Reinventing Business
Discovering Your Best Organizational Structure

Friday, October 29, 2010

You Only Get One Goal

Much of Drive was spent showing how carrots and sticks are almost universally demotivators. Some of that book, however, looked at the motivating influence of goals. It turns out we respond strongly when the goal is clear (and especially when it coincides with a higher purpose).

We can apparently hold seven +/- two things in our head at one time -- so, for practical purposes, five things. However, that's just keeping them in our head, not using them to, for example, make decisions. If you are trying to make calculations with things that you are holding in your head, the number goes down to, I suspect, one (possibly two, at a stretch).

Now consider the typical mission statement, a long, meandering list of choices cobbled together by a committee that wants to cover all bases and offend no one. Who actually knows the mission statement of the business they work in? Maybe the people at Google (no, it's not "don't be evil"): "To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful." A Zappos employee would probably say "the very best customer experience" although the official position is that Zappos is defined by its ten core values.

The goal of a company, however, is higher and more potent than the mission statement, and often, unfortunately, unspoken. It says "here's what this company is about." If you don't specify your raison d'ĂȘtre, it defaults to "profit."

It's very important to know your goal because it defines your decisions. The goal is the final argument for any discussion. Everyone has heard it: someone is trying to push for a higher purpose and a "pragmatist" will invoke the bottom line and say "after all, we're in business to make money." If no one can argue against that, then you've discovered the business' goal. I would wager that at Zappos, for example, a bunch of people in such a meeting would vociferously declare that the company is in business to provide exceptional customer experience.

Unless the company goal is very clear from the beginning, the "profit" goal will automatically take over, because it's infused into Western culture. Even if you're able to shoehorn a second goal in there, one will ultimately dominate, so I advise:
  1. Only have one goal. It's hard enough as it is to be clear.
  2. Don't make your goal "to make money." Choose something higher; that will be a much better motivator. Yes, yes, we all know that for the company to survive we need to make as much as we spend. But that isn't a reason for existence. Saying that a company's goal is to make money is like saying a human's goal is to eat food (which is not working out so well here in the USA).
  3. Find a goal you can really believe in and be passionate about. It needs to be strong enough to withstand the "profit" argument.
A goal of "profit" justifies all kinds of heinous behavior. Everyone has seen this in action; start taking away the positive aspects of working in a place because those things cost money and the best people start leaving. Your cubicles get more cramped, but the bottom line is served. The quality of the products gets worse and the customers get unhappy, but this quarter looks better. And you can't argue against any of these measures because "we're in business to make money."

I've talked about some alternative goals in this blog; for example, Gore's goal is innovation and Zappos' is customer experience. Both of these have produced, as a side effect, exceptional profits. They've also created environments that are beneficial to employees, but I don't know of any company that has made "an amazing place to work" its explicit goal. Think of the effect that would have on attracting the best people, minimizing employee turnover, creating a vibrant, creative work environment, stimulating innovation, evolving the organization ... and, as a side effect, producing terrific profits.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Maybe Hierarchies Are All About the Power

Now, my latest conundrum: In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky makes a very compelling argument that says that hierarchies in management were necessary for communication. Because, he says, we now have electronic communication, these hierarchies can be much shallower -- we can have more producers and fewer managers.

One of the major case studies in Gary Hamel's The Future of Management is W. L. Gore & Associates, which was founded by the frustrated DuPont engineer W. L. Gore because he saw so much lost innovation at DuPont through archaic management processes. He built his new company around the goal of fostering innovation, and when Hamel wrote about it in 2007 it was doing $2.1 billion in sales with 8,000 employees.

Because his goal was "maximizing innovation" rather than "maximizing profits," the company was organized very differently, in ways that often make MBA/bean-counter types shudder:
  • No "core" business; people can put lots of energy into finding the next big thing, rather than being forced to milk the last big thing. Just because a division makes medical equipment doesn't mean it can't make guitar strings (this actually happened at Gore, which now has a big share of the guitar-string market).
  • No management layers and no organization chart: Gore wanted to get rid of the "facade of authoritarian hierarchy."
  • No bosses, ranks, or titles; plenty of leaders. Leaders are chosen by their groups, "authority" only comes because people want to follow you. Leaders don't tell people what to do; instead they provide mentoring and support.
  • "Lattice" management: "... a dense network of interpersonal connections where information can flow in all directions, unfiltered by an intermediary. In a lattice, you serve your peers, rather than a boss, and you don't have to work 'through channels' to collaborate with your colleagues."
  • The CEO is voted in by the employees based on her being "someone they want to follow."
  • Associates find the teams they want to work with, and who want to work with them.
  • 10% time for "dabbling" (which has produced most of Gore's products). This long-predates Google's 20% time.
  • Ideas are allowed to gestate until they either bear fruit or show themselves to be impractical.
  • If you have an idea, you can recruit people to help work on it and create a team, by convincing them it's worth working on.
  • An associate can say "no" to any request, but commitments are considered serious.
  • Compensation is based on a comprehensive peer review; generally at least 20 peers are involved. No other ranking, degrees, experience, etc., has any impact on compensation; only the peer review.
  • Every associate is a shareholder (the company is privately held), and there is profit-sharing.
  • Plants are kept small so people know each other; grouped together regionally so that cross-pollination can occur. Financially this is far less efficient but the innovation benefits vastly overbalance any short-term costs.
  • Projects regularly review themselves to make sure there are real opportunities, that the company can win in the marketplace, and that the product has enough value to be profitable.
  • Gore has been included in every one of Fortune's "100 best companies to work for."
  • The company has never had an annual loss.
This is as near as anything I've seen to "designing the company around the employees," and people apparently love working there, as much or more as people used to love working at Hewlett-Packard before that company got ruined by MBAs.

Thousands of executives have visited Gore over the years, but there's not much talk about the company, and very little emulation. Notice that lattice management takes all the power away; this is about as flat as it gets. I believe this demonstrates my argument that no one in power wants to change management when it means giving up power ... and those who believe it's worth giving up the power don't believe that anyone else is willing to do it.

Here's the corker: W. L. Gore & Associates was started in 1958, over 50 years ago! This was long before anyone thought we'd have the ubiquitous electronic communication necessary to make Shirky's thesis (electronic communication reduces or eliminates the need for hierarchy) possible. Despite this, they've been amazingly successful.

This experience is remarkably reminiscent of when I decided that the web should allow me to reinvent conferences. I began imagining all sorts of ways to redesign conferences around self-organization, using computing networks to collect all the information (speaker bios and abstracts, in particular) that we had collected by hand; allowing the attendees to vote for the talks they wanted to see rather than using an advisory board to choose them, etc. Basically, I was re-creating the same conference we had been putting on by hand, just using computers to do it. In hindsight, it was just like early "computer-based education," when people automated flash cards on the computer: you had the same experience as before, just on the computer. Then along came open spaces and turned everything upside down, not only eliminating the need for computers but eliminating eyes-forward speeches at the same time -- changing everything about the conference. W. L Gore did this for management while cheap computers and the internet were still science-fiction fantasies.

Is there something about the availability of computers and the internet that enable certain ideas like open spaces to evolve, even if those ideas don't rely on either technology for execution? Now that we have computers and the internet, is it possible that the ideas expressed in the organization of Gore can now propagate? I maintain that these ideas are too revolutionary to introduce to established industrial-hierarchy companies; no one in those organizations is going to voluntarily give up their power after fighting so hard for it. But new organizations have the choice -- and precedent, as evidenced by Gore -- to create flat, lattice-managed companies.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


I posted this on the old blog site because it seemed more computer-y than business-y, but then realized it contained some valuable morsels on how important trust is in a business relationship.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Future of Management

Gary Hamel's book The Future of Management is one of the more exciting management books I've read so far. Except for the frustrating parts.

When Hamel talks about the problems with the "industrial" management we've been suffering under, his analysis is spot on. He demonstrates the depth of those problems with unstinting clarity. At every opportunity, he shows how hidebound and moribund the old organizational system is. The book was a great personal boost for me, because his ideas and conclusions are a near-perfect image of my own. It's vindicating to know I'm not alone with my perspective; it helps keep me moving forward.

In particular, he has a lot of insight into the power hierarchy and the myriad problems it causes. We seem to agree that power hierarchies are at the root of the issue.

I've written before about the difficulty I have when people who have great insight into the problems of management can't seem to take the next step and try to invent something completely new (that's what I'm trying to do, so I keep looking for those who have lead the way). Hamel goes further than Pfeffer and Sutton (the previous link) in that he states that we need a new organizational model; he even suggests a partial list of features for that model.

But he says that his goal is to inspire others to create new systems, so he only waves his hands over the possibilities.

The frustrating parts of the book happen when he tries to suggest reforms for existing companies. Most of these suggestions come in the form of questions to ask within those companies, and suggestions of things to look at.

When I studied physics as an undergraduate, professors would sometimes talk about "waving their hands" over a part of a problem when we were supposed to know the next steps (I usually didn't). The students had another term: "fanning," when the professor would be waving his hands so fast that he was moving air. In the reformation sections, Hamel is clearly fanning. The whole feel of his writing changes at those points; he keeps hoping that it's possible but he has no evidence that it can, and he often peppers these sections with wry observations about the difficulty of change within the existing system. You don't really believe that he believes that change of this magnitude is possible. It's hard to know his motivation for stepping back from the precipice -- even though he's proposing revolutionary change in organizations, he may have realized (as I have) that the power within existing organizations is not going to buy into ideas that take their power away. He is cofounder of a management consulting company, and that is likely the issue: if he comes to the conclusion that all his arguments point to, that last century's organizations are structurally unable to change at such a fundamental level (indeed, they systematically prevent such change), that would pull the foundation out from his consulting firm.

The few examples of companies that have changed are not systematic change, but rather a company being pushed out of shape through pressure from the top. Without continuing pressure, it seems likely those initiatives would eventually fall away and the company would revert to its normal pyramidal shape.

On the other hand, Hamel has three case studies of companies that are revolutionary: Whole Foods, W.L. Gore, and Google. In each case, the revolutionary structure was created from inception and woven organically through the company. It is grown that way from seed, and the system continuously prevents the traditional power structures from taking over.

Of these examples, I find W.L. Gore to be the most mind-boggling, and I will write about it in a separate post. Whole Foods is interesting -- people obviously like working there and they are very engaged with their work. However, something about the idea of teams competing with each other doesn't feel right; I don't know enough about it so I might be misreading it (next time I'm in one I shall ask questions). And I can't help feeling that Google is a transient phenomenon; there's too much about it that feels like old-style management ensconced in an exciting business with huge growth. The growth and technology may be masking the old-style organizational structure for now, but when the growth flattens I think we'll see more behavior-as-usual. I hope I'm wrong about this because I'm a big fan of what Google creates, but it feels like powerful non-MBAs have been able to keep the MBAs in check and so keep the company innovative. But the MBAs are already embedded in the company, and eventually their presence will be felt. I can hope that Google will have a nice long run before this happens, as Hewlett-Packard did, but everything is compressed these days so what was decades for HP may translate to years for Google. In the meantime, the customer wins.

We need to grow beyond trying to build systems that fight MBA-think. As long as you're fighting, you're playing their game, and wasting valuable energy. I'm trying to visualize an organization -- and "visualize" is probably too aggressive a word; I'm really just trying to open my mind so that the ideas can float in -- where these things simply don't exist as issues. I've related before my experience with Open Spaces as a way of organizing conferences, how completely unlikely it seems to those accustomed to traditional conferences (myself included), and how amazingly well it works. That's what I'm looking for: something that turns everything upside down so completely that we simply stop thinking about the old issues and we can focus on what's really important (productivity, not power). At the end of the book, Hamel, while not willing to try inventing the new organization, draws from the Internet to create a partial list of what it might look like (quoting from page 253):
  • Everyone has a voice.
  • The tools of creativity are widely distributed.
  • It's easy and cheap to experiment.
  • Capability counts for more than credentials and titles.
  • Commitment is voluntary.
  • Power is granted from below.
  • Authority is fluid and contingent on value-added.
  • The only hierarchies are "natural" hierarchies.
  • Communities are self-defining. Individuals are richly empowered with information.
  • Just about everything is decentralized.
  • Ideas compete on an equal footing.
  • It's easy for buyers and sellers to find each other.
  • Resources are free to follow opportunities.
  • Decisions are peer-based.
What's fascinating is that most of these points are true for W.L. Gore, founded over 50 years ago before there was an Internet to drive the ideas. For that reason I'll look at Hamel's analysis of W.L. Gore in the next article.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Team Creativity Exercises

Bear with me here; I'm blogstorming (like brainstorming, but writing as I'm thinking so it tends to be a bit more organized).

One of the things I've learned on this journey is that, after basic needs are accounted for, people want to feel useful and to do something meaningful. Specifically, I do. So, while these scholarly pursuits of reading and writing are great, they are only great some of the time. It's not about the money -- I've roughly calculated that, by being frugal, I can continue doing this for a number of years. It's that I won't last that long, mentally. Indeed, I can't spend a whole day being scholarly before I want to do something productive, much less years.

But what to do? I've spent many years as a programming consultant, and know enough about the consulting process that it wouldn't be too much of a transition to become a management consultant. But the ideas that keep forcing themselves to the forefront of my brain are not ones that the decision-makers in positions to hire me will want to hear. And if I were to give them what they find palatable, I would be compromising my inspirations (if I wanted to do that, I could just stay in the computer programming field).

One way -- perhaps the only way -- to prove these ideas is to start a company that uses them and then grow and evolve it. Someday, this step may be inevitable, but it seems early. The pieces might be coming together, but haven't coalesced just yet.

I do love creating events: bringing people together to share and mix up ideas ("genetic" mixing of ideas is one of the primary sources of innovation). I have mused in past months about the changing landscape of events, how it only makes sense for people to travel if they are going to interact with each other (rather than listen to lectures, which they can do better and more cheaply through the internet).

Finally, while I believe that the biggest step in reinventing business is flattening the power hierarchy (the revolution that probably cannot happen within 20th-century-style companies, which have become about the power hierarchy), there is one essential component that I think will survive this transformation: the team. Indeed, the core essence of a company might be that it is a collection of teams; all else could be stripped away and as long as the teams remain, the company continues to exist. The team experience may be what I miss about a job, and it's the reason that commuting is worthwhile (someday, virtual presence might become good enough that more types of teams could work remotely; for now, it seems that computer programmers are the only ones who have achieved significant success on that front -- even then, only a fraction of them).

As I've noted before, the process of learning to work in teams has been virtually destroyed by the educational system's steady movement towards evaluation at the cost of learning. Thus, people are largely inexperienced in teamwork, and many consultants and trainers make a living just showing people how to get along with each other in team situations.

My favorite workshops -- and I've taken a fair number of workshops over the years because I feel that giving workshops is something you can always learn to do better, usually by experiencing other people's workshops -- are ones that trick you into expanding your awareness and abilities using some seemingly-simple, innocuous device. This is important in a workshop situation, because you're typically a bit tense, in a new environment, often with unknown and unpredictable people. So when the exercise turns out to be something comforting, you think "sure, I can do that," it's quite a relief and you relax and open up a little. Then, like a good story, you somehow discover a deeper challenge, one that was masked by the simplicity of the exercise ... but by the time you discover it, you're already hip-deep and holding on to the other members of your team.

I didn't understand algebra until I took calculus, and I didn't get calculus until I studied differential equations. There was some milestone at which I pushed my math boundaries to the limits, and only learned the thing before it. My point being that it seems like you have to push beyond what you need to learn.

I postulate that to learn team work, a good workshop is team creativity (which is a step beyond). By giving a sequence of team creativity exercises, a team will learn to work together -- and will also learn at least some of the creativity process as it pertains to teams. Plus, creativity exercises can be great fun (and that's the first criteria I would use to choose them), which makes the workshop energizing and inspiring.

This might not be what I ultimately end up doing, and it might not fill all of my non-scholar time and need to feel useful. But it's something I can begin working towards now, it creates genuine new value for existing companies, and a satisfying experience for me, one I can imagine doing in multiple forms (e.g. retreats here in Crested Butte, public events in other cities, consulting within companies). Basically, it sounds fun for me and valuable for participants, which seems like a win-win, self-sustaining arrangement.

Thoughts and ideas? Please post them on the newsgroup. In particular, if you know of resources that might lead me to examples of team creativity exercises and/or how to create them. Thanks!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Measure vs. Test

In yesterday's post, I once again criticized the belief that "you can't manage what you can't measure." Perhaps the problem is in the word "measure." This assumes that you have more than rough information about something. It says that you know enough to see degrees of variation of that thing. No wonder people think management is a science, if we have such fine measurement capabilities.

This doesn't mean that we should ignore feedback. We should look at everything, and ask questions, and doubt that our first impulse is necessarily the right one. And there are certainly rough tests we can do that give us indicators -- not hard-and-fast rules, but a wavering compass needle that nonetheless helps.

Here's one test that might help, but use it conservatively because once you do it, you'll have a hard time forgetting the results. Look at the members of your team and ask yourself, knowing what you know now, whether you'd still hire them. If the answer for some is "no," ask why they are still there? Most likely is the "sunk cost" model, where "you've already done all the work of hiring them, so to change now would lose all that investment." So you're willing to settle for mediocre because it costs too much to go for great? That doesn't set very well if you think about it that way, does it?

Pandora's Box

There are times when the computer programming profession looks awfully good. That world is so well-defined and well-bounded; you know what the battles are and it's easy to see the pitfalls and hotspots.

Compare that to management. What a horrific mess. The more I pull back the veil, the more I see the hideous lack of architecture. It's insanity everywhere I look.

And here's what you should be very aware of, if you're still ensconced in a "regular" job: once you see how bad it really is -- this morass that we call "management," as if it is some kind of cohesive package -- you can't unsee it. The illusion of management is permanently broken, and everywhere you look you'll see wrongness (this is freedom, too: you'll know that if something isn't working, you might as well step up and pitch in).

So take it from me, shatter this illusion at your peril. Make sure that you can no longer live within the boundaries of your job. I wasn't able to continue within the mirage, myself, but sometimes I think fondly of when the world seemed simpler. We humans like to don our backwards-looking rose-colored glasses.

There is hope, though. I believe we are on the cusp of a revolution, judging by the number of books and blogs by really insightful thinkers, people who are shrugging off the cults of leadership and maximized quarterly profits and all the rest that's been fed to us by the purveyors of the status quo. For example, I am about to begin reading Gary Hamel's The Future of Management, based on recommendations from writers I trust. If you know of a forward-looking, well-written and insightful book on management, please mention it on the newsgroup.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Not So Great: The Wall Street Journal Essential Guide to Management

When I was writing computer programming books, it seemed like anyone who could put one word after another could get published. Indeed, the ability to understand programming and have the most rudimentary writing ability was rare enough that it was a pretty good publishing opportunity.

Apparently this is nothing compared to business books. Exactly how many thousand new business books are published every year seems to be a matter of dispute, but there are definitely thousands. Which is crazy, if you think about it, but I guess the temptation is too great: you can charge like it's a programming book, and if it hits the jackpot you can sell a lot of these expensive tomes.

There are way too many mediocre-to-bad business books to waste time reading and writing about them. It can be downright depressing to dwell on these books, and on the business model that produces them. But sometimes there are compelling reasons to give a negative review. O'Reilly, for example, has been trying to build a business-book division and they get desperate for reviews. So I wrote one in which I lamented the poor editing of one of their texts, and and also pointed out the flaws in their business strategy. I suspect they'll give up on me, but I have already given up on them; despite their stellar beginnings in publishing computer books (which they've managed to mostly ruin), they have been unable to put out anything but mediocre business books right from the start. Whereas we (long ago) used to get excited about each and every O'Reilly programming book, now, if they publish a business book, my immediate expectation is that it won't be worth reading.

My policy now is to try to find, through reviews and recommendations, the books that promise to be great, and to put them down partway through if they don't pan out, and forget about them. There's not enough time, and there are too many books that are actually great, to waste time on ones that aren't. And there's no need to give any publicity to books that I don't love.

Nonetheless, I feel compelled to review The Wall Street Journal Essential Guide to Management because I got hooked by their promotional article and wrote about that. To prevent you from rushing out and buying the book I want to convey the actual experience of reading it.

The article was a brilliant piece of marketing, which suggested that the book was going to be as revolutionary and forward-thinking as the article. Unfortunately, most of the book was backward-looking and not terribly insightful, unquestioning of most of the "wisdom" of its forbears. Indeed, it isn't until halfway through the book at chapter 8, "Change," when you begin hearing the voice of the article and things get interesting (this makes me wonder whether this was a stalled project that Alan Murray took over and finished).

What you get for this 17$, 200-page small-trade paperback is a picture of what management is now, some observations that things are changing, questions about where they are going, but little insight about what that might be. The book is easy to read; not a bad introduction for management for the newbie. But there's no real visionary thinking here -- indeed, there's virtually no coverage of the groundbreaking literature of the last 10+ years. For example, in chapter 3 (Motivation), he summarizes: "There is mixed evidence as to whether pay incentives improve performance in most circumstances." Clearly, he's never read Drive or the years of research that fed that book. On page 39, he further exposes his ignorance by saying: "... success at maintaining a high-performing culture requires the use of both carrots and sticks."

In Chapter 5, Strategy, he parrots: "The old management adage that you can't manage what you can't measure endures because it is true." And later: "... things that aren't measured tend not to be managed." After a few things like this, it's easy to conclude that he is stuck in the past. (Perhaps it should read, "You can't execute what you can't measure." It's true that, at various points you need to be able to ask and answer the question "how am I doing?" but does this have to be a "measure" in the scientific sense, a number you can put in a spreadsheet? Or can it just be a feeling without a value, a yes-or-no without an explanation -- does it really matter why a team member, for example, isn't one you'd hire now if you had the choice?)

In Chapter 6, Execution, he cites Bossidy and Charan's 2002 book Execution. If you listened to that book on tape, as I did, it was a marvel of botched execution: Bossidy was clear and understandable, but whenever Charan spoke you might as well fast-forward, it was so mumbled and unintelligible. The fact that they couldn't successfully execute their own book-on-tape spoiled the believability of the book for me. Murray quotes them: "Only the leader can set the tone of the dialogue in the organization," without questioning the cult of leadership. He also quotes Peters and Waterman's In Search of Excellence, a book in which many of the profiled companies went off the rails within a few years of publication; indeed, Peters and Waterman wrote a subsequent book trying to understand why In Search of Excellence turned out to be so far off the mark.

In Chapter 7, Teams, he makes a rather puzzling assertion (page 88):
Moreover, teams have become a powerful tool for avoiding the evils of bureaucracy. The best teams are established to take on a particular challenge and given a limited time to solve that challenge, and then they are disbanded.  ... no opportunity for the group to become consumed with their own internal processes and self-perpetuation.
This seems to be pulled from thin air. The "evils of bureaucracy" appear to exist only within the teams themselves, and those evils are solved by evaporating the team before the problems of too much teamness surface. And apparently, a team that works well together should be disbanded as soon as a project is finished. Again, I'm not sure where these ideas came from but I think there's a lot of literature that disagrees -- and many people who have been on great teams that were disbanded for various reasons (often to try to "infect" other teams with greatness by distributing the members) who would also disagree. And later, on page 92, he says: "Building a well-functioning team can be slow, inefficient, and time-consuming." Wait, what? How do you square that with "throw them together for a project, then disband them?"

Weirdly, chapter 9, Financial Literacy, was actually rather useful. It was a very short introduction to the insanities of accounting, how there are worksheets that are hidden within companies and groups and very different ones that are made public, sometimes within and sometimes without the company. Also, how you can choose to evaluate things in different ways and so make the company look completely different (leading to the Enron and Worldcom fiascos). After reading this chapter, the open way that Zappos does its books is remarkably refreshing. Zappos seems to be interested in just being honest, while many other accounting systems appear to be trying to hide things.

The last three chapters, Going Global, Ethics, and Managing Yourself have a distinctly different feel to them -- more critical, interesting, and insightful than the early chapters in the book. This makes me wonder, again, if it wasn't a failed project that Murray took over, contributing some chapters at the end but not spending much time with the early chapters.

Alas, although this book attempts to be forward-looking (and to sell itself as such), it is hopelessly stuck in the past; a hodge-podge of others' (questionable) ideas with no clear vision of his own. In short, more of the same (albeit summarized), which is what got us here and is not going to get us out.

I read this book so you don't have to.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Teams vs. Education

"Have you ever been on a team?" I used to find this interview question annoying to the point of being offensive. To me, it was asking whether you were one of the boys, and liked to hang out, drink beer and watch spectator sports. "How about those [insert name of sports team here]?"

Asking about extracurricular activities was less bothersome. To me, that said: "Are you at least engaged enough to do something other than go to class and take tests?"

Holy cow. With the benefit of years of perspective, I now get why teams are important. My most recent experience with teams is in the theatre; a cast and crew is a team and you quickly see who knows how to work within a team and who doesn't. Someone who "isn't a team player" (a phrase that has been polluted by bad bosses to intimidate and manipulate) often causes more trouble than they're worth. Someone who "gets" the idea of working on a team -- the concept of enlightened self-interest -- can be a joy to work with.

It turns out I really enjoy working within a team. One of the big downsides of this project (which I need to fix, with a part-time job or task) is that I miss working with a team.

Some work can be done in isolation, but a lot of work requires a team. Learning to work in a team is not something you pick up overnight, so why is it an extra, optional thing in schools? You join teams if you want to, but the default is to work in isolation.

The big pitch a school gives is that they're going to educate you. A whisper, aside, is that you're going to be evaluated. A school might start out with education as its primary goal, but the longer it labors under the measure of student evaluation, the more weight it begins to give to that evaluation. Eventually it shifts, unknowingly, until it becomes more about evaluation than education. One way of teaching might produce better learning results, but if it's harder to evaluate, the alternative will be chosen. Eventually people begin thinking that "if you do well on tests, you'll do well in life." After that, it's a small step to "teaching to the test."

The ideal learning experience would involve working in teams and sharing information and ideas. But it's much easier to evaluate students if they are forced to work in isolation. That's how you can tell that education long ago crossed the line from providing true value over to manufacturing convenience. What they manufacture knows how to take tests but not how to work with others in creative endeavors.