Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution

Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution

Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson

The way most people work – with defined work hours and a defined location – was developed to support an industrialisation of work. In a time when it made sense for a company to centralise their workforce. That time has passed, but the habits of that workplace have persisted; most of us work 9 to 5, in an office, surrounded by colleagues on similar schedules.  We have the technology and the communication tools to work differently but it rarely happens. When I read Scott Berkun’s book “The Year Without Pants” I really struggled to imagine how that freedom of work would apply in a large traditionally bureaucratic company, “Why Work Sucks” starts to answer that question.

The big challenge to traditional thinking about work is the myth of time. In my last job I was on a forty hour contract, but that time quota is irrelevant. What matters is whether I got the job done – it’s time to focus on results.

In the words of Ressler and Thompson “In a results-only work environment people can do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as the work gets done”.

Reading the examples in the book I did find myself mentally resisting the concept of a results-only work environment (ROWE). I kept thinking “but we need people in place for tasks” (I had in mind the publication of quarterly figures), then I realised that the final clause of the statement covers that. If there are tasks where people really do need to all be in one place then that is what will happen – if you have the right team and the right leadership in place the team will organise around the work. In fact this is exactly what had happened in my old team; they knew very well what they needed to do and sorted out their availability together.

And if you don’t have the right team in place? ROWE seems to uncover the non-performers; if you’re managing on results rather than time those with lower results become very visible, very quickly.

Ressler and Thompson are now consultants working with companies to introduce this concept, having made a success of it at Best Buy. But Best Buy famously killed ROWE last year saying they needed “all hands on deck” and employees in the office as much as possible to “collaborate and connect on ways to improve our business”. In the discussion around the decision the CEO expressed a view that ROWE only worked with a delegation style of leadership, I don’t think this is true, but it does point to one of the big challenges of ROWE; management.

If a manager only has to manage on the basis of where everybody is for the forty hours of their contract plus an annual look at progress (which is true in many large companies) then the job is pretty easy. But if you’re working in a ROWE as a manager then you must know the content of the roles in your team, and the abilities of the team to assess progress on a daily or weekly basis. You must be able to set direction and you must be able to hold people accountable much more regularly than under traditional systems.

Under ROWE a lot of HR’s role disappears, if people can work whenever they want (as along as the work gets done) there’s no need for holiday leave or sick leave policies. If the results are being assessed constantly that whole annual performance assessment process can also disappear. In fact a lot of processes are put back in the hands of team managers.

And back to that leadership question; I think ROWE can work well for a variety of leadership styles; democratic, affiliative, coaching or pace-setting leaders should find it easy to adapt. An authoritative leader may find it harder, as they lose some control of how things are done. A coercive leader will probably fail in a ROWE, but since this style is best used in times of crisis it should be a rare style in a functioning company.

I think there are some contexts when a pure ROWE won’t improve overall performance – anything that has a high personal service or very high urgency probably won’t work well. But that’s a relatively small proportion of work done today, so why are so many of us working in sucky environments?

The book is a good read, interspersed with some good examples from people working in a ROWE. As a manager I tried to focus on results and give my team as much freedom as possible to organise their work, but I still found I had a lot to learn about my attitude to time as I read this book. I missed any real discussion on the changing role for managers, although to be fair that may be in the follow up book “Why Managing Sucks”. I also found it a tad too optimistic – there was little examination of when it might not work or what might need to change across the company to make ROWE work. I still closed the book wishing I’d read it much earlier in my managing career.

The Year without Pants

The Year Without Pants; WordPress.com and the future of work

Scott Berkun

Scott Berkun is a consultant who got the rare opportunity to implement his own advice, he told WordPress they needed a team structure, and then worked for a little more than a year  as a team lead. In “The Year Without Pants” he writes about his time there, and examines how we work – and how we might work in the future.

I’m a WordPress fan, I’ve used it since 2007, so I should probably issue a disclaimer with this post. But although I know the tool I knew very little about the company that is said to power a fifth of the web and is behind 48% of Technorati-rated top blogs.

The whole philosophy of WordPress is to build an open source content management system that would be easy to use, intuitive, and give plenty of content options for users. Or as they say “WordPress was born out of a desire for an elegant, well-architectured personal publishing system built on PHP and MySQL and licensed under the GPL.”

The company operated as a loose federation of freelancers working remotely, recruitment is by a “build something” test, work is chosen by individuals who post their builds directly, communication is via online tools – and in a brutal display of transparency it’s all logged and searchable by everyone. The company culture is a meritocracy where co-operation is rewarded. It’s a place where you can make something cool and see it in use the following day.

It sounds great, so what problems needed solving – why was a consultant called in?

  1. limited scalability; as long as everything is going through one leader it’s hard to grow, WordPress was 58 employees when Scott Berkun joined. It was time to distribute some responsibility.
  2. limited attention given to bigger complex problems; as long as everyone chooses their own work problems needing 3 or 4 brains will probably get left behind.
  3. loss of consistency; with programmers creating their own solutions not everything worked the same way, sometimes two tools were developed with similar functions, sometimes the way one thing was built made it hard to re-use later.

The tough challenge that founder Matt Mullenweg entrusted to Berkun was to address these issues without disturbing the great parts of the company’s culture. Berkun’s advice was to introduce a simple and loose team structure – and he got to see this implemented by working there.

The job offer Berkun signs includes a creed for how to work at WordPress and begins “I will never stop learning….” and ends “Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable” it’s a powerful and inspiring statement. He enters the team learning, as all new starts to WordPress do, the ropes of customer service, although his service delivery is a fraction of his colleagues. It’s a great place to start in a company – you hear the challenges  your customers face first hand. He then goes on to form a team made up of people he’s never met, and prove that a team working together, and working intensively can solve bigger problems – and ship.

I work in a big company, one that would be a machine bureaucracy under Mintzberg’s model, so about as far away from WordPress as you can get. Even so I read the book looking for what would work for us, what lessons were transferable.

  1. Meetings
    Berkun is damning of meetings “most people doubt online meetings can work, but they somehow overlook that most in-person meetings don’t work either”. WordPress uses asynchronous online tools for a lot of communication leaving people free to work on other things and uses Skype when that makes sense. The company also sponsors week-long meetups, where teams pick a project and ship by the end of the week.
  2. Team Size
    4 people. This is the level where productivity is maximised. I recognise this, and want to avoid the temptation in future to build “representative project teams”, instead try cutting the work up and get the teams small and productive.
  3. T-shaped Skill Sets
    Look for people with a broad skill set with one area of deep specialisation, if you choose complementary “deep skills” you can build a well rounded team with high flexibility.
  4. Measurement and Gaming the System
    We are guilty of the “what gets measured gets done” mentality, which means long discussions on KPIs, lots of reports and multiple dashboards. Berkun points out that “what’s get rewarded gets done”, and gives the example of rewarding programmers based on lines of code rather than what the code does.

There was also one statement I found affirming about the power of laughter. I’m pretty sure my team laugh at me every day, so I might have cracked this one. Berkun says “Laughter… is one way to build intimacy, something every healthy team needs.” This might be the thing I agree with the most, it’s amazing how much laughing together can help build a team. The shared jokes also help in the tough times.

For me this book is a really interesting insight into the world of WordPress, I’m an even bigger fan – I almost want to work there.