It’s The People, Stupid
Today I read a somewhat sad story about the recent mess at the BBC, and how a reliance on guidelines ultimately failed the organization. Now, I will take this space to relate it to my past, the Philadelphia Eagles professional football team, web design, and life in general.
I am very guilty of formerly believing that a superior system was more important than superior employees. Back in my former career life, I was convinced that a better system, better workflows, better operations meant we did not need as many higher paid, higher skilled workers. I was convinced that with technology, and top-level oversight, that we could cut costs and raise revenue. And we did, for a while. I fired people who could not, or would not, comply, I lowered the threshold of new hires, I cut hourly pay, I cut benefits. I did not make a lot of friends. I realized that managing by spreadsheet was preferable to working with people. I added new technologies, built massive database systems, went as paperless as we could, and removed the human element as much as possible. Some of the things we accomplished, from a business standpoint, were remarkable. For a while.
Similarly, the Philadelphia Eagles 14 years ago hired a systems guy, a guy with a huge binder that planned for every contingency, a guy that was convinced the level of talent of the player was less important than the ability of the player to follow his system. And he achieved great success; for years, his team was élite, and once was only one bad pass away from being a world champion. He fired people who would not or could not comply with his system, he let talented players leave because he was convinced he could replace them for less money and his system would compensate. For a while, the team was great. For a while.
However, what happened recently to the BBC is similar to what happened to the company I worked for in Seattle, and it is what is happening to the Philadelphia Eagles; in all three cases, the ability to respond quickly to environmental changes is lost. The organizations lost the creative, and more expensive, entry-level employees (and players) capable of handling change correctly, and they lost the leaders, especially the mid-level leaders, willing to objectively asses a situation, to think on their feet, and to make the right call. When the game changes, when the industry changes, when difficult and important decisions need to be made, the tendency is to hide behind the system you built, follow the rules and protocols you spend so much time crafting, and trust that what you have done in the past will continue to work in the future. And it does. For a while.
Eventually, however, the world catches up with you and passes you by, and you find yourself embroiled in a hot mess of finger-pointing and firings and resignations and rebuilding.
Organizations and systems are critical to success, no doubt, but at the end of the day the best companies, and sports teams, pursue and develop top talent, and allow them to make decisions on their own, based on what they see and need.
Nothing can trump hiring the best people you can, paying them as much as you can, and then letting them do what they do best.
The company I worked for in Seattle no longer exists, not directly because of my management style, but because the industry changed and then disappeared. We were a local and long distance phone company, and — really, do you even have a phone line in your home anymore? Right.
With these wires, we can call anyone in the world and only pay by the minute. This will last forever!
We survived as long as we could, perhaps because of the systems I helped develop, but we also died because we never figured out how to do anything else. We evolved and changed, but only to better carry out a specific set of tasks, and when the tasks changed or got more complex, we couldn’t figure out what to do or how do it. We just kept doing the same thing as always, until the thing blew up.
Being the biggest and strongest and fastest T-rex might get you to the top of the food chain, but when you are only really good at doing one thing one way, it doesn’t do you a lot of good when the entire planet around you changes and you can’t adapt.
Today, I work for myself, and the lessons I learned about what kind of person I want to be, and what kind of business I want to run, are seared into my soul. I don’t like the person, or the boss, I was then; but I like who I am now, a lot. In many ways, the world of web design understands, even represents, this notion of embracing change and empowering low and mid level elements to be independent. On the internet, change is a constant. Your website needs to be able to adapt and evolve, and still stay on message. Trendy designs come, and go, and usually come again, and your style needs to account for that while simultaneously delivering your content consistently.
More importantly, good web designers understand the importance of letting things go to develop on their own, by allowing comment sections and including dynamic modules that incorporate fast changing – and uncontrollable – influences from social media. Crowdsourced content is competing with curated content, and blogging gives a voice to employees who once were hidden behind the cubicle walls and policy books. This is all very good; a little scary, perhaps, but good.
I hope the BBC realizes that too many guidelines eventually cause the problems you set out to prevent, and I hope the Philadelphia Eagles realize that good systems can’t take you all the way without the right players. You can’t control the chaos, but you can let it control you if you are not vigilant.
For myself, I know a lot of things now that I wish I knew then, and I embrace a lot of things now, like a gift model economy, that would have terrified me then. I don’t know that I have it all figured out yet, but I know I am not a dinosaur. Not anymore.