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Why an open salary policy always wins

Great article by Dane Atkinson, kind of reiterating some of the points I’ve made here and here. Key conclusion:

If you intend to be evil, open salaries and transparency are not for you. If you hide salary information from employees, you will live in terror (one reason CFOs are exceptionally well-paid). Eventually, compensation secrets always leak and employees leave the company without discussion. People get too distressed and offended to talk about secrets they shouldn’t know.

Shadows are home to inequality, fear and resentment. In business, some of the most basic moral principles are violated under the banner of discretion, privacy and efficiency. You can build your culture of transparency on a foundation of white lies, and watch it crumble beneath your employees. Or you can let all the data flow. What are you hiding?

Not much to add, really! Read the whole thing here.

Culture must be grown step by step

As the amount of literature about open cultures grows, it’s tempting to want to go straight for what is perceived as a final prize or destination, and just “implement a full-blown open culture right from the start”.

Unfortunately I don’t think that’s actually possible, for two reasons.

The destination is change

First of all, I don’t think open cultures are a static destination. The result of an effort to open up a culture is that we create an organisation that is capable of constant change and evolution, and does constantly change and evolve. If you ever decided “this is how our open culture functions, and that’s that”, your culture would immediately begin its decline. One reason for that could be that company culture, like the stock market or job interview techniques, is an anti-inductive system. As soon as you’ve “figured it out”, it changes, adapts, moves beyond your current understanding. As Douglas Adams once said:

There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.

There is another theory which states that this has already happened.

Culture is like that, and it needs to be like that, because at the very core of an open culture is this ability to deal with changing circumstances, changing people, changing understanding – in order to adapt to this very real and very changing world that we live in. That is perhaps the best practical feature of open cultures: their adaptability.

I often tell people who want to learn programming to avoid “Learn programming in our 10 week course” types of deals, because they feel intuitively pointless to me, as a programmer. See, programming is all about learning, about teaching yourself. It is a rare, unicorn-level event in a programmer’s life to write the same program twice. Programming itself is not anti-inductive 1, but the reality of being a programmer is that every program you write will require you to teach yourself new things, both in terms of new technologies or new bits of technologies that you want to use, and in terms of having to learn about a new and ever-changing problem space2.

Culture, it seems to me, is similar to programming, because it is constantly dealing with anti-inductive situations, and so developing the capability to adapt to circumstances, which in turn adapt to the culture and require further adaptation, is not just a nice add-on: it is the essence of becoming an open culture.

An open culture is one which is set up to adapt to and absorb change continually.

It embraces the loop of change->reaction->change and enables it to operate in the most fluid manner, instead of the very jerky manner that most closed cultures display 3. If learning to adapt to change is one of the key features of open cultures, that makes it far less practical to skip steps because “you already know where you want it to go”. By forcing the organisation to skip ahead, you’re stopping it from learning and adapting, or, more critically, from learning to learn and adapt — and this learning to learn and adapt is actually the key activity going on. The actual cultural artefacts of whether you have an advice process or a holarchy or a peer review process or values – those are objects by the side of the road.

The road is change, and it’s a continuous, endless road. An open culture is one which has learned to keep walking on that road.

Limited perspective

Beyond the arguments above, there is also another reason that “skipping ahead” can be unproductive.

Without trying to get overly enamoured with psychological models of development stages, there is a recurring pattern that is evident when working in or on an open culture, which is that different people are at different levels of understanding of the world around them. Looking at myself, without even needing to judge anyone else’s level of understanding, I can see that over the last three years, as the culture of GrantTree was born and evolved, my own perspective on the world has changed. On a personal level, it is perhaps one of the most valuable aspects of the GrantTree open culture that it has broadened my own perspective on “life, the universe and everything”. I can see very specific areas where I am operating at a better level of understanding thanks to my time at GrantTree 4.

Culture can and does eventually, I believe (though we’re not entirely there yet) grow a will of its own, take on its own direction, become the self-adapting creature that I described in the previous section. But initially it needs to be nudged in that direction, because the default model for organisations is the closed culture, so if you don’t take any explicit action to change that default, you end up with a traditional, closed culture.

Now, as cofounder of the company, I have had a fairly large amount of influence on that direction – it became an instinctive direction that I wanted to push the company towards. What I did not have was the personal experience to really understand exactly what I was pushing towards. At this point, we’re only three years into the culture of GrantTree (before that there were no employees), but already I can say that the way GrantTree operates today would not have been intelligible or indeed manageable for me three years ago.

Had you handed me the advice process, holarchy and other cultural artefacts three years ago, I would have been unable to make any use of it. Had I tried to use them at a stage where I wasn’t ready for them I would have messed them up. Hell, we have been operating what is allegedly a holarchy for the last six months, and we’re still figuring out what exactly that means. In fact, having done this for six months, we now have some fairly clear insights about the ways in which we’ve messed it up, how we’ve in some ways missed the point of holarchy and turned it into a watered down hierarchy.

Some things, you cannot understand until you try them yourself, fail, and try again. They require a broader perspective, a broader base of experience, to be able to even perceive the concepts at all. Words like holarchy or advice process map to concepts. Parts of those concepts can be explained by writing a blog post, but other parts are too complex to understand without direct experience5.

If we “decide to implement holacracy”, but we don’t know what holacracy means, and we’re not ready to understand the concept, because we lack some of the conceptual building blocks of holacracy, then we will naturally fail. We can’t force the learning through by jumping ahead to a destination.

So what to do?

The above might seem a little bit depressing. “You can’t do anything, just relax and go along” would be a possible, if incorrect, conclusion to take away from this.

What I’m trying to convey is that we need to be patient on this path towards open cultures. There aren’t really any shortcuts. Books and coaches can help facilitate the learning, but ultimately the learning, both of behaviours and concepts, and both on an organisational and a personal level, is a key feature of open cultures, and learning to learn takes time.

So don’t rush. Keep driving in the direction which you think things should be going into, but be aware that this process will take time, and give it the time. The reward should, hopefully, be an incredibly powerful open organisation, capable of imagining and pursuing results far beyond what you could dream up in a top-down model.

  1. When you understand something, it mostly remains understood for the foreseeable future – or at least there is no deliberate effort by the universe to make your understanding obsolete as soon as possible…

  2. The problem space for software solutions, in many cases, is in fact anti-inductive. The bar for what new solutions must achieve is set to an aggregate of what all previous solutions have achieved.

  3. The presence of large, multi-year change programmes that need to work hard and intelligently to get the organisation to adopt changes is a clear signal of a closed culture.

  4. As a simple example, conflict resolution and mediation, getting people who are in violent or emotional disagreement, to come to a common understanding, is something I’ve gotten much better at. As the company as a whole becomes better at conflict resolution, hopefully this is something that everyone can learn and benefit from – and our collective understanding can also evolve and push my own understanding further, etc.

  5. This raises an interesting point: I consider fiction to be a great mechanism for conveying this sort of experience. Perhaps the ideal method for teaching people about things like holarchy is fictional stories rather than articles. This justifies Ricardo Semler’s approach in his books, which are entirely story-based.

Evolving purpose: a GrantTree story

Many people consider the purpose of a company to be something static and set at birth, or changing only very rarely. The truth is, the purpose of a company evolves as the founders and the company evolve1.

Here’s a story of how GrantTree’s purpose evolved through time, so far, and through the purpose of its two founders, myself and Paulina, then my girlfriend and now my wife. I hope it shows how purpose can dramatically change over relatively short periods in the life of a business.

Purpose 1: Money

We started GrantTree in 2010 when Woobius unexpectedly ran out of money 6 months early due to a bookkeeping error2. I found myself not quite out on the street, but certainly needing to find another source of income fast. Rent and food are kind of important, you know?

Paulina had been involved in R&D Tax Credits with another company. She said she could sell them if I could deliver them. I looked at what tax credits consisted of and figured it wasn’t rocket science: if I could do a physics degree, I could learn how to do this. I said I could deliver them if she could sell them. And so we decided to get started.

Let there be no doubt: in that first year, pretty much our only concern was the money – and quite naturally so! We were broke, living off credit cards3. We needed to survive. That was our objective. And to survive, we needed money. So we did whatever it took to try and get off the ground (or the shifty quicksands) financially. There was no greater purpose beyond that back then. The key question driving every decision was: will this result in some significant amount of revenue4? If so, do it. If not, skip.

Of course, whatever our values were back then still impacted our decision-making: we tried to be transparent, have integrity, help our clients, be effective, etc. But eventually decisions did come down to money and if there was enough of it at stake, it would drive our decisions. There wasn’t even any focus in what we were trying to do to make the money: at one point we tried to act as a domain broker, just because there was a potential brokerage fee in the tens of thousands for that domain. At the time, that was enough money to shift our priorities entirely5.

Miraculously (to me), we made £89k of turnover in that first year. It was more money than Woobius had made in its entire existence up to that point. Our costs were minimal, so most of it was straight-up profit. I was amazed. You can actually make money from this business stuff!

Purpose 2: More money

The next natural purpose that emerged then was, well, this money thing is quite nice: let’s make more of this stuff! It’s nice not to be broke anymore. In the second year, we did more of the same. We picked up more and more clients, and our revenues continued to go up. We could afford a 5-year old second-hand VW Passat, a Macbook air, and other non-essential-but-nice life expenses.

In the pursuit of scale and better customer service6, three quarters of the way through that second year we hired our first full time employee. Despite being basically just two people for most of that year (plus one remote subcontractor), we made £309k of turnover that year, again mostly profit.

A strange effect settles in when you finally have enough money7. This obviously doesn’t work with everyone (some people never have enough money), but for me and for Paulina, money became less and less important. A great many articles describe how money is supposed to be a “hygiene factor” rather than a primary motivator, but they seem so remote, like science fiction fantasies of cornucopia machines, until it actually does become a hygiene factor for you. When you make £300k of turnover with basically two people, neither of which are big spenders, money does become a hygiene factor.

So, like in Maslow’s needs hierarchy, you begin to shift your needs somewhere else, and your purpose along with it.

Purpose 3: Scale and Freedom (still somewhat connected to money)

The next purpose emerged from a session with Deri, who was our business coach at the time. He is also a trained NLP coach (though not doing NLP coaching anymore) and used a timeline exercise on Paulina and I to explore why we kept disagreeing on schedules to do stuff. It turned out that my natural time horizon is about a week long, which means that if I don’t see something happening each week, I don’t see anything happening at all. Paulina, on the other hand, sees a few months ahead and so is better at making more distant things happen, while my productivity tends to be ruthlessly focused on the next week. This caused a lot of clashes in our ways of scheduling “making things happen”.

Deri also suggested that I should accept that my natural space was focusing on the next week. I’m very bad at accepting limitations, so that felt like a challenge to me. So, a few weeks later, I set about planning our next three years in business.

Luckily8, at the same time, we discovered a source of leads that could help us scale the business. I set myself a goal: to grow GrantTree into an independent company within two years, so that Pow and I could “soft-exit” the business. This involved scaling, hiring more people, and creating a culture that didn’t entirely depend on me and Paulina to continue operating and growing, but the objective was still fairly material: freedom to do whatever we wanted, while being wealthy enough to be able to afford a reasonable but comfortable lifestyle. The idea of travelling around the world for a couple of years came up.

With this plan in mind, I realised that we had an opportunity right now to make things happen and that the opportunity wouldn’t be open forever. Combined with the source of leads, we started hiring and started growing our client base much faster. A sense of urgency emerged.

Over that year, we achieved a turnover just over a million pounds. An awesome achievement – 3x growth three years running.

A side-effect of hiring all these people, however, and trying to get them to act independently and adaptably9 was that I started to care about those people and the fascinating puzzle of how to get them to work together productively and happily (also known in some circles as “culture”).

And another element that crept in unnoticed, also with the people, was that my own purpose (scaling and then exiting the business) was not motivating enough to recruit great people. So we came up with a purpose for the company, which, loosely summarised, adds up to “enabling startups to succeed”. More on this later.

Purpose 4: Culture for its own sake, and impact

As I spent all this time trying to shape the GrantTree culture, I fell in love with it. I found something deeply fulfilling in creating an environment where finally people are treated like human beings instead of cogs in a machine. So many work (and non-work) environments are dehumanising and degrading to the people who have to spend time there. I really starting to feel very fascinated by the fact that this is not the case at GrantTree. We treat people like adults, we try and help them develop as people, not as “workers” or “employees”. We recognise that they are whole human beings, with flaws and with amazing abilities rolled into one.

Over time, it became clear that our plans to exit the company were totally at odds with this sense of love for the company. I found myself falling into that strange state where there is nothing I would rather do than work (though I do naturally do other things too). I shifted from working for some ulterior purpose (make money; free up time; whatever) to working for its own sake. This also taught me something important about myself. I noticed a pattern that I had not seen before: I really feel aligned with my own personal purpose when I help other people grow and develop, when I help them see things from a larger perspective.

At the same time, the company’s own purpose, enabling startups to succeed, has started to take a life of its own. People working at GrantTree bring their own vision of that. This common purpose loosely unites them, but much like I bring my own, uniquely tainted variant of that into the mix, with my focus on culture, other people do too. This is, I hope, a mark of a more mature company: one that leaves room for everyone there to contribute to its purpose, instead of being driven from the top like a slave beast.

An interesting conclusion

Here’s an insight coming out of this, which I alluded to in Episode 7 of On my way to work… the purpose of the company, in other words, the “why” of the company, has an enormous impact on how we actually run that company. There’s a clear mapping between how our purpose for running GrantTree has evolved over time, and the major stages of evolution that the culture has followed. Sometimes the cultural changes trailed the purpose changes, and sometimes they led them. But I can see a clear connection between the two.

When the purpose was to survive and make some money, the culture was non-existent10. The company was reactive and completely informal. When the purpose became to scale, the culture first became top-down, hierarchical11. However, because of our focus on “making the company independent”, the culture of the company started to take centre-stage, and as our culture evolved12, it dragged our personal purpose along with it. And I’m not too proud to admit that it took us (Paulina and I) some time to catch up, and I’m certain that our slowness in evolving our own purpose did in turn slow down the company culture’s evolution.

So here’s the kicker: along with other personal growth limits, the reason you run the company is going to be one of the most effective limiters on the culture of the company. If the only reason your company exists is to make a buck, you’re unlikely to ever create a great culture there. And this is not about the “stated purpose” – I’m talking about your own, personal purpose in running the business.

The good news, to soften the kicker? If you allow it to, your purpose will change during the course of the journey. This “running a company” business? It changes you, if you let it.

  1. Additional complexity: the purpose of a company can be multi-faceted… it doesn’t have to be just one purpose. A company can be aligned with its purpose through a number of different activities!

  2. The bookkeeping error was essentially due to not accruing the amounts owed to me, which I was invoicing somewhat haphazardly. When it was discovered, it didn’t take the company down, but did mean that I could not expect income from Woobius for quite a while.

  3. One silver lining: the flat I was living in was owned by my Woobius cofounder. Given Woobius’s part in my financial troubles, he was understandably flexible about “not charging rent for a while”… Thanks Bob!

  4. Where significant started around the few-hundred-pounds mark

  5. We did not manage to sell that domain, sadly, though we got remarkably far considering we had zero experience or contacts…

  6. After one too many customer issue that could have been avoided by having someone who was actually good at customer service, I decided I didn’t want to be the only one responsible for that any longer.

  7. Having enough money, it must be noted, is as much a function of reducing your needs as it is of increasing your income. Prior to GrantTree, my financial needs had been cut to the bone compared to what I “needed” back when I was working for Accenture. In Accenture, I was losing money every year on £42.5k/y, over £2.5k/m of net pay. By the time I started GrantTree, I was saving money every month on £1.5k/m of net pay. In between, I learned to budget and to cut my expenses down.

  8. Or serendipitously… or perhaps it was always an option, but it was only when I needed it that I noticed it… who knows?

  9. I believe that change is always accelerating and so a company must be adaptable to survive, not stuck in static ways of working. So I shaped the company culture towards adaptability, empowering people to make decisions, etc.

  10. Red, Impulsive, in the Reinventing Organizations naming convention

  11. Orange, Achievement

  12. Through Green, Pluralistic, and now hopefully moving towards Teal, Integrative

Fake transparency

One of the characteristics of open cultures is transparency, which is, in my opinion, a cornerstone necessity for trust to exist. One of the ways that this transparency is expressed is salary transparency.

However, what I’ve noticed frequently happen and be masqueraded as transparency is a kind of half-way salary transparency that doesn’t quite do it. It’s better than complete secrecy, for sure, but it’s just not enough, and I’m writing this article just as much for founders and MDs who are failing their own ideals (perhaps) by thinking this is actual transparency, when it’s not, as much as for employees or prospective hires of those companies, who might buy the “we’re transparent” line when it’s not actually true.

Trust but verify

When our primary belief systems moved from religious, mythical belief mostly handled by priests, to scientific, factual belief handled by scientists1, one of the most tangible, important differences was a shift from a system of faith, where everything had to be just accepted in the form it was handed down, from an authority figure, to a system of verified facts, where everyone could, and was invited to, test the theories for themselves2.

Of course, this is a big change for people, so it’s not all that surprising that it hasn’t percolated through all of society yet, even in four centuries!…

One of the primary ways that transparency creates trust is that everyone knows that they have the whole picture. They don’t have to take it on trust, they can check it themselves. Now, unlike high-speed relativistic physics, there is nothing in your typical business that cannot be understood by the layman, with some fairly basic training and explanations3.

The ability to verify the knowledge you rely on rather than accept it as handed down by an authority figure is so powerful, so transformational, that it turned the world upside down, and is largely responsible for the way the world works today. A society where the people cannot verify information for themselves, where the government hides things from them, is one headed for totalitarianism4.

The same is true within business. Being able to verify that what you know is actually true, rather than rely on faith alone, is a fundamental feature and benefit of transparency, a huge driver of the increased trust that is typical of open cultures.

Unverifiable data is not transparent

Many companies claim to have transparent salaries, but when you scratch the surface, you find out that what they have is transparent salary bands. Now, that’s a starting point, but it is not at all the same as having transparent salaries. Any company that says “we have transparent salaries” but has only a transparent salary scheme is likely to be hiding something, for the simple reason that compensation is a really high-pressure topic where people will naturally apply a lot of tricks and tactics. Any “transparent salary bands” system will almost immediately be corrupted by people who will apply the right pressure to the right points and argue convincingly that they don’t quite fit within the regular bands and deserve some sort of premium. Soon enough, you end up with a majority of people on the transparent scheme, and a small but growing number of people with special deals. Those deals are allowed to exist because they are hidden.

If a company has a “transparent” compensation scheme, but doesn’t actively publish its accounting and payroll data internally, you can bet your bottom dollar that there are people with special deals in the system. You know for a fact there is unfairness in the system. Apart from all sorts of other impacts, it means that unless you’re a mug, you will be wanting to get your own special deal as well. I’d wager that your average “transparent salary bands” system has a sizeable minority (20-30% at least) of its staff on special deals. In other words, it does not have salary transparency at all.

When, at GrantTree, we say that we have transparent salaries, we mean that all the payroll information, and all the accounting information of the business, including dividends paid to shareholders, is entirely transparent and verifiable. Every member of the team has full access to all the company’s accounting data. There is nowhere for a special deal to hide.

This is the only viable way to do salary transparency. You have to open up the financial data.

Advice to founders and CEOs

If you want to get the benefits of transparency, you must make the critically important compensation system transparent. If you don’t, then unfairness will creep into the system via this critical channel and build up over time. You can keep fighting it, but it will sap your energy and eventually you’ll give in.

The best time to implement salary and financial information transparency is on day one, when there is no unfairness in the system yet. If you wait until a lot of this unfairness has built up, shining a light on it may well be politically unfeasible. You may find you have to choose between transparency and losing some of your best people (who are the most likely to have successfully argued for special deals) while demolishing company morale for a while.

Advice to prospective employees

If you apply to a company that claims to have salary transparency, be sure to ask, in the interview, whether everyone has access to the financials. If they don’t, they’re not necessarily lying – they may simply not understand what salary transparency is5.

This may not discourage you from joining that company (perhaps there are other factors that are more important to you), but you should at least be aware of what you’re walking into: a system where everyone gets a special deal if they are good enough at arguing for it.

It may also influence your initial interactions. There is little point in trying to negotiate a higher (or indeed lower) salary with a transparent company6. On the other hand, if the company claims to be transparent as a negotiation tactic, then you should probably feel free to push for a higher salary – you probably will get it if they want you enough, though they’ll probably ask you not to tell anyone what your actual salary is.

A final thought on transparency and access

The same flaws that affect verifiability in science can affect verifiability in financial information. Namely, things can become too complex for anyone but a small cabal of compensation experts to understand. Or maybe the company has twenty thousand people and a supposedly transparent, but hard-to-access payroll information system7.

If the information is not easily accessible, it is also not transparent. And as information becomes more complex, it inevitably becomes harder to access. So, even if you do have completely transparent and easily accessible financial data, it will take some consistent effort to keep things that way as the company grows. Bear that in mind and don’t let inaccessibility creep in through complexity or other access issues.


  • Transparency is not real without verifiability
  • Transparent salary bands are not at all equivalent to transparent salaries
  • If you can’t verify the payroll for yourself, there are certainly going to be some unfair deals in the system
  • If you’re a CEO or founder, you need to push for total transparency to reap the benefits of a transparent culture (e.g. increased trust)
  • If you’re a prospective employee, be aware that a company without verifiably transparent payroll is not actually transparent, no matter what they may claim
  • Making the information available is not enough if it’s hidden away somewhere inaccessible.

  1. a big move no doubt, but two models with a number of striking similarities

  2. Of course, modern science has gotten so complicated that many areas are way beyond the average person to even understand, let alone verify for themselves, which leads to a perfectly reasonable perception that scientists and priests are not all that different in practice, for people who aren’t themselves scientists. And some sciences have used the cover of scientific training to exclude rather than include, thereby creating a cabalistic clique of insiders who are effectively operating like a priesthood. But I digress… this could be an article all by itself!

  3. Mostly about how to read accounts, and the basic principles of profit, loss and cash flow

  4. Yes, I realise there are several world-leading countries at this very moment who are exactly in that state – in fact, those where secrecy is not the dominant mode are very few and far between – a sad state of facts

  5. One bold move might be to ask, during the interview, if they can show you the payroll. If it’s not possible, that’s suspicious. If it is, and isn’t a big deal, and is even seen as a great question to ask – that’s a great sign.

  6. Incidentally, this is why we don’t work with companies that provide “free” interns. This is just as unfair as someone being paid twice as much as someone else for the same job, and so is totally unacceptable in a transparent system that values fairness at all.

  7. Beware of the Leopard!

Six steps to open cultures

Leo Widrich, cofounder of Buffer, shares, via this Zapiers article by Fred Bauters, six steps to getting to an open culture. In summary:

  1. Check yourself: are you personally transparent?
  2. Be sure other company values are in place
  3. Hire with transparency in mind
  4. Start slow and steady
  5. Equip yourself with the tools for transparency
  6. Remind yourself: transparency is not for everyone

The whole article is packed with insight and well worth a thorough read. The only point I disagree with is number 2. I think that if you are the right sort of person to run an open culture (i.e. your personal rather than company values are in place), and you stick to transparency as a company policy, then the rest will follow. The reason why I believe that is because it is what happened at GrantTree.

As a company, we didn’t have our values explicitly described for a long time, but both Paulina (my cofounder) and myself were clear on our personal values of respect for people, personal growth, generosity and, most importantly, transparency. And it’s transparency that enabled us to create a culture which, while not open yet, was open enough for our team to start pointing out where the company wasn’t aligned with our own values1.

There were many challenges to our culture’s evolution along the way, and many, many chances to compromise, but the uncompromising approach to transparency ended up being one of the key drivers that kept us going in the right direction through all these changes, because of the way it tends to infect everything around it and force it to become more transparent.

So, my deviation from Leo’s advice would be that even if your company values aren’t quite sorted out (which will certainly be the case at the very beginning), sticking to transparency through thick and thin will do a lot to help you keep the culture evolving in the right direction.

Just make sure you yourself are committed – because ultimately, whatever you truly believe will come through in your actions and your choices when faced with challenges. As I’ve argued before, you can’t hide from yourself.

  1. A watershed moment was when, during a 121, I was told by Ellie, one of our Client Managers, that the motivational system that I’d designed as insulting and infantilising

The fungible worker – or not

Here‘s an interesting article by Jeff Lonsdale about what he calls the “fungible worker”. Jeff examines some of the old arguments about whether technology spells the end of the human worker, whether it will drive everyone out of work, etc. He dismisses the classic Luddite argument and instead lands on an interesting point:

Amazon can quickly train employees as well as track them to make sure they are not underperforming. There is a smaller difference between one employee and their potential replacement. If an employee decides to leave their replacement is guided by technology that makes the new worker’s productivity very close to that of a good worker.

Before these technological advancements, workers enjoyed mini-monopolies. The warehouse worker couldn’t be easily replaced because their replacement might be way less efficient as they learned the layout of their workplace. As technology more directly guides low and mid skill workers in their jobs the workers are losing their mini-monopolies. Workers don’t need job specific experience to be hired so the supply of workers available to every technology guided job has increased. A higher supply leads to a lower price (the price of a worker is their wage). After full employment is reached the general wage level may increase for low skilled workers, but for now the impact of the Great Factor Price Equalization and the More Fungible Worker are suppressing the wages of middle and lower class developed world workers.

It’s actually quite hard to disagree with this point, and in fact I won’t – because I believe it’s true. Certain kinds of applications of technology turn human beings into replaceable, indistinguishable cogs and levers and wheels and bolts in the name of efficiency above all things.

Now, I’m a big fan of efficiency. Huge fan. I love being able to buy stuff on Amazon for cheap and getting it delivered the next day. Yay for efficiency.

However, I think there’s all sorts of ways to measure efficiency. Which efficiency are we talking about anyway? The efficiency of providing the service is the obvious one. How about the efficiency of use of natural resources? Debatable, off topic for this article, perhaps. Efficiency of fulfilling the right orders, those that add the most value to humanity, instead of just fulfilling every online shopping spree no matter how useless, selling whatever the hell is in demand right now no matter whether it’s actually useful or even downright dangerous? We’re starting to get somewhere.

How about the efficiency of the human capital being put at work – is it really delivering its highest potential value to the rest of humanity? Er, no. A human turned into a robot that follows instructions and turned into a fully replaceable piece of a large and complex logistical machinery is definitely not delivering on his or her potential.

Ultimately, I think that situations like Amazon are temporary. Eventually, all low-skilled jobs will be replaced with automated machinery1. In the meantime, however, while I see that “fungible workers” are inevitable for the time being, I’d like to propose, to entrepreneurs, managers, and other people in charge of creating or managing such jobs, a different philosophy of efficiency:

Aim to improve the efficiency of how the potential of humans is being deployed at work.

If you do that, you’ll probably build a different business. You’ll certainly do so – a business whose fundamental principles include enabling every person within it to develop to their full potential will not end up looking like Amazon. In this business, the very concept of fungible workers will be bizarre and alien. But such a business will  be far more efficient (in the sense of reduced waste and overheads, as well as in the human potential efficiency) than Amazon can ever dream of being, and the tradeoffs of shop-floor efficiency vs. human potential efficiency may well turn out to be surprisingly tilted to the latter side.

  1. And then we’re going to have to decide, as a society, that low-skilled people still deserve to have a good life even if there’s no work for them. If we don’t figure out how to decide that, the next step is probably World War III.

Charlie Hebdo: A victory



On this glorious first week of the year, it is worth considering who it is that won the day yesterday, in the 11e Arrondissement in France, so that we may stop them from winning the days and weeks and months and years and decades ahead, or at the very least not join them in their orgiastic banquet, which, rubbing their hands with a broad, satisfied grin, they are already making ready for.

For this sombre celebration, I will borrow the words of a great Author, Romain Gary, who spent his life fighting this battle, as a self-described “champion of the world”, and described these old enemies of humanity in 1962.

Meet the monkey gods:

First comes Totoche, the god of Stupidity, with his scarlet monkey’s behind, the swollen head of a doctrinaire and a passionate love for abstractions; he’s always been the Germans’ pet, but today he prospers almost everywhere, always ready to oblige; he is now devoting himself more and more to pure research and technology, and can be seen frequently grinning over the shoulders of our scientists; with each nuclear explosion his grin gets wider and wider and his shadow looms larger over the earth; his favourite trick is to hide his stupidity under the guise of scientific genius, and to enlist support among our great men to ensure our own destruction.

Then there is Merzavka, the god of Absolute Truth and Total Righteousness, the lord of all true believers and bigots; whip in hand, a Cossack’s fur cap over one eye, he stands knee-deep in a heap of corpses, the eldest of our lords and masters, since time immemorial the most respected and obeyed; since the dawn of history he had us killed, tortured and oppressed in the name of Absolute Truth, Religious Truth, Political Truth, Moral Truth; always with a capital T raised high above our heads, like a scaffold. One half of the human race obsequiously licks his boots, and this causes him immense amusement, for well he knows that there is no such thing as absolute truth, the oldest trick to goad us into slavery or to drive us at each other’s throats, and even as I write these words, I can hear above the barking of the seals and the cries of the cormorants the sound of his triumphant laughter rolling toward me from the other end of the earth, so loud that even my brother the ocean cannot raise his voice above it.

Then there is Filoche, the god of Mediocrity, full of bilious scorn and rabid prejudice, of hatred and petulance, screaming at the top of his voice: “You dirty Jew! You nigger! Jap! Down with the Yankees! Kill the yellow rats! Wipe out capitalists! Imperialists! Communists!” – lover of holy wars, a Great Inquisitor, who is always there to pull the rope at a lynching, to command a firing squad, and the most eagerly listened to; he is to be found in every political camp, from right to left, lurking behind every cause, behind every ideal, always present, rubbing his hands whenever a dream of human dignity is stamped into the mud.

Yesterday, then, was clearly a resounding victory for Filoche (with some help from his brother Merzavka). And as the events of the coming weeks unfold, other champions of the world might remember that no matter whether the “terrorists” are caught, whether or not this law or that law is passed or rejected, whatever glorious or vile articles, comments, tweets and words of wit are written or spoken in response, whether anyone distinguishes themselves with their humanity or lack thereof in these sad circumstances, the only one who has won this day is the monkey god Filoche, who has succeeded in sullying all of us, wherever we are, whatever we do, whatever we dream, whatever we achieve, whatever we strive for.

This is the genius of the beast in us: when it wins, everyone loses, just as much those who think they won the day as those who feel hurt and aggrieved. Its genius is to lower what is good and worthwhile and human in all of us without distinction, to throw mud and shit into the face of humanity wherever it stands, and then sit back and watch as we do its work of rubbing it on ourselves.

What to do then? Don’t join the monkey gods.

Realise that reactions of hatred, however justified, however rationalised, only consolidate Filoche’s victory (and perhaps call out to his brother Totoche to join the fun). This is true whichever “side” you’re on. The beast is on all sides and in all of us. Don’t feed it, at least within you and those around you.

Do not join the ranks of their followers on all political, religious and ideological sides.

Continue to be, do, dream, achieve and strive, and live, a champion of the world – that is also within you, along with the beast.

On my way to work, Ep 12 – Your beliefs have power


  • This is almost a boring, clichéed, cheesy idea these days, that your beliefs have power. But it’s a powerful idea.
  • Obviously beliefs don’t drive everything. If you get hit by a bus or run over by a train, no matter how much you may believe in your eventual success, you’re probably not going to make it. Luck drives our lives as well.
  • But beliefs drive actions, not just the actions you take but also the options you see.
  • If you see everything as black, pointless, your actions will reflect that. You’re going to create a world around you that is pointless, has no substance to it, etc.
  • If you believe that people are worthwhile, generous, worth putting energy into, that’ll drive your actions too. The world, people around you, respond to that.
  • If you want to have the greatest impact on the culture of the company (no matter where you are in that company) the highest point of leverage where you can make changes is yourself.
  • Like all good ideas, this is nothing new.
  • The point of this is just to realise that, quite the opposite from feeling powerless about the world around you, you have enormous power to shape the world around you by the beliefs you apply to it.
  • Another converse of that thought is the idea that if you do see the world as drab and featureless and full of blame and things that are trying to hurt you, it’s all inside of you. Maybe the world has done something that you perceived as a trigger, that you thought justified you in feeling a certain way, but in the end the bit you can choose, you have power over, is your reaction. This is mentioned in Seven Habits, via a therapist called Victor Frankl, who survived the death camps and even in that environment, realised that although he could not control the environment, he could control how he reacted to the environment he was in.
  • That’s a very inspiring thought: if you’re feeling bad, you have the power to shape your perception of the world, and that perception then shapes how the world actually is. Your thoughts, which you have enormous control over, change everything. You have the power.
  • Whatever you think, you can make happen. Whatever you want, you can be.
  • I’d also like to take a minute to rant against people who take this “Law of Attraction” to the extreme. Being hit by a bus will seriously impact your ability to “achieve your dreams”.
  • You can’t change everything about the world. No matter how much you believe you’re going to grow back a limb that you’ve lost, it’s not going to grow back. People who discover this Law of Attraction (and unfortunately that includes many writers), like the author of the Secret, or Think and Grow Rich, that they present it as the one idea that solves everything, perhaps as a sales trick.
  • That’s a terribly insulting perspective to have to all the people who are in truly dire situations and do not have the opportunities we have around us. When you use this idea, remember that some people do not have all these opportunities available to them.
  • Another inspiring idea: the world we live in is so full of opportunities that the Law of Attraction largely does work for us most of the time. Spare a moment for those for whom it doesn’t.

On my way to work, Ep 11 – Sleep is when you work with your eyes closed


  • There’s a saying which I always find interesting: “Sleep is when you work with your eyes closed”.
  • Doesn’t mean that you’re supposed to work while you sleep. It means that while you sleep, there’s a lot of unconscious stuff that happens, connections that get made in your brain. Those connections that get made are very valuable to any business.
  • So to regard sleep or spending time with your kids as “not work” and the time at your desk as “work”, drawing that distinction, is a bit ridiculous when doing complex knowledge work.
  • But there’s a reverse side to that.
  • If you were to present this idea to executives in most companies, you’re going to get some assholes who will take that idea and try to create a culture of being at work all the time, always responding to emails, always available. Which totally misses the point: which is that you get those ideas when you’re not working, not thinking about work, thinking about other things.
  • Another side to that: if you want your people to be considering business ideas and thinking about them, and being willing to engage into that sort of thinking outside of working hours, that requires the right kind of mindset from people, and people won’t behave like that if you’re always pressuring them to think about work. So the side that many people wouldn’t be willing to accept, if you expect people to be willing to spend time outside of work thinking about work, then you can’t give them a hard time regarding what they’re thinking about while in the office.
  • You can’t have the expectation that your people are creative people who really care about their job and want to make a difference 24/7, and give them a hard time if they take a longer lunch break. The two are incompatible.

On my way to work, Ep 10 – Shares and ownership

Somehow I forgot to hit upload yesterday, so this is a day old. And today, after the Badminton yesterday, I had no energy to have any thoughts this morning, other than how much my muscles hurt! So nothing for today.


  • Shares are an interesting thing. In the startup scene, it’s tempting to always give out shares to employees. In Silicon Valley, for example, you probably can’t get away with running a startup and not giving shares.
  • It’s important not to just copy this model and apply it outside. In SV, people have a clear understanding and belief that the business could be worth a billion dollars, and they feel motivated to work towards that objective and “get rich”. And there’s a chance they might be right.
  • Outside of SV, the thinking is that you want to make people feel empowered, that they’re owners of the business, etc. If they’re deep in the startup scene that may well work, though if they’re smart and skeptical they will see that the chances that this works are very slim. People will naturally be more skeptical of that “dream”.
  • So the goal of making people feel like they’re owners of the business is not so clearly achieved by giving out shares.
  • I’ve asked people at events, would they feel they’re owners of the business with 0.1% of the business? No one raised their hand. Same for 1%, 5%, 10%… it’s only at 20% that people start to feel they “own” the business. You can’t afford many employees at that rate!
  • Shares are treated as a shortcut to make people think they own the business, but doesn’t really work outside of SV.
  • But there are other methods. You can make people feel that they are in control of the business, that they are able to make decisions, etc, without giving them shares.
  • Instead of using the shares shortcut, focus on learning to build a company where people really do feel that it’s their business, via transparency, responsibility, open cultures, etc, then the shares can be a validation of that.
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