“Without the time machine, all choices have the possibility of being wrong.”

I recently read Scott Berkun’s book, The Year Without Pants.” It is an informativeBook Cover The Year Without Pants and entertaining book about his more-than-a-year working for WordPress.com, reporting on what it is like to work in a remote-only environment. He offers insights into the daily life of managing a team across the globe, and compares them to his own insights on leadership and management.

The quote from the book that serves as title of this post is taken from a chapter that focuses on decisions. When given a choice, should one wait to fix issues as they come up (responsive), or make updates/changes to improve and lessen the potential for issues (proactive)? Eloquently, Berkun argues that there is no way to truly know which choice to make. Managers have to take the available information, and pick what they believe is the best path. Unless you have a time machine of course.

This is one example of the variety of informative commentary found throughout the book. I have a particular predisposition to enjoy the book since it is about working for WordPress.com (the parent company is called Automattic, founded by Matt Mullenwig). I have been an avid WordPress user for a number of years. I fall in the self-hosted category of WordPress because I purchased my domain and host this WordPress blog through Dreamhost. I go so far to have attended a few WordCamps, and even had the fortune to hear Matt speak at a WordCamp in Toronto a few years back – very cool it was.

I want to highlight a couple of other “jump-outs” to me from the book. I could spend a long time on these, but will keep it reasonably short. As with any reading, the items I notice are in tune with what I work on every day.

“…companies confused supporting roles, like legal, human resources, and information technology, with product creation roles like design and development. Product creators are the true talent of any [organization], especially one claiming to bet on innovation. The other roles don’t create products and should be there to serve those who do.”

This quote is in reference to what the leaders at Automattic noticed about other companies that struggle to succeed. In K-12 education, the creatives are the teachers and the students. What they create and do together is most important and everything should serve that. It sounds basic on the surface, but when implemented it seems like we tend to put processes, procedures, and rules in place that get in the way.

“You see a similar downward spiral at schools that try to measure teacher performance. They create new tests for evaluating teachers that reduce time teachers have to teach real lessons, which lowers their scores, which, sad surprise, leads to more testing.”

I burst out laughing when I read the above quote. This book was published in September of 2013, around the time teacher evaluation was getting to a frenzied place across the country. Berkun’s point in this quote was regarding using metrics to measure employee performance. As soon as there is some system in place to measure performance, he notes “Everyone eventually realizes that the metric, which was good for a time, is now being gamed. Employees go so far out of their way to score well on the metric that it has negative effect on the real quality of what the company makes, something people recognize intuitively.”

The power of success at Automattic is that the only real performance indicator is when an item is released to the public on WordPress.com. Since there is no workplace, and everyone does their work when and where they want to, the focus is totally on what gets done. This concept is the complete opposite of what goes on in K-12 public schools since by nature everyone shows up in the same place at the same time to work/learn. We are a massive mountain of organized minute-managing. The new world of remote work is on the other side of the spectrum. Online learning is beginning to change education, but when it will take hold, and parents stop putting their kids on the bus, remains to be seen.

“He wanted a data-influenced culture, not a data-driven one.”

This is a reference to Mullenwig’s style of engaging in decision making. Data is important to the process, but he only lets the data influence decisions, not drive them. There is a part of decision making that is left to intuition, or gut, when the numbers don’t tell the whole story. This is true about every child in a school. Assessments certainly shed light on what students know, but people have hunches that go far beyond any report available.

  • Self-motivated people thrive when granted independence.
  • Managers who want better performance must provide what their staff needs.

The above is obvious, but still hits home as a necessary ongoing reminder. Successful teachers are by nature self-motivated. It is the job of those who support teachers to figure out what they need (asking is an easy way), and make it happen for them.

Looking back on what I chose to highlight from the book, it is interesting very little is about the remote-worker concept that it purports to be about. Remote work is the reality now for many, and for many more in the near future. Regardless of where the work happens, there continue to be challenges to success in companies that will always be present. How one deals with the challenges remains the constant.

Obviously a big hat tip to @berkun for some thought-provoking reading!