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

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.


Beware the surge

Storm Surge by jedidogbert

Storm Surge by jedidogbert

I have witnessed or been a part of multiple process improvement efforts – whether they are small in nature and affect only a few people, or large, transformational endeavors designed to reshape the culture of an organization, if not its entire business model.  Some of them succeed, some of them fail, all of them go through a period of a quick, immediate up-tick in performance that looks and feels like success.  A while later, however, there is a let-down.

Some organizations commit to the new direction, usually only when there is a large investment into something tangible – like a major software implementation, office redesign or relocation, or acquisition or merger.  When the intended change is not tangible, however, and the desire is simply to make things go better or to reduce cost, the immediate surge feels good but then tends to end sliding backwards until old, ingrained habits settle in.

The pattern is well documented and observable, of course.  The dynamic is very similar to the classic marketing problem of “Crossing the Chasm” that takes an idea from the early adopters to the mainstream.  Sure, there are always people who want ot have something new just for the sake of having something new (watch the lines form around the corner at the next iPhone release), however, most people will wait a while before making a decision to try it out, and even longer before committing to the idea entirely.

There are plenty of discussion on how to bridge the gap, too.  Most will focus on the role of leadership in driving the organization and, more importantly, the people within the organization to adopt the new reality, whatever it may be.  This is done with coaching, hand holding, engagement, and so on, each of which is intended to match people’s habits with the expected behavior.

I suspect, however, that the problem when it comes to facilitating adoption isn’t so much one of driving people to the intended outcome, but in allowing people to change the outcome.  Consider the marketing analogy – if a product fails outright, would it have succeeded if the consumers themselves could have changed it into what they desired, rather than what the producer wanted to produce?  This is, in many ways, the essence of the Lean Startup movement – introduce something minimal and iterate as quickly as possible with measurable data as input.

Perhaps, when it comes to change initiatives, a similar approach should be adopted?  Rather than rolling out major process and culture-changing implementations all at once and driving people to the expected behavior, change can be conducted as a sort of crowd-sourced endeavor?  Leadership at the top is usually concerned with industry trends and overall company performance, and (unfortunately) doesn’t necessarily interact day-to-day with the the rank and file.  This places them in a poor position to determine what’s best for  the rank and file (not to mention what’s best for customers), how they’ll react to change and, therefore, how they will react.

Nonetheless, Leadership does have the authority to decide when change is necessary.  Rather than deciding the course, speed and direction unilaterally, however, I have to wonder if the better approach is to initiate the change and then step out of the way.  Let the crowd determine when course corrections are needed in order to align Leadership’s perceived need for change with people’s need to feel empowered and lasting, sustainable changes just might occur.

The value of delayed decisions

decisions by mihaibrrr

decisions by mihaibrrr

Most conversations about improvement revolve around finding ways to speed things up.  Whether by focusing on the elimination of unnecessary activities, doing less more often, reducing clutter, training the mind to avoid multitasking, or any other approach to speeding up decision making the prevailing message is clear:  do things faster.

The desire to do things faster necessitates making decisions faster, of course.  Process improvement schools of thought are, essentially, designed to speed up decision making to one degree or another.  Last year, I came across Frank Partnoy’s Wait, however, which advocated something different – slowing things down.

Partnoy investigates the cognitive science of decision making across multiple situations, from athletes making decisions in milliseconds to investors like Warren Buffet who delay decisions for weeks, months or years.  In his investigations, he discovers a seemingly simply truth:  That the longer you can delay a decision, the better decision you will make.

Partnoy’s take seems to be out of synch with improvement methods that look to speed up our ability to make decisions. Nonetheless, I think there’s more in common than might meet the eye.  What I see in Partnoy’s book  is that decision making needs to be slowed down in order for genuine improvement to occur.  Adopting continuous improvement methods allows  for as much information gathering as possible prior to making the final decision.

The iterations surrounding any approach that looks to fail fast and learn constantly are all doing 1 thing – allowing for as much learning as possible prior to making a decision that can’t be undone.  Partnoy’s work reinforces the wisdom of this approach and makes it clear:  slowing down your thought processes, rather than speeding them up, results in the best possible outcomes.


Stump the Chump, and the Steve Jobs Paradox?


iTime paradox by IlookingYou

Two weeks ago, I delivered the presentation that’s been adorning the home page to a monthly meeting of the New Hampshire chapter of the project management institute.  That presentation was drawn from a series I put on the blog just a little over a year and a half ago, where I made a connection between common, sub-optimal activities that are found in project environments and Lean’s 7 wastes.

I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to stand up and speak about how Lean is not a set of cost reduction techniques nor a quality assurance program, but a philosophy of how organizations work, how people work, and of how people within organizations work.  While several in the audience were expecting a discussion of Agile software development when they heard the topic would be about Lean in Project Management, I think my focus on understanding environments and behaviors resonated with a few of the audience members.  Many asked if they could obtain a copy of the presentation, which I took to be quite the complement, also.

If the Q&A that followed, however, I was asked a question that – as I put it, “Stumped the Chump.”  One gentleman asked, in response to the portions of my presentation that focused on the Respect for People foundation of Lean and, in particular, the Shingo model, how I would characterize Steve Jobs and Apple’s success, given that Jobs was a well-known egomaniac and had a reputation for being quite stern and non-compromising.

While some members of the audience offered their take on what might have happened at Apple as others took up the cause of Respect for People and the “appropriate” management styles, in an effort to help me out as I stated that the question would require some thought, I thought up my response.  I briefly recounted my understanding of the work Steve Jobs did at Pixar, and the interpersonal dynamics he created within the hallways of Pixar (quite literally) that fostered collaboration and creativity – including several dynamics for idea sharing and generation that were drawn from – you guessed it – the Toyota Production System.

While this answer satisfied the gentleman asking the question, it has stuck with me for the past couple of weeks, as I felt the need to contemplate the question a bit further.  What I may have come to realize, is that there is something of a Paradox involved when a true visionary ascends to the position of influence within an organization.  These situations are remarkably rare, I believe, which is why they are so disruptive, revolutionary, and highly successful.  It is dependent as much upon the circumstances as the traits of the individuals involved, but it is clear to me that the person(s) who creates a whole new paradigm for conducting the work of an organization very often must embrace what I will call the “Jobsian Paradox.”

Clearly, the stories of the founders of the Toyota Production System are not that far from what we hear of Jobs doing at Apple.  The outcomes are revered by many, studied and copied by others, and delved into by an army of commentators looking for the secret to the success these visionaries bring about.  What they have in common, however, is something that is, indeed, contrary to the tenets of creativity and innovation in both project and process.  That is, that at the beginning – when people’s mindsets need to be calibrated towards a new understanding and  that understanding needs to translate into action, someone authoritative, demanding, relentless personality must be at the forefront of creating and driving the system under which change will occur.

From those personalities come systems, and from that relentless focus on driving people to the correct behaviors comes guiding them to possibilities, and from satisfactory mediocre comes the expectation of greatness.  It must begin, however, with unique individuals willing to drive others to the point of aggravation in order to be achieved, which is something of a paradox in the realm of thinking that believes people are intrinsically motivated and that all a brutish task master can do is to de-motivate them.

This is, in many ways, akin to the concept of a Level 5 Leader that Jim Collins discusses.  To foster change, unique, rare, visionary people are needed.  In order to turn their vision into reality, however, a certain drive is required that leads the people with that vision to adopt behaviors we tend to believe, at least in the short term, are counterproductive and entirely suboptimal.

To wrap it up, the Jobs-ian paradox is this:  For true visionaries with the ability to persevere, many of the management practices and behaviors that we associate with high levels of creativity  and innovation among the workforce, are ignored or simply not practiced in order to bring the organization, as a whole, to high levels of creativity and and innovation.