There is a coffee shop in southern Stockholm where I have taken the habit of procuring my morning shot of coffee. There’s nothing special about the place, devoid of charm and located at the busy entrance of a metro station, but the coffee’s pretty good. I always order a double latte with an additional carrot-and-orange juice. One nice touch is that they put cardboard holders around hot paper cups, making them less uncomfortable to hold.
The coffee shop is managed by a middle-aged man, often working in the back room. The best thing about the place is probably not the coffee, but the young, female shop-assistant, who’s very service-minded and efficient.
This morning routine of mine hummed along nicely until one day a couple of weeks ago when, to my concern, I was met by two girls behind the counter. The new girl looked very confused. During the following weeks, the training period I assume, the new and old assistant worked side by side, but after that, the one I was used to was gone.
When Ian told them what he’d done, they couldn’t believe their ears. He had what!? He had erased every document in the company database concerning hiring and retaining staff. Joan’s deep thoughts on “talent management” simply gone. Gone! “Hey, what about the backups?”, Helen asked. Ian just smiled, “Those too”.
The Pledge of the Sheriff
In the movie The Pledge (2001), directed by Sean Penn, a weary police chief, played by Jack Nicholson, investigates the murder of a young child. In the pivotal scene, on the day of his retirement, he promises the mother of the murdered girl to find the killer.
The sheriff gradually goes to extremes to fulfil his promise. He dedicates all his time to the case. He moves to a small town in the mountains, where he suspects the murderer could be found. The pledge he made propels him to forsake everything else. His mental health starts to decay. The guilt and shame of the unfulfilled promise lie heavily on his shoulders.
This movie reveals how incredibly powerful a promise can be, even today. Human beings can become very preoccupied in their quest to fulfil a promise.
Before the Storm
Storm is coming (Roberto Pagani)
Projects have a way of distorting people’s perception. When the seductive promises have been made to the almighty directors to get funding, the deadline is closing in (fast), and the development team is not nearly as productive as you’d expected, then desperate measures certainly are close at hand.
I think we’ve heard all the variations by now:
- The Ostrich: We need this by June, you figure it out!
- The Compromiser: What about quality? Can’t you fix the bugs later?
- The General: How many more troopers do you need?
- The Virgin: Why can’t you just… well, work faster?
- The Blackmailer: If you won’t come through, we will get shut down.
- The Pleader: There’s no turning back. We’ve promised this to the higher-ups.
- The PM/Cruncher: OK, listen up! Everyone is on overtime until we’re back according to plan.
As an employee it’s quite easy to become cynical about the role your company takes in society. Most companies seem to focus on making money within the legal limits – not minding ethics, even less being a positive force in society. One example is the recent TeliaSonera leadership meltdown in Uzbekistan, where management defended from allegations of bribery by claiming to follow local legislation. That’s far from enough today for a major company. In a transparent world, you have to do what’s right, not just what’s legal.
More and more people think it’s important how their suppliers, and by extension their own company, behaves but very few have the power to influence that behaviour. This incongruence creates a feeling of unease, or even resentment. You want to be able to proudly present your company – not excuses.
In my last post I talked about how my company, Adaptiv, strives to optimise the lives of the consultants (there are four of us). But talk is indeed cheap. How do we accomplish that in practice? Of course this differs from company to company, but I’d like to present some of our ideas. We’ve come up with a number of benefits, which we feel move us in the right direction.
Where to next?
We have many of the more typical benefits at Adaptiv, e.g. health insurance and a money pool for physical training expenses. It would be boring to list all of those. Instead I would like to talk about four more unusual benefits that contribute to my quality of life.
Let’s start with an eternal question: What should a company seek to optimise? Its profits? Share price? Or something else?
For many, company profits is the obvious answer. “Without profits a company cannot exist”, they proclaim. This is obvious but misleading. It’s like saying “Without water a human cannot exist”. Its true but that doesn’t mean I should always optimise my water level. As long as its over a certain level, I’m fine.
For others, shareholder return is the focus. Investors and owners are certainly important, but are they most important? Think about it. We have all seen the negative effects of management trying to inflate share prices. How good is truly the quarterly focus for a company? And how motivating are stock price increases to employees?
Some management gurus claim that everything must start with a customer focus today. Customers should pull what they need from organisations. Organisations should be designed and adapt continuously to cater to their needs. This strikes a chord with me, but what if customers don’t really know what they need? Or what if my job is to know a lot and learn what they need?
There are other thoughts on this. Some system and complexity thinkers, claim you should not optimise for one group but strive to satisfy all stakeholders, including even the families of employees and society at large. This sounds great, and I agree, but there are two problems:
- In context, some groups are more important than others and there are dependencies between them.
- Saying you should satisfy everybody doesn’t really provide much focus at all. It doesn’t help us attack our initial question.
From the above, we can deduce that even very smart people disagree on how to answer this question. I guess it’s because there are many true answers and it depends on context. In this post, I’d like to explain how my own company, Adaptiv, has reasoned around this. We have chosen none of the options above.