Really Re-thinking the Way Business Gets Done.

I now found myself with time on my hands since I have succumbed to the business cancer, i.e. I was laid off last month. I’ve had time to think and I still feel strongly that the current business enviroment in the United States is diseased and badly in need of review and repair. I still don’t have any answers for business in general, but I do have some ideas about my particular field, software development, and some thoughts about improving the work conditions, the quality and restoring sense and values to building software.

My ideas came about because of a talk I went to, given by the owner of Odegard consulting. By the way, it was an interesting talk, and I would certainly recommend his company just for the talks he could give. Anyway, he spoke about a more holistic approach to software development, about involving everyone, from marketing, to development, to support as a complete team to get the product out.

The part of his talk that struck me though was a comment about how companies are still run the way the way they were a 100 years ago.

I have run across this quote before and actually, it’s not quite accurate, companies are run in the same way as organizations based on 1000’s of years of human groups, which is a heirarchial structure, with someone obviously in charge, someone below that and below that, and so on. There have been some refinements, things like the idea of bureaucracy, which was a big innovation by the way, to the idea of Chief Executives and finance and free markets and the like. All kinds of things adding in to the mixture, but basically companies are run pretty much in the same way that human tribes are or gorilla bands. While a CEO may be a bit more refined when he is defending his territory from challengers, I have been struck by the similarity to rituals of display used by older cultures, the posturing, the dance like quality to how things are decided, based not necessarily upon rational decisions but upon feelings, how well someone is liked, is a person in a good mood? Basically, we haven’t evolved a new way to run things, there is still a structure, there are those who are ‘in’, those who are ‘out’ and those who become ‘outcast’, with survival in a corporate world being at stake instead of survival in a natural world.

Now, this system evolved with the small groups that humans originally belonged to and it isn’t necessarily bad. There are positive things, such as leadership that can be respected because of age, or decisions or luck at the hunt or some such thing, a feeling of being a part of a group, a sense of pride when being successful at a competition, and other items that we may be searching for without realizing it. Humans generally want to belong to some type of group and the freedom of our society today is that you can usually have a choice about which group or groups you can belong to, you aren’t limited to the place you were born and the people you grew up with. But with that freedom comes a price, the price of organizations that can grow beyond the optimum size for such tribal management and where suddenly you are on the outside just because of growth and some new challenger coming in and changing how things are done.

The problem is not necessarily with this type of management style, I feel that the problem comes in when the size of the company grows to a point where the head of the company doesn’t know everyone one, at least by sight, if not personally. When the CEO no longer knows everyone who works for him or her, when the CFO can walk down a hall and not recognize anyone, than people have become just ‘resources’, no longer individuals but simply components of the machine that is being maintained. For example, suppose someone had you in a room where you could see a complete stranger on the other side of a glass and someone that you care about very deeply, both sitting in chairs. You have a control and are given a choice to give a very strong electrical shock to one or the other of the people and you are told you have to do this or both will receive the shock. What would you do? I suspect you would give a shock to the stranger and while it might bother you, you would have a feeling of saving your loved one from pain. And you might refuse once or twice, but if you had to stay there and keep seeing your loved one shocked time after time, I suspect you would find it easier to shock the stranger, even if you were trying to hold to a higher ground.

With companies as large as they are, when it comes time to cut people, it’s easy to decide that is the best way, because they aren’t really people any more, they are numbers, you aren’t even sitting across from them as they experience the pain of being laid off. But you do see the company or people you work directly with experiencing pain because the company may not be doing well and the other person is still getting hurt because of cutbacks in other resources such as updated equipment or more people to help out with the tasks. So, you might as well lay off one group so that you don’t have to see the pain experienced by the thing you care about, either the company or people you work with or something else.

So, does this mean that big companies are no good? No, I feel that we, as humans must come up with some way to manage large numbers of people in a humane, life affirming way if we are to succeed as a species and not be just a footnote, if that to some future species that succeeds us. We have done too well, there are too many of us to turn back the clock and have small ‘tribes’ working together. I feel that we need to apply analysis and thought to our situation and not just keep doing things because we’ve always done it that way before. Maybe the problems that are occuring aren’t because of the people or the product or some such, maybe the problems are occuring because of how the company itself is structured and that perhaps the idea of a company should be re-evaluated and re-designed.

Some people are saying, “well, what we have does work, maybe there is some pain, but people are able to make a living and to support themselves”. My response would be is that good enough? Just because something is “good enough”, does that mean we should never try to improve it? If we never make the effort, we will never know.

So, after this long ramble, let me get back to the point I started with, which was improving how software companies develop software. Perhaps keeping companies running in such a structured way, but with cooperation being the goal instead of competition might be the order of business. Because the method of organizing a company and looking for competitors encourages competitiveness against the other company and I feel it also encourages competitiveness within the company as well. Isn’t there always some interdepartmental rivalry occuring, which really shouldn’t be because everyone is part of the same ‘tribe’ so to speak. But, we don’t know the people and when you don’t know the individuals, it becomes easier to reduce them to a lowest common denominator and blame them for all of your problems. So, a key part to the change is encouraging people to know each other across the normal boundary lines.

Now, obviously at a company that’s larger than say a small town, say a few hundred people, it’s going to be really difficult or impossible to know everyone. But you can know some people, especially those that are related to getting your product out the door. It should be encouraged that a team is considered everyone involved with the product, from marketing, to development, to CM, QA, documentation, training, support distribution and sales as part of the team. It doesn’t meant that everyone will like everyone or even get along with everyone, but when you know the faces, when you know the names, it becomes much harder to reduce the people to just stereotypes or ‘resources’, which, by the way, I have really come to dislike the term ‘resources’ when it’s applied to living, breathing, thinking people. To me, it’s just another way to remove the humanity and make it easier to administer that electric shock when you need to.

And maybe, instead of having just a CEO, you have a board of CEO’s for the different products who are working together to make the company stronger. So, while each CEO won’t know all of the people for the whole company, they will know them for their product and it will take a joint decision by all of them to lay people off. But maybe, just maybe, if you have that many people in the room who are trying to find ways to not lay people off, maybe they could find different solutions. And, with all of these different people, maybe they can find different solutions instead of depending on just one person to make the decision. Maybe there can be someone who could be a tie breaker, if such a thing is needed, but perhaps by having something be a group decision, coming from people who know the people who work for them, something better and more humane can be achieved.

So that’s the first step, now, I need to think some more for some more ideas. And probably refine this one a bit, I’m sure after I’ve thought about it a bit, I will have some ideas for improvment as well. Depending on how long I’m out of work will probably decide how often I updated on that, so until next time.