EMBRACING CHAOS: Why Hacking Matters

Companies have become expert at optimizing for efficiency, reducing waste and overhead, wringing every drop of profitability from their processes. But highly optimized processes become brittle and break on impact with change.

That’s a problem in a marketplace that is complex, unstable, and characterized by change.

Hacking is messy. It’s unpredictable, uncontrollable, and difficult to integrate into more formal processes. It’s also resilient, responsive, and capable of dramatic breakthroughs impossible in a tightly structured hierarchy.

Efficiency and resilience—opposite ends of a continuum, both necessary for companies to excel in our times. You might call it creative self-destruction but it’s absolutely necessary for us to embrace chaos in order to transform.

Growth Hacking

We were a small group of people from diverse backgrounds meeting for the first time. The room was full of round tables and sunlight, the exuberant sunlight of late July in Seattle. It was the first day of the first Microsoft company-wide Hackathon.

We were there because we wanted to be part of the change, the transformation of Microsoft, and because Steve Gleason had asked our help.

Steve Gleason had been an NFL player with the New Orleans Saints. There is a statue dedicated to him in front of the Superdome. He had become a symbol of the city’s recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. And then his own life had been devastated by ALS.

The disease whittled away conscious control of his body, finally isolating him inside his own skull. Voluntary control of his eyes was all that was left to him. He was imprisoned inside himself, fully conscious, fully feeling, but unable to move, unable to speak—an unimaginably cruel form of solitary confinement

Until there’s a cure, there’s technology.

His last connection with his wife, his son, and his world was through technology, hardware and software that let him use his eyes to identify letters of the alphabet and slowly, laboriously build words, then sentences that were translated into sound. He had asked Microsoft to help make the process more fluid, more like speech. Or to be able to turn on his Surface tablet by himself on sleepless nights when everyone else slept. Or control the movement of his wheel chair with only his eyes. Anything to help him jailbreak the isolation of his disease.

“I believe it is possible to read to my son Rivers in my own voice. I believe it is possible for me to hold a real-time conversation with my wife Michelle… I believe it is possible to drive this wheelchair with my eyes or even my thoughts.”

There is no cure of ALS. As Gleason says himself, until there’s a cure, technology is the cure. He was asking one of the preeminent technology companies on the planet for help. He was asking for our help.

Satya Nadella with Charles Thrasher, Microsoft Hackathon
Charles Thrasher showing Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO, progress on the hack.

After two days of concentrated effort we delivered the hack. Steve Gleason was able to drive the wheelchair by himself. It was the work of a small, autonomous team driven by a powerful purpose that had achieved exceptional results in a short time.

It’s the sort of behavior and fluid organization that companies will need to adopt in order to succeed in a rapidly changing marketplace where customer expectations are high, competition for talent is fierce, and the complex future unpredictable. Companies will loose their sharp edges and become more permeable. Teams will voluntarily coalesce around goals that are meaningful to the participants and possess the authority to make decisions that matter. 

Dave Gray, author of The Connected Company, makes the point that a connected company is designed so that “workers are organized in pods, or small teams, that can operate independently without a lot of need for formal approval or permissions from higher-ups.” That’s a fair description of a hack team. For me, it was one of many things I learned from the Hackathon but the most important.

We won the Hackathon, competing against over 1300 teams globally. We poured a bucket of cold water over the head of Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s new CEO, as part of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. We still need to deliver the hack to market, a significant piece of work, but the Hackathon proved the concept of small, voluntary teams driven by purpose.

Ability Eyegaze news coverage.
King 5 News coverage of Microsoft’s Hackathon.

Resistance Is Not Futile

Certainly it’s no surprise that our lives are shaped by childhood. My childhood was shaped by brutal authority.  My parents exercised godlike power but, like the oldest gods, they were entirely human—petulant, arbitrary, and inconsistent. To survive it was necessary to resist. I have been resisting authority ever since.

When I came of age during the time of the military draft and stood against the Vietnam War, I stood also against my church which believed God was Republican and Nixon was his prophet. There was no solace in religion, only judgment. The Army then tried to break and retool me as a weapon. I was eventually discharged as a conscientious objector, something that rarely happened in the ranks. I had resisted but I was badly damaged, broken.

I’m not so naïve to expect corporations to divest themselves of hierarchy out of altruism.

I literally wandered years in the wilderness—the Mohave Desert, the Sierra Nevada, the coast of Baja California—until I found an occupation that fit. I became a professional sailor. I delivered yachts across oceans, sailed weeks between landfalls. I made decisions that placed people in harm’s way, that altered the likelihood of their life or death. I became the authority that I had always resisted, enacted on a different scale.

After coming ashore, eventually I came to Microsoft. It is the only large corporation where I’ve worked and unarguably the most powerful. At Microsoft I found another form of authority, less blatant, subsumed in the culture, but no less powerful and controlling.

The pattern set in childhood still influences me as an adult but I’m more conscious of the influence. It’s no longer an autonomic reflex but it’s so deeply rooted that it’s a part of me. It’s who I am. The question I have to ask myself, that each of us has to ask, is what will I do with who I am?

Simon Terry recently asked What are you working to achieve? It’s part of his process for working out loud. My answer isn’t complete but it’s enough to take the next step. I want to help realize an ideal, the democratization of work. I want to help realize a way of work where individuals relate to one another as partners, autonomous, supported by a  culture of equality, recognition and responsibility. I want to help unmake the hierarchies of power that have kept so many people in fear and subservience for so long.

I’m not so naïve to expect corporations to divest themselves of hierarchy out of altruism. They’ll embrace a more egalitarian organization only when compelled by competitive forces. Those competitive forces are already forming on the horizon like a circular storm. Companies capable of making good decisions closer to the customer will be more responsive than those that require decisions to climb the hierarchy and return before any action occurs. The future focus of management will be to ensure those decisions are made with the best information available.

Working Out Loud

Negotiating numerous complex social networks—knowing when to share what and with whom—will be a core competency in the future of work.

Enterprise social networks like Yammer are loosely structured and difficult to get work done. Communities of practice are more focused but less so than teams where the work actually happens. Each network has its own rules and relationships but all networks on the social scale from least structured to most specific contribute value and balance to the whole. Surprisingly, perhaps, the whole is not the network but the individual.

Working out loud is Harold Jarche’s name for this fluid social dance. Like any dance it follows rules. Learning those rules, developing the necessary skills to move gracefully between social scales, learning to manage our personal knowledge, will become our future.

Jarche is fond of quoting Thierry de Baillon, “The basic unit of social technology is personal knowledge management, not collaborative workspaces.” It’s about the individual working out loud in community.

Responsible Transparency

Recently I’ve begun paying attention to mention of transparency in business, especially in reference to the future of work. As a result, I’ve begun to see the phrase more frequently. (Of course it’s true that you see what you pay attention to; there should be a name for the phenomenon.)

I followed the scent to a recently published CNET article Jack Dorsey: Square builds trust with ‘responsible transparency’ In this case, responsible transparency is “a practice that strives to ensure that no employee has to wonder what was discussed in meetings they didn’t attend.”

Defining what is included in ‘responsible transparency’ largely defines the culture of a company. Certainly not everything should be broadcast across the company, at least not in the sense of pushing information at everyone, but the new model of a social business communicates by pull. Every member of the organization can pull from the stream what interests them, what involves them, what’s relevant. The social business model assumes the ability of employees to filter data or drown in the stream.

Rise of Reputation Management

by Charles Thrasher

I came of age in a time of riotous change when cities burned and soldiers confronted citizens in the streets. I watched Watts burn on television and from the sidewalk, looking south, saw the clouds over LA burn with reflected flame. I saw communities and generations sundered by dissension as old ideas surrendered—or were sacrificed—to new.

And now, at the other end of my life, I’m witness to another time of equally dramatic, if less violent, change. The very nature of work is being redefined by massive forces like the collision of tectonic plates creating new mountains and valleys, a new landscape, but in quick-time. When these forces have played out and reached equilibrium, our working lives will be far different from what they are now.

Like Shiva, technology is the creator and destroyer of worlds.

Dion Hinchcliffe, strategist for the Dachis Group, is a man who’s thinking I admire. His keynote at the Leadership Summit 2013 on Workplace 2020 provides a laundry list of trends effecting the future of work.

The life expectancy of powerful companies is declining at the same time human lifespans are increasing. Standard & Poor’s 500 is an index of what’s considered the best US stocks, the companies that represent a bellwether for the U.S. economy. In 1940 a company in the S&P 500 could expect to survive 75 years. Now 15 years is more typical. The future workplace will be even more volatile than today.

Technology continues to evolve exponentially. Like Shiva, technology is the creator and destroyer of worlds. New business opportunities appear like mushrooms after a rain while existing opportunities wither as suddenly. To thrive in this volatility companies will need to expand or collapse, pulsing with the rhythm of change and opportunity, rapidly scaling operations up or down. That includes their workforce. No company can achieve the agility required while anchored to a large number of full-time employees, especially middle management. Individual contributors—the productive workforce—will be required to manage themselves for the benefit of the company but even individual contributors are likely to coalesce around particular projects, particular outcomes, and then disperse.

Cloud technology will enable companies to scale in either direction and compete against much larger companies than themselves. The metaphor for the cloud is usually meteorological. Perhaps a better metaphor is a cloud of mayflies rising from a pond on a summer day. That is the level of competition I envision.

The new, liquid workforce required by such fierce competition is also enabled by technology, the ability to communicate and collaborate across vast distance without inhibition. Your competitor for a job no longer lives within driving distance of the office—or willing to relocate. They now live anywhere serviced by broadband. Competitive workers will need to be expert in the use of communications technology enabling a virtual workforce, collaborating with team members from different cultures, navigating complex networks and meta-networks, working in self-directed teams that produce end-to-end outcomes, and managing their digital reputation.

Managing your digital footprint can contribute value to your company and yourself.

This last bit—digital reputation—is a skill set previously expected only of marketers. Managing your digital reputation will be critically important in finding work and maximizing your contribution to an employer. Increasing your digital visibility for key concepts (keywords) involves marketing yourself, identifying your goals and desired outcomes, creating content optimized for search engines (SEO), and tracking results (web and social analytics). It means everyone is ultimately self-employed, an indivisible business of one.

And the relentless memory of the web doesn’t distinguish between your personal and professional life online. Eventually, perhaps, we’ll be able to buy personal software agents that will negotiate with content consumers what we’ll allow for publication. Eventually, but not now.

In Tours of Duty: The New Employer-Employee Compact, a seminal article that appeared in the Harvard Business Review, the authors explain “…how a workable new compact must recognize that jobs are unlikely to be permanent but encourage lasting alliances nonetheless. The key is that both the employer and the employee seek to add value to each other. Employees invest in the company’s adaptability; the company invests in employees’ employability.”

Peer Management?

by Charles Thrasher

In fluid dynamics, drag represents force opposing the direction of flow. Reduce drag and you increase the speed of flow. Hierarchy is often introduced into business to ensure control but it also introduces drag. An organization with less drag might be more competitive. But can we realistically expect to be managed by our peers in the future of work?

The End of Bosses

Making Sense of Work

by Charles Thrasher

Future Work Skills 2020, a research study by the Institute for the Future, identifies six trends driving change in the way we work.

1. Increasing global lifespans changing the nature of careers and learning;

2. Workplace automation nudging human workers out of rote, repetitive tasks;

3. Massive increases in sensors and processing power making the work a programmable system;

4. New communication tools requiring new media literacies beyond text;

5. Social technologies driving new forms of production and value creation;

6. Increasing global interconnectivity putting diversity and adaptability at the center of organizational operations.

New skills are required of the workforce to respond to the emergent trends. The study names 10. The first of these is sense-making, the ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance, making sense of change.

It’s not a skill I’ve ever seen required in a job description. Mostly job descriptions are about the past—known terrain. Where we’re going there is no map. We’ve never been here before. We each need to make sense of the future of work before the future is upon us.


Darkness Visible

by Charles Thrasher

Forbes recently profiled ING Direct Canada (Banking On The Future of Work: Four Tips You Can’t Afford To Ignore), a company that manages 25-30 times the number of customers per employee and four times the assets of their competitors. ING Direct Canada has 1,000 employees. Their competitors have 40,000-70,000 employees.

Peter Aceto, the CEO, believes the company’s stunning success should be attributed to its culture. A company’s culture determines who is hired, how you make decisions, and how you work together. At ING Direct Canada, the company’s core value is transparency.

Conversations happen between individuals irregardless of seniority. No one pulls rank. Not everything is revealed, of course. Some information remains sensitive and is safeguarded but otherwise knowledge flows freely. The collective intelligence of the organization can be applied more broadly, providing better decisions, better for the organization’s productivity and better for its community—employees, customers, and stakeholders. As a result ING Direct Canada is more responsive and more productive than its competitors.

The opposite of transparency is, of course, opacity. Secrecy is often used to maintain power and hierarchy. A decision made in secret can’t be examined by others without access to power. It can’t be reviewed or improved. For example, how a company rewards or punishes its employees.

Every company needs to encourage the outcomes and behaviors its values while discouraging those it doesn’t. At Microsoft—the only large company I know intimately—the process is known as stack ranking. A thread on Quora asked What is the worst thing about working at Microsoft? The thing most reviled by employees and alumni alike was stack ranking, especially the arbitrary 10% of the workforce that is annually targeted for attrition. At the end of the year a person can fall form the middle of the bell curve to the bottom without warning, without any decline in performance, simply because the system requires someone be sacrificed.

The actual process of ranking employees occurs in secrecy at Microsoft. The attributes of that process—the written review, peer comments, and the amount or lack of financial reward—are communicated to the employee but not the process itself. What was the discussion? What was surfaced? What remained submerged? Who said what and why? The annual review is critical to an employee’s reputation. Reputation influences access to future opportunities. It impacts self-esteem. It affects how you work with others. Something so important shouldn’t be shrouded in secrecy.

What harm would result in making the process public? The knee jerk objection from HR would be privacy but in reality individuals are responsible for managing their own reputation. That will become increasingly true in the future of work where there are fewer full time employees and more fluid project workers that coalesce around a specific outcome and then disperse. Reputation will be critically important for landing the next project. Without understanding the decisions that resulted in their ranking an employee can’t realistically manage their reputation or their career. It’s being managed certainly but behind closed doors.

The more candid objection might be that making the darkness visible would reveal the dysfunction in decision making. It’s more difficult to believe the illusion of the great and powerful Oz when you’ve seen behind the curtain.

But the benefits could be substantial and practical—more accurate feedback, more candid conversations, increased understanding of the corporate culture, reduced need for expensive hierarchy, greater productivity per employee, and a healthier company.

"To see! To see! -that is the craving of the sailor, as of the rest of blind humanity."