What you learn when you spend 17 years in the same company

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 9.35.57 AMLinkedIn recently reminded me that I’ve been working at the same big firm for 17 years.

“Say happy work anniversary!” they said.

So I liked my own announcement, as did 76 other people. Their comments made me reflect on what I’ve done, what I’ve learned, and why I’m still working in the same place.

“Congrats! WOW has it really been that long?”

Most of the comments were a simple “Congratulations” and many expressed mild shock at how time flies, or how I survived for so long, or both.

My favorite was this one: “17 years and mostly glorious. Well done!”

Mostly glorious. I remember when I joined in 1998 and it felt like we were building a business. In those early years, I spent months in London in a small apartment in South Kensington, working with smart people and intimidating traders to implement new technology. Then we were off to Frankfurt to do it there. It was thrilling. Against most predictions (including my own), our business thrived. We all did.

I also remember laying people off and barely escaping that process myself. I remember fear and stress. I remember a string of bosses and the worst performance review I ever had.

17 years in a large organization means I’ve seen the best and the worst of people, of teams, and of the firm overall. It means I’ve failed many times, and learned about the vicissitudes of business and life. Much of what I see now at work is comprised of movies I have seen before.

“All the best for the next 17”

Working in a big organization, I’m increasingly conscious that my work there is not obviously ennobling. I’m not saving lives or saving the planet.

What keeps me working there are 3 Cs: craft, connections, and compensation. Large organizations provide unique opportunities for developing valuable skills, to do so with people around the world inside and outside the firm, and to get paid regularly while you’re learning and connecting.

The organization is a platform, one that I get value from while I deliver value of a different kind to the firm and the people in it. Late in my career, I’ve learned to spend much more time on my craft and my connections and less time focusing on the yearly bonus that’s largely out of my control.

The biggest surprise

The biggest surprise to me is that the recent years have been my best by far. Not the best-paid or best-titled but the most important and the most helpful to people. We’ve changed the culture, given people a voice, and enabled them to take greater control of their career and life.

Although almost all of the people I worked with when I started are long gone, and the people and management I work with now have no idea of my contributions in the past, it’s fine. There’s a more important legacy I’d like to leave.

As Maya Angelou has said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

One woman who left the firm said congratulated me “for making people’s work lives sunnier.” I liked that. Increasingly, I’m learning to mark my success by the number of people who say “Thank you for making this a better place.” That kind of feedback makes my work fulfilling and inspires me to do and be more.

Maybe working in a big company can be ennobling after all.

The most surprising thing about this list of 25 “exceptional talents building today’s social businesses”

EIU 25 Social Business LeadersThis week, the Economist Intelligence Unit published a list and I was on it. That was one surprise.

I was also surprised at the range of contributions represented. There were people who founded companies, created famous social media campaigns, and even a few trying to change their firms from the inside, like me.

The most surprising thing for me, though, was who was missing.

Some of the most significant changes in social business

The list is made up of people “who are successfully applying social technologies, principles and strategies within organisations around the world.” At least 7 of the 25 people are involved with social media and marketing. But the range of contributions goes well beyond that.

“Social business is about much more than social media. A social business is an organisation whose culture and practices encourage networks of people—employees, partners, customers and others—to create business value, and, ultimately, increase revenue and profits.”

There are people on this list who are genuinely reshaping how we think about business.

  • Juliana Rotich is a co-founder of Ushahidi, “a not-for-profit digital platform that connects and gives a voice to communities facing social, political or medical duress in Kenya and beyond.”
  • Tony Hsieh founded Zappos, the online shoe company sold to Amazon for $1 billion, and created an iconic customer service culture.
  • Lin Bin founded Xiaomi, whose radical approach to openness helped the company become China’s third-largest smartphone maker in only four years.

The social media marketers are changing things too. Take a look at this video from TD Bank, where Wendy Arnott is head of social media and digital marketing: Sometimes you just want to say thank you #TDThanksYou. One of the commenters noted: “This is the first time a bank commercial had made me cry.” I watched it 3 times.

My accomplishments are much more modest than Juliana, Tony, or Lin and I’m not marketing to consumers around the world. But I do aspire to help millions of people find meaning and fulfillment at work, starting with the employees of a big German bank.

Why people I admire aren’t on the list

Changing any organization requires passion, persistence, and luck. When I started exploring social business ideas, I met people who were already changing their companies like I hoped to change mine. They were smart and innovative and years ahead of me. But they’re not on this list and that was my biggest surprise in seeing it. They shaped my thinking in so many ways but simply didn’t have some of the luck I had.

Their company/division/group was re-organized. 

Their sponsor left.

They were forced to change platforms, derailing their entire effort.

The experiments they tried didn’t work.

They got tired.

The truth is, if you’re trying to change how things work, you probably won’t. So many good people I know simply couldn’t continue on the path they started on. But I hope they try again. My friends involved in creating social businesses have the passion and capabilities to bring about great changes in the world, and we need them to persevere.

The next list

When I think of the challenges facing people trying to change complex, emergent systems like corporations, I think of Margaret Wheatley’s So Far From Home. She writes about persevering in the face of those challenges – not for the ultimate outcomes but for the goodness of the work itself, for the people involved, and for the chance, however slim, of ultimately creating a better future.

“We need to continue to persevere in our radical work, experimenting with how we can work and live together to evoke human creativity and caring. Only time will tell if our efforts contribute to a better future. We can’t know this, and we can’t base our work or find our motivation from expecting to change this world.”

There will be other lists in the future and I hope to see more of my friends on them. By then, I may have helped many more people or I may not appear on lists at all. All I know is I will have tried, and will keep trying.

Working Out Loud in Berlin

Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

I’m sitting on a plane heading back to NY, reading notes from 70+ people about working out loud.

I met those people at the Social Business Collaboration Summit in Berlin. There, with attendees from companies as diverse as IKEA, KPMG, and Asian Paints, I got the chance to ask:

“Did they see the benefits of working out loud?”

“Were they having difficulties helping people at their firms change how they work?”

Here’s what they said.

The easy part: benefits

Contributions during the World Cafe

Contributions during the World Cafe

Groups of 15 or so convened for 30 minutes each in a World Cafe format. After a brief description of working out loud – “making your work visible and narrating your work in progress” – each group quickly listed a series of benefits:

  • makes it easier to spot duplication and identify collaboration opportunities
  • improves quality and timeliness by getting feedback in the early stages of work
  • makes it easier to discover and develop knowledge and expertise
  • helps teams, particularly global teams, feel closer
  • helps break silos and connect the dots across teams
  • fosters innovation by allowing more people to use knowledge in different ways
  • gives people control of their reputation and taps into intrinsic motivation

One woman, with a lovely accent and a sense of the poetic, added “it helps your work develop new routes.”

A simple example from IKEA

"Finding competence"

“Finding competence”

A woman in the communications division at IKEA told a story of how working out loud helped her team “find competence in unexpected places.” In her area, people around the world have similar jobs managing their local communications sites. Every month, they’d get on a conference call to share information but it wasn’t very effective. The timezones made the call inconvenient for some. And not everyone was comfortable speaking in English. So the calls were dominated by those most confident and awake.

Then the team decided to augment their calls by using their new social platform. And, all of a sudden, “someone who never said anything on the phone was making all these contributions online.” He shifted from being invisible to “becoming influential and a leader in the group.”

“Great,” I said to the others, “now how many stories do you have like this at your firms?”

An uncomfortable truth

As you might expect, most people at a social business conference are used to working out loud themselves. But the number of people doing so at there firms remains woefully low. Even getting people to simply login to a collaboration platform remains a challenge.

This seemed to be true across industries and cultures. Why? All we had were theories and anecdotes:

“Maybe people are too busy.”

“Maybe they’re uncomfortable talking about their work in public.” 

“Maybe their managers suppress them.” 

“Maybe they’re simply surrounded by people working a certain way and it’s too difficult to work differently.”

“Maybe some people would rather be invisible at work.”

So while more and more companies have social collaboration projects, the pace of change is very, very slow.

Getting started

Evolving the way we work

Evolving the way we work

In answering the question “What can we do?” the groups were both positive and practical. Most agreed that it’s about developing new habits. So that meant using the same techniques that work for changing other habits.

  1. Make it simple. Just changing someone’s home page can make the platform seem much more accessible. And curated suggestions of people, groups, and content relevant to a person’s division and location make the value more apparent.
  2. Start small. Create situations – such as town halls and other events – where people can find material or ask a question and feel the benefits themselves.
  3. Make it safe. Give every team a private online space to make posting seem less risky.
  4. Leverage social influence. Spend more effort on getting influential people, especially senior management, to model the behavior.
  5. Make it relevant. Provide more content and more integration with daily processes so it’s part of the daily work and not yet another thing to do.

Are we there yet?

After a few years of attending conferences like this one in Berlin, we’ve moved from just talking about the possibilities to having firms of all kinds actively working to change things. We’ve enabled a first wave of experimentation and have our first meaningful sets of stories across a wide range of companies. But how long will it take until a critical mass of people in large firms of working differently?

Later in the week, at a meet-up of early adopters in Frankfurt, I said I thought it would take 3-5 years. When I asked people in the room what they thought, the majority said “a generation.”

Time to get back to work.

The doctor at the fast food convention

Really?

Really?

Can you imagine being a doctor at a fast food convention, trying to change the way people eat? Even if the attendees know the food is bad for them, they’ll be surrounded by it and by other people who eagerly eat it, so they’ll eat it too.

To try to help them, you’ll race around frantically, telling them about the benefits of eating right and exercising. Some will nod their heads. “Yes, we really should.” Then they’ll go back to doing what they usually do.

That’s what it can feel like when you talk about making work better in large companies.

Most people know there are better ways of working. They know their daily practices aren’t good for them. They know they’re not engaged. But for most of them it just feels too difficult to change.

So what do you do? Give up on all those unfulfilled people?

The Work Revolution Summit

Yesterday, I was fortunate to be admitted to the Work Revolution Summit where I could  “join leading entrepreneurs, startup investors, futurists, organizational designers, and technology experts to fundamentally re-design the way we work.”

theworkrevolution

One of the organizers was Jessica Lawrence, who is both former CEO of the Girl Scouts and organizer of the NY Tech Meetup for entrepreneurs. One of the objectives of the summit was to help start-ups maintain “a ‘human’ company culture that helps both the employees and the company reach their full potential as the organization grows and scales.” And Jessica gave a fascinating talk about trying to change the culture while she was CEO.

There were several other great speakers, including Seth Godin. And I got to ask him a question about what to do when your are, in essence, a doctor at the fast food convention.

A question for Seth Godin

Seth GodinSeth Godin’s daily blog has done more to change how I approach work than anything else. And each time I hear him speak, I’m inspired to do more. This time, I had the chance the to ask him “What do you do when you’re preaching change and and it seems like only a small minority is interested in actually changing?”

He told me something that I know is right but I’ve had trouble putting into practice. Don’t preach to everybody. Don’t try to reach everybody. Many people are simply trying to hold onto their job and it’s too scary/hard/uncomfortable for them to do something different. Instead, find the people who are ready and eager for change. Connect them to build a tribe who wants to change. And equip and empower that tribe to extend the movement (giving them credit and control when they do).

A shift in tactics

The first NYC Marathon in 1970

The first NYC Marathon in 1970

I was 6 years old when the first NYC Marathon took place in 1970. Only 127 people ran that race. Only 55 finished. And about 100 people watched. No one I knew heard of it. No one I knew ran at all. At the time, running a marathon seemed ridiculous.

41 years later, almost 47,000 people finished and almost 2 million people lined up along the route. It’s become the largest marathon anywhere in the world. And even I completed one.

Running marathons didn’t spread because Fred Lebow, the original organizer, went around telling everyone about the benefits of running. Instead, all 6 sources of influence came into play. Over time, there was more help to get you started and more motivation at the personal, social, and structural levels. More running books, more equipment, more races, more clubs, more visible rewards.  Over the course of a generation, more and more people just did it.

Growth of a tribe

Growth of a tribe

So of course changing how people work isn’t simply about telling people. We’ll have to keep making it easier to work out loud. Keep writing about it and teaching it. Keep connecting advocates and equipping them to extend their own networks.

Just now, I joined the work revolution where I pledged “I will do whatever I can within my sphere of influence to promote workplaces that are profoundly human and deeply meaningful.”

It may take a generation, but we need to keep running.

The Value of Collaboration #5: Using purposeful communities to optimize spend

Finding & fixing holes at work

Finding & fixing holes at work

In some cases, collective efficiency is about specific kinds of cost reductions – printing, mobile bills, service costs. But sometimes it can be about a general technique you can apply to a wide array of costs.

This post describes how purposeful communities can make improvements that could easily be in the 10s of millions.

The problem

As a firm gets larger, there’s usually more distance between the people who pay for things and the people who use those things. That’s certainly true for personal consumption (printing, etc) and previous posts described ways to reduce that kind of spend.

But the problem is even bigger when it relates to consumption at the team level or at the departmental or firm level. The cost of that server or database license, for example, is something that individuals don’t think about or have much control over. They just order it to get their job done. (The government mechanic doesn’t want to spend extra for a hammer, but he has no idea how to procure a cheaper one.)

To control costs, firms typically focus on policies, contracts, governance processes, and vendor management groups. While these approaches can be useful, they typically don’t leverage the knowledge of people actually using the products and services. Now, it’s easier than ever to do that.

The solution

One way to bridge the gap between a firm’s consumers and payers is to organize communities around specific kinds of work. Then, you influence people in the communities to look for ways they can eliminate waste or otherwise get more value for money the firm spends related to the work they do.

Two specific kinds of communities include role-based communities of practice and vendor communities. For example, an IT department would have communities organized around specific roles such as developers, testers, and project managers. As a natural part of doing the work – e.g., posting questions, sharing lessons – community members can expose process deficiencies and work out better ways of optimizing the use of shared resources.

Another way to organize communities would be to connect people who use the products or services of a particular vendor. Far too often, it’s the vendor who knows more about how their products are being used inside the firm and they’re motivated to increase revenue, not reduce costs. So if Oracle, say, is one of your top providers, you’d want to identify and connect your top users of Oracle products and have them actively participate in troubleshooting, shaping standards, and evaluating the need for new products and services.

There’s a wide variety of ways communities can find value. (Nick Milton identified “17 value delivery mechanisms for Communities of Practice”, from solving problems to collaborating on purchasing to exchanging equipment to coaching.) You can think of these communities acting as centers of excellence for every role or vendor. Except these aren’t distinct groups, separated from the work and formed by appointment. Instead, they’re made up of people deeply embedded in the work and formed by those with the most to contribute.

What’s it worth?

The benefits will range wildly from the intangible to the incredible. At Shell, for example, their communities of practice helped avoid drilling “dry wells” and saved the company in excess of $100 million.

Examples I’ve seen firsthand include a case in which started with a post in a testing community about the acquisition of expensive software. The subsequent discussion prompted members to form a working group which came up with a better licensing arrangement and saved several million dollars. In other cases, teams avoided spending hundreds of thousands on new equipment because experts in the community solved performance problems shared online.

Like the Shell example, hard dollar savings in a few communities could add up quickly with even a few wins. Large firms can easily spend more than $50 million with major vendors like Oracle, IBM, and HP. And so connecting the experts in your firm who are most familiar with how those vendor offerings are used can make it possible to find your own “dry wells”.

In addition to the big wins, we also see many, many small improvements with harder-to-quantify benefits. Things like faster access to expertise by new joiners, shorter problem resolution times, and incremental process improvements.

In one case, for example, a community member posted a simple complaint about poor response times from a 3rd party service provider. The post received 2500 views and comments from dozens of teams sharing their own stories of waste and frustration. That made the problem and its consequences so visible that management announced changes to the vendor engagement.

When management announced the change in the community, their post received over 4000 views and dozens of comments like “thank you for making us more productive”. How much did we save by improving the productivity of dozens of teams and turning their frustration into gratitude?

Why doesn’t everyone do it?

Etienne Wenger, who’s the intellectual father of communities of practice, wrote in Harvard Business Review in 2000 about the 3 reasons why they aren’t more prevalent.

“The first is that although communities of practice have been around for a long time—for centuries, in fact—the term has just recently entered the business vernacular. The second is that only several dozen forward-thinking companies have taken the leap of “installing” or nurturing them. The third reason is that it’s not particularly easy to build and sustain communities of practice or to integrate them with the rest of an organization. The organic, spontaneous, and informal nature of communities of practice makes them resistant to supervision and interference.”

That last reason is the one we’ve struggled with the most. Communities aren’t so much about systems as they’re about people. People need recognition, role models, support, and much more to maintain the structure and vitality found in successful communities. And so we’ve found it difficult to build and sustain role-based and vendor communities.

But they’re worth it.