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How to evaluate and implement startup ideas using Hypothesis Driven Development

This article was originally published on swombat.com in January 2011.

So you’ve come up with an interesting idea. You think it might work. You’ve sketched it out using various tools like the Business model generation  canvas, a business plan, an Excel financial model, etc. You’re still positive on the idea and think it’s probably worth giving it a shot.

What next?

One common approach is to visualise launch day and work back from there. Figure out what you need to launch some kind of initial product, and then start casting the spells and incantations required to get there (mostly in the form of code or application specifications).

A slightly better approach, which those who have tried the above method usually end up using next, after they built something that took them 6 months but was utterly useless to anyone, is to build the bare minimum that you need in order to get some users, any users, to use the system on a regular basis. This is better, and gets you feedback much more quickly than the previous method.

Even better is to aim not for something you can get people to use, but instead try to build something you can charge for immediately, even if the price is lower. This is often favoured by [Lean Startup](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lean_Startup) afficionados who haven’t quite taken the lean methodology the whole way yet.

What do all these methods have in common? They present the unfolding startup as a series of tasks to be completed to get somewhere.

Here’s a better approach.

Hypothesis-Driven Development

A startup idea is not a plan of action. A startup idea is a series of unchecked hypotheses. In essence, it is a series of questions that you haven’t completely answered yet. The process of progressing a startup from idea to functioning business is the process of answering these questions, of validating these hypotheses.

Let’s consider a theoretical startup to illustrate this. Let’s say we’re looking at building “Heroku for Django”. The initial three questions for most web startups will be in the form:

  • Can I actually build it?
  • Can I get people to know about it?
  • Can I make money from it?

Often, this is the order in which they will arise, if you have some experience of web startups but are fundamentally a builder type. Making money is the last concern. “If I can get lots of passionate users who are willing to pay something, then it will probably be alright.”

To apply Hypothesis-driven development properly, you will want to order your questions by priority before proceeding. This is especially essential once you break down the questions into sub-questions and end up with dozens upon dozens of questions.

The best way to prioritise the questions is by uncertainty. An initial order for these three questions might then be:

  1. Can I make money from it?
  2. Can I get people to know about it?
  3. Can I build it?

Your own prioritisation may vary, but if you’re technical, “Can I build it?” will probably be last on the list. Of course you can build it. If you couldn’t, you would probably have discarded the idea before even getting to this stage.

Before trying to answer the questions, you first break them down into sub-questions (please note this breakdown is nowhere near exhaustive enough, it’s just an example):

  1. Can I make money from it?
    1. How much will it cost me to serve the smallest users?
      1. Which cloud platform is best for this?
      2. How many instances will I need at a minimum to run the platform?
    2. How many users will I need just to break even?
      1. How much will I be able to charge per user?
      2. What proportion of paid vs free users will I have?
      3. How well will users convert from free to paid?
  2. Can I get people to know about it?
    1. What channels are there to get the message out?
    2. How much will each of these channels cost me?
      1. How competitive are the Ad-words for this?
    3. Do I have enough contacts to get the initial, core users so the service will be useful to real users?
  3. Can I build it?
    1. What are the hardest bits of technology I’ll need to put together?
    2. Can the scope be cut down so that I have a chance of building a version 1 with extremely limited resources?
    3. Which features can be put off until later?

You should keep expanding this list until you can start to see what the burning uncertainties are. These will be unique to your startup idea and to your skills and available resources. Two people evaluating the same idea will probably come up with different key questions. Once you’ve got those key questions (the ones which make you think “Hmm, I really don’t know this and it’s really important.”), shift those to the top.

Then, start working through the questions, one by one or even in parallel. Most of the time, the answer will not be found in code, but in good old-fashioned research, planning, and the dreaded Excel spreadsheets. You don’t need to answer all these questions with 100% certainty, but you should be clearly aware of the limits of your answers, and when the answer is really critical, you should make an effort to answer it as fully as possible. You can’t know everything, but you gotta know what you don’t know and how much it can hurt you.

At some point, if the idea has answered enough questions, the next most important question will require you to build something – be it a paper prototype, a landing page, or something else. When it’s the most important question, do it, and do just enough to answer the question. Later, if your idea is really good, you will probably, at some point, start to do the really expensive stuff: building a real application.

At that point, with so many critical questions having been answered, the likelihood that you build something that nobody uses or pays for should be low.

Of course, you may succeed by shooting from the hip and just going for it without a second thought, but more experienced entrepreneurs will usually look before they leap.

Thoughts from 2017

When I wrote this article, Eric Ries had been blogging about his Lean Startup ideas for a little while, but the book was still 9 months away from publication. It is obvious that this approach is one of the core components of the Lean Startup Methodology. That said, it extracts one of the key points and condenses it in a more readable format, which I think is valuable to be able to point people to.

All of the ideas in this article are still very much current – even more so, perhaps. Lean Startup, or Hypothesis Driven Development, is still the best way to devise a plan for building a new company: find the most risky assumptions, test them and update them until they are no longer risks, then find the next most risky assumptions and repeat until you have built a functioning company.

How to get better at writing

This was originally published on swombat.com on December 6th, 2010.

Writing is an essential skill for entrepreneurs. How do you get better at it?

Everyone can be good at writing, but not everyone makes the consistent effort to get there. Writing is not a skill that you can pick up overnight. Much like learning to speak a language, or like learning to start and run businesses, becoming a good writer is a journey measured in years.

This is a method to markedly improve your writing:

1. Practise often

If you look for them, you can find millions of occasion to write. Join almost any active online community and you will have many chances a day to write about whatever it is you have an opinion about. An active business will generate countless emails, each of which is an opportunity to write. And, of course, there are more traditional options, like blogging or otherwise writing for an audience.

You will not get better at writing without writing a lot, so the first thing to do is to make sure you’re writing something significant almost every single day. Find some excuse for it – any excuse will do – and keep it up.

2. Practise deliberately

Practicing is a start, but to be efficient you also want to extract the maximum amount of learning from your efforts.

For this, you need a way to evaluate your writing. Ideally, this needs to happen without involving anyone else; otherwise, you’ll find that your improvement depends on other people, which will slow you down or even stop you.

To evaluate your own writing, first you need to care. Most people who write horribly do so because they don’t care enough to even re-read their own words once, before sending them to some hapless recipient who will suffer through deciphering them.

Instead, do this:

  1. Read it out loud to yourself. Mark any points where you stumble in your speech as problem areas.
  2. Consider every sentence, one by one. Does it have a point? Is the point clear? Could it be more concise? Could it be cut entirely? Mark problem areas.
  3. Consider every paragraph. Does it have a point? Is the point clear? Could it be more concise? Could it be cut entirely? Mark problem areas.
  4. Go through all the problem areas and fix them.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 until you can’t stand looking at your own writing anymore (it can always be improved).

It’s often best to let writing rest for a day before evaluating it, too. Errors stand out more when you approach your writing with a fresh mind. Generally, it is better to review your writing before you publish it, but retrospective reviews work too.

3. Feed the machine

Last but not least, expose yourself to great writing continually. Read great books, particularly fiction (which tends to be better written on average). Read classics. Read modern stuff. Just read, read, read, every day.

When learning to write, every good book is a book about writing. Pay attention to the writing and you can learn from it. Look out for particularly good writing, or turns of phrase that you like. Also, look out for words that you don’t understand. Every time you’re not perfectly clear about the meaning of a word, look it up instead of guessing. You should only use a word when you know exactly what it means.

In conclusion…

  1. Write often – you won’t get better at writing without spending a lot of time writing
  2. Review your own writing – You’ll get better quicker if you deliberately look to improve
  3. Read often – exposing yourself to great writing will provide material to feed the automatically self-improving machine that is your subconscious

Do this for a few years and you will be, at the very least, a good writer. This will benefit not only your businesses, but all areas of your life.

2017 Thoughts

I think this article has stood the test of time. I stand by my advice. I would add a thought to it:

First, it now seems to me that once basic competency at writing is there, good writing tends to come from clear thinking. When we struggle to write something down or to explain it, it’s often because we don’t fully understand it ourselves. This clarity must cover not only the subject you are writing about, but also the impact you want to have on the reader. When you both know what you’re talking about and what you want to convey to the reader, good writing comes more naturally.

Even an amateur wordsmith, writing clumsily in a foreign language, but having mastered both topic and desired impact, will do a better job at writing than a poet who doesn’t know what they’re writing about and to what effect.

Adventures away from the Mac

When the new Macbook Pro was announced, I was not shy to judge it wanting. Those weren’t empty words, either – I went from being willing to spend £4.5k on a new machine, to hesitating, to buying a top spec Razer Blade for £2.7k instead. I was excited about the Razer – I even made an unboxing video!

The Blade was great – it played games smoothly at high resolution, was sleekly designed, and had a great showy gimmick in the form of the configurable LED backlit keyboard, which I soon configured to send shockwaves propagating across the keyboard with every key press. It ran Windows 10, which is the first time I actually used Windows in about 10 years.  That was a tolerable experience, though I wouldn’t call it great. I could certainly get used to it.

Unfortunately, about two and a half weeks into this new experience, I came back from a meeting to find the Blade stuck at the BIOS screen. It would not find its own hard drive. I restarted it a number of times, to no avail. It seems petty to mention that this was really disappointing, but it really was. My hope for a relatively smooth ride back towards the world of Windows after a decade on the Mac hit a deep pothole and went flying off the road. I contacted Razer to get help, and was hit with an abysmal support experience1. The poor support was a large factor in my decision to use my rights under the Consumer Rights Act 2015 and return the laptop for a full refund.

With reluctance, I decide to stick with the Mac for now, and try a new Macbook Pro after all. It couldn’t be that bad, right? I ordered a 15″ MBP with 1TB SSD, the top CPU and 16GB of RAM. And dongles – 4 different dongles. Total cost with Apple care, £3.5k. Ouch. Delivery target – over a month away. In the meantime, I continued to use my late 2012 MBP.

After a month, the new MBP finally arrived just after Christmas, on December 29th. I had a couple of days to set things up on it before going on holiday, I also used it a little bit while away in Ireland, and then had about a week of usage back in the office before I decided to return it as well.

Here are my thoughts on the pros and cons, why I returned it, and what comes next.

The Pros

The new MBP is a beautifully designed machine. It looks slick, feels solid and futuristic. In terms of how the hardware looks and feels it’s hard to fault it.

The screen is amazingly bright and sharp. I never changed the standard background image with the mountains in the sunrise, because it looked so strikingly beautiful.

The new keyboard mechanism was surprisingly ok. I was dreading it being like the Macbook, which just feels wrong, but it somehow managed to tweak the balance to be alright. Not great, mind you. I still prefer the old keyboard. I don’t think it’s an improvement. But it works, and I could see myself getting used to it over time.

The USB-C ports are not a problem. Yeah, you need to get a few dongles, today. In a couple of years’ time, though, when everything has switched over to USB-C, this decision will look like what it is: a level-headed, sensible decision to help nudge the industry towards the future by being the first to go all in. Kudos to Apple on that.

The fingerprint scanner is nice. I don’t have a big problem typing in my password but it makes sense and is a nice way to log in.

The sound was really great, really loud and with more bass than the my 2012 MBP. If all laptops had sound like this the bluetooth speaker market would be mostly wiped out.

The Cons

Let’s go in order of increasing importance and culminate with the reason why, ultimately, I decided to return the machine.

The touchpad, while perfectly fine, was enormous. That in itself is not a problem, but there was actually no purpose to the touchpad being so large. I never derived any benefit whatsoever from the size of the touchpad. My hands rested where they normally did. I think in 2 weeks there was a single occurence of the palm rejection not working as expected. That’s not a big deal. But it feels a bit pointless. Apparently, they had to switch to haptic feedback to make it that big. The haptic feedback worked well, though I still prefer actually clicks – but I can see the sense in a haptic touchpad: we have about 30 Macbook Airs in the office and a couple of them have developed issues with the clicking mechanism. Mixed bag, this touchpad.

The speed was… not all that noticeably better than my late 2012 MBP. It was faster, sure, but not a whole lot. I would have expected a top of the range machine like this to feel speedy2. It didn’t really. Perhaps that’s because of the tasks I tend to perform on it – mostly Slack, Chrome (Gmail, Gcal), Tweetbot, etc, with TotalSpace set on 9 spaces. I also use Traktor, Beatport Pro and Ableton for music. Those were a little bit more snappy, but not 4-years-and-3.5-thousand-pounds more snappy. There were still moments where the window animations were jerky, when things froze up a little, when the beach ball of doom appeared. Perhaps I’m using the wrong software to get benefits from the last 4 years of hardware improvements.

For games, even the 15″ with the Radeon 460 with 4GB of RAM was disappointing. I only ended up having time to try one game on it: Xcom 2, hardly a beast of a game, being turn-based strategy. It has the odd cut scene 3D animation that’s reasonably complex, though, and while on the Razer (which has an Nvidia 1060) it was perfectly smooth, on the Mac it was perfectly not smooth – consistently jerky, sometimes dropping to maybe 3-5 fps3. That’s poor. Very poor. If this thing can’t cope with a relatively undemanding 2015 turn based strategy game, how is it going to run any game in 2-3 years? Maybe Apple shouldn’t have bothered with the graphics card at all.

The battery life was atrocious. With my typical usage I got about 2-3 hours. Maybe a little bit more if I didn’t do anything. Perhaps this is to blame on a software glitch with the GPU switching. Perhaps this is to blame on my usage of extraordinarily demanding applications like Dropbox, Chrome and Slack (this has been seriously suggested in a Mac repair shop I went to)4. The Razer got just under 6 hours of life under the same conditions, and it made no claims to have any decent battery life. So let me get this straight: Apple made the laptop thinner, put a significantly smaller battery in there, and now I get less battery life from their new Mac, while doing the same thing as I was on my previous Mac? I just paid £3.5k to get a downgrade in battery life?

If all the above was true, but nothing else, I would probably still have put up with it and kept the damn thing. It’s a poor showing from Apple, but it is still bearable in exchange for the warm fuzzies of having a nice new Apple laptop instead of my corroded old MBP. Just about. What tipped the scales, finally, was the Touch Bar.

Flop Bar

On a practical level, the main problem with the Touch Bar was that it never did anything useful for me, and frequently, several times a day, made my Mac experience inferior. I use my Mac as it comes, not with an external keyboard, so I could not ignore the Touch Bar. It was in my way every day. Every time I reached for the Escape key and hit… something weird. Every time I somehow rested my fingers in a way that made a long black rectangle appear on my screen, which I had to dismiss by breaking eye contact with whatever I was doing, finding an empty spot on the touch bar, and tapping that (and moving my fingers somewhere else).

I tried the Touch Bar in the mode where it gave app-specific suggestions, and I made the effort to look at it from time to time to see if there was anything of interest there. There never was. Not once. So after a week I flicked it to a static mode that looked like the Function Row. Even there it still got in the way from time to time and was an inferior experience to simply having a row of keys.

A week in, after I came back from Ireland, a weird problem developed with one key on the keyboard, which was somehow stuck down5. I tried hitting it from various angles to loosen it, but somehow it seemed stuck for good. I investigated getting that fixed, and in the process realised that I did not feel good about this laptop. Part of my mind was thinking about scenarios to return it. Why? The keyboard was surely just a minor problem.

After a bit of self-examination, I realised that the cause of that was the Touch Bar. Every day I liked it less. It was annoying, adding nothing to my experience but frequently getting in the way. Moreover, it was a daily reminder of how this MBP is not really a “Pro” machine (as has been covered ad nauseam in countless other blogs), but a sort of compromise based on Apple’s failing vision of what “Pro” users want. To put a final nail in it, I am convinced that in next year’s line-up Apple will either get rid of the Touch Bar or offer high end models both with and without, because in practice it’s just not that great an idea (I have yet to find anyone who is all that excited about the Touch Bar amongst my friends – at best they find it a non-issue). So if I kept my new MBP I’d be stuck with a high end, expensive machine that thumbs its nose at me every time I open it or rest my hands on the keyboard “the wrong way”.

One of the big reasons why people have been willing to pay extra money for Apple gear is that they get the “emotional” attachment right. They make devices that you get attached to, that create feelings in you when you use them. At least as far as I was concerned, Apple did get it right when they made the Touch Bar centrestage during the keynote (though I thought it was stupid at the time). The Touch Bar did create feelings in me. The feeling that this new MBP created in me every time I interacted with the Touch Bar was a growing awareness of my being an idiot for having bought an inferior, deeply flawed machine.

Everything else I would have put up with, but feeling like an idiot every time I use my laptop (i.e. most of the day every day) is not something I’m willing to pay £3.5k for.

So I returned it and got a refund.

What’s next?

The closest thing to the machine Apple should have put out, out there at the moment, is probably the Surface Book. But Microsoft is still getting their production chops together (they can’t even launch a device in the US and UK simultaneously yet). If the new Surface Book with Performance Base had been available in the UK, I might have given it a go. Maybe I will in a year or two if Apple continues to disappoint and Microsoft continues to get better.

As far as I can tell, there is currently no company that sells a Macbook Pro, i.e. a sleek, well designed, well supported professional laptop with solid specs and high desirability, a laptop that you can really feel good about buying – not even Apple. Hopefully someone (hopefully Apple) will soon, but right now there’s no laptop that is a significant upgrade on my 2012 Macbook Pro.

So for now, I will continue to use my 2012 MBP. It’s a good machine, it was doing alright, it can last another year, maybe two. And every time I open it I am reminded that I had the strength of will to return two laptops rather than spend a ridiculous amount of money on nothing just because I can.

I have bought an iPad Pro and am giving it a try for a couple of weeks as a device to use at the office6. It’s decent enough so far. I’m liking it. The battery life seems infinite. The Smart Keyboard case is tolerable (the Logitech one was too heavy). The lack of multitasking is, at the moment, actually helping me to focus better. It’s no good for “heavy work” but I no longer do heavy work at the office – most of my time is spent talking to people, sending emails and drafting documents7. I may return it, but at the moment, 4 days in, it feels like a keeper.

It is not, however, a “real computer” or a sufficient long term substitute. And I still do need a “real computer” – for DJing, for producing music, for managing my tracks collection, and perhaps even for playing games. I will have to get a new laptop, or a desktop, or maybe both, some day. At the moment, unless they really surprise me with next year’s lineup, it’s looking very likely that this next computer will not be made by Apple.


  1. After interacting with them over a few months, I am convinced that Razer’s support team programmatically insert a 24 hour delay in their responses. The hard evidence? Apart from the pattern of responses, an email sent on Friday will result in an auto-reply on Saturday afternoon indicating they’re closed for the weekend!

  2. The Blade felt a lot faster but it was a different OS so I couldn’t be sure if that was why it felt faster, or the hardware

  3. XCom 2 on the Mac, installed via Steam, doesn’t support changing the graphics settings, so I was just using it with whatever is the hardcoded default there.

  4. I should add that I left it plugged in on a high-speed connection to sync up Dropbox/etc initially, so this was not during the “initial sync”, but during regular usage

  5. This had never happened in 4 years of (ab)using my 2012 MBP

  6. I was ready to spend £4.5k on the MBP initially because I really want some sort of new gadget to play with, and my computer was clearly due for an upgrade. The iPad Pro is 1/3 the price of the Mac I returned, btw.

  7. As an aside, MS Word for iPad is an extremely well designed application!

Apple’s Ballmer phase

Some thoughts on the Apple Keynote yesterday, the new Macbook Pro, and its impact.

Background: I switched from Windows to Mac in 2006. Never looked back. People have called me an Apple Fanboy for years – to which I replied I’m just a fan of good technology and I’ll switch when Apple no longer makes the best stuff.

The Keynote

First, the keynote itself: it was the most ridiculously bad Apple Keynote I have ever seen. I could have forgiven the long build-up full of irrelevant announcements about Apple TV and tedious slide show reminders about iPhone and Photos if Apple had delivered on the main promise of an awesome new MBP, but Apple did not deliver. In that context, this level of hype and build-up was frankly stupid and harmful. The stilted delivery that others have commented on just made it all the more obvious.

This was a shaggy dog Keynote.

The Macbook Pro

Second, the goods: the new Macbook Pro is unexciting. The Touch Strip or whatever they’re calling it is positively lame in comparison to the full screen touch screens competitors are putting out. The use cases they demonstrated range from uninteresting to terrible1 – the point of a keyboard is touch memory. Without that, there is no point in having the buttons off the screen. Just make it a full screen touch screen! I can see this touch strip being helpful in some circumstances, particularly for non-power users who can’t remember shortcuts, but this is not the target market for the expensive Macbook Pro! On the technical side, the specs are ok, but not great. The prices, though, are eye-watering. Overall this was a very mediocre product announcement from Apple, after two years of silence.

This was meant to be a great computer for the early adopters, the geeks, the artists, the troublemakers and the crazy ones. It is not – it’s a massively overpriced, average piece of kit with a gimmicky touch strip that you’ll be embarrassed about every time someone asks you if you are enjoying your thousand dollar function bar that you have to carefully look down at every time you want to use it.

If Apple had said “we haven’t changed anything about the mac, but made it really awesome, it has the best specs and some USB-3 ports and a great graphics card that you can do VR with”, they would have gotten away with it for another year or two. But this? I was ready to spend £4k on a brand new laptop before the Keynote. Now, I’m ready to switch away from Mac and have already 99% settled on the new Surface Book.2

Slow clap for Apple – from “please take my £4k” to “I’m switching to Windows” in one keynote. This is not the kind of new ground they were hoping to break, though, I guess.

The Vision

Third, the glaring inconsistencies in Apple’s product range. If you buy a new Macbook Pro and a new iPhone today you will need a dongle to connect them. And to replace your current macbook you will need a multitude of expensive dongles that take up a lot of space in your bag and get lost all the time. Who thought that through?

Then there is the massive blind spot they clearly have about the Mac. Laptops and desktops aren’t gone yet. They’re still essential for most people. Maybe in 10 years we’ll all be using wearable computers exclusively but today, the laptop is at the top of the hill – I may love my iPhone, but I still do my creative and knowledge work on a computer. Even if I could get away with  using an iPad most of the time, I still need a computer enough of the time that I have to own one. Which computer I own makes a huge difference to which ecosystem I’m buying in.

In this context, Apple has neglected the Mac Pro for almost half a decade (that’s a hundred years in the tech industry), did not announce new iMacs, and made a half-arsed upgrade to the Macbook Pro with nothing exciting about it.

And if the Apple ecosystem is no longer the smoothly integrated experience it used to be, well, then, why should I stay with it? I’ll be exploring my options to get the best experience for me.

This is not a company with a clear vision any longer.

The Company

Finally, Microsoft seems to have just finally emerged from its 14-year long Ballmer age. Gates was a demanding visionary, and drove product design accordingly.  So was Jobs (even more so). Ballmer and Cook are great executives but not visionaries, it is now clearly the case for both of them, though there was some doubt about Cook previously, at least in my mind.

Satya Nadella seems to be a visionary, based on what’s coming out of Microsoft now. Microsoft could not have hoped for a better Apple Keynote to follow their exciting announcement of the Surface Studio (my, what a beautiful piece of kit) – a product Jobs would have been proud of I think.

On the mobile side, Google could not have hoped for a better timing for Samsung’s troubles, which may well establish the Pixel as the Android iPhone – and so make it easier for iPhone lovers like me to switch out of the Apple ecosystem.

The wolves are circling the Apple cart. But it’s a really big cart. It’s going to take them a while.

I think Apple will need another 5 to 10 years to realise that they need a different kind of leadership and culture than what is at play now, and another 5 years to change it. So I do not expect the Macbook Pro update in 6 or 12 months (if it comes) to be significantly better than what Apple have just delivered after 2 years of waiting. They did their best. And they’ll continue to do that. It’s just not good enough for me.

I don’t expect Apple to come up with anything as revolutionary as the iPhone or iPod or iPad in the next 10 years – at least while Cook is at the helm. I’m not going to hold my breath for it. I’m going to go look elsewhere for my shiny stuff.

Like Microsoft, I think Apple will continue to make mind-boggling amounts of money for those 5, 10, 15 years. It just won’t be from my wallet, I guess.

Conclusion

Time to switch! And of course the new Microsoft is totally on the ball with this. It’s almost like they have competent leadership and a clear vision of what they want to achieve.

I don’t buy shares at the moment, but if I did, I’d start shifting them over from Apple to Microsoft roundabout now.

It’s sad that as Microsoft finally wakes up, Apple is going to sleep. It would have been fascinating and exciting to see the old Apple and the new Microsoft go head to head at this game. Instead, from “Apple is the only game in town if you want a great computing hardware experience”, we’ve moved straight through to “Microsoft is the only game in town”.

Oh well.


  1. As a DJ, I shuddered while the DJ was demoing his skills – so many buttons so tight together is begging for a slip of the finger, and in order to avoid it the DJ has to keep looking down at the laptop – a hunched over look that makes no DJ look good.

  2. Worth adding that I am an influencer. My usage of Mac has resulted in many dozens of other people buying Macs and iPhones – including my own company buying over 30 Macs. This is not good news for Apple

An update on the Advice Process

Is it possible for everyone in a company to have the same power to make decisions as the CEO?

A year and a half ago I wrote an article about the Advice Process. We were a few months in the experiment at GrantTree, and it was going well enough that I wanted to share our findings.

Time has passed, and I have more findings and refinements. If the advice process is something of interest to you, my thoughts below may be worth reading.

First, has it worked?

Back then, I was confident, but not entirely sure that the advice process would work out. So the first question to answer is, is it working?

Absolutely. I won’t say that it is yet completely understood by everybody, or that all the challenges surrounding it are resolved (see below), but anyone who works here can observe for themselves that it is at the core of how we work. The experiment is certainly a success at this point.

How has our implementation of the advice process changed? Read on.

Phrasing

The first and most obvious thing that has changed about our implementation of the advice process is the phrasing. 18 months ago we were quite forceful about the definition:

Anyone can make any decision they feel comfortable making. However, before they make that decision, they must ask those who will be impacted by that decision, and those who are experts on that subject, for advice. They are free to disregard the advice and make the decision the way they wanted to anyway, but they must first ask for advice.

Important: this is about getting feedback/input into your decision, not about building consensus. Do not use the advice process to try and browbeat people into agreement or to build political support for your decision. You don’t need people to agree. You don’t need political support. You just need input to make sure that you make the right decision.

This definition spoke to our collective fear that the advice process would be misused or abused, that people would make controversial decisions without seeking the advice they needed to make a good decision, or that people might feel like their voice hasn’t been heard when making the decision (because they weren’t consulted at all).

In practice, we’ve not noticed that to be a problem. On the contrary, people typically seek too much advice for most decisions. This is not inherently bad except that sometimes it makes the advice process seem like a drag. So we changed the phrasing to say:

Anybody can make any decision if they have all the advice they need to make a good decision for the business. This includes asking those impacted or with expertise.

There, that’s it. No caveats, no footnotes. Just a simple statement and guideline with a bias towards actually making decisions.

Peer pressure

When I wrote the previous article, I was worried that I would be the one to undermine other people’s decisions, and hence my advice was directed towards founders, and other people with positions of implicit authority or status, to try and help them not undermine the advice process themselves.

That advice still stands – I still think that in a traditional top-down setting, the person deciding to put in the advice process can also very easily destroy its dynamic by revising other people’s decisions, but I am now aware that even if that doesn’t happen, there are lots of dynamics in the company that can undermine the process in practice, even without any status games.

The advice process is very challenging both for the people giving the advice and for those receiving it.

On the giving side, there is an implicit surrender of control in giving advice to someone that is hard to stomach for most people, particularly when they feel like their advice should carry weight. The person we’re advising may make a decision we disagree with. This causes fear. Fear leads to distrust and sometimes to attempts to influence the outcome of the process. This subversion can take many forms, but one of the more common ones I’ve observed is peer pressure and politics: when we fear the outcome, we might spend time discussing the decision-in-progress with a group, persuading them of the right outcome, and trying to enforce a sort of consensus-based resistance to the outcome that we fear.

As a consequence of that dynamic, instead of spending time trying to stop myself from revising other people’s decisions, I’ve found I’m spending far more time protecting other people’s right to make unpopular decisions, for example, by stating openly that whatever the decision the person makes, it’s their decision and I’ll stand by their right to make it.

Another extra layer of peer pressure is added when people give advice on behalf of others. Second-hand advice (“I don’t think you should do this because other people will disagree”) is generally poor, unconvincing, and also undermining.

My advice to the advice-giver would be:

When giving advice, accept that this is not your decision instead of trying to take control of the decision, speak for yourself instead of speaking for others, be clear that you’re just explaining your perspective instead of stating your opinions as universal truths.

On the advice-receiving side the process is also often challenging. Because most organisations operate by political processes, we feel tempted to discuss and justify our impending decision while seeking advice. I find that I fall prey to this a lot. It’s my biggest challenge when taking on decisions myself, perhaps borne out of the habit of making decisions via persuasion. So, a lot of my energy there is spent on myself to try and not fall into persuasion mode when seeking advice.

Why is that important? For two reasons. First of all, when I am trying to persuade someone else, I’m only listening to their arguments in the sense that they are obstacles I need to remove to convince them – so the advice that I get ends up being poorer, because of my own poorer listening skills. Secondly, the person giving the advice struggles to feel heard if they perceive that I am trying to convince them.

My advice to myself in this is:

When seeking advice, listen instead of arguing, ask questions instead of explaining, seek to fully understand the other perspective instead of seeking to change it.

This is a lot harder than it seems.

Disagreements

Although there has occasionally been grumbling when someone made a decision someone else disagreed with, it has generally been accepted that the decision was made.

Importantly, we used to state that a valid outcome of such a disagreement was a conflict resolution process. Then we moved away from that, because the threat of conflict looked like it was being used to coerce decisions (some people seemed more risky to have a conflict with than others). Right now we’re in an in-between state where we haven’t really defined what happens if someone makes a decision where someone else disagrees so vigorously that they can’t accept it – in part, because it doesn’t seem like that’s ever happened, even when very high-impact and controversial decisions were being made.

I don’t want to overextend myself here, but it is possible that this is a non-issue. Much like in top-down businesses, decisions that we disagree with, coming from the top, are accepted as decisions of the business. It appears that this may be true in open businesses too, for decisions coming from peers.

In practice, the few times when such controversial decisions were being made, the person who disagreed had a chat with the decision-maker to understand their reasoning and make sure their view had been heard, and then moved on, without demanding the decision be changed (which I believe wouldn’t have worked, but I never even got to find out).

Pay

Back when we set up the advice process, the first major road block we encountered was using it to decide pay. Back then, I wrote that I felt this could be tried again once there were no more major disagreements about pay in the company. Over the last year and a half, much of the company has, in turns, designed and implemented a pay system. Each time there were some who were happier and some who were less happy, but the result has been that the company really owns this central process, the apportionment of rewards.

Along with that, we also learned a lot about the advice process and how to use it. We developed our relationship to this core process. We also learned communication skills like Non-Violent Communications. We also had some major conflicts, some of which we resolved successfully and some of which we didn’t, but all of which we learned from.

We haven’t yet been able to implement the advice process for pay again, but I think we’re getting very close. Maybe this year.

In conclusion

The advice process is working very well for us. There are all sorts of nuances to its applications, that we’re learned over the last couple of years, and we’re continuing to learn.

To answer the question I opened with: Yes, it is possible to multiply the power of individuals in an organisation via the advice process, so they all have the maximum power that they are capable of wielding.

I hope your organisation is able to implement this process and give it a try.

GitHub: The quiet death of one man’s dream

When I first read Reinventing Organizations, Frédéric Laloux’s excellent study of open culture organisations around the world, I remember being moved and puzzled by the tale of AES. AES was (still is, I think) a publicly listed energy company that pioneered many of the concepts of open culture in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. Then something went wrong: Enron. The stock market slid, and AES’s shareholders demanded that AES go back to more traditional management practices to fix this (even though it was obvious that AES’s stock decrease was environmental – the whole energy market was collapsing because of Enron’s speculation and (ahem) hard-edged “traditional management” practices).

Then I read Joy At Work, which was written by Dennis Bakke, one of the founders of AES and the main source of the pioneering culture work at AES. It’s a truly excellent book filled with useful ideas that we’ve applied at GrantTree, not the least of which is the definition of Advice Process which we use to make all decisions. And it is also a very bitter book.

Building open cultures is very hard work. It digs deep inside of us. It changes us. Like the Southern Oracle’s second, mirrored gate, it requires us to face all sorts of internal insecurities that we would normally ignore – things deeply specific to us and which are often very uncomfortable to deal with. Most people go their whole life without really facing themselves. Those who would create open culture organisations spend most of their time doing it, a rewarding but difficult habit.

If it is uncomfortable to face our shadows, it is doubly so to encourage others to face their own. It’s dangerous work too. Human change often requires dissolving what was there to build it anew, but when people are undergoing the first part of change, the dissolution, it feels like things they could once rely on are no longer there. They are afraid. They sometimes blame us for “making” them go through this. When you care deeply about every relationship (and to build an open culture, you must care), it is incredibly hard to go through this process with others too, always facing the risk that one of those people will refuse to change, blame you for it, and so attack you as the source of their suffering.

Part of what sustains me (and, I guess, other open culture advocates) while dealing with all this is the fundamental belief that what I’m doing is making a positive, lasting difference to those it touches, the belief that this way of working is truly better for all who experience it and that we all benefit from it.

I can only imagine what it must be like to spend decades building such a culture, only to have it wrenched from you, changed and corrupted back into a closed, hierarchical culture. The word “gutting” comes to mind. I am certainly not surprised that Dennis Bakke is bitter. It’s hard to see your life’s work defiled in this way.

I have previously linked to an excellent article about GitHub’s open culture. Today I read something far less inspiring, here:

Cofounder CEO Chris Wanstrath, with support from the board, is radically changing the company’s culture: Out with flat org structure based purely on meritocracy, in with supervisors and middle managers. This has ticked off many people in the old guard.

Its once famous remote-employee culture has been rolled back. Senior managers are no longer allowed to live afar and must report to the office. This was one reason why some senior execs departed or were asked to leave, one person close to the company told us.

Some longer-term employees feel like there’s a “culture of fear” where people who don’t support all the changes are being ousted.

These are all very clear signs of an open culture that’s being ripped to shreds. It’s tragic.

It’s also terribly ironic to see the old bullshit excuse that “well, it just doesn’t work at this scale” being deployed:

“There was a remote culture and very little hierarchical structure which worked wonderfully when they were 30 and 50 people, but at 500, it doesn’t work. Chris has decided that the leadership team needs to be in the building and managing, so remote is not an option for senior executives.”

AES had 40’000 employees all around the world and yet was successfully open. MorningStarCo has many hundreds. Valve (assuming it’s still open) has thousands. Semco – who knows, it’s now fragmented into a bunch of open culture companies and likely numbers in the thousands too. Yes, growth is hard. Things change when you grow. But transparency, trust, power and freedom don’t have to be among them.

Tom Preston-Werner’s dream

When did this start? When did the dream start dying? Who knows. But I have a hunch that it started before Tom Preston-Werner was ousted from the company, a couple of years ago, in a case of sexual harassment that was later dismissed as groundless. This smacks me of political play, a scenario very similar to what played out at AES, where an unrelated incident is used by those who don’t yet understand or trust open culture to weaken, attack or destroy it. GitHub was an open culture at the time. What did Tom do there? Why was it important to get him out?

Frédéric Laloux addresses the role of the “leader” in an open (also known as Teal), non-hierarchical organisation:

You might have noticed a major paradox: CEOs are both much less and much more important in self-managing organizations compared to traditional ones. They have given up their top-down hierarchical power. The lines of the pyramid no longer converge towards them. They can no longer make or overturn any decision. And yet, in a time when people still think about organizations in Amber, Orange and Green ways, the CEO has an absolutely critical role in creating and holding a Teal organizational space. But beyond creating and holding that space, paradoxically, there is not much a CEO needs to do; he can let the self-organizing, emerging nature of Evolutionary-Teal take over.

[…]

Teal operating principles run deeply against the grain of accepted management thinking, and so a critical role of the founder/CEO is to hold the space for Teal structures and practices. Whenever a problem comes up, someone, somewhere, will call for tried-and-proven solutions: let’s add a rule, a control system; let’s put the issue under some centralized function; let’s add a layer of supervision; let’s make processes more prescriptive; let’s make such decisions at a higher level in the future. The calls can come from different corners – one time it’s a board member who will call for more control, another time a colleague, a supplier or a client. Over and over again, the CEO must ensure that trust prevails and that traditional management practices don’t creep in through the back door.

And so it was with GitHub. Unfortunately, it is through the effect of his absence that we now know for sure that Tom was the leader who was “holding the space” at GitHub. In a way, I guess Tom was outmanoeuvred by someone who thought they knew better what GitHub’s culture should be. Whoever this someone is (probably not Chris Wanstrath), they took advantage of the situation and cleared the space for more “reasonable”, “grown-up” management to be put in. And so GitHub’s once open, innovating, amazing, world-leading culture is being replaced to create another workplace just like every other closed workplace.

Rather than analyse the causes of all this (I don’t know enough to do so anyway), I’d like to conclude the article by thanking Tom Preston-Werner. While it was open, GitHub was an inspiration that I (and no doubt many others) drew from to help open up the culture of our own companies. I have no idea what Tom is planning to do next – he’s still very young, I’m hopeful! – but I hope that he will be able to move past this failure, as tragic as it might be, and build another, even more amazing open culture company.

Thank you Tom. Best of luck with the next venture!

PS: Oh, by the way, if you’re a developer at GitHub, and you’d like to continue working remotely for an open culture company, we’ve been trying to hire a Python developer for a while. The old job ad is here. Get in touch if you’re interested! Filled (and thanks to this blog post)!

Values show up at the extremities

“A gentleman is a gentleman even in the gutter.”

Popular Romanian Proverb

What are your values? How do you find out? How do you test them? How do you know whether your values are really your values?

There are countless exercises designed to help a company find its values. And they are no doubt very effective at generating a consensus set of values that everyone can get behind. I am in some doubt as to whether those can uncover true values. I think only hard experience can test whether a value is truly held or merely a cosmetic convenience.

Values are oh so fragile. As my father put more eloquently than me in this article, everyone agrees with all the values, the question is, which do they put first? When trying times come around, when we have every justification to break our own values, to make an exception, to bypass the principle and to achieve a necessary, important objective, do we?

The more I observe the dynamics at play in a company like GrantTree, the more it seems to me that it is precisely in those moments that our true values are revealed. Moreover, I don’t think there is any other way to reveal them for sure.

An old principle

This is not news. No truly powerful idea is, I suppose. Jesus is reported to have once said1:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

It’s easy to love our friends. It’s easy to have values when they are untested. It’s cheap to have principles when everything is going well. But what do we do when there is real pain and loss and danger at hand? What do we do when faced with those we hate, in person or behaviour? What do we do under real pressure?

Business has a habit of throwing difficult situations at us on a regular basis. There is real work to be done, there are real stakes, things to be gained and lost right now. It maybe does not happen every day, but a business will frequently test our values.

The enemies of our values

There are certain sentences and idea fragments that I often find rising out of the ground like walls, in the way of a consistent application of our values. This is by no means a complete glossary, just a sketch of a few known shapes that the foe might take. Perhaps they can help us recognise when we are being tested.

“But these are special circumstances”

When faced with testing circumstances, it can be very tempting to carve out an exception because the situation is unique. Of course, every single situation we will ever face in our lives is unique. The world does not repeat itself.

If we give in to the temptation to carve, soon there will be nothing but holes in our principles.

Instead, we could accept the uniqueness of the circumstances, and figure out how we can successfully apply our principles to these circumstances.

“But we are running a business here”

Necessity is the mother not just of invention but also of compromise. Often, when a value is being tested, this is the shape of the challenge. Everyone has their own idea of what “running a business” means, of course, but when they bring up this bogeyman they are really saying that they are afraid that the principle or value is not compatible with the survival of the business, immediate or more distant.

If we sacrifice our principles on the altar of survival or profit, they are not really principles at all.

Instead, we could listen with compassion to the fear, accept it, embrace it, and speak to it. Many things can cause fear in the world of business, and we will find ways to be ourselves even in fearful circumstances.

“But we don’t want to set a precedent that could be abused”

This is another message of fear. In a trust-based, open culture environment, there are countless things done every day that could be abused by a “bad actor”. Open cultures rely on the Theory Y model of trusting that people will be good rather than bad. There can and will be exceptions, but my observation is that the benefits far outweigh the occasional, rare, and inevitable abuse.

It is of course very hard to trust Mr X, the future hire who we don’t know, and who therefore may well behave according to Theory X, and be selfish, potentially abusive, and who therefore needs to be controlled. It can be easy to fall into the trap of assuming that we must design the systems, the processes, the precedents, to prevent Mr X from abusing the company.

Instead, we could recognise that Mr X is a bogeyman, and replace him in our minds with people we know and understand within our teams. Would the process or decision work in their case? Would they abuse it? Hopefully the answer is “of course not”, and we can put the bogeyman to rest.

“But this person is really bad/misguided/wrong”

The last and perhaps most difficult shape is that of the evil one. When circumstances conspire to make us see the other as The Other, as the Stranger, the Evil, who cannot be reasoned with because this is just how he is, this is his nature, unchangeable. He is Evil and so there is only one thing to do: fight.

One might think that it would be easy to recognise and ignore this bias, but in my experience it is the hardest to defeat. What is violence? Disconnection, from ourselves and from others2. What is its opposite? Connection and love. When faced with someone we perceive as evil, the natural response is violence. Who wants to connect to evil, to love evil? Jesus’s admonition, his central message of love, is heavy… like a cross?

It is so very easy to slip on the battle gear and go to war.

Instead, if only we could find compassion for the other person. If only we could make room within ourselves for the possibility that they are not evil, nor even misguided, but merely see the world in a different way, or are simply angry or fearful themselves. And if we could fight that anger and fear and disconnection with love. But this is very hard work.

If we only could, though, once a connection is built, even just one way, it becomes once again possible to stick to our principles.

Are all your values there yet?

I wish I could say that I have “won” every one of these struggles. I haven’t, not by a long shot. It’s hard to stick to your principles under pressure.

I think it’s important to conclude by noting that just because we fail at our desired values once, or even over and over again, doesn’t mean we don’t care about them. We are but human. All we can ask of ourselves is to recognise the failure and try to do better next time. I imagine this is a lifelong process.


  1. I prefer the King James version. Seems more Biblical

  2. And when we give in to the urge for violence we disconnect not only from the other but also from our own self, giving rise to more violence, both internal and external.

Alternatives to Amazon in the UK

(click here or scroll down for the alternatives)

Disclaimer: this article is my opinion based on numerous articles that I’ve read. I do not know anyone who works at Amazon right now.Amazon boot stamping on human face, forever

You’d have to be living under a rock to have missed the recent flurry of articles on the topic of Amazon’s working practices. This latest wave was kicked off by an in-depth, researched piece published by the New York Times, titled Inside Amazon: Wrestling Ideas in a Bruising Workplace.

It paints a picture that is not all that surprising, if you take into account that Amazon is a highly measurement-driven, highly hierarchical workplace. You may take one side or the other of the open vs closed culture discussion, but you can’t disagree that Amazon is a highly refined, ruthlessly effective and sophisticated example of a closed culture.1

The New York Times article should not be surprising to anyone. Despite its attempts to legally muffle employees, stories of Amazon’s behaviour have been leaking out through the years. Not that long ago there was the case I covered in my videocast of Amazon lying to a big customer and being sued by one of its employees who was mistreated in the process. Everyone has heard of the famous warehouse story, where Amazon warehouse workers were made to work in hot warehouses, with ambulances lined up to resuscitate them when they passed out from exhaustion. There are other such stories through the years, and more recently following the NY Times article, if you search for them. Together, they paint a picture that’s hard to deny.

It’s impossible to avoid the obvious truth: by all appearances, Amazon is a company that dehumanises its workers and treats them like easily-discarded tools, that disregards even the most basic human decency, punishing people for getting cancer or having miscarriages, firing people for being distracted by a severe illness in their close family, encouraging the worst aspects of human competitiveness in the workplace. Amazon is a fundamentally distasteful, inhuman workplace. And yet it is also highly successful.

It’s not surprising that Bezos denies knowledge of these dreadful stories, declaring that “this article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know”. Top-down hierarchical companies based on secrecy and dehumanised meritocracy are not great at letting information flow. In fact, one of the stories I linked above involves one of the workers being penalised and then fired for going above his boss to point out a grave ethical problem. As David Heinemeier Hansson puts it, CEOs are the last to know, and declaring that this is not what you intend your company culture to be is not a valid excuse when this is in fact what your company culture is. Culture is what culture does, not what culture says it aspires to.

What led me to write this article, and put together the list below, however, is not just these articles, it’s a question put to us all by Joe Nocera in this op-ed:

For a data-driven executive like Bezos, this kind of culture is appealing, because it maximizes the amount of work a company can wring from fundamentally fungible human beings. The question Amazon’s culture raises is whether it is an outlier — or whether it represents the future of the workplace.

The future of the workplace

Does Amazon represent the future of the workplace? I believe the answer is no. I believe open cultures represent the future of the workplace, not closed ones. If Amazon is to be a pattern for our future, this is a bleak world indeed we are headed for, one which will make the futuristic, corporatist dystopias of Blade Runner or Alien seem prophetic rather than nightmarish.

Do you want to live in such a world?

More to the point, do you want to live in that world, knowing that you personally contributing to helping such a world come about?

Do you want to help bring about a world where humans are fungible and so effectively worthless, a world where the only values are those that can be counted in dollars? A world where you are only as valuable as your immediate market value? A world where coercion, through fear of poverty, is the main motivation for work?

If you do, this article is not for you.

If you don’t, then I humbly suggest to you, as I have to myself, to consider that through your own actions you may be helping bring about this world.

I believe that until Amazon reforms its ways and becomes visibly and transparently a company that is not rife with such awful stories, a company that has at least a modicum of respect for the inherent, intrinsic value of human beings as something other than means to an end, we should all, as human beings, be voting with our feet and picking better alternatives, because otherwise, with each purchase we are helping bring about this awful future.

Some may respond that all companies are equally evil. That is not so. There are many companies out there who adopt principles and values that are human-centric, not just for the bottom line, but because they believe those are the right way to contribute to this world. And even of those companies who are not so principled, most are nowhere near as ruthless to their own people as Amazon appears to be – they at least make some sort of genuine effort to try and care for their employees. Amazon doesn’t even bother pretending.

At this point in time, as people who buy things, I think it’s worth assuming that pretty much any company other than Amazon is better to buy from than Amazon. This is not always possible. Often Amazon can deliver more quickly and more cheaply – some would argue, by externalising a lot of its costs – and sometimes you just need that thing tomorrow… Sometimes Amazon is the only company selling the thing you need. Sometimes the price differential is so large as to make alternatives impractical.

But those are minority cases – composing maybe 20-40% of the times when we buy things online.

Amazon aims to be the “everything store”, but almost everything is also sold by someone else. All that I suggest to readers of this post is to consider the following UK alternatives, that I’ve researched for you, if you’re about to buy something from Amazon. Moving just half of your custom away from Amazon may well impact their bottom line and their growth in a way that will force them to change.

At some point, there has to be a tangible cost to treating people like shit on a large scale. This point is now, and the person who holds the right to pass judgement and to apply the sentence is you.

Amazon alternatives in the UK

Here then, are some alternatives to Amazon in the UK.

Are some categories that are important to you missing? Let me know, and let me know what alternatives you recommend, and I’ll try to include them here.

Books

The following shops sell both physical books and ebooks online:

Electronics

Amazon is also a very convenient place to buy electronics. But there are alternatives, and sometimes they’re even cheaper, or have broader choices:

Audio equipment

As a DJ, I care about this…

Music & Movies & Games

Groceries

Most UK supermarkets do online shopping and delivery these days.

Home goods

DIY

Conclusion

This list is by no means complete. But it should provide you with a starting point if you want to use alternatives to Amazon for at least part of your purchasing.

I don’t think it’s realistic to expect to move all your shopping off Amazon. I know I will still be using Amazon for some things. But if I can move even half my shopping off Amazon, I think that’s already something gained.

What you actually do with the information in this post is, of course, in your hands.

The future of work is in your hands.


  1. Using the “colour language” of Reinventing Organisations, where Genghis Khan’s Mongol Horde was a highly effective red organisation, Amazon is a highly effective orange organisation. We may find its mode of operation distasteful but we can’t deny its effectiveness for certain objectives.

An Open Letter to Tony Hsieh

Dear Tony,

First of all, let me start by stating that I truly admire what you’ve achieved. Your book, describing your path from LinkExchange to Zappos, from culture-by-accident to the deliberate creation of an awesome company based on culture, was an inspiration for us at GrantTree. The idea of optimising a company for employee happiness, as well as the knowledge that someone else had done this on a much larger scale than my cofounder and I, were invaluable guideposts on a road less travelled, towards cultures built upon openness and respect.

I also completely agree with where you’re trying to take Zappos. I believe that teal/open (or holacratic) cultures are a better way to operate, in many ways, with many advantages, at the very least for the people working there. I wholeheartedly agree with the objective you’re pursuing.

However, as someone who has, over the last couple of years, helped an open culture come to life, albeit on a much smaller scale at GrantTree, I find myself worried by your approach towards implementing Holacracy and the “Teal” model described by Frédéric Laloux.

I am not a culture consultant. I am not a social scientist. I am not a coach. But I am a founder of a company that, over the last couple of years, transitioned to a model that shares some features with Holacracy, and has a lot more in common with the Teal organisations described by Laloux, which I like to call open cultures. I don’t know whether you’re aware of the points below. You may very well disagree with them, and you may well be right and I wrong. I offer them up humbly hoping they might be of use to you.

My observations fall into a few key categories. First, an observation about basic respect for the individual. Then, concerning two of the key “breakthroughs” of Teal organisations according to Laloux: self-management and wholeness. Then concerning holacracy itself. Finally, concerning the agenda of open cultures itself.

As a final caveat, I should add that I don’t have any insider knowledge as to what’s going on inside Zappos itself. Perhaps the picture that emerges from reading the memo is incorrect. Perhaps things are going swimmingly and I’ve misinterpreted all the cues I’m sensing.

1. Respect for the individual

The first and perhaps most important point I observe is that the approach displayed in the memo seems, at least from the outside, to have little respect for individuals. I don’t doubt your personal commitment to creating a respectful workplace: it is a fundamental building block of happiness, and of course of trust.

And I think trust is the problem here. Open culture systems like Holacracy are fundamentally reliant on trust. It is the basic currency of an open culture company. And disrespect towards individuals does not breed trust: instead, it’s highly corrosive to trust.

In order for things like tension processing1 to function, you need trust. Without trust that they will not be needlessly punished for their opinions, people cannot be candid. Without candour, tensions are not brought to the circle’s attention and therefore cannot be resolved.

The message in the memo, “get on board with holacracy now or leave”, broadcast to the entire company and to the world at large, does not seem respectful of individual differences. Instead, it seems hostile to individuality, trying to cut everyone into the same mould without respecting or even listening to or acknowledging their differences. Starting from this premise, it can only alienate people and cause them, even if they were ready to progress to a better perspective, to regress back to a “me vs them” point of view which is toxic to Holacracy and any open culture agenda.

I respectfully urge you to consider approaching this important transformation in a more patient way, more respectful of individual differences.

2. Self-management

Holacracy is a model of self-management. It dispels the need for people managers, and distributes the responsibility for decisions to people throughout the organisations. This is great – when it works.

Self-management cannot work with people who do not want it. You can’t make people self-manage any more than you can make people love. Trying to impose self-management top-down is a bit like grabbing someone by the shoulders and screaming at them, “I want you to love me, now, spontaneously! Why don’t you love me?”

In order for people to want self-management, they need two things: to personally, viscerally believe that it is good for them; and to believe that it is possible. Both of those are things that take time. It took us two years to transition 10-20 people to self-management. We did not have the clarity of vision that you have, so you may be able to do this more quickly, but getting 1400 people to do anything will always be a challenge.

Even after 210 people have left, chances are there are many, many left who do not yet want self-management. No matter how much you try to impose it from above, they will not take responsibility for their work until they want to. And the more you try to force them to take responsibility, the less they’ll want to.

I hope that you will be willing to consider giving people more time and more examples of self-management to inspire them, rather than attempting to inspire self-management via top-down orders.

3. Wholeness

You quote Frédéric Laloux’s book quite substantially in your memo. The second “breakthrough” that he identifies as part of Teal cultures is wholeness.

What this means in the context of work culture is have the space, at work, to bring your whole self to work. This is something that has unfolded at GrantTree over the years and, for me, one of the most inspiring consequences of open cultures. When people feel free to be themselves instead of being cut down to size, they expand and swell to become superb versions of themselves. This touches every area of their life, from personal life to work life. It is truly inspiring to see people rise past their personal and emotional limits and fully grow into themselves. If I were to pick one single achievement in my life to be proud of, this is it: being instrumental in creating an environment that has enabled this to happen.

However, this breakthrough cannot happen without respect for the individual. When you push people into a “me vs them” mindset, you force them back into a fear-driven mode of operation. In that mode, they cannot be themselves: they are afraid of showing who they are for fear of being punished. Only a truly respectful, trust-based environment can achieve this breakthrough.

Once again, I request that you consider how to adjust your approach to open companies so it shows deep respect for individual differences rather than attempting to cut everyone down into the same mould.

4. Holacracy

Holacracy is a fascinating system, full of interesting ideas. I have felt its seductive pull myself, but I always resisted it. This was not because I was afraid of losing power or authority, quite the opposite. It was because I did not feel that it was well suited to GrantTree’s chaotic, freedom-loving ways. It seems too rigid, too structured. Yes, it promises that through this structure personal freedom will be achieved. Not all promises come through, though.

A first crack in Holacracy’s armour comes from noticing that it takes an all-or-nothing approach. Either you implement all of Holacracy, or none of it. This approach to open cultures belies the experience of all of the companies in Laloux’s book, all of which evolved open, teal culture systems progressively, over time. Skepticism turns to suspicion when I realise that the “all or nothing” argument enables easy evasion if Holacracy fails to deliver any improvement to company culture. It gives an easy way out of “well, you didn’t really adopt the whole thing properly, it’s hard, don’t beat yourself up for it”.

Another crack comes in practice, from noticing issues with it. GrantTree adopted some parts of Holacracy – specifically, something called a Holarchy, which is a way to organise work hierarchically without organising people hierarchically. Ironically, it was by following the language suggested by Holacracy that we fell into Holarchy’s biggest trap: importing people hierarchy via the “lead link” role.

We found that the word “lead link” was dangerous because it contains “lead”, which gives it an instant managerial sheen that is hard to rub off. This is multiplied when you combine it with a critical mistake that we made and that it seems you made too: which is to allow a “lead link” for the company as a whole, and to place the founder (formerly CEO) there. If the CEO of the company is the lead link of the anchor circle, then the lead links of other circles are naturally going to be understood as leaders of their circle. Holacracy also gives those lead links the power to invite and uninvite people from roles, which for many translates into the power to fire people. And in comes the people management hierarchy.

In our second iteration of Holarchy, we got rid of the anchor circle lead link, removed the word “lead”, and made sure the link role was understood as administrative/representative, not managerial, by voting mostly more junior people in those positions. I should add that after this Holarchy v2, I am not the link of any circle at GrantTree, and neither is my cofounder. This is a good thing if you are committed to self-management.

This is not to say that I don’t believe Holacracy is a good system. I think it is much better than many other systems for operating companies. However, I think it is important not to be blind to its flaws, and not to fall into the trap of thinking it is the only system available for open cultures, or even the best system for open cultures. Nor it is a necessary step towards open cultures. Many people may be very enthused by the concept of open cultures and yet put off by Holacracy’s rules-based approach.

Holacracy may be the best system for Zappos, or maybe it is not. I would like to humbly suggest that you consider that this may not be the right answer for Zappos, or that if it is, it may need substantial tweaks to adapt it to the Zappos people (rather than trying to adapt the people to Holacracy), and that even if it is the right system for Zappos, it is not perfect yet and you should evolve it when you see its shortcomings, rather than be beholden to a One True Way.

This take the courage to realise that in this step of the Zappos adventure, like in every other before, you are indeed alone: there is no ultimate guidance anyone can give, not even HolacracyOne. Ultimately the decisions of what to do and how to do it are yours. Or, alternatively, once you begin to respect and trust the people in Zappos, you will find, as I did, that you are not alone. There is never any certainty about any path, but when people are truly engaged with open cultures, when they truly embrace its ideas and practices, they take up more of the load than you could imagine before you see it happen.

5. The Agenda of Open Cultures

Zappos is the highest-profile open culture experiment happening right now, but it is not the only one. We are living in a time of change where many companies are adopting the principles that eventually lead to open cultures: respect rather than authority, trust rather than fear, transparency rather than secrecy, responsibility rather than obedience, and so on.

By becoming such a high-profile case, Zappos risks becoming the defining test case for open cultures. By trying to implement Holacracy in an authoritative, top-down manner, or at least by letting it appear that this is what is happening (if that’s a mis-reading), the wrong example is being given to countless companies looking for guidance on this.

This could cause the terrible harm of teaching hesitant founders and CEOs how to implement open cultures the wrong way. And even worse, should the high profile Zappos experiment fail, it may convince many to not even give it a try.

I believe that each company should be run in whatever way is suitable to it. There is no superior or inferior way. But I do believe that I much prefer to work in and with companies that have adopted open culture practices. And as I see the positive effects they have on people, how happy they feel working in environments where they feel respected and trusted and allowed to be themselves, I cannot help but wish that there were more companies operating like this in the world.

Obviously you cannot control the world press coverage of Zappos’s Holacracy story. It is obviously of interest, and many in the press will openly want you to fail so that they can write about a great disaster, which is always more juicy for page views than an untroubled success.

What I would humbly suggest in this case is that you use your time in the spotlight to shine the light on other successful open companies (like MorningStar, Buffer, Semco, Buurtzorg, Medium, etc), so the Zappos story does not become the defining story of teal/open cultures and Holacracy.

Yours Sincerely,

Daniel Tenner
Cofounder, GrantTree


  1. A feature of Holacracy focused on the resolution of conflicts.

Nonviolent Communication

The latest addition to the GrantTree books stable is Nonviolent Communication, by Marshall B. Rosenberg. It’s spreading rapidly through the company and having a very positive effect on our communications.

For the purpose of making it spread even faster, I decided to write a brief summary of the key points of the book.

I would like to start by emphasising that the book is incredibly worth reading, and this blog post is not a substitute. Go read the book!

4 Key Parts of NVC (Nonviolent Communication)

The book breaks down communication in four key elements: Observation, Feeling, Need, Request.

The key point is that when we express ourselves in this manner, people are much more likely to hear us, and to react favourably. This is not a guarantee – people may not be ready to receive this feedback. And they may disagree with our request for their own reasons. You can’t use NVC to compel or somehow manipulate people to do what you want – in fact, quite the opposite. You might change what you want when you listen using NVC.

And this is a first important point about NVC: it’s about both giving feedback, and about receiving it. It can be used both to deliver your own feedback to someone else, to disentangle what you’re observing, feeling, needing and requesting and deliver that in a way that’s not going to get the other person upset, and to disentangle other people’s requests. This is extremely powerful stuff, and means you can use NVC even if the other person has no knowledge of it, and it will still help.

But each of these steps has a catch, and can easily be misused. So here’s a quick overview of the “catch” in each step, based on my experience.

First, how to do it wrong

Here’s a great way to apply OFNR the wrong way. We’ll break down what’s wrong with this approach and fix it during this blog post.

Let’s say I’m in a meeting with John and he’s upset by something that’s being discussed. I’m not really sure what he’s upset about, because he is getting quite loud and, from my perspective, obstructing the progress of the meeting and perhaps even intimidating other people in the meeting. I find it difficult to pay attention to what someone is saying if they’re conveying it in what I perceive to be an aggressive way. I want him to speak at a normal level because he has a very loud voice and is a big guy so it’s scary to people when he shouts, and I don’t think that’s conducive for the meeting to progress. Here’s what I might say if I totally fail to apply the OFNR framework properly:

John, you’re being confrontational. It makes me feel you’re aggressing me in this meeting. I need you to behave more peacefully so I don’t feel so unsafe. I request you to stop behaving in this way, or else I will leave the meeting.

I could claim I’ve followed OFNR there – all the parts seem present, after all. But actually, this is a total disaster, a car crash of violent communication. Let’s look at why.

Step 1: Observation

The key with the observation step is that it needs to be non-judgemental, as objective and factual as possible. By throwing the label of “confrontational” at someone, I am not observing a behaviour, I am attacking the other person’s identity as retaliation for their behaviour. In some cases, that might get them to behave the way I want, through fear, guilt, or some other negative emotion, but it does not build a healthy relationship with the other person.

In the observation step, I need to be non-judgemental, to just observe a factual behaviour without categorising it. Here’s a better way to do it:

John, I see that you’re speaking loudly and sitting back with your arms crossed.

There. Either it’s true or it’s not. Either way, it’s not a judgement of the person and unlikely to be taken as such.

Step 2: Feeling

The second part is to state how I’m feeling. The problem with the example statement is that it’s not an expression of feeling – it’s yet another accusation. “It makes me feel” is a very poor choice of words here, because it pushes the responsibility for my feelings onto the other person. “I’m not responsible for how I’m feeling – John is!”

It’s quite uncomfortable to find yourself responsible for someone else’s feelings.  Generally, if the feelings are negative, it tends to elicit a guilt response. Again, John may react in a way that I find useful, but guilt-based relationships are, well, not ideal.

The other problem with “It makes me feel you’re aggressing me” is that it’s not a statement about my feelings at all. What’s the feeling? There is no feeling stated. There is just another accusation. Perhaps I am feeling angry, or sad, or frustrated… but “you’re aggressing me” is not a feeling.

Here would be a better way to phrase this, then:

I feel sad.

There, easy, isn’t it?1

Step 3: Need

The third part is to take ownership of the feeling. We don’t feel stuff because other people make us. We feel because we have needs that are being or not being met. This can be very difficult for many people to acknowledge, particularly in cultures or societal roles that are taught that it’s bad to have needs and acknowledge them2.

Stating the need is best done with a formula that combines it with the feeling, like “I feel X because I need Y”. When I say to John “I need you to do X” I’m not actually formulating a need, but a request. When I say “I need you to do X so that I don’t feel Y” I’m compounding the earlier error of pushing responsibility for my feelings onto John. Again, John is unlikely to react positively to this.

Another way that I could get this wrong while nevertheless using the “I feel X because I need Y” formula would be to say something like:

I feel scared because I’m being attacked by you.

That again would be an accusation rather than a statement of my need. I don’t know what’s going on in John’s head. Maybe I think he’s attacking me, but he probably doesn’t see it that way. Probably, he just thinks he’s being passionate. But once I accuse him of attacking me, what will he do? Defend himself, naturally. Whatever he does, it probably won’t be to calmly listen to my request and make a measured decision about it.

Here’s a better way to phrase my feeling and need together in a way that’s more likely to solicit a good response from John:

I feel sad because I need participants in a meeting I’m in to be civil to each other so that I feel comfortable that the meeting is going well.

I’m not going to even begin to suggest that this is easy. If identifying how you feel is hard, identifying why you feel that way, what is the need that you have that is being met or not met, is even harder. It often takes serious digging. I find that one trap I frequently fall into is to make the need sound more objective. For example, I could have said that I need participants in a meeting to be civil to each other so that the meeting can be productive. That may be a belief that I have, but it’s not the core, personal need I’m addressing when I request John to be civil.

This part probably takes the most practice of the four.

Step 4: Request

What could be simpler than asking someone to do something? Well, it turns out that even in this step there are ways to get it wrong. In the example, I did it in just the right way to make sure I don’t get a good outcome from the exchange. The best way to screw up the request is to make it a demand, and that’s what I did by threatening to leave if my request wasn’t met.

When we threaten people with consequences, we take away their ability to decide to help us out. If I clarify my observation of John’s behaviour, and open up by explaining how I feel about it and what needs of mine are not being met, and then request that John alter his behaviour, chances are John will agree to my request, because John is a human being and us humans tend to prefer to be helpful to each other.

And if he doesn’t, he may have good reasons to disagree. By threatening him with consequences, though, I’ve ensured that even if he would normally agree, he will not feel like it was him that agreed it was me that forced him. And because of that, this exchange will not help build up the trust between John and I.

Or, even worse, trying to force John to do something may well elicit the opposite reaction. Perhaps John will refuse to help, and continue to speak loudly, precisely because I threatened him. When we threaten people, we take responsibility away from them, and it’s not surprising that they often start behaving like children – being contrary just for the sake of it.

It is my observation through years of working in the Open Culture that is GrantTree that left to their own devices, allowed to make their own decisions, people typically prefer to be good to each other. They tend to make decisions that I would consider to be right. However, when you try and force someone, you often push them into an oppositional, confrontational mode where they do not make the best choices they can.

So here’s a better way I could have made my request to John, one that doesn’t involve a threat:

Could you please speak more softly?

Obviously tone of voice is important here too. I could convey that question with a very strict tone and body language that implies threat. Or I could ask it calmly and openly, accepting that John may well decide otherwise. It’s his decision what he does, after all. Ironically, the latter is much more likely to convince John to speak more softly than the former. Sometimes exposed weakness is a strength.

Review

There are many more subtleties at work in NVC, and so I really do recommend that you read the book. But in the meantime, if you’re going to take away anything from this concept, please take the following steps and caveats:

  • Clarify the behaviour that you’re observing and make sure it’s not expressed in a judgemental way.
  • Express how you feel, in a way that takes ownership for your feelings and does not imply that the responsibility for your feelings lies with the other person.
  • Connect this feeling with a need that you have – a personal need, not a falsely objective ideal, and a need which is about you, not about the other person. Try to use the formula: “I feel X because I need/want/like Y”.
  • Finish with a request which does not include any threat component, accepting that the other person may disagree with your request.

Using these concepts, you can turn:

John, you’re being confrontational. It makes me feel you’re aggressing me in this meeting. I need you to behave more peacefully so I don’t feel so unsafe. I request you to stop behaving in this way, or else I will leave the meeting.

 

into:

John, I see that you’re speaking loudly and sitting back with your arms crossed. I feel sad because I need participants in a meeting I’m in to be civil to each other so that I feel comfortable that the meeting is going well. Could you please speak more softly?

The power of this shift in language is impressive when you see it at work. I hope you do get a chance t practice it and see it for yourself soon.

 


  1. Actually it’s extremely hard and takes a lot of practice to work out how you’re feeling. I find myself stopping and starting constantly while using OFNR, as I do the work of figuring out what it is exactly that I’m feeling. This is extremely useful work though. It can also be very uncomfortable for people who have grown up or are living in cultures or societal roles that suggest that having feelings is somehow not appropriate – for example men in western cultures.

  2. For example, western culture tends to suggest that women in traditional, 19th/early 20th century standard gendered roles should let their needs be subservient to those of their husband and family.

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