Episode Forty One: When You’re Part Of A Team; The Dabbler

by danhon

An experiment – I’m going to start using Amazon Associates links when I link to, well, things on Amazon. There are a couple of references to books in today’s episode. You don’t pay any more than you usually would, and I get a little bit back from Amazon to spend on things like baby toys or Lego.

1.0 When You’re Part Of A Team

Or: do we really have to do this thing about the silos again?

One of the things I’m really interested in is organisational culture. How is it that groups of people get together and do things that would be so much harder, if not impossible, to accomplish singly? There’s obviously a stupendously wide spectrum that encompasses a bunch of people getting together and just barely managing to scrape some sort of achievement or forward momentum together, all the way up to organisations that many of us hold up as exemplars of, well, teamwork and doing something truly greater than the sum of its parts.

The ones that do stand out to me are ones like Pixar and my current place of work at Wieden+Kennedy. When I was busy prepping for my first interview at the latter I did that thing where you hoover up everything you can to learn about the place (starting premise: where, exactly, is Portland, Oregon?) to try to understand: what kind of people are they?

The mythology around Pixar is fantastic, and there’s a book about Pixar which looks like it’s going to soon become the second-most-fantastic book about Pixar now that Ed Catmull’s book is nearing release[1]. David Price’s Pixar Touch[2] is pretty much the go-to readable textbook that covers the founding of the company, Steve Jobs’ arrival onto the scene and what happened with the Disney deal. By all accounts, Catmull’s book is looking to be a good companion and offer an insight into one of the world’s most consistently astoundingly high-quality creative companies.

I like looking for parallels and connections and drawing inferences, so one of the things that struck me about these successful companies – Wieden+Kennedy is consistently recognised as one of the top creative agencies in the world, and a look at its creative output over the last thirty years invariably yields first admiration for their early achievements (coining Just Do It, for starters), then a kind of grudging respect as you recognise more of their work, then a sort of jealousy as you realise that their output appears to just be a list of some of the most influential advertising in terms of cultural impact over the last twenty years, then the nagging suspicion that you must be missing something because clearly something interesting is going on over there.

For starters, both companies have strong hippy-capitalist leaders with a clear (if not always easily articulated) sense of values and the notion that they’re not in it for the money, they’re in it for the art. Ah, you say, but those people who are in it for the art are invariably not canny businesspeople – and this is where the hippy-hyphen-capitalist part comes in: they’re cultural heads of states with the opinion that they’re not doing it for the money, no, but they do need to *make* money. Making money is the thing that enables them – and by extension, their following – to do what it is they want to do in the world. Money is not even a necessary evil, but more of just a requirement for survival, like air. Accepting this, and not railing against it, and being savvy (although clearly there are degrees of savviness and empathy for those doing the work, illustrated in Price’s book by Jobs’ black-and-white stance toward redistributing equity in the saved Pixar) in terms of a long-term mission, appear to me to be shared values across the two companies.

The thing is, a lot of this behaviour is very easy to mistake for cult-like behaviour from the outside. Apple frequently gets described as a cult – not only are its employees members of the cult, but its customers are described in terms of being followers, too. And you see this cult behaviour in terms of the reverence expressed toward dear leaders (Messrs Wieden and Kennedy, for example, or the brain trust at Pixar, or Steve at Apple) but also in terms of the transmission of the values of those leaders. Wieden prides itself on a number of maxims ranging from a thousands-of-thumbtacks installation done by members of its advertising school of the slogan FAIL HARDER (with requisite misplaced thumbtack) to pretty much every employee being able to understand what’s meant by “the work comes first” even if they do need a bit of re-education as to how, exactly, the work comes first (ie: it is not a get out of jail free card when you disagree with the client about what counts as good work). Then there are the Other Rules, the ones practically handed down from the mount (or, more accurately, discovered in an office scribbled in pen) that state:

1. Don’t act big
2. No sharp stuff
3. Follow directions
4. Shut up when someone is talking to you

and turned out to be a parent’s note to their child but actually not that bad advice when you think about it.

And now, another nascent organisation, another one that I constantly harp on about: the UK’s Government Digital Service. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that from the outside two of the people (but certainly by no means the only people) influential in the success of GDS and its culture are Russell Davies and Ben Terrett, both of whom have been through the Wieden+Kennedy, er, experience.

Russell is an exceedingly smart, unassuming and humble person who has a singularly incredibly ability to be almost devastatingly insightful and plain-speaking at the same time. It feels rare to see both at the same time. But what he’s articulating at the moment in terms of GDS strategy and implementation is the thought that “the unit of delivery is the team” and when you’re building a new organisation from the ground up, and one whose success is tied directly to its ability to embed within and absorb the culture of an existing massive entity, the UK civil service, it feels like watching a (so far successful) experiment in sociology and anthropology being deployed in realtime. A note (and thanks to Matthew Solle for the clarification because it’s an important one): while the GDS works with the civil service, it’s not actually a part of it, instead being a part of the cabinet office and being more tied to the government of the day.

So there are macro-level observations about Pixar that you glean from books and other secondary sources, but it’s not until you visit the place and start to talk to the people who work there that understand starts to feel that it unlocks a little more. I’m lucky enough to know one person at Pixar who’s been gracious enough to host me a few times and while we were talking about the culture of the place and how, exactly, they get done what they get done, one thing that struck me was the role of the individual and the individual’s place in the team.

You see, one of the things it felt like they concentrated on was empowerment and responsibility but also those two things set against context. My friend would talk about how every person on his team would know what their superpower was – the thing they were good at, the thing that they were expert at – and everyone else would know what that superpower was, too. And the culture thus fostered was one where everyone was entitled to have a reckon or an opinion about something and were listened to, but when it came down to it, the decision and authority rested with the expert.

Now, this might not sound like a stunningly insightful revelation. Allowing people to have opinions about the work of the greater team and then restricting decision-making to those best qualified to make it sounds on the surface like a fairly reasonable if not obvious tenet, and maybe even one that because of its obviousness would seem reasonably easy if not trivial to implement. Well, if you think that, then I’m sorry, it sounds like you’ve never been a good manager before: it turns out to be exceedingly difficult.

At this point the narrative begins to sound rather trite: Pixar, and the companies like it that consistently achieve “good” results and are able to marshall the resources of large teams to accomplish something greater, are simply trying harder than all the other ones. And in the end, it may well be as simple as that. It’s easy to have a mission statement. It’s easy to have values. It’s significantly harder to try as hard you can, every single day, for thirty years, to actually live them.

In the same way that one does not simply walk into Mordor, one does not simply say that one has a set of values or culture and it magically happen.

This is perhaps best illustrated in the blindness of the new wave of stereotypical valley startups that rail against bureaucracy and instead insist that their trademarked culture of holocracy inures them to the requirement of bureaucracy. That the way they instinctively do things is sufficient in and of itself. Well: bullshit to that. That simply doesn’t scale, and the companies that think they’re doing that – and I’m looking at you, Github, winner so far of the Best Example Of The Need To Grow Up award of 2014 and we’ve not even finished the first quarter of the year – are living in some sort of hundred-million-dollar VC-fueled fantasy land. Which, I suppose, goes without saying.

I began this part by implying something about teams, and I sort of alluded to it when mentioning the GDS maxim that the unit of delivery is the team.

I think it’s becoming clear that the type of delivery that is expected in this age by its nature requires a multi-disciplinary team that works together. It’s not enough, anymore, to have specialisms siloed away, and one thing that jumped out at me recently was the assertion in conversation on Twitter with a number of GDS members that there isn’t anybody with the role of “user experience” at GDS. Everyone, each and every single member of the team, is responsible and accountable to the user experience of delivery, from operations to design to copy and research.

The sharpest end of this is where digital expertise had traditionally been siloed away in a sort of other. In a sort of check-boxing exercise, organisations would recruit in those with digital experience and either for reasons of expediency or for their own good, would shepherd them into a separate organisational unit. Davies’ point – and one that is rapidly becoming clear – is that this just doesn’t make sense anymore. I would qualify that and say that it doesn’t make sense for certain organisations, but I’m not even sure if I can do that, and instead should just agree that it’s a rule across the board.

Of course, the devil is always in the detail of the implementation. I’ve worked with clients that don’t have explicit cross-functional multi-disciplinary teams but are fluid enough to enable those teams to come about. Facebook’s development of their Look Back product in celebration of their tenth birthday required what on the outside might look like an unprecedented degree of collaboration across operations, marketing, design and engineering at the very least. As ever, perhaps there’s a continuum and at one end there are embedded teams and at the other end there are structures that allow for cross-functional teams to come together and dissolve at a moment’s notice. But my suspicion is that while the latter might work for one-off projects, the long-term benefits only really accrue when cross-functional teams are the default.

This is, of course, a long-winded way of saying that everything can be great when you’re part of a team. I think many of us are able to relate to moments when you get the right people in the room together and you’re able to collectively figure out a problem. But my experience is that those moments are not as frequent as I would like them to be.

This issue of siloing has most recently raised its head through at the UX team at the BBC who, it appears, have finally had the latest straw placed upon their back and struck back in the medium of the age: an open letter published on Tumblr. Railing with incredulity at the notion of UX being “over there” is, in my mind similar to having digital “over there”, despite protestations of collaboration. Long-term, the only solution is to raise all boats and not instead to have a zippy speedboat over in the corner. In my experience – and, I have to admit, my humble opinion – concentrating expertise, especially digital expertise in any organisation striving to remake itself in this age, never mind one attempting to do so under competitive pressure is, uncharitably, a way of doing that implies that the problem of digital has been dealt with: it’s over there. Funnily enough, it’s also the easiest way to ignore what’s over there, too. When it comes to service or product design and the delivery thereof, having such a vital part of the team that would be involved in such delivery not in persistent contact with policymakers or the others involved in the architecture of that service is at this point seeming like willingly punching yourself in the face. But then, perhaps some organisations enjoy punching themselves in their face.

Again, from my individual point of view, it feels like agencies are in a practically inescapable bind. On the one hand traditional agencies are being explicitly asked by clients to move with the times and ‘be digital’ and deliver the kinds of concepts that, for whatever your value of ‘digital’ is, are accordingly digital. That sort of explicit requirement, combined with the implict increasingly breathless proclamations from trade press, media and the digital ninjas who strike silently and with deadly disproportionate influence pretty much end up creating a culture of panic amongst management that Something Must Be Done, resulting in either half-hearted attempts at silo-breaking or the creation of a new, digital, silo. Simultaneously, agencies, being smaller and more focussed on advertising and communications, are able to do this faster than their clients, who are facing their own battles from overly restrictive corporate IT policies (the age of clients enviously eyeing agency employees iPhones while being chained to their corporate Blackberries are hopefully nearly over) that mandate creative delivery against a prehistoric version of Internet Explorer running at an archaic desktop resolution because that’s what clients get issued by central IT – and that’s before a genuinely disruptive digital concept gets delivered toa client which by its nature would necessitate the breaking down of silos on the client’s part. At which point everyone, and one would not entirely blame them, gives up and agrees to instead just do a TV spot because that’s easier all around and a smaller group of people shake their head and wonder whether what they’re actually being paid to do is tilt, albeit creatively, at increasingly stodgy windmills.

Anyway. Order and read those books about Pixar! They’re much more cheerful and optimistic about doing great and good things in the world. That said, they also remind you of the sheer obtuseness of Jobs and his uncanny knack, later in life, of being a stubbornly successful git.

[1] http://amzn.to/1oysnAM
[2] http://amzn.to/1l6hqYc

2.0 The Dabbler

“Side projects are where it’s at,” proclaimed a good friend over breakfast, and I have to admit, I agree with him.

I don’t want, though, for this to be an indictment against my current work – the day job is certainly incredibly interesting, thank you very much (build a brand identity for a social network used by over a billion people that reached unprecedented scale without having explicitly built a brand in the first place? Figure out what advertising and marketing means for a digital-first service that was birthed in the web age and is navigating the transition to a mobile one? Those sound like interesting, meaty, problems, sure). But the day job is advertising, and as I remind myself, I never *intended* to end up in advertising, it just kind of happened, officer.

That said, I’m not a fan of the current trend, especially in the field of developer recruitment, or requiring candidates to demonstrate significant extra-curricular activity. The types of startup or organisation that recruit solely based upon extra-curricular github repos feel to me to be startlingly short-sighted, but then I’m the kind of person who broadly prefers to work with a variety of well-rounded individuals who also have specialisms rather than exclusively with mono-minded savants.

My fear is that this extra-curricular requirement in an increasingly competitive job market leads to the stifling of any other sort of personality or expression of self, but quite when you’re supposed to exercise all these hobbies is also unclear when you’re also on call and tethered to the workplace at all times. The thing about clouds, you see, and the work that takes part and is stored in them, is that they float around, following you home.

But, dabbling in hobbies. That’s what feels like a British pursuit (Americans, I feel, are distinctly more, shall I say, enthusiastic, about their hobbies, whereas the stereotypical Brit is quite content to sit with their weak lemon drink in their anorak and spot trains or collect stamps) but again the application of the network to everything means that hobbies are now attributes that get imbued in the social graph, labels that describe connections between nodes. Knitting isn’t just knitting anymore, it’s a social network powered by Ravelry. Being an enthusiast about the quantified self isn’t just something you can do on your own when meetup.com is emailing you about it all the time (and for the record, meetup.com, requiring me to login to unsubscribe from your emails is the kind of thing that gets you a bad reputation these days).

The thing about hobbies in the networked age is that it’s incredibly easy for them to become performative instead of insular. That’s not to say that insular hobbies are great, but the networked performance of a hobby comes with seductive interactions built not necessarily for the hobbyist’s benefit but for the benefit of the network substrate or medium. As a general reckon, hobbies in their purest form are nothing but intrinsic motivation: whether they’re an idiosyncratic desire to catalogue every single model of rolling stock in the UK or increasingly intricate nail art, before the hobby becomes performative it is for the self’s benefit only, a sort of meditation in repetitive action and a practice.

The hobby as the networked performance, though (and I realise that at this point I may well sound like a reactionary luddite who doesn’t ‘get’ the point of social media) perhaps too easily tips the balance in favour of extrinsic motivation. Whether that extrinsic motivation is in terms of metrics like followers, likes, retweets, subscribers or other measurable interaction with the hobbyist the point remains that it’s there, and it’s never necessarily for a clear benefit for the hobbyist. You could perhaps absolve blame and say that such metrics are intrinsic properties of the enactment of a social graph and that they’re making explicit what would be rendered as implicit feedback cues in any event, but I don’t buy that. They were put there for a reason. Friend counts and subscriber counts were put there because those of us who are product designers and of the more geeky persuasion realised that we could count something (and here, we get to point the finger at the recording pencil of the train spotter), and the step from counting something to making visible that count was a small one and then our evolutionary psychology and comparison of sexual fitness took over and before you knew it people were doing at the very least SXSW panels or if you were really lucky TED talks about gamification and leaderboards and whether you had more Fuelpoints than your friends.

So that’s what happened to the hobby: it moved from the private to the public and at the same time the dominant public medium of the day, the one that all of us had access to, marched inexorably to measurement, quantification and feedback loops of attention.

So again, here’s the nice thing about this newsletter. The newsletter service provider that I use, Tinyletter, does not either by design or accident have a dashboard that surfaces statistics about the open and read rate of every single newsletter that I publish. I do not see sparklines or trends or graphs illustrating my subscriber count over time (although I do log in, more often than I would perhaps admit to, to check on which direction my subscriber numbers are going. I am only human). So unlike my neglected WordPress blog, an automated tumbleweed of aggregated links blowing through it, this newsletter gets back to the satisfaction of intrinsic motivation for me, and minimisation of external recognition and validation.

In other words: yah boo sucks, I get the best of both worlds. A performative media wherein I broadcast, but that still, for the moment, feels like it’s for me, and not for you. And while I could choose to publish on my own site, using my own instance of WordPress or whatever blogging software, there is something about the web right now, and I fully recognise that this may well just be a reflection of my own neuroses, where the success of something is marked by the attention it gathers, and if it doesn’t gather attention, it isn’t worth doing.

Well, with all due respect, fuck that. I want to do this, and I’m doing it. You just get to read it and follow along for the ride.

Phew. I might do some shorter reckons tomorrow. These were long ones. Anyway, as ever – replies, please! Even if they’re of the “first time writer, long time reader” variety, because I don’t deduct marks for using that cliche.