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Exposure to Extremes

I love being exposed to different ways of doing things, especially when they are extremes that provide a sharp contrast with standard, commonly-accepted methods. I deliberately search out such examples because I feel they provide great learning opportunities to reflect on the true principles underlying successful endeavors. If someone can be successful while doing the complete opposite of what many would consider necessary for success, then this should prompt a reevaluation of what is truly a necessity.

I recently encountered an excellent example of this when I read the book The Seven-Day Weekend by Richardo Semler. The subtitle "Changing the Way Work Works" highlights the theme of the book: how the author's company Semco has managed to be a success according to traditional financial measures (such as revenue growth and headcount growth) while using management practices completely at odds with standard North American business practices.

How extreme is it? Here, in Richardo's words, is what Semco does not do:

Semco has no official structure. It has no organizational chart. There's no business plan or company strategy, no two-year or five-year plan, no goal or mission statement, no long-term budget. The company often does not have a fixed CEO. There are no vice presidents or chief officers for information technology or operations. There are no standards or practices. There's no human resources department. There are no career plans, no job descriptions or employee contracts. No one approves reports or expense accounts. Supervision or monitoring of workers is rare indeed.

Most important, success is not measured only in profit and growth.

(The Seven Day Weekend, page 8)

So what does Semco do? Richardo summarizes the company's philosophy as follows:

It's our lack of formal structure, our willingness to let workers follow their interests and their instincts when choosing jobs or projects.

It's our insistence that workers seek personal challenges and satisfaction before trying to meet the company goals.

It's our commitment to encouraging employees to ramble through their day or week so that they will meander into new ideas and new business opportunities.

It's our philosophy of embracing democracy and open communication, and inciting questions and dissent in the workplace.

(The Seven Day Weekend, page 9)

So is Semco completely unstructured, free-for-all chaos? Not at all. Richardo lists a number of deliberate structures or processes that help keep the company going in alignment with its core values. As a specific example let's look at Semco's hiring practices, which Richard describes starting on page 147. Who participates in the interviews? Anyone who is interested. But the process is surprisingly structured. A template is drafted listing qualities sought, along with a numerical weighting for each. Any employee can contribute feedback to the creation of this template. Basic, must-have qualifications are left off the template and covered by specific tests. Past experience and schooling are explicitly ignored after initial screening to avoid too much uniformity.

After the template is completed, a few interested employees volunteer to coordinate the interviews, which are collective affairs involving multiple candidates brought into a big room face-to-face with employees interested in interviewing. If no employees show up for the collective interview, then the position is eliminated because it demonstrates that no one at the company cares about it. After speaking with candidates, interviewers ranked them numerically according to the template, including their general impression of whether the candidates was the right person for the job. After a number of rounds of interviews (depending on the size of the applicant pool and employee interest in interviewing), the winner is selected using the numerical scores from the completed templates. Management has a little input into the process, but the final decision is up to the interviewing group collectively, based on their ratings.

Richardo talks a lot about self-management, which is the eleventh principle of the Agile Manifesto and is one of the core tenets of Scrum. Both Scrum and Semco seem like they cannot possibly work according to traditionally-minded managers, yet they do. If a command-and-control management style is not a necessity for success, and fails to fully tap into and uplift each person's spirit, then shouldn't this style be abandoned?

The notion of extremes is based on the idea of significant deviations from the norm. Since cultural, organizational, or personal change is hard, there is a tendency to be mired in current norms and practices and lack vision of alternatives. Studying extremes is one way to lift yourself out of the mire, however briefly, and look at different ways of doing things.

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2 Comments on “Exposure to Extremes”

  1. Mike says:

    I’m going to have to check out this book as I’ve heard of Semco before, but haven’t studied it in depth.

    I do have to take some exception to self-management being equivalent to self-organization. I think there are different levels of how much a team or company “runs itself” vs has some structure imposed. I mostly think of self-organization as the ability of the team to determine HOW the work gets done, not necessarily choosing the work. Self-management (in my mind) refers to what Semco does where there is no hierarchy directing the company’s direction, teams and projects are fluid and there is a lot more freedom and responsibility on the individual employees.

    Anyway, just my two cents :)

  2. Dean says:

    The Semco approach – as with the Agile approach – relies heavily on well motivated good developers. Often organisations lack the process maturity to manage these effectively. If we could pick and chose the best people, we’d have no problem. If they organically weeded themselves out, we’d have no problem.

    However, that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

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