Category Archives: Ask the CHO

Ask the CHO: How do you run a business without managers

Dilbert bossRobert asked this question in a comment on a previous post:

If I remember correctly Alexander, I read on your site here that one of your companies did not have any managers? Do you elaborate on that anywhere and if not could you?

It seems that a lot of the problems seem to come from low to middle management and as someone who is looking to start my own software company I don’t want this to happen in my organization. A no managers approach seems pretty appealing.

You’re right Robert. In Enterprise Systems, the IT company I co-founded back in 1997, we decided not to have any managers. We wanted plenty of leadership, but we wanted dynamic leadership that could change as the situation warranted.

So rather than have presidents, vice presidents and managers, all employees had an equal say in running the company. This was backed up by the fact that all employees were also co-owners, every new hire being offered a stake in the company after six months on the job. While I and my two co-founders retained a majority of the shares, this gave us no greater power in making day-to-day decisions.

So how did we make decisions? We had two major structures in place:
Areas of responsibility
We sat down and made a list of all the categories of tasks we had in the company. Sales, finance, intranet, our website, personnel, etc. There were around 20 in all. Then instead of appointing managers responsible for each of these, we asked who in the company would like to do it, and let people choose for themselves where they wanted to be involved. Interestingly, everyone signed up for at least a couple of these and every single task got at least one person assigned to it.

The result was that all these tasks were done by people who liked doing it – and who therefore invariably did a great job.

The people who took on such an area of responsibility were responsible for making a lost of all tasks, for making a budget if required and for making sure that everything worked as it should.

Company meetings
Every two weeks we had a company meeting for all employees. This was also important because many of us didn’t work out of the office but at a customer’s site. At these meetings, we made larger decisions or any decisions that didn’t readily fall under one of the established areas of responsibility. When we voted, it was one man, one vote, regardless of seniority or number of shares.

So how did this work in practice? Here’s an example: When it looked like we needed a new and larger office, we raised the issue at a company meeting. Did we need new offices? Yes! What were our preferences for size, price, location, etc.? Discussion ensued.

We then appointed a task force and asked them to go look at offices and return with some options. Who was in the task force? The people who volunteered to be, of course. The group came back with some ideas, and we all voted on which one we preferred. We had ourselves a new office. The task force went on to find us a designer to spruce up the place and some cool furniture. This being a major(!) expense, the budget was approved at another company meeting.

The advantages of this model are:

  • Ownership. Everyone is as involved as they want to be. No one is sulking because a decision was made over their head.
  • Motivation. People are insanely motivated, because they’re a part of running the company – they don’t just work there.
  • Implementing decisions. Because people are involved in making decisions, it becomes much easier to implement them. You don’t have to sell decisions to reluctant employees.

The disadvantages are:

  • Time. Sometimes it takes time to arrive at a decision. This was never a problem for us, but if your business climate requires constant quick leaderhip decisions, this may not be the right model.
  • Petty discussions. If you’re not careful, meetings can devolve into endless, petty talk about mindless minutiae. In this case it’s important to stop and delegate or to trust someone who cares to make a good decision.

The proudest moment for our model came in the company’s darkest hour. We were never a dotcom company, but when that era ended, we were in trouble too. Suddenly about half our customers were no longer buying from us, and we were in deep trouble. Basically we were out of money and it didn’t look like new customers were coming in.

In a traditional company this is where the CEO steps in and makes the tough decisions needed, and I have to tell you, we were sorely tempted to offload this decision onto one person who could then call the shots. Luckily we held onto our process and in a series of company meetings that ranged from playful to painful we talked about how we would handle it.

We narrowed it down to two choices: Taking a 25% pay cut or firing 5 people. Discussions raged. I, for one, held out for the pay cuts. That became a unanimous decision. And a good one too – just 6 months later we had signed new customers, and every single consultant was back in business. If we had fired people back then, we would have missed them sorely.

I realize that this experiment worked for an IT company of just 20 people and that you can’t possibly generalize from that to larger companies in other fields. And yet I believe that this is certainly a viable way to go. That what companies really need is leadership that is dynamic, distributed and entirely voluntary. Leadership that switches from person to person, depending on who has the will and the energy, rather than what it says on somebody’s business card.

Here’s some more reading on the topic:

Ask the CHO: Motivation for production workers?

HappinessAs I wrote about previously, my post on motivation was translated into Chinese by Robin at Even the diagram is in Chinese :o)

Robin then emailed me with the following question:

From my point of view, your thinking about the motivation is exactly what I am seeking in my job. I believe that most of the companies using the false ways for motivation is also true in China. To understand the need of their employee costs much more effort of managers. Managers are human so they tend to use the most simply ways even they only work in short term.

Someone left a comment on the post and mentioned that the positive and intrinsic way for motivation is more suitable for brain intensive work than labor intensive work. What do you think of it?

That is a great question. Is motivation only for creative types and less suitable for blue collar workers? Let me tell you a story.

Solange de Santis is a journalist who’d never held a blue collar job in her life. She wondered what it would be like, so she took a job as a factory worker at a GM van plant. For a year and a half! Now that’s commitment.

She wrote about her experience in the excellent book Life on the Line and the major lesson I take from that book, is that the stereotypical view of factory workers as wage slaves is dead wrong.

Many of the people she met at the plant were dedicated, hard working, highly skilled and creative. But the way they worked offered them no opportunity to use those sides of themselves. They were locked in a tight battle between management and unions that actually had them cheering whenever mistakes caused production to stop, giving them an unexpected break. This is not what they’re naturally like – it’s a reaction instilled in them by an inhuman system.

If the company had listened to these people, it would have discovered that they’re innovative, skilled individuals that have many ideas to offer to make production more efficient. But as things are, they end up using all their considerable creativity to cut corners and cheat the system instead.

American Airlines discovered this a while back:

Two mechanics didn’t like having to toss out $200 drill bits once they got dull. So they rigged up some old machine parts – a vacuum-cleaner belt and a motor from a science project – and built “Thumping Ralph.??? It’s essentially a drill-bit sharpener that allows them to get more use out of each bit. The savings, according to the company: as much as $300,000 a year.

Another organization that gets this right, is the Brazilian company Semco which has a large proportion of blue collar workers. They give their workers an unusually large degree of freedom and responsibility, including letting them plan production, set their own work hours and choose the sites and designs for the factories they work in. As a result they’re very profitable, workers regularly develop and implement ideas for new products or for improving existing processes and annual employee turnover hovers around 1%. You can read more about Semco in the excellent book The Seven-Day Weekend.

So just to make it perfectly clear, my point is that:

  1. Blue collar workers shouldn’t be treated as mere wage slaves – they can be motivated and happy at work.
  2. When they are, the company can expect higher productivity, more innovation, higher quality and better worker relations. In short, the company will make more money!

How does that sound? What is your experience? Do you agree that production workers can be motivated and happy and that this makes a difference to the bottom line?

Ask the CHO: Making change happen

Ask the CHOOn my post about liking vs. loving your job, Gabe asked an interesting question in the comments:

What do you do if you work at a place where, every time you try to “raise your game???, i.e. creating coding standards, improving functionality of commonly used systems, etc, you are told that “We don’t have time for that.??? or “We should put that on the back burner until we have more staff.??? or anything else that ends up sounding like “No???.

What advice do you have for those who want to improve things and are consistently met with opposition?

To me, there are few things that are more demotivating than coming up with what I believe is a good idea, only to see it shot down by the usual, boiler-plate objections.

And it doesn’t have to be this way. London-based innovation agency ?WhatIf! have implemented a practice they call greenhousing. In the book Sticky Wisdom, they write:

Plants are at their most fragile when they are small and just starting to grow. That’s why gardeners use greenhouses. It’s the same with ideas. They are easiest to destroy when they first appear. Unfortunately, most business cultures tend to stifle ideas before they can take root.

Continue reading Ask the CHO: Making change happen

Ask the CHO: What’s with all this happiness crap?

QuestionAllengirl4 asked how you can spruce up an otherwise boring workplace and Mack came back with this question in the comments:

Sorry I just don’t get this!! Work is work play is play. I cannot stand it when people “decorate” their cube etc. this is not kindergarden it is a place of work treat it as such.

Grow up! This constant moaning from people really annoys me. If you are not happy at your Job leave. How about this for a motivation to do your job, your SALARY!!

Look at people in the third world and their plight and get some perspective! Be glad you have a Job!

I believe there is relevance to Mack’s question. Why do we want to be happy at work? Why is it not enough to go to work and get paid for it? Why do we want work to be more engaging, playful and fun?

What’s your take?

Ask the CHO: Spruce up your workplace

QuestionAllengirl4 saw my post on 10 seeeeeriously cool workplaces, and wrote this in a comment:

What a beautiful, and inspiring environment to work in! However, some of us are not so fortunate – so I pose the question, If you live in a fairly regimented pod-based cubicle world, how do you make your own space creative?

I guess you could always hang up some Dilbert cartoons, though that is probably more an expression of desperation than an actual attempt to create a better looking, more inspiring workplace.

So I’ll pass the question on to you, dear reader: What would you do to a perfectly ordinary office or cubicle to make it more creative?

Ask the CHO: Implied overwork

ClockOffice Lady asks this question:

I have a question, can anyone help? On our contracts, we are supposed to work 39 hours a week (excluding lunch hours).

So we all come in at 9 am and leave at 6 pm. But since we are supposed to work 39 hours only, we supposedly can leave at 5 pm one day of the week.

But of course nobody does and everyone works until at least 6 pm five days a week.

According to instructions, “of course??? we can leave at 5 pm one day of the week….we just need to inform our supervisors first.

I of course also work until at least 6pm everyday, but sometimes, there are things that I wanna do that I want to leave early for.

Should I really not ask even though I am entitled to it? :(

I’m fairly sure that this kind of situation is quite common. The rules say “work X hours a day”. Practically everyone works more or way more.
Continue reading Ask the CHO: Implied overwork

Ask the CHO: Fighting the cult of overwork in upper management

Ask the CHOStan has some questions about the cult of overwork:

1) When/where did the cult of overwork start? Or has business/marketing/office work always been a race towards more & more hours?

2) Upper management at our company work 6+ days a week, have sacrificed their family lives for the past 15 years to build the company, and in general are not a fun bunch. Is it worth trying to change the corporate culture one step at a time, or should we just give up?

Thanks for the great questions, Stan. Here’s what I think.
Continue reading Ask the CHO: Fighting the cult of overwork in upper management

Ask the CHO: Dealing with uncertainty at work

A reader sent me this question:

The company I work at “went global”. That means horrible things like many people fired and so. Thus, people are afraid to lose their job, even when I directly asked a manager I trust and he said that “no one from your department will lost his job”. People don’t trust management. Some are cynical, some are afraid, but I think, at different levels, all are unhappy with the situation. I like these people very much, and I would like to do something to confort them, but so far, listening was the only thing I was able to do.

Additionally, the people from another site are also unhappy, because even when most of them are very capable professionals, they are being threated like… uhm.. incapable kids (not to mention the fact that they know that they were hired because they are “cheaper”).

Any suggestions to improve the situation?

First of all thanks for a great question which describes a situation that is found in many workplaces today: A workplace goes through large-scale changes and people wonder “what will it mean for me?” Management may or may not try to create some certainty, but may fail because of a lack of trust.
Continue reading Ask the CHO: Dealing with uncertainty at work

Ask the CHO: Enjoying work itself

I’m taking questions about happiness at work, and Chris asked me a good one:

Why do you never talk about the happiness you can derive from work itself, but always about the ancillary parts, i.e. the relations you have with your colleagues? Surely the job itself should be the greatest contributor to your happiness at work. I am thinking of Csikszentmihalyi’s work on Flow.

That’s a great observation Chris – thank you for calling me on it. I’d kinda noticed this myself, but I never really though about it untill I read your question.

I think I do need to focus more on the enjoyment people get from the work itself, because for many people it is a huge part of happiness at work. Off the top of my head, there are three kinds of enjoyment you get from work itself:

  1. The tasks themselves can be fun. Like talking to customers, when you like your customers or painting houses if that’s your thing.
  2. Getting results feels good. Achieving your milestones, making the numbers, reaching your goals is a huge source of satisfaction
  3. Getting better makes you proud. Learning, improving, being able to do more today than yesterday is great.

Is there more to the happiness derived from the work itself? What do you think?

I’m not sure the job itself always needs to be the main source of happiness at work. Many people have jobs where the tasks themselves bring them little enjoyment (say, flipping burgers at McDonald’s) but are still perfectly happy at work. In this case people need to focus more on the ancillary parts, as you call them.

As for flow, most jobs bring with them opportunities for flow – even highly repetitive jobs. This does not necessarily mean that people are happy at work… I’m a little skeptical of the link between flow and happiness at work, and while flow is fun and pleasurable, I’m not convinced that it’s an indication of happiness, nor vice versa.