I stayed in college a long time. I studied journalism, then physics and engineering, mixed with a smattering of other interesting topics. I had choices about how I used my time. It worked for me until the Ph.d. program ("Engineering Systems;" I never found out what it actually meant) was suddenly cancelled. It was a sign. I got a job in computer engineering.
The working world was still deranged. It was the middle ages, with feudal lords who specialized in acting out unresolved childhood drama. I couldn't stay in that world and assumed -- because everyone else could -- that it was just my own essential character flaw.
Several jobs later -- the longest of which was 2.5 years -- I escaped into the self-employed world, consulting, writing, and speaking about computer programming languages.
Fast-forward to a few years ago when I began to lose interest. Hiding in the relatively structured parallel universe of programming wasn't solving any meaningful problems. Most programming jobs are overwhelmed by Unhappy Business Syndrome, so even programming sucks (when it shouldn't).
It was Boredom with a capital 'B' -- I was bored with way all business worked. I'm not alone -- a recent Conference Board study shows employee dissatisfaction at an all time high -- less than half of Americans are satisfied with their jobs, down from 61% in 2005. Workers under 25 are particularly unhappy. I think the real numbers are much higher.
For many years I helped organize big corporate programming conferences. They became stale, and didn't embrace the possibilities of the internet. A dozen years ago I set out to create a new type of conference, but my own thinking was equally limited -- I envisioned an ordinary, lecture-based conference, but enabled by the internet. It required guidance from someone else to first go at conferences with experimentation in mind, and then to try open-spaces conferences, which are a completely upside-down way to do things. You think it will fail, but it works better than you can ever imagine. You come out of it wondering what else you "know" that's actually wrong. Much of what I've been studying is the wrong things we mindlessly continue doing.
I've had other experiences that have cracked my world view. Going to Burning Man, for example, and listening to TED talks and Radiolab. I'm not a natural traveler, but I've been to almost all the continents for speaking engagements (often several times a year to Europe). And, strange as it might sound, I've been reading (and occasionally trying to write) science fiction since I was a kid, which exercises your ability to consider radically different possibilities. It's difficult to think really differently, but it helps a lot to expose yourself to different perspectives and experiences.
I've come to believe that a similar mindset can be applied to business, completely transforming it from drudgery into inspiration, and in the process making us vastly more efficient and productive. Achieving this will require a complete change in perspective, but what I bring to the table is experience in seeing things differently, and experience discovering that things which might seem very wrong can turn out to be amazing solutions. I am a student in the art of the possible. This might help us discover something groundbreaking that will otherwise be overlooked or discounted.
According to the book The 100 Best Business Books of All Time, out of the roughly 50,000 nonfiction books published every year, 11,000 of those are business books -- in the U.S. alone! I still have a hard time believing this, especially because most of those never get close to mainstream awareness. That so many business books can be published suggests a great thirst, compelled, I think, by the feeling that business has gone far, far off the tracks.
The most interesting of these books say: "we can now see how wrong things have been in business," and hint at possibilities for deep and fundamental changes. This feels like a different world than when I first graduated. Back then, the latest theories were happily arriving from the gurus and business schools every year or so, and embraced in the working world. During my aforementioned longest job tenure, that company implemented and discarded "business units" and then something else, by which point I was not paying attention.
Why does now seem so full of possibility? It probably has something to do with the internet. Clay Shirky thinks so, and says that the advent of electronic communication allows us to flatten management hierarchies, which probably makes us think "what aspects of management do we really need, and what can we dispense with?" Other authors have different ideas, but most of them seem to have been discovered through increased communication. When people can discuss ideas rather than just accepting gospel, it's harder to get fooled.
The Failure of Scientific Management
Harvard and Yale business schools were founded upon the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor, the so-called "father of scientific management," who faked virtually all of his results. This was followed by one charlatan after another, each proclaiming that they had scientifically discovered the answer to the management muddle, each fudging data and results to fit the view of the business world they had made up, and each embraced by the business community. I don't think these people were actively evil -- they were simply trying to get successful and famous (they were driven by extrinsic motivations, which encourages shortcuts and shoddy work). But we have somehow gotten to the point where the Enrons and Goldman Sachs can happen, where the goal becomes to be as tricky as you can while still appearing to follow all the rules.
Coming up with an answer is not the answer. All the answers we've come up with so far have caused severe problems when applied where they didn't fit. Business-school thinking seems to be what has gotten us into this mess, and more of it is not the solution. But because people have been tricked into believing that "management is a science," our response is to say "this was the wrong answer, let's throw it away and go find the right answer." Because management is not a science, we have far more possibilities available to us. We can use science to help, but we don't have to force every aspect of management to be science (and we can throw away such ridiculous maxims as "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it").
A surprising number of the basic premises that business believes in are positively medieval. They not only don't work, they're counterproductive. They lose money. But these beliefs are rooted in emotion -- often the strongest emotion, fear of loss -- and are thus very difficult to change (rational arguments don't work very well in the face of potiental loss).
"This Business is Like a Family"
This is an excellent example of good intentions gone wrong. I don't know if this is still a fad (there are so many fads in business). It may have fallen out of favor when people observed that you don't throw "family" members overboard whenever there's a dip in quarterly profits.
I'm not really sure that "family" is the right goal anyway, unless we want to reproduce the neurotic dysfunctionality of so many families inside our businesses (if so, we've succeeded). I think "community" might be a better goal. "Community" allows the individuals in it a lot more freedom to be themselves, and (ideally) imposes fewer constraints on direction and behavior. The best communities I've seen emphasize autonomy, expression and self-development.
Historically, individuals had to subsume their personalities for the community to survive the winter, for example, or to fight off raiding parties. Even though much of the world has changed since then, we still structure our businesses as tribes and fiefdoms, enabling powerful, autocratic leaders to take control. When those leaders go off the rails, so does the company.
I want to be honest, because dishonesty slows things down, and can do great damage, as we've seen in the business world. I'm not a business guru and don't even want to pretend to be such, because it's a trap. Once you start saying you have all the answers, then you must always have an answer even when you don't -- and that's when you start making things up, the slippery slope.
I haven't run any company other than my own, basically a one-person operation which has put out a few products and consulting services, and allowed me to avoid being an employee. As a consultant, I've seen inside an interesting number of companies, but not with great insights (not at the time, anyway. Sometimes, years later, I'd work something out and finally understand what had been happening). Usually it was something more basic like "Oh, yeah. I remember now why I can't be an employee. It would make me crazy."
I don't have the answers, but I can ask questions and see things with fresh eyes.
I don't have the answers, but I can ask questions and see things with fresh eyes.
Negative vs. Positive
It's easy to focus on the negative state of things; the book Switch points out that humans have a tendency to focus on problems (no doubt useful during the bulk of our prehistoric existence). Sometimes it's impossible to avoid, especially when you feel like prey for corporations created by the thinking of the past. Sometimes it's necessary, for example to talk someone out of going to business school and having all the idealism sucked out of them and replaced with quarterly profits and bonuses.
It is helpful to see what is broken, and I study that. But I want to discover changes that can improve business, and ultimately describe a structure that creates a very positive, sustainable organization -- the evolving "Business Practices" list on the right of this page contains candidates for defining that structure.
I will "go negative," but in the interest of getting to a description of a company that is "sustainably happy" as its primary goal. I believe that a company founded to make its employees happy will create employees that want to make customers happy, and this will produce profits (we've already seen the results of companies that live only for profits: they eventually compromise both employees and customers). This is a big, hairy, audacious goal, but if I am going to upend my life, why settle for anything less?
Some have suggested I go back to school, which is a common approach during career changes. But after reading about business schools, my goal and theirs do not seem to agree. And what did I do in school anyway? Read books. So I'm doing that, but I'm choosing the books, and I'm absorbing them at my own pace, and I'm not paying exorbitant fees to do it. It's a pretty good deal -- I'm surviving, partly on savings. I'm reading, then writing about it. I'm not incurring vast debt to a business school in the process. Indeed, it's a common observation, as David Heineimeier Hansson points out in his presentation to the Stanford Business School, that there's only a couple of weeks in a business program that are essential (and those can be self-taught or learned in workshops).
In addition, the internet is exploding with lectures by luminaries -- why settle for a professor who happens to teach at your school when you can go directly to the source?
You may -- astutely -- point out that business school isn't only about reading books. The all-important "networking" is cited as the real reason to go to business school. But I'm seeking other minds than those that follow traditional paths, and even if I did attend business school in order to network, those "like minds" will probably be scattered throughout different schools, so attending one would be a crap shoot.
There are a number of ways I know of to create conversations. Online, of course -- see the mini-essay at the end of this article about why I use a newsgroup instead of comments -- and I'm open and interested in new and better ways to hold those conversations. But there are some discussions that are optimized by face-to-face contact. The best way I've learned to have in-person conversations is Open Spaces conferences, and I'm planning those -- in fact, while I've grown resistant to holding software conferences anywhere but in Crested Butte, I am open to eventually holding Reinventing Business conferences throughout the world, because I believe so much in the importance of this. Also, I've had some experience in my software days of holding low-budget conferences in the US and Europe (it requires a local person "on the ground" who knows the language, policies and customs).
So that's what I'm doing: learning by reading and communicating, creating discussions, and looking out for the right experiments, big and small. Feel free to join in, at whatever level suits you: first just by reading, then join the discussion group, and we'll see where that takes us: online voice discussions, and live events like conferences. As I've learned again and again by holding open-spaces conferences, the solution is not to try to solve the problem up front, but to invent and evolve as we go along.