A new perspective on business management

This is an article from the Big Hairy Hugs series on business management.

Back in 2009, I was at a company event organized by one of our customers, a heating and air-conditioning mechanical contractor. Along comes one of their technicians, a big hairy guy I had not met before. He gives me a big hug. I nervously asked: “Thank you, but what was that for?!” to which he replied “I want to thank you for giving me my evenings and weekends back so I can spend time with my family.” He went on to explain that he had become accustomed to staying up late in the evenings and working on weekends trying to catch up on paperwork. Now he leaves work, knowing that everything is taken care of, and knowing exactly what needs to be done the next day. He has his family time back and this makes him very happy.

As a founding member of a management consulting and information systems company, I view making people happy as the bottom-line measure of success in everything we do. If we can can help all the employees in a company live happier lives, then we know all of the other details will fall into place with ease. Success is a function of how happy the front-line workers are, because these are the people who interact with your customers every day, and nothing is more important than your customers being serviced by happy front-line workers. Happy customers drive growth and profitability. This series of articles is all about how to accomplish this by addressing a small number of fundamental challenges most companies face.

Studies are consistently finding that half of employees are unhappy and are either thinking of quitting or are actively seeking a new employment. This does not only apply to some companies, it applies to almost all companies, likely including the one you work for.

  • Over 50% of Canadian employees want to change jobs. 2018, Neilson
  • 69% of Canadians indicated that engagement is a problem in their organizations. 82% said that it is very important that their organizations address employee engagement. 2011 Psychometrics Canada Ltd.
  • 43% of millennials expect to leave their job within two years and only 28% expect to stay beyond five years. 2018 Delloite Study
  • 50% of workers want to change careers. 2013 Harris Poll

To highlight how bad things can become, the following is an email I received from an employee of a legal firm (with names changed to protect the people who are already excessively tortured):

I am sick as a dog, yet I had to cover for Lisa who was away sick 2 days last week, covering for Nancy who, when she does filing in January, I have to cover her support on the legal side, and today Linda calls in sick, and the partners asked me to also cover for her. I wonder what will happen when I retire? Get more support staff, I guess.

Clearly this amount of stress is not sustainable, and most people are able to recognize this, however finding a solution has eluded them for so long, it is simply considered to be “normal”. What can we do about it?

Company Culture

Of my years studying engineering at Dalhousie University, the one course I remember the most — and possibly the one that had the most impact on me — was an elective course: anthropology. Culture is a powerful force in all aspects of life and I enjoy studying how information technology impacts the long term culture of a company. In particular, I am fascinated by how information technology can act as a catalyst to break down barriers and empower people at all levels of an organization. I mean truly empower where the effect is that people want to come to work each day and actively tell others to join their company. In these companies, there is a continual queue of people applying to work there without ever needing to advertise positions. Few employees ever want to leave. Seeing how cultural changes in a company can help people live much happier, productive, and rewarding lives is what drives me.

In this series, I will tell the story of a tectonic organizational change that is before us and its impact upon three main characters: the manager, the worker, the customer. It is about the changes to come for all of them, and what their world will look like within a few short years.

This series will help each of these people better understand what might be a feeling of frustration, stress, or lack of fulfilment in their careers. It helps people view their situation in a different light, and it is our hope that it will enable them — empower them — to affect positive change where previously they felt they were powerless to do so.

I should note that although we may think of these three people — the manager, the worker, and the customer — as having separate roles, in reality we often find ourselves as being all three in our daily interactions. So having the perspective of all three is helpful no matter what your job title may be.

The way it has always been

Most companies today are operating the same way companies have been operating for hundreds of years; within hierarchical, command and control structures. And for a good reason, which we will get into in our series. However, for now let’s just say that the command and control structure was a solution to a basic problem all companies had. The environment these companies operated in dictated their design — an environment of stability, predictability, and a relatively unchanging world.

Today the world looks very different. We live in a fluid, fast-paced, unpredictable, ever-changing environment. Can we expect a company structure designed hundreds or years ago to serve us today as it always has? That is similar to expecting a horse and buggy to keep up on today’s modern highways. And yet we do exactly this when we try to apply a centuries old way of doing business to our new world. The effect? Companies that have lasted for generations — once considered to be among the pillars of our society — are crumbling against startups younger than our children.

The environment these companies operated in dictated their design — an environment of stability, predictability, and a relatively unchanging world.

The hierarchical, command and control structure has been around for so long. It has become the de facto standard. It has become part of our culture. You do what your boss tells you to do, simply because they are your boss. Nothing else matters — not if you want to keep your job. We often answer questions such as “Why do we do it this way?” with “Because that is the way it has always been done.” And indeed, they have decades, even hundreds of years of clear evidence that the old way has always been the best way — until approximately 10 years ago.

What changed over the past 10 years?

Three main changes reached critical mass in the past 10 years to create a hyper-educated, hyper-connected society:

  1. The growth of the Internet.
  2. Universally available education, which includes schools, colleges and universities, online education, how-to websites, special interest forums and chat groups, TED talks, YouTube videos, social media, and podcasts.
  3. The introduction of smartphones, providing access to education and knowledge by anyone, from anywhere, at anytime.

The effect of these three factors is that it is now commonplace for an entry level worker to have more education — more knowledge — compared to their managers. Within a centuries old hierarchical command and control company structure, this is often the source of considerable friction, frustration, and a feeling of disempowerment by both the worker, and the manager. It is a direct reason why over half of the workforce feel demotivated, and want to quit their jobs in search for a better environment.

It is now commonplace for an entry level worker to have more education — more knowledge — compared to their managers.

Start by listening

To embark upon your journey of change, simply start by listening. Listen for three phrases in your workplace:

  1. “Why can’t I do that?”,
  2. “Why can’t they do that?” and
  3. “We can’t do that!”

When you hear these phrases, ask yourself “Why?”, and for each answer you give yourself, ask “Why?” again and again.

It may be a manager who asks “Why can’t the workers do that themselves? Why can’t they schedule their own day? Why can’t they deal with customers directly?”

Or the worker who asks “Why can’t I do that? Why does the office always have to tell me what to do, where to go, and then review everything I do before it goes to the customer? I’ve been doing this for years!”

Or a customer who asks “Why do I have to wait for your boss to approve this? I’m standing right in front of you, you have all my information, why can’t you OK this right away?”

If the final answer is “Because this is the way it has always been done.”, then there may be no valid foundation to the objections other than the fear of change itself. By asking “Why can’t we?” we start to ask “How can we?”. Do not be surprised if you encounter seemingly insurmountable barriers. Things are the way they are for very strong reasons, irrespective of how valid those reason may be. However, the first step in finding a solution is to understand the problem.

Companies can change. Companies do change. I have seen this happen countless times over the years. And this is where I get back to culture, and what forms a culture. From my experience, it is common challenges that bring people together. It may be food scarcity, the need for shelter, or war. In a company, it may be a loss of market share, or a drop in profitability. I believe that the very thing that is hurting productivity and loyalty is the very same thing we can use to turn it around. If half of the employees in any given company want to quit, then clearly the employees, management, the owners and shareholders all share one common challenge: How to operate a company in this new world, without having half the team wanting to play for the other side. We can use this as fuel for positive change.

The very thing that is hurting productivity and loyalty is the very same thing we can use to turn it around.

Stay tuned!

My hope is to provide our readers with one fundamental principle, applicable to any situation, that will unveil simple hidden solutions — solutions we just could not see before. This is a story of doing more with less. That does not mean “We have less, so let’s figure out a solution with what we have left”. It is to say “You have plenty. The trick is that by using less, we can do far more, and then do even more with the surplus.” And if this leads to more big hairy hugs, then we know we are on the right track.

Next Big Hairy Hugs article #2: A Pattern Emerges Among Companies

Big Hairy Hugs article #3: The Five Modes Of Companies