Out of the Loop
Author: Bruce Daisley - Twitter &
Date: May 2019
The mental toll of trying to keep everyone in the loop is
creating a burden, that for many of us, is making work increasingly
stressful. Should we be thinking of reconfiguring our workplaces to
make them less intense? This writer believes it’s time to let
everyone fall out of the loop.
A few years ago someone told me about a pitch process she was
involved in. She turned up to the first presentation from one of
the candidate companies and was soon enthralled by a captivating
tale of how the agency had learned a lesson from UK cycling.
Dave Brailsford had
transformed British cycling with the philosophy of ‘marginal
gains’ - the idea that by improving everything you did by a
trivial 1%, in aggregate you would have accomplished a massive step
change versus the competition. The pitch team pledged that while
they had no strategic magic wand, they would use marginal gains to
help transform the client’s business. My friend told me that the
client team left the first pitch with their imagination tingling.
They walked in to the next pitch and the lead presenter came out in
lycra, pushing a bike.
Sure enough, of the four presentations they saw that day, three
talked about marginal gains. The idea had been stolen by everyone.
What was once a new idea quickly becomes a bit of a tired cliché. I
was interested then to encounter the story of where British cycling
went next in Owen Slot’s outstanding book
'The Talent Code'. Slot describes how, more than just
appropriating marginal gains, the philosophy was to question every
single assumption to see how it could be improved. They styled this
as ‘challenging the tyranny of the normal’. At the Athens Olympics
in 2004, the Australians had finished in the gold position with
Team GB in second. But the race wasn’t even close. The Aussie team
had set such a breathtaking pace it feel like they would be
untouchable for years.
The job of turning the team’s performance round was given to
Matt Parker. Parker was neither a cycling coach nor even a cyclist;
he was sports scientist. Working with Peter Keen, Director of
Performance at UK Sport they set about catching the Australians.
Keen was someone who saw himself as an investment specialist rather
than a sporting selector: 'You’ve only got so much money, so if
you’re trying to win as many medals as possible, where would you
spend that money?' This had previously led Keen to make apparently
brutal decisions; Julie Paulding, a 35 year old cyclist, had just
had her best ever season, leaving her closest British rival
significantly behind her. Yet Keen had chosen the young rival,
Victoria Pendleton, to get funding as she represented a better
future medal investment. Keen says making decisions that prove wise
in the long term meet resistance in the short-term: 'Virtually
every corner where I’ve turned, you encounter an 'are you sure?'
Parker set about building his strategy certain, that they
wouldn’t permit ‘the tyranny of the normal’. They set a time goal
for the next games. The Australians had clocked up 3min56.61sec for
their world record in Athens. The British had barely ever broken
four minutes. To win in Beijing Parker set the goal speed of
3min55.2sec. An improvement of seven seconds.
Challenging the tyranny of the normal. What does that mean on
bikes? Well, let’s start at the basics; with the bike. World class
teams had almost always ridden on a 98-inch gear. That’s the whole
length of the chain across the wheel, pedals and derailleur.
Mechanics said to get to the pace they wanted they needed to go up
to 102 inches. Cyclists were deeply unhappy. A longer gear
represented a harder ride. Parker’s point was clear, we’ve built
our legacy on incremental changes but now we need to think
differently. We’ve maxed out on increments of the same norm, now we
need to challenge the norm.
Owen Slot’s wonderful book tells the unfolding story of how a
series of challenges to the norms of the cycling team found step
changes of improvement. In Beijing, the team’s semi-final
performance saw them hit their goal: 3min55.02sec. A new world
record. The best was still to come; in beating Denmark in the
final, they clocked 3min53.314sec. An extraordinary improvement in
four years. By challenging the tyranny of the normal, the team had
achieved breathtaking gains.
It struck me that this was entirely relevant to work. Most Brits
spend 2 days a week in meetings. Where, candidly, we’d possibly
confess to a friend, we spend our time pretending to pay attention.
It’s the norm of modern work. Dozens of hours of forced inactivity
combined with adrenalised overwork when we emerge. We stay late, or
do emails while we’re watching TV because we’re in interminable
meetings during the day. And yet very few organisations allow
ourselves to consider challenging the norms of work. What would
happen if we didn’t have these meetings or allowed fewer people to
represent us in them.
The challenge, of course, is that modern work is constructed on
the essential imperative that we need to keep everyone in the loop.
Communication. We need more communication. This demand leads to
long status update emails, interminable calendar slots with
presentations from distant teams and a sense that we too need to be
giving updates to anyone we encounter on our travels. It begs the
question of whether things really do need to be like this?
One model that I keep returning to is the entirely devolved
model of Nucor. Nucor started its recent history as a
nuclear-power business but quickly made the transition into steel.
Their workers were the best paid in the whole US steel industry but
the company had the lowest labour cost per ton of steel produced.
Most fascinatingly, the company was entirely decentralised. At the
time of their CEO Ken Iverson writing his experience in 1998, his
company had annual sales of $3.6B (around $6B today) and yet had
only 22 people working at their headquarters.
The critical ingredient for Nucor to achieve this leanness was
extreme decentralisation. Almost nothing was centralised; the
sourcing of raw materials, marketing, recruitment, target setting,
admin and safety guidelines were all localised to local steel
mills. That had multiple effects: it empowered local talent and it
avoided the constant need to keep checking back to HQ to keep
people ‘in the loop’.
Sir Robin Miller, former CEO of British media giant EMAP (where
I once worked), told me that had been his philosophy when it came
to running magazines. He gave everyone the freedom and autonomy to
run their business. It often saw very junior managers given bundles
of responsibility. Dozens of creative teams dotted London (and
Peterborough) often oblivious to each other’s existence. 'You’ve
got to be very careful, you’ve got to push responsibility down all
of the time. Because bureaucracy is very powerful and you see it
everywhere in larger companies where decisions take longer and
longer and longer because they’ve got to be taken nearer and nearer
the top. You’ve got to stop that if at all possible because nothing
will ever happen'.
One Nucor boss, Hamilton Lott, explained what this looked like
in reality: 'We are honest-to-god autonomous. That means we
duplicate efforts made in other parts of Nucor. The company might
develop the same computer program six times. But, the advantages of
local autonomy are so great, we think it’s worth it'.
It struck me that over the last few years we’ve moved from this
more than ever before. The creation of information networks has
created a sense that we need to keep everyone in the loop because
we can keep everyone in the loop. Work has become more stressful -
with the consequence that at times it can feel overwhelming. Maybe
we need to re-engineer work. A better version of work might be when
all of us are happily out of the loop.
About the author:
Bruce Daisley is the EMEA Vice President of Twitter and
best-selling author of 'The Joy of Work'. He joined the company in
2012 having previously run YouTube UK at Google. He has also worked
at Emap/Bauer and Capital Radio. Bruce runs the Apple #1 Business
Chart topping podcast Eat Sleep Work Repeat on work culture.
Bruce's smash hit book 'The Joy of Work' was the Sunday Times
number 1 business bestseller in spring 2019 and the Financial
Times’ Book of the Month. Bruce has a keen interest in mental
health in the workplace having observed at close quarters the
impact it can have on those afflicted.
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