Can you name a company that hires employees without formal interviews and instead gives prospective job seekers a real assignment to see how they deal with it? Or a company that has a headquarters but whose international workforce hardly ever works there? Or that requires every new hire to spend their first weeks at the company working in customer support?
It’s the same company that hosts nearly 73 million blogs, and the platform on which this blog runs: WordPress.
Scott Berkun, a former project manager at Microsoft and now an author of some fine books, wanted to find out more about what it would be like to work at an organization with an entirely distributed workforce. So he spent a year as a team manager at WordPress and then wrote a book about the experience. Hence The Year Without Pants.
I’ve read Berkun’s books on project management and public speaking, and am a regular reader of his blog. He’s typically insightful, provocative, and funny. When I saw that he’d be doing a book on WordPress, which I’ve used for about seven years now, I figured it would be worth the read.
What: The book is structured chronologically, running from the initial arrangements that led to Berkun’s hire through end of his year+ of employment with WordPress. Berkun offers a look at the dynamics of his team and the projects on which they worked, as well as how that work and the team fit into the larger WordPress structure. There’s also some reflection on larger management, culture, and leadership issues as well as Berkun’s thoughts on “the future of work” in a world where a computer and an Internet connection can link almost anyone anywhere in the world.
Audience: Anyone who wants an inside look at how WordPress works as an organization, project managers, and HR and business types who are curious about how a distributed workforce can really get stuff done. I’d also recommend it for anyone who wants to do better at leading teams–you’ll get the vicarious experience of watching Scott Berkun lead his team and get a glimpse at the thinking and motivations behind his decisions.
Nuggets: Here are few bits that I underlined (well, highlighted on my Kindle version).
No technique, no matter how good, can turn stupid coworkers into smart ones. And no method can magically make employees trust each other or their boss if they have good reason not to. (p 29)
Product creators are the true talent of any corporation, especially one claiming to bet on innovation. The other roles don’t create products and should be there to serve those who do. A classic betrayal of this idea is when the IT department dictates to creatives what equipment they can use. If one group has to be inefficient, it should be the support group, not the creatives. If the supporting roles, including management, dominate, the quality of products can only suffer. (p 38)
Every tradition we hold dear was once a new idea someone proposed, tried, and found valuable, often inspired by a previous tradition that had been outgrown. The responsibility of people in power is to continually eliminate useless traditions and introduce valuable ones. An organization where nothing ever changes is not a workplace but a living museum. (p 76)
Morale isn’t an event; it’s the accumulated goodwill people build through work together. (p 206)
Application: After reading the book, I decided to try an experiment in one of my Lincoln Christian University classes. The marketing class is working on a project in teams. In the past, I’ve always met with each team to check on their progress and address problems. For a class with four teams, this meant scheduling multiple meetings with each team–a significant logistical challenge at the end of the semester.
For this class, I asked each team to select a project manager. Instead of meeting with all of the teams, I’m meeting only with the project managers. So far this has created two improvements: fewer meetings and more collaboration. Instead of scheduling four meetings with four teams, I have one meeting with the four project managers. And the teams are sharing ideas more than I’ve seen in the past. The semester isn’t over yet, so the plan could still flop but I like what I’m seeing so far.
This upcoming spring semester, I have two of my LCU students working on a human resource management independent study. I’ll have them read The Year Without Pants as one of their texts. I also want to use more project management ideas in future classes, passing more responsibility along to the students with the hope that it better prepares them for life after LCU.