Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Neoteny as a business value

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, business practices

The way Mickey Mouse was drawn in 1927 is rather different from what we see in Disney cartoons of the 1930s and later. Even "Steamboat Willie" of late 1928 bore more resemblance to later versions than to the version just half a year earlier. The "first MM" was already quite different from a real mouse, and the later versions were even "cuter", and look younger, even childlike. The features we call "cute" are characteristic of infants and juveniles. Biological development that retains such features is called neoteny. You might say that humans are the most juvenile-like of the apes. Adult humans resemble very young chimpanzees and gorillas, more than they do adult apes.

What is it that makes most workplaces so unpleasant? Isn't it the very "adultness" of the place? I feel very fortunate that I usually had the freedom to leave a job for a different one, and could keep looking until I found a place to work that was, if not quite "pleasant", at least less unpleasant than usual. The last few years of my career I usually enjoyed my work and my surroundings. The part-time work I have now, while in the seemingly sterile environment of a lone desk along a hallway among Museum cabinets, actually gives me great access to colleagues as needed, even better access to the specimens I need to study, and the freedom to set up my workspace as I like it. The greatest "perk" of the job is the opportunity to do work that matters, at least to a gaggle of very picky researchers!

Can all workplaces be made enjoyable? Perhaps not, but they can be made "less unpleasant". What is the source of the unpleasantness? Mainly, that "adults are in charge." Think of the classic film, "Nine to Five", in which the women who "sequestered" the boss ran the company better than he had. It wasn't just that he was a king of sexual harassment, but that he was too "grown up" for the job, and the women's sense of enjoying working well made the company run better.

I think it must be great fun to work for Google. Not just because of the nearly unique amenities (free meals, and abundant play areas and conversation spaces, for example), but because of the challenge of extraordinarily meaningful work, and the freedom to pursue nearly anything you find useful and meaningful with your "20% time". I did have "10% time" at my prior employer, but we were told, "It had better be work-related"; they didn't understand that we had our minds full of our work, and could hardly do anything that would not be somehow useful to the company, perhaps just not right, right now. Once I learned to "manage my managers", I built a very productive career upon doing things sundry supervisors didn't want me to do, but my customers sure did!

Thomas Edison was famous for, as one wag put it, "throwing almost anything up against the wall to see if it sticks." After several hundred things didn't make a good light bulb, one thing did. It took "modern technology" more than a century to supersede it, a process not yet complete (and one of the first run of Edison bulbs, 135 years old, is still ceremonially lit for a few minutes from time to time. Your iPhone should last so long!). Edison couldn't always pay well, but his workers were quite loyal. They had enjoyable work that mattered.

Three significant Googlers, Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle, have written How Google Works, meaning the company, not the search engine. In brief, it works like Edison's Menlo Park, amped up to 21st Century velocity. A phrase they use a lot is Internet Century, which I suppose started about 1995 when the Mosaic browser made it easy for anyone to "browse the web". Another is "smart creatives", meaning bright, internally-motivated people. Reading between the lines, I gather that a gaggle of smart creatives can accomplish just about anything as long as the adults are kept at bay. That is the vision of Google's founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

While you do need someone to set the course of a company or work group, the members will know best how to accomplish it…or at worst, they'll know best how to figure out how best to accomplish it! And Internet Century speed requires getting a product out there fast, then improving it, equally fast. Modern tools and processes allow the use of early versions as probes to find out what does and doesn't work well, then making things better before your customer base flocks elsewhere.

The reason it takes 8 chapters and 270 pages to explain Google's magic is that most non-Googlers simply don't believe it. Thus the authors spent 3 years writing the book, gathering all the best stories of good people doing good work in a good environment. I reckon if one person in 20 who reads the book "gets it", it could transform, at the very least, the American technical workplace. It might also transform companies you'd think were less than fun: manufacturing centers, construction (think of all the pranking that goes on at blue-collar job sites—wise foremen tolerate it because it promotes worker joy, and thus worker productivity), and all kinds of "office work".

While the book is full of stories, I'll repeat just one. A decade ago, Google Earth had been released a couple of months when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. The geography team, still winding down from the hard work of getting the product running and updated, plowed a lot of personal time, on their own initiative, into obtaining and releasing thousands of current NOAA satellite images so that rescue workers could see before-and-after views of ravaged parts of the city. How else will you find a street that has been washed away? This is touted by the authors as a stellar example of a "20% project", but it is more, it shows how meeting a need with the joyful abandon of knowing you can do it better than anyone else, is reward enough. Give employees a chance to make an impact like that, and do you think they'll turn around and leave for "greener pastures"? The pastures don't get greener than that!

Juvenile animals tend to be fearless. Witness teenage behavior; they think they're going to live forever. The main driver of much "adult" human behavior is fear. Remove the fear, and what is the result? Better almost everything. If you didn't fear your boss, but liked her, what kind of memos or e-mails would you write? In a staff meeting, if you thought her opinion wrong, would you say so? If your lack of fear had good reason, how would she respond if you did challenge an opinion she'd voiced? To what extent would you pilfer office supplies?

Jesus said, "Unless you become as a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of God" (my paraphrase). A bit of childlike (not childish!) attitude can improve earthly "kingdoms" as well.

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