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The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work Hardcover – September 10, 2013
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Q&A with Scott Berkun, author of The Year Without Pants
You talk about having the right amount of "friction" – and that "few managers get it right." Yet one person’s friction is another person’s fight. How can a manager engineer "healthy" friction?
The book details how I managed one team in search of the right balance. Most management books are all theory – it's rare to read a real manager, of a real team, actually trying to make it all work. More so than any theory, reading well written accounts of how real managers manage does more than piles of theory books in helping managers see what's possible and how it's supposed to work.
Think of the best teacher you ever had. Now think of the worst. Both gave homework, both gave grades, yet the feeling you had about those same activities things was different with each of them. That's the way a good manager needs to think. Trust is huge: you trust a good manager to have good reasons for pushing you, just as you would for a great teacher. And much like teachers, there is no quick tip that separates good managers from bad: it takes time, experience and patience to learn.
You say in this book "the bottleneck is never code or creativity; its clarity" Is this the biggest issue in the way for companies trying to move forward?
Any moderate sized corporation is a wasteland of indecisiveness: it's all committees, review meetings and endless email chains. We all know too many people have veto powers. If you simply clarified who was the equivalent of a film director for a product, or a division, who was empowered to break ties, everyone would be freed to do better work: they'd spend more time actually working and less time fighting over turf. The Year Without Pants explores this in many ways, as the autonomy of the culture created bottlenecks of a kind all on their own.
What was the hardest aspect of working at Wordpress.com for you personally?
I'm exposed in many ways in The Year Without Pants. That's one of the meanings of the title. This book is honest and real: writing about coworkers and your boss is dangerous. It was by far the hardest book I've written. As an expert, my career is at stake in how well readers think I did at practicing what I've preached for a decade. And my coworkers who were there can challenge anything I wrote or said. I don't know of any book that's as revealing in so many ways about how work in the real world is actually done.
Results vs. Process seems to be a theme…and yet process helps to keep politics at bay …and power distributed …are they really either/or?
Only good processes keep politics at bay. Mediocre processes amplify politics by creating more turf and more restrictions. Any process should include a clause that defines when the process is no longer necessary. This never happens and the result is rules live on forever even after if their usefulness died years ago. Process should be a slave to results, but it rarely is. It's often the other way around.
This is a really interesting observation: "Every manager is kind of a new experiment, and any experiment that goes wrong should change." Do companies promoting someone to manager need to change what and how they evaluate success?
70% of all American employees are unengaged at work (Gallup 2013). All of those workers work for managers who are failing them. Management, as a discipline, is a failure: we are not, on average, good at it as a nation. We should be experimenting with the very notion of management itself: why not elect managers? Or promote them only on a trial basis? Or give the people who work for them the power to reverse a promotion? As wild as these ideas might sound I bet any of them would provide better results than that 70% number. The bar for management is that low.
As Americans it's absurd how we never consider democratic principles for management. Instead we have a system modeled on what: monarchy? Oligarchy? I'm no radical, but I am open to other influences in structuring how the powerful are chosen at corporations.
It seems that storytelling, relationships, humor – i.e. the humanity of WordPress.com – is so consciously intended – and with great results. But didn’t they launch it with this in mind? How would a 200 year old company, say, with layers of tradition even begin to try to change its culture to get at a more meaningful workplace?
My story at Automattic is all about culture change: It was a suicide mission for me to introduce traditional management ideas into a company born of open source, independence and autonomy. I was an outsider with a radically different set of beliefs and experiences, which makes the core story of the book one about culture change: or at least my insane attempts to make culture change happen.
Any 200 year old company didn't start that way. It was grown and you change a company the same way: you plant seeds and nurture them. One bright manager plants a small seed in their own team with some different rules. When they show better results than other teams, other managers follow. Soon there is a high performing minority and if the CEO has a clue they'll invest in how to make that minority the majority. One way to read the The Year Without Pants is "the year of attempting culture change." How can an expert on management be useful in a place that doesn't believe in management at all? That's my story and that's what the book is about.
Sometimes you find a book which you simply can't not read. The Year Without Pants was one of them. (The BookBag, October 2013) Those looking for observations about the changing nature of the workplace won t be disappointed, but equally this is far from being just a passionless futurist text; Berkun infuses the whole book with real humour and gives an excellent personal account of the inner working of one of the world s most unorthodox enterprises. (Elite Business, November 2013) "Well worth a look" (Mob 76 Outlook, November 2013) the book is gripping. (Loyalty Magazine, January 2014) the fact that this book has a genuine story and a timeframe makes for a good pace and a good read. (B2B Marketing, April 2014) there are lots of lessons about how to make good decisions and get along with others in the workplace. (Able Magazine, June 2014) offers sage advice for managers looking to overhaul their corporate culture. (Communication Director, June 2014) ..it s without a doubt, one of my favourite, most useful and enjoyable reads of all time. (What Goes Around, July 2014)
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For me, there are three big ideas in this book:
1. You can only evaluate management in the context of culture. Here is a quote from the book that outlines this issue: "I'm certain that to learn from a place, you have to study how its culture functions. A great fallacy born from the failure to study culture is the assumption that you can take a practice from one culture and simply jam it into another and expect similar results. Much of what bad managers do is assume their job is simply to find new things to jam and new places to jam them into, without ever believing they need to understand how the system--the system of people known as culture--works." This explains the title of the book - it references an inside joke within his team. I can see why he would use this as a title, but I'm not sure it reflects the content or quality of the book. However, within the WordPress,com culture, it makes perfect sense...
2. Experimentation is an essential management skill. Berkun experiments throughout his time at WordPress.com. This is a central skill for innovating, and it is not practiced widely enough. He has great insights into the roles that data and judgement play in managing, and how experimenting and learning can contribute to both.
3. How do you manage if everyone is a volunteer? One of the interesting features of WordPress.com is that it originated in a open source programming project. Everyone that works on such a project is a volunteer, and this requires a much different management style than the more traditional command and control approach. Berkun's time at WordPress.com was part of a big experiment - introducing work teams and hierarchy into an open source style culture. The outcomes tell us a lot about how to manage effectively.
Scott Berkun has a great business mind, and he is a very engaging writer. This is an important piece of work, and if you are interested in what good management looks like and how it might be changing,you should read this book.
Berkun starts out where Daniel Pink left us with his book, "Drive". Pink boiled productivity and motivation down to three things: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.
If you, as a team leader, are able to provide and sustain those three things for your employees, you increase your chances to reach high productivity and excellence. What Pink couldn't tell you is how that actually works.
This is the point at which Berkun's book picks you up.
With great data, anecdotes and structured knowledge, Berkun takes readers on his journey from a 90s software development company to a 21st Century software company. He describes philosophy and methods in precise examples to help readers understand what works and what doesn't work.
In a software company, management/leadership's purpose is, among other things, to keep the knuckle headed stuff off the programmers' desks and out of their minds so they can create, test and release brilliant work. Of course, that kind of approach takes self-motivated, autonomous, passionate people who keep an eye on what's good in the world. Sounds like heaven, right? Well, almost.
Consider this: WordPress has over 150 employees, 50 teams in 80 countries and no central office. Let me repeat: no central office.
Working in a distributed environment where all communication is public about the product, including decisions about the product, bug reports and customer service tickets, not only keeps low the personality wars in emails but also keeps everyone in the loop.
The distributed, autonomous, self-motivated and most of the time insulated programmer, or designer, who often in the past has failed while learning new technologies, is given time to learn and adapt to new team members.
Berkun looks at each part of the WordPress organization and analyzes, in precise language, the up and downside of a process - or the lack thereof. He lets you in on the struggle to bring team members together when they are used to working alone. He takes you on his journey from corporate management junkie to leader of a team of mature members. The broad experience of a 90s software developer at Microsoft and other Fortune 500 companies made Scott Berkun the best time travel guide into the 21st Century workplace, if you're bold enough to take that journey. .