I had a conversation with a product manager over IM today that got thinking big thoughts about stuff, you know, like Paul does. I’ve known this PM dude for years and worked with him while I was in development. Great guy, with massive doses of cynicism and negativity, at least when it comes to work.
He wanted to know why I kept spamming him with invitations to join Connect. Alas, I am guilty of this sin, but not because I want to brag about the biggest network (as Rich would have you believe), but rather because it’s my job to evangelize new web and spread Connect goodness throughout the land, erm Oracle. Here are the excerpted highlights.
PM: wtf is this network 2.0/connect/social virus/networking thing you keep pinging me about?
Me: what do you mean? it’s our social network for oracle
PM: does it DO anything?
Me: what do you want it to do?
PM: I have no effing idea, don’t know wtf it is or what it’s meant to do
Me: blah, blah, blah marketing crap (is this what i’ve become?)
PM: apologies, just so swamped at my end of the spectrum I don’t have any time to check out this stuff or read any of the internal spam/schmarketing emails that appear in my inbox
Anyway, I assured him he should not stress about Connect and take it easy. This exchange emphasized several key points, most of which we’ve discussed in this space recently.
- Enterprise 2.0 is tough. People have way too much to do anyway and want immediate benefits and a killer app before they are willing to spend time.
- Most people are professional and want to do good work or at least keep their jobs, a nice case study for why bans don’t work.
- Innovation is hard, especially if you follow a waterfall process for development. The tradeoff for process and accountability should not be innovation, but unfortunately, it sometime is. Finding a balance is the holy grail.
- Despite what you read here and in other places, Web 2.0 ain’t a household name yet. People focus on what it takes to get through the day, and everything else is secondary. Many people (believe it or not) spend their secondary time on “First Life” activities, i.e. not online.
- This is the scary one. People are too damned busy filling out TPS reports to innovate.
Of course, this last one in the current context assumes that Connect (and AppsLab) are innovative. Setting aside that bit for later discussion, the question does work crush innovative spirit?
Maybe it’s a function of increasingly busy lives, but time seems ever precious. If your manager outlines your priorities and establishes dates for them, why would you waste time on other activities, like checking out a cool social network? In development, we had outlined objectives, and one year, coming up innovation and ideas was one of them. As odd as this sounds, you know it came from an executive who wanted to foster innovation and had essentially good motives.
However, when the time came to figure out how to get innovation, the only workable idea was to mandate it. Therefore, the mandate got pushed down the chain, and when it got to me, it was in the form of an edict. “Your objective is to come up with X innovations and Y ideas each quarter.” Of course, my performance and appraisal are based on objectives, which is why they have to be quantitative. Plus, I need the money, so I really tried hard to come up with anything to check that off the list.
It worked for the first quarter, barely. By the second one, I had nothing in the tank, and I was seriously flailing. At the time, I managed a small team, so of course, the edict went from me to them. Maybe I’m naive, but no one on my team gave it more than lip service, and what we were forced to do was an hour-long brainstorm right before the deadline. Needless to say, nothing earth-shattering came of that session of innovation on the gallows.
People point to Google and their 20% your time policy, which is truly an innovative solution, as the way to go. We’re trying to tap into that same feeling, with a dash of Open Source flavor, with the OpenLab project built around Connect. All the while, we tread lightly to make it clear that work must come first (duh), not to make sure the contributors know, but to make sure the manager’s have that safety blanket. But even the Google 20% has come under fire lately as the company grows, which ideas become projects and why, political machinations, hurt feelings, etc.
So what’s the answer? Personally, I think another Google practice might be the way to go, i.e. the flat org. I say less management makes for more innovation, not because managers are dumb (remember, I used to manage, q.e.d.), but because managers don’t focus on innovation. They focus on project plans and milestones as their objectives, which takes focus away from kickass, awesome, super cool and totally killer products customers will stand in line to buy.
Some people counter with arguments like people need discipline and schedules or nothing will ever get done. That may be true, but read a book like “Winning with Software” and you’ll get the same message I see every day. People want to do a good job, nay the best job they can. So, when you ask them for schedules, they come up with doable, but aggressive dates. Let them make the schedule, and they’re bought into it with a sense of pride and investment. Drive a date from an ivory tower, and you’ll get nothing but resentment and division with a side of slippage.
You won’t get innovation.
Layers of management are a function of accountability. As a company gets bigger and goes public, accountability becomes larger (to more shareholders and customers) as well and more stratified. Management adds layers of deniability, forcing each manager to follow the CYA theorem. If a milestone is missed, who’s fault was it?
I ask, if a milestone is missed, does it matter? Maybe. If the product is derivative and customers don’t want it, does it matter? Yes.
We can’t be too busy to innovate.