions about somebody’s performance are actually about time. You should work more, or you shouldn’t work so much. You should take your holidays before the end of the year, or transfer them to next year, or you should stop taking every Friday afternoon off.

Think about what you want to achieve with your organisation. Where do you want to get? A mission statement usually says: “We want to produce market-leading products and services…” It doesn’t say: “We want employees that start working at precisely 9:00AM and switch off at 5:00PM.”

So why don’t you replace policies about time with policies about market-leading products and services?

There are several examples of companies who have abolished all forms of time measuring, including holidays. As an employee of MassRelevance describes it, employees get “the freedom to reach deadlines and complete projects their own way, and that they have the flexibility to create their own schedule.” The underlying idea is the Pygmalion effect. The more you trust your co-workers, the more they prove that they earned your trust.

Abolishing holidays may seem like a big step. But it’s all about respect and trust. Your co-workers know what’s important and they can organise themselves. There are plenty of stories about the strange sleeping habits of some of the greatest inventors. When somebody’s on to something, you can’t stop him at 5PM. But don’t expect him to show up at 9AM the day after.

Engaging tip 4: Allow 20% projects

The rumours of the death of Google’s 20% projects have been greatly exaggerated. Except if you misunderstand what a 20% project is. In the case of Google, the impression seems to be that everybody in the company can work on something else 20% of the time. Indeed, Google itself has claimed that most of its major products (Android, Chrome, Gmail…) originally started as a 20% project.

However, the 20% is not a rigid system. I’ve seen companies struggle implementing a 20%-like system. First, which day of the week will you not do your actual work? Second, what ideas will you work on? In this worst-case implementation, a co-worker is forced to work fixed hours on vague ideas.

At Google, anybody can work vague hours on fixed ideas. When an idea is mature and circumstances at your “regular” position are good, you can start taking up time to work on your project. If necessary and possible, you can work for 10 weeks in a row. You will end up with a convincing prototype. This is a good base when deciding to continue or to stop the project.

There are many good reasons why 20% projects are a very good idea:

  • It’s better to fail 10 times small than to fail one time big. A small project is less risky than a project for an official product. This is good for innovation.
  • It’s better to have two people working on the same thing than to have none. No way that you will start two competing “official” projects. But for 20% projects, why not? Both project owners will try their hardest to build the best prototype they can. Best of all, the final product can take up ideas from two teams of bright people.
  • There’s no better way to motivate people than to let them work on their own product.

When you start 20% projects, you need to change a number of aspects of your organisation. First, it doesn’t make sense to set objectives and evaluate them yearly. When somebody picks up a 20% project halfway through the year, long-term objectives don’t work. This is yet another reason to stop your annual reviews.

Second, you need to follow up closely on those projects. A project that fails causes no harm when you spot it early. So discuss the projects openly and show your worries, doubts as well as your positive impressions. Insist that the project leader keeps an open view as well: when he gets dragged in too deeply, his opinion may become clouded.

Good ideas at Pixar

There are many reasons why Pixar movies are great (*). The characters are well defined. The story lines keep you engaged. The design and the music add gorgeous detail and atmosphere. It’s hard to imagine that early on, each of these movies “sucks“.

If ideas are important, create a mechanism that says they are important.

When they create a new movie at Pixar, the early stages are familiar. They start with a vague idea that is just vaguely interesting. So far, it’s exactly the same as the development of any product in any organisation. But then, Pixar takes a different route than most teams:

“We dare to attempt these stories, but we don’t get them right on the first pass. This is as it should be. Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process–reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its through line or a hollow character finds its soul.”

To get the product right, Pixar uses the power of its creators. More people have more ideas that improve the product. But everybody has limitations. Some are timid, intimidated or they think they may look stupid. Some may become overwhelmed by all those ideas and can’t see the forest through the trees. Pixar has a process to overcome these hurdles. They allow everybody to be candid with a mechanism that says it’s important to be candid.

At Pixar, every movie is assessed by the Braintrust. In this meeting, several good storytellers discuss the ideas of a movie. They do not discuss people, but they discuss every way in which the movie develops the ideas. The Braintrust’s role is advisory. All of this stimulates free discussion of what’s important: the quality of the product. It’s a forum for free discussion about what works and what doesn’t.

You can and should make your own solution group.

The article at FastCompany makes my life easy with its ending:

‘”You can and should make your own solution group,” says Andrew, who has made a point of doing this on a smaller scale, separate from the official Braintrust, on each of his films. “Here are the qualifications: The people you choose must (a) make you think smarter and (b) put lots of solutions on the table in a short amount of time. I don’t care who it is, the janitor or the intern or one of your most-trusted lieutenants: If they can help you do that, they should be at the table.”‘

Go ahead and do it. Engage the best at your organisation to challenge everybody else on their roadmaps or their product ideas. Make sure the discussion is open and focused on the topic. And make sure that you listen to that open feedback, too. It’s different to how normal product development works, but looking at Pixar, it sure works well!


(*) My son would kill me if he knew how much I hated the first Pixar movies. He lives and breathes Cars, being only briefly distracted by Spiderman from time to time.

Engaging tip 3: Stop annual reviews

If you still hold annual reviews, stop them immediately. If you really do it wrong, you pit your employees against each other. Your implementation may not be that bad. But it’s certainly way too slow. A month after setting the targets, they’re obsolete. Reality kicks your plans in the corner.

And really, do you know your co-worker if you talk to him seriously only once a year?

Close collaboration is the new Bell curve. The difference isn’t subtle: it’s a new paradigm.

  • You get to know your co-workers. With an evaluation, you only measure from the outside. When collaborating, you know how they think and feel inside.
  • Matching a co-worker to a function description is so 19th century. At the current speed of the world, it feels like moving target practice. When you move along them, you can follow them. You keep an overview of new competences as they develop.
  • You get to know your projects. Instead of only tracking sterile KPIs, you know all the internal and external issues.

There is another reason to work closely together. It allows you to let projects fail. The next tip explains this in more detail.

This post is part of the 8 Tips To Get Your Co-Workers Engaged. Click the link to see the other tips.

Engaging tip 2: Make vague roadmaps

We are living in an age of information overflow. In less than 3 years, the amount of available information doubles. Even if you try, you just cannot stay up-to-date. There’s too much going on.

You can try to work harder, not smarter. But there is a limit to how much you can capture alone. Instead, try it the smart way: engage your co-workers. Together, you just know more.

The first step is to get as much input as you possibly can. Keep your organisation open. Attend events and trade shows. Follow the industry news. Talk to press, customers and competitors. All this is well-known. But is it part of your company’s culture? Or are you just going through the moves?

Don’t just say you want input. Build a system to get input. Create an internal community to discuss new trends. And create an external one, too! Worst case, you know what customers complain about and you can improve on that. You can only win.

At the same time, build a vision. Where do you want to be in 10 years? What does your company stand for? What makes you better?

When you’re up to date, you need to make decisions. Involve as many stakeholders as possible:

  • Sales and business development know the competition. They know what customers expect and where your offering is lacking. This improves your market positioning.
  • R&D knows the technical areas of improvement. A better product stands out.
  • Technical support knows the common problems. Solve these and your customers are happier.
  • At any stage, check with your vision. Your customers may want buggy whips, but you may want to build cars.

Finally, a roadmap is a living project. Don’t update it every year. Gather ideas continuously and keep the discussion going.

This post is part of the 8 Tips To Get Your Co-Workers Engaged. Click the link to see the other tips.

How can we be bored when we have Google?

Aeon magazine frequently publishes articles that makes me stop and think, but in a good way. The best articles make me reflect on what is relevant and what is just distracting. In a way, that in itself is distracting, but I digress.

Dougald Hine discusses a very relevant topic in his recent article on Aeon. Many people expected boredom to be solved with the advent of the Internet. If everything you ever want to read or see is at your fingertips, how can you still be bored?

“(Meaning) requires, among other things, space for reflection – allowing what we have already absorbed to settle, waiting to see what patterns emerge.”

Not only are we still bored, we started trolling. Hine points out that it’s not just a few antisocial elements who become aggressively bored. He recognises the tendency in all of us. It turns out that more raw information wasn’t the answer to boredom. Meaning is.

Meaning can be found when connecting the dots. You don’t just get meaning by filtering out the noise. You get meaning when you take a break from more information and reflect. When you finally get the time to do some processing, you can transform information into meaning: “It is an alchemical transformation, always surprising. It takes skill, time and effort, practice and patience. No matter how experienced we become, success cannot be guaranteed.”

I see a similar tendency in organisations today. Most organisations keep themselves well occupied. HR, like most other departments, spends quite some time fighting fires. Whatever the problem is, more mails and meetings seem to be the answer. I’ve been in companies where thousands of mails were sent every day. But the most common complaint was that “we should communicate more.” In such a rat race, you either try to keep up, or you drop out with a bore-out.

The solution is to put some meaning back into your organisation. Take a look at what you are achieving. What is the impact of how you work? How is the quality of projects, the contacts between colleagues, and of your time spent inside your offices? Is this what you want for your organisation? If it’s not, you should spend some serious time to reflect. Don’t just do it with your management team, but make it an organisation wide exercise. The result is unknown. But it may be one of the most important journeys you can take with your organisation and your co-workers