Leadership, Culture and the Situation of Marissa Mayer

marissa_new4Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, sent a shock wave across the internet and the blogosphere last weekend when she announced that Yahoo’s policy of allowing people to work remotely would be ended, and that remote-working employees would need to begin reporting to the office by June 2013.

The debate has raged over the wisdom of the move, with a heaping ton of criticism coming from culture-change advocates who point to research indicating that remote work programs are beneficial, while the other side of the coin points to lost engagement and productivity.  A short, quick summary of the debate can be found over on the Huffington Post:

What I find interesting is that, in an era when so many are advocating culture as the basis for an organization’s effectiveness, as well as the need for leadership to take charge of establishing that culture, that so much criticism is being thrown at Mayer for her decision.  All this even as some insiders report that the move was utterly necessary because the work-from-home policy had created more problems than it solved, and the abuses of the policy were significant.

All of the admonitions and warnings and tirades thrown at Mayer, or in support of her, all seem to be coming from outside the company – by folks who have a voice, but who are not, necessarily, informed.  Like them, I do not know Marissa Mayer.  Unlike them, however, I won’t assume that she’s a short-sighted crazy person or an idiot.  Her ideas do have some merit, even if we disagree with them.

What’s daunting, however, is what we are seeing is a high-profile CEO doing what everyone is demanding of high-profile CEOs – to take bold steps and to lead an organization through the establishment of a company culture.  If Mayer believes that her organization will perform best when people are interacting face-to-face, then she must act with integrity and follow her beliefs by bringing that dynamic into her organization.  It has become the stuff of many an article and business school essay at places like Facebook and Google.

Of course, that’s also exactly where the problem lies.  Mayer is attempting to benchmark against other organizations and believes that worked over there will also work at Yahoo.  That’s a bit short-sighted, however, it’s also the exact same dynamic being offered by her critics – finding the best case example of a situation just like your preferred alternative, and then using that as evidence that the alternative is the right one.  For example, the creators of ROWE responded to Yahoo’s policy decision with an Open Letter to Marissa Mayer, citing The Gap as an organization that has done well by implementing ROWE.  Unfortunately, you can’t claim the Gap’s implementation of ROWE was a success and ignore the fact that performance at Best Buy, where ROWE was created, just sucks.

Likewise, you can’t say this was the right move and not wonder why there was not a declaration of the need to identify the root cause of these behaviors.  If people are abusing the system and failing to collaborate – face time might not be the root cause.  There is likely something else going on.  Perhaps that something else can be attended to by having people co-located, or maybe not.  Fact of the matter is, none of us knows for sure, and all anyone is contributing is an opinion, if not an agenda.

There is clearly a clash of cultures occurring as well, as most of the criticism is coming from tech/software/internet company founders and their employees who have embraced remote work.  Others outside of the tech community are much more supportive of the move.  If we believe the insider’s view, then this was the right move for Yahoo at this time – and maybe it is, or maybe it is not.  What the critics themselves should be chastised for is campaigning for executives to lead and set the tone within their organizations and then criticize those same leaders for not setting the tone the critics preferred.

The truth is that no one knows if this will be the right move.  It is, quite clearly, going to be something of an experiment.  Those who believe remote work, in general, is a good thing based on their experience or beliefs and, therefore, a good thing for Yahoo are about to have that hypothesis tested.  On the other side of the debate, those who advocate face-to-face interaction as the core that fuels innovation, will also have their theory tested.  What all must do now is what everyone who has conducted an experiment must always do – establish the parameters of the experiment and observe the results.

If Yahoo’s performance improves over time then we will have evidence over which to debate this decision, and not just relentless opinion.  If, however, it turns out that the performance of the company declines, then we’ll know that the performance problem was not due to attendance, but to other, deeper flaws in the management of the company.  Either way, some years from now when the evidence is available, I suspect no measure will be given to the dynamics of the system and I’m certain Marissa Mayer will either be celebrated or blamed.

Netflix culture and the Core of Operational Excellence

netflix_defeats_blockbuster_by_plaidklaus
netflix_defeats_blockbuster_by_plaidklaus

netflix defeats blockbuster by plaidklaus

The slideshare below describes the core concepts that define the culture at Netflix.  First released in 2009, it provides insight into what co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings calls the “Freedom and Responsibility Culture”

There are several elements of the document that sound just like the ROWE movement that I discussed quite a bit on this blog last year.  Just as I found with ROWE, however, the Netflix culture manifesto fails to deliver a significant “Wow!” factor.  Why?  Because Lean and Operational Excellence provide a much deeper management philosophy that takes into account every aspect of either the ROWE or Netflix schools of thought, and then some.

Consider these 9 Core Values from the Netflix presentation:

 

  • Judgment
    • You think strategically, and can articulate what you are, and are not, trying to do.
    • You smartly separate what must be done well now, and what can be improved later.
  • Communication
    • You listen well, instead of reacting fast, so you can better understand
    • You treat people with respect independent of their status or disagreement with you
  • Impact
    • You accomplish amazing amounts of important work
    • You focus on great results rather than on process
  • Curiosity
    • You learn rapidly and eagerly
    • You seek to understand our strategy, market, customers, and suppliers
  • Innovation
    • You re-conceptualize issues to discover practical solutions to hard problems
    • You challenge prevailing assumptions when warranted, and suggest better approaches
  • Courage
    • You take smart risks
    • You question actions inconsistent with our values
  • Passion
    • You inspire others with your thirst for excellence
    • You care intensely about Netflix‘s success
    • Youcelebratewins
  • Honesty
    • You are known for candor and directness
    • You are quick to admit mistakes

All of that sounds an awful lot like some terms that are familiar to anyone with a knowledge of Lean:

  • Lead with Humility
  • Respect for Every Person
  • Experimentation
  • Seeking perfection
  • Constancy of Purpose
  • Deliver customer value
  • Achieve results 

To be certain, the slideshare below appears to demonstrate many of the common misunderstandings of what process is, or should be, and especially of what process means in the Lean context.  Nonetheless, there isn’t anything in this document that isn’t already a part of Lean philosophy, or that isn’t represented in the Shingo Model.  Even the stated distaste for process is met later in the document by a healthy awareness that good processes vs. bad processes actually enable creativity, not prevent it.

In spite of the supposed revolutionary nature of Netflix culture, however, what I am more inclined to believe is that Reed Hastings, like the creators of ROWE, has stumbled upon the same core operational Excellence fundamentals that have already been developed, practiced, and that continue to evolve in Lean.

View the presentation below and share your thoughts on whether or not this is Revolutionary, or simply the re-discovery of some universal truths that are already well incorporated into Lean thinking.

 

Follow up: Why Lunch & Learn is not for everyone

lonely_lady_loves_lunch_by_emohoc
lonely_lady_loves_lunch_by_emohoc

lonely lady loves lunch by emohoc

Last time out, my post on why I dislike the practice of Lunch & Learns drew quite a few visitors to the site, and a small handful of comments on reddit.

One comment, in particular, stuck out in my mind.  Reddit user: “CivilDiscussions” wrote:

You sound like quite the slacker. In the real world, we have lunch meetings all the time. Lunch isn’t guaranteed to be “your time”

Now THAT is a fascinating take – that wanting to have a break with which to recharge, or to avoid yet another mindless, unproductive meeting, is associated with slacking.  The only thing this makes me believe is that people with this mindset have not yet adopted the principles of productivity or efficiency.  Instead, they value activity over accomplishment and, therefore, believe attendance at lunchtime working sessions is useful, which is just plain silly.

After reading the comments on reddit, however, i recalled Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, and her Ted talk on The Power of Introverts.  The assumption that people are “slackers” simply for their preference to be alone for awhile, especially mid-day after 4-5 hours of listening to other people’s incessant yammering, chatter, shifting, shuffling and noise, is certainly ignorant.  For those like me who crave that 30 or 60 minutes of isolation to block out the world and spend a little time doing something that either interests us intently, and/or relaxes us significantly – being chastised for doing what helps us to work seems like something that would cause a loss productivity.

Given that such a significant portion of the population is, in fact, introverted – that only makes the practice of Lunch & Learns that much more difficult to understand.  Consider what we know:

  • Trying to divide a person’s attention is counter-productive.  Eating and working at the same time guarantees a loss of efficiency in both activities and, since time is limited, makes both less effective, too.
  • The majority of people out there don’t like their jobs.  Throwing more information and activity at them in the same amount of time & space is mind numbing.  This either breeds resentment, fatigue resulting in a loss of creativity, or both.
  • A very large percentage of people function poorly when they don’t have a chance to “switch off” and re-charge.  Once they can do that, however, they are remarkably productive and creative.

Lunch & learn sessions fill what seems like non-productive time with something that feels more useful.  What gets missed, however, is the longer-term affects of allowing people to relax, unwind or to even have some time to think about the issues of the day without interruption.  Eliminating this time in favor of the vain belief that if people are doing something that feels like work, they must be doing something productive, is simply ignorant and condescending.

 

A few comments on the language of texting

cell_waves_by_arcticcathuffy-d4sti5g
cell_waves_by_arcticcathuffy-d4sti5g

cell waves by arcticcathuffy

I stumbled into a short conversation recently on the value of text-speak or, perhaps more accurately, I was told how text-speak was utterly lacking in value and rotting the minds of the teenage population.

Texting is, indeed, an odd form of communication.  You do have to marvel in curiosity at the chronic need for immediate information exchanged, not to mention the superficiality and triviality of the messages being sent.  Nonetheless, I retorted, you do have to appreciate the enormous creativity involved in the phrases that kids are developing, as well as the implementation of problem solving skills in order to fit as much information as possible into as few characters as necessary.  Given my affinity for efficiency, I like the trend.

My counterpart in the discussion sneered and reiterated the belief that people ought to be able to write out, in longhand, clear, precise, detailed descriptions and think in such terms.  After all, that is how people used to be taught and all those people turned out just fine.  My side of the argument was quickly dismissed.

So, to determine if there was any merit to either side of the conversation, I went to the Google and looked to see what the state of the matter was.  I found most of the argument boiled down into this article: FOCROFLOL: Is Texting Damaging Our Language Skills?

The article points to some research that reveals what I consider to be the universally true answer to every question ever asked:

It depends.

You see, the development of the texting language follows many of the patterns linguists expect a language to follow as it matures.  Yes, there is tremendous creativity and innovation in the use of the language and in the adoption of the technology that enables it.  Information moves faster.  People think faster.  The status quo changes faster.  None of these are, necessarily, bad things.  In fact, much of it is indicative of the future and enhancing these skills will make young people more capable and successful in the future.

Then, of course, there is the “Yes, and…” part of the discussion.

Not having the skills to concentrate and absorb information for long periods of time is a problem.  Not being able to structure your thoughts and make cohesive arguments while taking into account multiple points of view is a problem.  Not knowing how to delay a response, contemplate potential reactions, and carefully word your arguments in order to elicit a reaction is a problem.  All of these things are enabled by training a mind through reading and writing lengthy pieces.  Not to mention the tendency to multitask, which is a self-deceiving activity since we all know that multitasking is a myth.

The takeaways from this conversation I had?  For one, not all things are bad.  Most issues are multifaceted and, while you should have a preferred point of view upon which rest your convictions, it’s not acceptable to say that your point of view is the only one.

Secondly, no matter what you might think of them, today’s young will set the tone for the future.  By saying their ways are silly or stupid and that those folks shouldn’t be acting in such-and-such manner, you do very little to stop their progress.  All you really accomplish is to block only yourself from understanding them.  

If history has shown us anything, it’s that the young will eventually come into positions of power and authority and will not revert back to previous generations’ patterns of behavior. And certainly not because those older generations liked it better … way back when.

 

What to do when you don’t know the way to go

plot a course for home
plot a course for home

plot a course for home by wildwinyan

My 3-year-old is following in his 7-year-old brother’s footsteps and taking an intense interest in Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer.  After a couple years of not having to listen to the theme song ad nauseum, we’re back into the thick of things.

For those who are not familiar with the show, Dora frequently goes on adventures and isn’t certain which way to go.  In those situation, she calls upon her trusty map, which shows her the way.

If only we were all so well prepared.

In business and in life, we all need a map.  Too often, we move without thinking or jump in without looking.  We buy into the paradigm that says we ought to fail fast, but we don’t bother to ask, “Fail at what?”  Failing for the sake of failing isn’t the path to enlightenment, it’s just stupid.  Even if you’re prepared to accept failure – that failure needs to be leading in the direction of some intended destination, meandering as the path may be.  Otherwise, the exercise never ends and nothing is ever learned.  It’s just activity for the sake of activity.

Activity without planning at any level is just folly and entirely wasteful.  Planning is the result of consulting the map  –  we can see the current location, the destination, and the obstacles in between.  Without a destination in mind, and a plan for getting from here to there, all that results is misalignment of goals, fits and starts, lost momentum and, quite frequently, situations where people are more than happy to clear an entire forest just to deliver a toothpick.  The purpose, after all, was to show activity over and above the value of delivering the end product.

The guiding principles of an organization are what the people working within that organization turn to when they don’t know the way to go.  Those principles align people and, even if there is no certain way to go, will at least tell you which way you should not go.  In effect, they become your map.  They let you know where the terrain is flat and clear, or rocky and overgrown, and allows you to see all the other route options to help you adjust course and still reach your destination.

Any organization, regardless of size or complexity, needs to have guiding principles (see the Shingo Model for more elaboration on the impact of guiding principles).  When all else fails, adhering to these principles will offer assurance that people are still operating within the spirit of your organization.