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I used to be a computer lab tutor at a university. Out of boredom we began to categorize students that came in to work on their programming assignments. So we would have some students stroll in, sit down, bring up their program code and stare blankly at the screen. Inevitably they would hustle over to the tutor’s desk and ask for help. Once I looked at their screen and saw some relatively sophisticated code, I’d ask “What is this supposed to do?” The reply came in the form of shrugs, grumbles of uncertainty, and the eventual admission, “I got it off the Internet.” And so the term cut-and-pasters was born.
Seems too many companies are cut-and-pasters as well. Copies of a copy of a copy. The problem with this model is cut-and-pasting does not facilitate understanding. It provides a pleasant, artfully crafted veneer for customers, new hires, and the market at large, but what it doesn’t do is foster a supportive culture — when the veneer is cracked, what do you really see? Animosity? Discontent? Chaos? Mediocre quality? STOP COPYING and START CREATING. I can hear the sarcasm and whining now, “Why reinvent the wheel?” In many cases you’re not. Using someone else’s ideas is fine…invest the effort to find them, understand them, and then make them your own. The magic comes when you knead and mold and customize to fit your particular needs.
Pastel Flowers and Fruit Bowls?
I moved on from that tutoring job to eventually work for a mega-defense-contractor. One of the big ones — $711 million profit in one quarter. Our team was due to move into a new office and I had a preliminary meeting with the Facilities Manager. You know if there’s a Facilities Manager, there’s going to be trouble. I’ll call him Facilities 1024 (names changed to protect the guilty and all). Our office was already supplied to some extent; they even provided some artwork. Oil paintings of pastel flowers and fruit bowls — the kind that are mass-produced and usually found in those discount markets and dentists’ offices. They weren’t inspirational, to say the least. Maybe calming, but it’s not like any of us were there to get our teeth pulled. Knowing our customer (military, big shiny weapons of war, technology-infused command centers and the like), I asked Facilities 1024 if I could select some new artwork. “No,” he said. Okay, so much for that little thing.
I continued the recon of the new office and found a promising common area. Now, my idea was for a lounge/brainstorming area, functionally designed to inspired innovation and creativity. I asked Facilities 1024 if we could get a comfortable sofa and some lounge chairs, the kind you might find in a hotel lobby. This sparked a momentary lapse in Facilities 1024’s mechanical response codes. He chuckled, then replied, “No.”
Now I was eager to get rid of this guy and just about gave up. On the way out, I stood staring at a 4-foot tall green plant that had enough dust on it to make your eyes bleed. If an artificial plant could die, this one was dead, buried, and reincarnated for our office. Can we at least get a green plant? “No.”
If you go to this company’s website (a veneer) and look up values: “Foster an internal environment of innovation, collaboration, and trust.” Innovation? Maybe for the big money projects. Ours was pulling in several million a year, but I guess in the context of the larger company, that’s small potatoes.
So before he left, Facilities 1024 began to explain the company policy on office space. Your job title determines the square footage your are allowed to occupy — it also determines the kind of furnishings you get. On top of his blanket vetos, now Facilities 1024 was telling me how to structure the workforce — where to put who based on job titles. Did some people on my team, including myself, just assume the label of proletariat? Sorry, I politely expressed the fact that such policy was complete and utter bullshit. As you can probably imagine, I didn’t last too long in this environment. A bunch of us moved on, and took our customers with us.
Disinfect the Dirty Underbelly
Smash the veneer. See what’s underneath. Disinfect the bad stuff. One of the best books I’ve read on this subject is The Cluetrain Manifesto — it describes how companies need to change the way they communicate with their markets, and with their employees.
All companies have values, but these are “soft” traits and easy to manufacture (or cut-and-paste). What’s monumentally more difficult is building an environment to support those values. You can’t manufacture a culture — it has to grow organically from within. Next time you are at the coffee pot or water cooler, listen to what is being said. These places are the hotbeds of company culture and provide insight into what’s really going on beneath the veneer.
In an effort to establish the foundation for our own culture, we wrote the Foxtrot Division Manifesto to explain our values and philosophies on things. Here’s an excerpt that defines some of our values:
- YOU ARE A LEADER NOW — …every member of the team is expected to perform as a leader — problem solving, making decisions, understanding at all times the higher goals of your tasks. You will be given the freedom and responsibility to play the smartest game possible, because it is often that the smartest game is played in the trenches, not in the boardroom.
- THINK — There is no one among us who has all the answers. But there are those among us who have the drive to find them. When faced with a problem to which you have no clear answer, take it upon yourself to do the research, exhaust possibilities, and then bring in the team if a solution remains elusive. The mutual respect we all share as a team, in part stems from the appreciation we have in each other’s ability to think and reason and search for effective solutions.
- SPEAK — You may be one voice, but it is a voice that carry’s much weight. Quite possibly more than you know. If you ever have any concerns about the Division, or your role in it, we want to know, we have to know. It’s the only way we can be better and it’s the only way we can ensure the environment that we’ve created is in reality, the environment in which you work.
- BE GREAT — Whatever you do, be great at it. It’s not always about what we “have to” achieve, it’s about what “can” we achieve. Imagine if every operating unit, every individual, pushed further, beyond expectations. With every task, you learn, analyze and you begin to anticipate normal and abnormal obstacles, avoid them, and the normally long road to mission accomplished shortens, you get there faster.
A Tough Sell
We are not pastel flowers and fruit bowls. We are not sedated. We are animated and passionate and believe that a successful company is more than its profit margin.
The sad part about all this is that companies don’t have to change. Mediocrity works. Profits will still be made. Who really gives a shit about artwork, whitewash walls and cube farms anyway? As long as the corporate lobby looks great for the customers. As long as the veneer is strong and the workforce is controlled, what’s the point?
I don’t know. It’s hard to care about these little things, much less convince someone else they’re important when the profits keep rolling in. Kind of like many marriages — at some point there are no more “little things”. It’s just Business As Usual, and it goes on working at some miserably reduced level of mutual benefit. But at some point, some people will simply say, “Enough”, and realize there is something better out there.