Here’s a short video with Matt Mullenweg, founder and CEO of Automattic*. He talks a bit about lessons he’s learned in running a distributed company, and why he calls his workforce distributed rather than remote.
These are his three tips for physical companies interested in transitioning to distributed work:
Document everything – so that key information like the reasons for decisions are clear to those who weren’t in the room.
Move communications online – “when everything’s shared and public, it allows new people to read through and catch up quickly.”
Find the right tools – “If you look around the office, the things that change how you work probably aren’t objects anymore – they’re things you access through your computer. So test out and experiment with different tools for collaboration – see what works.”
Create productive face-to-face time -Automattic holds an annual get together “half-work, half-play” to create the empathy and connection that helps the distributed team work together productively for the rest of the year.
Give people the flexibility to create their own work environment – “Every person in Automattic has a co-working stipend… and a home-office stipend… so that they can have the most productive environment for them.
I feel wary of losing the connection and accountability that in-person work allows, but there’s a long list of potential upsides here – including a wider talent pool, greater diversity of perspectives, more time and flexibility for employees, huge savings on office space and other overheads that can be spent on other things – that make it worth thinking more deeply about this.
Today there are just a few companies that are distributed first, but if you fast-forward a decade or two I predict that 90% of the companies that are going to changing the course of the world are going to function this way. I think that companies will evolve to be distributed first, or they’re going to replace those that are.
Why are our compromises so often invisible to others?
We take a deep breath, struggle to assume the best, let go of a few things and then stretch out with all the patience and generosity and grace that we can muster to offer a compromise and meet them in the middle…
… and nobody sees it.
If only our families, friends, colleagues, suppliers and customers would be more reasonable, they’d compromise too.
My last post got me thinking again about the toolkit for making change and building a good future. What follows started out as the tail of that post but grew too long, so I’ve cut it off and put it here as a springboard to bounce off (or a wave to ride) later.
So here are some tools…
There are a set of practices and principles – many of them falling under the umbrella of normal ‘management’ – that are well-established and effective for running organisations. You will need to tailor them to your context, but understanding and applying them will make an enormous difference to your ability to build and run a sustainable and effective organisation. Drucker and Tom Peters are great places to start for foundational principles. Books like Financial Intelligence and 4DX are great for specifics.
There’s an overlapping set from the world of small business, startups and bootstrapping that will help you build the thing from nothing in the first place, and make it sustainable. The E-myth (which I’ve just discovered is available for a great price on amazon) is great for establishing operations (and overlaps with the previous category), as is Steve Blank‘s Startup Owners Manual (amazon) in combination with Alex Osterwalder‘s Business Model Generation (amazon). I’ll make a post of videos and audio by these people and put a link to it here.
There are resources for thinking about marketing in the deep sense – making something that people want or need and sharing it with them in such a way that they see its value and talk about it to others – is another overlapping area. I’d start with Seth Godin – probably This is Marketing (amazon) or Purple Cow (amazon) – and throw in Bernadette Jiwa’s The Fortune Cookie Principle (amazon) as another good starting point.
And there’s a whole load of writing about personal growth and effectiveness that really helps you to get these things done…
If you can’t replicate something because you don’t understand it, then it really hasn’t been invented; it’s only been done.
When I published The Practice of Management fifty years ago [in 1954], that book made it possible for people to learn how to manage, something that up until then only a few geniuses seemed to be able to do, and nobody could replicate it.
When I came into management, a lot of it had come out of the field of engineering. And a lot had come out of accounting. And some of it came out of psychology. And some more came out of labour relations. Each of those fields was considered separate, and each of them, by itself, was ineffectual.
You can’t do carpentry, you know, if you have only a saw, or only a hammer, or if you have never heard of a pair of pliers. It’s when you put all of those tools into one kit that you invent. That’s what I did in large part inThe Practice of Management – I made a discipline of it.
Peter Drucker – from Frontiers of Management in The Daily Drucker
Understand the tools (make them if you have to). Build a tool kit. Make it reproducible.
I have mixed feelings about this quote from Drucker. On the one hand, bringing together a set of reliable tools for making effective non-profits or social enterprises is exactly what I’m trying to do with DriverlessCroc. On the other, a lot of the things that make these organisations effective in their contexts are very hard to reproduce – often apparently serendipitous combinations of people and resources in the right times and places, with combinations of vision, skills and technology that aren’t reproducible because they haven’t happened before – and might not again.
The point, I think, is to learn which tools are out there and how to use them so that you can be more effective at the creative, unreproducible work that only you can do in your context. Use the tools to make a new tool for change: your organisation.
I’ve posted a few thoughts about what some of these are here – more to come soon.
We think we see good starts all the time, but most of the time we see wrong.
Most of the time what looks like a good start – of a work day, a career, a diet, a business, a life – most of the time what looks like a good start is a long way into the story, the business-end of the iceberg.
That athlete off to the dream start in the 800m? He really started years ago. Quite possibly, someone else started things for him, tied his shoes, helped him train.
That overnight musical success? They started a decade ago in a garage before moving up in the world… to being ignored in tiny clubs.
That kid with the law degree from a top university? They probably got a good start by choosing excellent grandparents and even better parents, by being born in a nation and at a time where their particular skills are valuable.
Most of the stories that fed into ours were entirely beyond our control. We can be grateful for the good bits and we can mitigate the bad, but in one sense, none of it really matters.
What matters is, what is now the start of – the start that no-one else will see?
We eat elephants of different shapes and sizes. But most of the time, doing most of the things that matter, we’re eating elephants:
learning a new skill
growing a friendship
running a household
building an organisation
bringing up children
serving a country
paying off a mortgage
writing a novel
being a neighbour
It’s easy to feel stuck with things like these, because they’re never done. But in all of them, we can go backward (this includes stasis) or move forward (which is a prerequisite for stability).
I’ll post another day about the meaningful goals that help with forward motion. For today – and there’s less than an hour left of it – suffice to say that sometimes the thing to do with elephants is just to show up regularly and take a bite or two.
There’s another kind of just in time. This is the kind when you lie to yourself: “I’ll just squeeze this extra thing in, and I’ll get there just in time.”
Pro tip: things that start with “I’ll just…” cost more than you think.
“I’ll just…” jobs usually end up taking longer, or they leave you dissatisfied because you didn’t do them well, or mean that you have to rush the next thing (like getting out the door), that you forget something, that you arrive late or flustered and on the back foot, that your thoughts and emotions are busy with something else. That you miss possibilities.
Next time you find yourself with ten minutes before you have to go and think “I’ll just write one more email” or “I’ll just check my messages”, count first what it’s actually going to cost in terms of time and emotional energy:
Is this a job that you can finish well and feel good about in two minutes (which probably means five to ten)?
Is it a job that you can leave – and feel happy about leaving – half done?
Is it worth the cost of energy and concentration and the likely rush later to squeeze it in?
Who is it going to cost? It will always cost you, and will usually also cost whoever you’re showing up for next.
Try this instead, for yourself and for them:
“I’ll just… leave ten minutes early, and enjoy the walk.”
There’s a good sort of just in time. We plan something, know what needs to happen and how, know what we need to do it well, when, where and with whom.
This kind of just in time feels great, with the right amount of tension for whatever it is we’re doing. Good training events feel tight like the skin of a drum – focused and snappy and free from clutter. There is time to share the material clearly, time to apply and discuss. There’s time and concentration to spare to tweak the way we present, double-check misunderstandings or discuss special cases. Time to focus and engage properly. The training starts and runs and finished – just in time.
Family events, trips to the market, airport departures, and collecting children from school all have their own ‘just in time’ feeling that comes from getting timings right, including time for traffic and coffee breaks along the way.
The thing about this kind of just in time is, you usually get it by allowing plenty of time – what feels like more than enough time – both to prepare and to deliver. You get it by allowing extra time for journeys and contingencies, and by allowing mental, emotional, social slack to compose yourself so that you arrive ready to participate, to perform or enjoy.
Tobi Lütke (@tobi) is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Shopify. In 2004, Tobi began building software to launch an online snowboard store called Snowdevil. It quickly became obvious that the software was more valuable than the snowboards, so Tobi and his founding team launched the Shopify platform in 2006. He has served as CEO since 2008 at the company’s headquarters in Ottawa, Canada.
Incredibly useful things are often the product of doing something else:
WD-40 was first intended as a water-displacement compound to protect missiles from corrosion
Twitter started life as an internal messaging service at a podcasting company
CMOS censors – the camera on a chip that are used in most digital cameras today – was developed by NASA as they tried to shrink cameras for interplanetary travel (but they didn’t invent velcro)
Amazon Web Services (which probably runs a lot of the websites you use) grew out of Amazon’s own internal systems
There are thousands more – share yours and I’ll add them to the list.
This is personal
We’ve experienced this first hand at the literacy charity I work for. The levelled early-reading books that we developed for use within our own program turned out to be a scarce and valuable resource in Indonesia – so now we part-fund the program by supplying these to others… and our books have improved as a result.
There are several points here.
Serendipity plays a huge role in everything – some of these are intentional, but many are lucky mistakes…
It seems to happen often to people who make a tool that meets their own need. This is partly because we make better dishes when we eat our own cooking. Tools are usually more easily repurposed by others (e.g. the development of clinical ultrasound) than products to be consumed.
Tools to make tools (as in the case of shopify) have even more potential.
Tools usually get better – more refined – when they find a market.
Look at your organisation (or yourself), and see where, in the process of doing what you do, you’ve made something (a tool, including documents and processes) that could be useful to other people.
Ask how you could be generous with it – share it freely or for the price that makes it possible to share it again…
Think about the wrapper – would people welcome training and support to use it well? How could sharing it improve it – would open source or creative commons licencing help?
The next time you make a new tool or process, consider documenting how you did it, and the standards that you’re working towards. This will make your work better, and might result in something else that’s useful to others.