Once Upon a Time in a Company Far, Far Away

It started out well enough. Excitement was in the air, high fives were regularly exchanged, bonus checks were often cut, and the consumption of chinese food late at night while you were working on a project was the norm. It was tiring, sure; but it was also invigorating. You and your team were there together, arms metaphorically locked as you journeyed toward what you were sure was going to be what the cool kids (of which I am not one) would describe as an “epic” new phase of your company’s business life.

Maybe you’re a small tech company. Maybe you’re a fledgling credit union. Maybe you’re a non-profit trying to make your corner of the universe a little bit better. Maybe you’re making eco-friendly t-shirts with eco-friendly messages. Whatever the scenario is, you were passionate. You were working extremely hard to make things work, and you knew the only way to do that–the only way you were going to survive in the market–was to make things. Build things. Create things.

And so you did.

It was just a handful of you then, so it was easier to do just that. There weren’t levels and layers of cumbersome beauracracy. You were lean, mean (albeit goofy), and even though your competitors wouldn’t say it out loud, they were a little worried about what you’d come up with next.

And then, sure enough, it happened. You did come up with something amazing. And unlike a lot of cool things that folks come up with, this one caught on and caught fire.  You could barely keep up with the demand. You were proud–and rightly so–of your business, your product, and your team. You had been true to yourselves and your mission. You and your team–you were…you.

But time passed. As you grew in size, you also became more complex, and that’s fine. Maybe even inevitable. But when that happened it became increasingly difficult for you to see outside. Whereas on nights past you might take a moment’s break from a crazy project so that you can gaze out the window at the city lights and gain refreshment and inspiration, you now substitute that quick break for yet another glance at yet another spreadsheet.

Fast forward some more, and as you look around your building, you see groups and divisions. This is fine and good, you tell yourself, but your gut tells you something’s different. Something’s…wrong.

Fast forward even more–those groups and divisions have gradually become more insular in nature. Silos have begun to appear, both creative and managerial. The phrase “strategic plans” now has an ominous “s” on the end, as each division seems to be working toward a goal known only to it and some necessary other parties.

Leadership, concerned about the internal trends they’re seeing, begins gazing down, as if through a microscope, to observe what’s going on inside. It’s very expensive and costly navel-gazing. Instead of scanning the horizon for what’s next, you’re repeatedly scanning the most recent ROI report.

But change keeps happening. Business, like life, refuses to slow down.

As the business speeds up, your need to know how you’re doing increases as well. Your visual visits to night skyline have been almost completely replaced by you pacing the hallways pensively with words and phrases like output, ROI, inventory, and efficiency floating around in your head. Are those bad things to think about? Of course not. And yet you find yourself wondering silently if that’s what this is all about. Was it always like this?

Your company’s culture becomes increasingly scared to death of risk. Over time you’ve accumulated a plethora of processes to quantify and justify everything you do. The numbers tell you things; you can almost literally hear them speaking to you now. (As an aside–if you literally hear the numbers speaking to you, that could be the sign of a serious mental health concern.)

But it’s not only you that is starting to drown in data. All of your employees feel the pressure–not necessarily to perform and create, but to quantify and justify. They begin spending hour upon hour in meetings, where they measure the progress of things, and talk about output, or ROI, or inventory, or efficiency. They become masters of Microsoft Outlook, their fingers able to produce a ridiculous amount of emails from various devices. Generating and reading reports becomes a major time suck, with people spending hours and hours each day either reasearching for reports, compiling data into reports, and reading reports.

What’s the problem with all this? As your business has grown, you’ve allowed yourself and your company to get sucked into spending increasing amounts of time on stuff that fuels short-term, data-related business initiatives, while things that provide long-term value and business sustainability are–intentionally or unintentionally–pushed to the side.

You’ve unwittingly built an organizational culture wherein it becomes almost impossible for people to do what you’re now pleading with them to do. We need to be more innovative! We need to be more creative! We need to have a healthy culture! We want passionate, engaged employees! The problem is that you’re no longer built to operate that way. You can’t ask employees to innovate if you’ve built your organization to increase and idolize stability, predictability, and efficiency.

You can’t ask managers and leaders to engage their employees if they’re spending inordinate amounts of time in meetings and generating reports. And then when they’re not in meetings and generating reports, they’re frantically trying to dig out from under the hundreds, if not thousands, of emails that came in while they were in the aforementioned meetings and generating the aforementioned reports. And before you know it, the end of the day has arrived and they’ve had little to no time to actually invest any significant energy toward creating anything with long-term business value. Culture is an afterthought, employee engagement only occurs as they have time, and creativity only happens occasionally on accident.

We have to put a stop to this nonsense.

8 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time in a Company Far, Far Away

  • I’ve been on both the employee and management side of things (as most people have). I think managers are scared of risk–not employees. How many people have to fill out some kind of “accomplishments list” prior to getting their annual performance review. That is what drives some–I can take a risk, but if it blows up, I get penalized. They need to quantify their existence (job security). So they take the safe road. Nothing risky.

    Employees don’t have the same fear at all. They have ideas. They have opinions. But they have to go through their manager to get their ideas heard. The same ones who fear risk.

    That’s the nonsense that has to end.

    • I’m with you on that I think. It’s critical that we figure out ways to create space for our employees to have–and try out–their ideas. We ought to be encouraging them to take smart risks, and one way we can do that is by taking them ourselves sometimes.

  • Whoa… how timely is this post Matt. As we continue to grow and “destroy the box” at PTP NEW MEDIA, we are wanting to ensure we don’t lose what has taken us this far over the past ten years. To grow we need people. Plain and simple. We are in a people business and it is the people that drive us both internally and externally.

    Hence: PTP = People to People 🙂

    One of the things we needed to do to make growth happen was formalize a bit. Not overkill… but what was working for a team of 6-8 will not be effective for a team of 12, 15 or 25+

    Yes… processes are being put in place. I fought this for a good while. I was scared this would hurt us. Who we are. But I have embraced the fear as we work through this. Is is easy? No. But to get to the next level is never easy. Was it easy to get to the next level the first time you played Mario Brothers? Zelda? Mortal Combat?

    I continue to remind us all that we must remain true to who we are and the innovation that is built from fun. These processes are being designed to help set us free so we can continue to grow and gaze out at the night skyline.

    To grow means to embrace fear. Embrace risk. Embrace each others thoughts and ideas. And that means keeping our culture and values at the center of everything we do and constantly refer to them in a real and honest way.

    I printed this post and passed around the article to spark a healthy debate. To pick a fight. Yes… we fight at PTP. Almost everyday but it’s all good and done with the up most respect.

    After we read and reflected on your words, Jenn was quick to share the following story.

    You start out in a garage with your friend. With an idea to change the world. And that idea begins to take hold. The company grows. More people buy into the product offering. Late nights. Hard days. It’s fun. Things are happening.

    And then you are fired. Axed. Gone. From the company you started.

    You leave and go down a path with two other ventures. Things become fun again. You gain new perspective. You do what you did before and you make animated films.

    Then, you find yourself back at the company you founded. You take the insight you gained from your time away to make what you started even better to continue to change the way the world interacts with the world around us.

    Along the way, some processes and procedures had to be put in place to make the iPod, iPhone and iPad while not losing site of the vision, mission or values that drove Steve Jobs and Apple.

  • A good description of a typical situation where the founder of an organization sticks around in an executive capacity for too long. One of the morales of this story is that managers and entrepreneurs are different incompatible species. Managers maintain status quo and entrepreneurs challenge and defy it. Coming up with an innovation worthy of a start up is a monumental achievement, sure, but it is once the basic process is set up and the vibe of the desired culture is articulised, the time comes for the entrepreneur to reside into a non- or meta-executive role and hire a professional manager to deal with the day-to-day running of the organization so that the aforementioned entrepreneur can devote the energy and the original insight, that spurred the start up in the first place, to come up with something new.

  • Matt, thanks for calling the email myre for the innovation-killer that it is. I just left Hewlett-Packard and as much as I liked the people, there was no way to bond because everyone was too busy in meeting and generating email about how to be innovative. I really didn’t feel like I fit because I didn’t know how to not be creative. Someone presents a problem and I wanted to solve it. But that would be too risky. Appreciate the voice of reason.

    • Thanks for the comment, Lisa. And I like that–“the email myre.” I believe I’ll be using that. Probably in an email. 🙂

      • We don’t have this problem with 16 employees but it can happen with even less. We serve 400-500 employers of all kinds and sizes, and silos are a recurring, vexing problem. One Chamber ED told staff, “Just stay in your silos” and wondered why communication was the pits. But usually silos are caused by unnecessary bureaucracy along with growth, fear and insecure middle management who are expected to implement the more dynamic top’s ideas efficiently. Sometimes the creative leader has too many ideas, but change and the emotional transition needed with truly invested employees takes open communication (valuing input), nurturing and strong advocacy at all levels.

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