Refreshing Work

exploring possibilities for an engaging and productive workplace

Manage the Environment, Not the People

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Matt Taylor Photo In the late 80's I met Matt Taylor at a Mac user group event, and we became friends. We eventually became reciprocal apprentices — he learned from me about computers and collaborating online, and I learned from him about facilitating face-to-face collaboration and the architecture of facilitation.

Matt comes from an unusual background — he studied architecture with Frank Lloyd Wright during the master architect's latter years at Taliesin West. During that period of Wright's life he was thinking big. He was considering projects like bridges so wide that they could have a city park in the middle of them and he was reassessing the nature of the city.

Matt discovered that a key challenge to implementing these visionary architectures was facilitating a large group of people so that he could gather the different skills required, such as architecture, construction, finance, and political savvy. As an architect, his initial approach to the problem of group genius was to design furniture and spaces for collaboration. However, as his practice grew he also found himself in a "thirty-year sidetrack" of becoming a master facilitator and teaching others to be able to do the same. His organization MG Taylor grew and together they created a number of practices and models for collaboration, and even a "System for a Knowledge Economy" patent.

There is one particular motto that he said to me back then that has stuck with me. It is not one of his great axioms, but a simple statement from an architect and system designer at heart:

"Manage the Environment, not the People."

I adopted this philosophy and this has been a core axiom of my management philosophy for over 20 years now.

At its simplest level it means that I care deeply about the space that I and the others employed by me work in. This includes such things as natural light & air, plants, low-VOC paint and carpet, ergonomic furniture and tools. For instance Consensus Development, my biggest success, the team had all of this in our work space as well as over 5 linear feet of white wall per person. Thinking about the environment of the work space does not have to be limited to the physical — I design virtual spaces with the same intent as I do the physical.

At a deeper level it means that my job as a manager is to discover what is required for people to be effective and successful, and create an environment and a system for them to be able to do so. This has a secondary result — we don't blame the individuals when something goes wrong. Often, the true source of the failure is our environment and its core systems (possibly including our hiring system). Yes, sometimes this still did mean we had to let people go, but we didn't need to personalize it and blame individuals.

At the deepest level it means that looking at the big picture and searching for environmental and systemic issues. As an entrepreneur I recognized early on that online trust was a key system problem that needed to be solved, and knowing this helped me be in right place to make SSL the largest deployed security standard in the world.

Even now as I am increasingly involved in teaching in the green MBA program at Bainbridge Graduate Institute (BGI), I find that my success as an educator is largely due to the same approach. I try to create an environment for learning first — the students will motivate themselves to success through experience and a supportive environment of peers, rather then through rote instruction.

In writing this blog post, I wrote Matt to ask about the origin of this axiom, and this is what he had to say:

"It was Bucky Fuller who said 'do not try to change people, change the environment which they are in.' In saying this he meant the physical environment and much more than just that. This had a great impact on my thinking circa the mid 70s.

Frank Lloyd Wright stressed designing environments which sheltered, facilitated and expressed a "way of life." This was brought home to me by my interactions with many of his clients especially Mrs. Pew.

The idea that an environment, itself can have a transformative effect on someone totally changed my concept of architecture from that as a visual art (which is just technique) to an experiential art which embeds a philosophy of living."

So as Bria and I continue our exploration of the nature of "Refreshing Work", I offer Buckminster Fuller & Matt Taylor's thoughts on managing an environment as one of many clues toward a solution to a "way of work". I'll share more details on how this philosophy has worked for me in upcoming blog posts, but in the meantime we'd love to hear your thoughts, and any questions that you have about it.

-- Christopher Allen

(photos courtesy Matt Taylor)

My family spent Thanksgiving at Disneyland this year. I had a blast, and came home wondering what motivates Disney employees, a.k.a. "cast members" to give their all and create such a magical experience for guests. Whether roller coasters, parades, or chocolate covered bananas I was consistently impressed by the cast.

Front and center on Disney's career page is a proclamation: "Every guest at Disneyland Resort feels the magic. That's because every cast member is focused on making it happen." What's special is that any company could make this claim, but Disney is good at making it happen.

Thinking about the jobs at Disneyland, much of what I saw seemed boring, from pushing bottons on rides, manning a turn style, or checking fast passes. The LA Times takes this observation even further by highlighting the hundreds of employees that work night shift and maintain Disney's immaculate appearance. The article describes the work as "tedious and occasionally bizarre." Jobs that seem mundane on the surface required surprising ingenuity, the kind of creativity and problem solving that keeps things interesting.

A quick Google search will reveal Disney as a coveted employer. People post to forums trying to better understand how to get ahead in the application process. They seem really excited to work at the park, even if the pay is low and the work seems monotonous. Any negatie comments seem quickly swept under the rug.

To better understand what's behind this magic I reconnected with a friend who worked at Walt Disney World in Florida. I can remember her telling me stories about working there, it was obvious that Disney wasn't just a job. Something about that job touched her heart. Perhaps it's the "magic" of Disney? Here's what she had to say:

"All ages work there and most of the time they get along great, old timers and newbies. I truly enjoyed working with the public and was trained in creating a magical day for the guests... I worked at the Haunted Mansion and had a blast. Really, I loved being there and even stayed after I as supposed to leave. They offer stocks, a lot of overtime, holiday pay, and vacation days. Free passes for friends and family... It was really an amazing time in my life, I still dream about going back."

It's A Small World ride at Disneyland

A Relationship with Work

Monday, November 21, 2011

I am a lifetime entrepreneur. Even when working for large organizations I find my approach to be entrepreneurial (what my mentor Gifford Pinchot would call Intrapreneurial).

It took me a while to accept that being an entrepreneur is part of my fundamental nature. It wasn't until my father retold me some stories about my childhood that the appellation truly clicked for me as being true. He would point out the treehouse in the woods that I organized, the sci-fi fanzine that I published, the software I wrote for a psychologist at age 16, and many other stories.

My father he would tell me that he sometimes feared that I would be beat up by my peers in childhood because of this tendency. I was always the one who would discover the game that we should play together, the one that would suggest new ideas—but I didn't have the typical talents that children expect of their leaders. I was average looking, not charismatic, not strong nor quick and I not part of the "in crowd". However, I muddled through my form of childhood leadership with the minimum of peer trouble.

I have discovered that I am different then many other lifetime entrepreneurs.Unlike them, I never sold lemonade on the curbside—I am not a natural salesman. I never led a sports team. I never bought candy cheaply at the market and sold it for a higher price at school. Instead, for me entrepreneuring was about discovering and sharing a passion with friends and doing something with it — a less self-serving variant of Tom Sawyer's inspirational "Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?” pitch.

Yahoo Employee VolunteersThis means that what I do best is bring people together with a common passion to create things. All of the successes of my career have had that as a fundamental element of what I do.

This gives me a somewhat different view of the nature of work — I have to have a relationship with those that work with me, I have to hold a space for the passions of everyone involved, and I have to marshal the creative best of everyone. This has made me an unusual leader and manager.

In recent years I have been teaching part-time in the sustainable MBA program at Bainbridge Graduate Institute. Even there I take an entrepreneurial approach, and teach my students in my own unique entrepreneurial style.

In last year's class one of my students, Bria Schlottman, sent me a Twitter DM: "Could you do me a quick favor: in a brainstorm type of dump, what words come to mind when you think about 'work'? Please list as many single words as possible."

I replied: "flow, shared energy, companionship, natural light, fresh air, a bit noisy, good connectivity, shared lunches"

With this and many other responses from her social network she created a video, and her first post for this blog asking the question What is Work?

Even though the blog and video were assignments for my class, when the course was complete Bria and I continued to have a dialogue about the nature of work.

We each come from different perspective, but we both agree that our society's relationship to work can and should improve. We both have some insights as to what that would require, but neither of us have the answers. Now that Bria has graduated and found gainful employment with her newly-minted MBA, she has the time and energy to take this topic forward, as do I. We believe that by collaborating together in this blog that we can inspire each other to dive deeper into this interesting topic.

Thus Bria and I invite you to show your insights with us and participate in whitewashing this fence, aka "Refreshing Work".

-- Christopher Allen

(photo credit: AlexPears in "Yahoo Employee Volunteers" using CC-SA)

Refreshing Work is back, with a twist...

This blog originated as an assignment for ChristopherAllen's class, "Using the Social Web for Social Change" at BGI. While the inspiration for Refreshing Work has evolved from observations I began as a child (see earlier post), Christopher was a driving force and mentor while getting this blog started.

Unfortunately, the blog has collected dust as I finished my MBA program, moved, and started a new job. I'm now a Project Manager for a large healthcare organization in California. The company is great; I feel respected as an employee, believe in the mission, and genuinely enjoy going to work. I also wonder what makes them tick: the people, culture, and structure are fascinating, but these musings won't be discussed here. Focusing outside my organization is a choice intended to honor confidentiality and my desire to write without filters as it's difficult to judge appropriate sharing. 

I will share my own reflections as I learn and grow from work. For example, I'm often referred to as a "department of one". I work with amazing people and belong to several teams, yet I've found myself missing the small things: a group to learn with, brainstorm with, celebrate with, and go to happy hour with. I feel the absence of not having teammates nearby for chit-chat, reality checks, catching typos, or enjoying a cup of tea. Many of these things are also what contribute to healthy and positive working environments.

With that in mind, I'm excited to be collaborating with Christopher on Refreshing Work. We've had fun chatting and sharing our unique perspectives- much of my experience lies within established large or medium sized companies, which is exactly where I like to work. Christopher is a teacher, entrepreneur, consultant, and blogger. He's written extensively on Dunbar's Number and other technology related topics, like social software. You can read more on his blog, Life With Alacrity.

We look forward to researching and learning by sharing our conversation online, where we hope you will join in.

What's coworking?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Last month I dropped by Office Nomads in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. Other than a few Google searches, this was my first exposure to coworking. Online you'll find that coworking is a shared office space; a place where people come together to work and share resources. What you won't find is the community that develops within these spaces. As Office Nomad owner Jacob described, "it's about the intangibles, what isn't captured in a web description."

The environment at Office Nomads was open, friendly, and hip. I saw all the things one might expect to find at the office: a printer, conference rooms, a kitchen, desks, chairs, and computers. What was different was the atmosphere, the space had a friendly buzz, but was also quiet and relaxing. Office Nomads seemed more like one of Fortune's Best Companies to work for: great aesthetics, dog-friendly, no rules, regular events like Happy Hour, and a commuter friendly location with access to transit, bike parking, and a walkable neighborhood.

Despite not making arrangements in advance, the owners took time to show me around and chat for a bit. With hot coffee/tea in hand, we sat down on a cozy  couch where I learned more about why they got started. They talked about community, environmental impact, and being a social activator. 

One thing really stuck with me, Jacob talked about telecommuters and independent contractors working as individuals, then he made an important distinction: individualism does not mean isolation. This really resonated with me as I've been studying and working from home for the past two years and it can feel isolating. I left inspired to find a coworking space closer to home and work there if I continue working independently. 

After a short visit at Office Nomads, coworking is still really new to me, and I'm eager to continue learning. Thank you Susan and Jacob for helping me get started.

Coworking goes well with something else I'm excited about: sharing. To learn more about how these things relate, check out The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing by Lisa Gansky. 

PS. If you have any experiences with coworking, please share in the comments

Bike To Work

Monday, May 2, 2011

Today is May 2nd, the first weekday to kick-off Bike to Work Month; the lead up to Bike to Work Day celebrations across the US. Nationwide, bicycle advocacy organizations support team challenges, host events, and more. I recommend checking out your local cycling group and participating.

Whether you consider yourself a cyclist or not, now is the time to get started, get back in the habit, or help others get going. Where I live the weather is getting nicer and spring is in the air; a great time of year for cycling. Biking to work has many benefits for both employees and employers. 

Employees who bike to work may experience:

  • Reduced stress from more exercise and avoiding rush hour traffic
  • More free-time, get your work out on the way to/from work
  • Special benefits, look at the EPA's Best Workplaces
  • Environmental impact, reduce air pollution & carbon emissions
  • Simple joy of riding your bike
    Around the world there are employers supporting healthy commute choices that include cycling. While the reason is different for everyone, here are some ways that employers benefit from supporting sustainable transportation choices:

    • Healthy workforce, less sick days & reduced healthcare costs
    • Save money on parking spaces
    • Mitigate traffic impact (a common barrier to growth)
    • Attract top talent with great commute programs/benefits
    • Publicity that's usually very positive
    • Lowering carbon footprint & achieve other sustainability targets

    If you don't ride your bike to work now- go ahead and give it a try! If you're already biking to work- keep it up! Ask your employer about bike parking, showers/lockers, and other amenities to help make biking to work easier for you. If your employer doesn't offer any of these perks, don't let that stop you.

    Happy Bike to Work Month and be safe out there!

    National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Bicycle Safety Tips For Adults

    Are Organizations Human?

    Monday, January 17, 2011

    I believe that organization's are fundamentally human. The workplace is made up of people providing goods and services for other people. 

    Yet the the words I more readily associate with organizations are profit, growth, costs, competition, viability, performance, etc... While these words are important, it's not what I'm interested in today.

    What fascinates me is the seeming loss of humanity in business. As I write, I'm reminded of common sayings about work:

    "Check your emotions at the door"

    "Business is cut-throat"

    "Same shit, different day"

    "Every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence"

    At their core, humans are empathetic and vulnerable beings seeking connections. Yet the organizations we create and serve appear to be the exact opposite. Emotionless machines disconnected from nature.

    I'll admit, these are unfair statements. There are a lot of businesses that take great care of their people, their communities and more. My concern lies in the general talk and conversation I might hear while walking down the street or perusing the Internet.

    One of my hopes and dreams is for organizations to be perceived by their more human characteristics. What might be achieved locally, nationally, or internationally when this shift occurs? How might you view your boss, your employees, your co-workers?

    What would organizations look like if they were empathetic, vulnerable, and connected? Please share your thoughts or stories in the comments.

    PS. You might find these videos interesting: