Zappos

Agile @ Scale

Prelude

I think I used ‘dis-aggregated social network‘ on this blog for the first time in 2009, referring to Google’s basket of services that were connected relatively flimsily then. IMO, Google has always been that way, even including Google+. (read) I remembered it when I tweeted this about Facebook – around the time news of their Fan Audience Network started trickling in.

It got me thinking (again) on ‘scale’, a recurring theme here. In a less complicated world, where the trends in the business landscape were significantly more linear, (growth, competition, consumption, economy) scale was a powerful weapon to wield. But it’s a different world now. Artificial Intelligence, 3D Printing, Internet of Things, Wearables  and a hundred other things might completely disrupt the status quo and the need an incumbent brand satisfies. These are the known ones, and then there are the conceptually invisible (at this point) ones. Surviving (let alone thriving) in this shifting scenario requires agility, and it is difficult (though not impossible) to see scale and agility together. I looked to Google and Facebook for an approach towards this because not only are they surviving, they seem to be thriving. Yes, we’ll get to Amazon in a while.

What does it take to be agile at scale? I can think of four ingredients, the last three repurposed from the title of this post by JP Rangaswami.

Purpose

I remember talking about re-defining of scale at the Dachis Social Business Summit. The thrust of the presentation was that brands could engage consumers at scale only if they use currencies that create value for the user in the context of a shared purpose. I have elaborated it in this post at Medianama. Recently, I saw that Hugh MacLeod has brought it out beautifully here. Simply put

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(via)

Possibilities

The purpose need not have one constant rendition. As the landscape changes, a business will need to adapt it to suit changing circumstances. For that, a business needs to understand the possibilities. I saw a very good line in this post about being a maker – the more you work in the future, the less competition you will have. How much into the future a business needs to be working is subjective and depends on its dynamics, but if it doesn’t disrupt itself, someone else will gladly do it for them. (“The Jeff Bezos School of Long-Term Thinking” is a good read in this context)

Platforms

While purpose and possibilities are all good at high altitudes, a business also needs strong operational  platforms to back it up. As organisations scale, I have seen two things that affect agility. One, the processes that are introduced to create efficiency @ scale more often than not, become the goal instead of a means, slowing things down and taking away from actual goals. Two, as processes and manpower increase, silos are created. The good news is that it is easy to see technology platforms bringing more efficiency into processes as well as an iterative way of thinking in the near future. It is already happening in marketing. This, and many other factors are also dictating a consumer experience driven approach and are forcing organisations to break silos. As the entire brand/organisation becomes a platform (read) that regularly revisits its context and purpose in the life of a consumer, ‘everything becomes a node on the network

People

HuffPo had a post sometime back, citing Zappos, calling 2014 the year of workplace reinvention. It is interesting to note that parent company Amazon has apparently aped Zappos’ ‘pay to quit’ policy, even as more and more stories about working there being a ‘soul crushing experience‘ are coming out. Meanwhile, the two points it mentioned for this to happen are purpose and trust. These I’d say are the bedrock of culture. It’s intuitive that a workforce mindful of the organisation’s purpose and their role in it would keep an eye out for the business’ possibilities, be ready to work beyond silos towards a great consumer experience, and bring in others who would help the business scale. This, along with purpose, has to be the glue that holds it all together, enabling the organisation to move fast without cracking.

While different sectors are at disparate distances from a radical shift necessitated by technological developments, it is, I think, inevitable. In this fantastic post titled ‘Knowledge is faster than mortar‘, which looks at scale through a different lens, the author makes the point that ‘the old mechanisms don’t fit the new social structure.Old mechanisms were built to scale stability, new ones will have to be built to scale despite instability. Anti-fragile, so to speak. Indeed, we will see many manifestations as existing structures try to adapt – internal mechanisms like Amazon’s 2 pizza rule, consumer facing disaggregation like Facebook that have a corresponding internal wiring, or brands tweaking their 4Ps even further for different contexts. But whatever paths businesses choose, this will hold true

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until next time, the fast and the curious

Social’s second chance

For context, I believe the first chance was brand/marketing. That potential has pretty much been converted into a banal, mostly campaign oriented, traditional media (with better targeting thanks to various contexts) approach, though thankfully, we have do some rebel strongholds. I can clearly see this within the Big Shift construct – the third wave is about how organisations/institutions respond to knowledge and the flow of information, and what I see now is the typical marketing organisation conveniently converting social into a media framework that it seemingly understands and has worked with for a long while. The big boys – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube – have all created advertising products that cater to this thinking. Viva la broadcast!

But I’d like to think that all is not lost. Social changed to social media when it approached brand in the same way its media predecessors did. I see this as a phase which will last until social media saturates itself and becomes just another standard media platform. That leads me to think – if each domain (HR, Product) treats social in the same piecemeal way, it is bound to fail across them all.  When this does happen, at least some organisations will realise that a larger structural change is afoot and the institutional response needs to be more strategic. “The Next Social Imperative” made me realise that social has been attempting to work on top of business processes, but it needs to work the other way to even begin this journey. (also, strongly reminded of Tac Anderson’s post in this context back in 2010!) The driver will be market dynamics but the good news for organisations is that many in the existing workforce have the potential to become navigators of this change.

How does the workforce systemically play a part? Stowe Boyd’s insightful “The Future of Work : 4 trends for 2014” has at least two trends (consumerisation of work and me-isation of productivity and performance) that clearly point to this shift and its harbingers. Consumer technologies (and more so, the philosophy behind them) and a different kind of workflow can actually make an organisation more consumer centric than the silo approach currently followed. Steven Sinofsky’s long but superb post on the theory and manifestation of this paradigm shift is a must read on this subject. A very interesting manifestation of this shift I saw recently is Zappos’ move towards holacracy – a comprehensive ‘operating system’ for organisational governance that focuses on purpose and accountability without a top-down, hierarchical management structure.

This could be the first step towards ‘social business’, and I’m thinking of social business as a platform. (a fantastic read on platforms) The organisation and its purpose would actually work as a platform to channelise and augment the connection between employees and consumers. This purpose would also convert a job into work than an employee is connected to, and on the other side, it would help the consumer get closer to a brand he believes in. This is also when epics happen. Social (and other) technologies would play enablers for a more fundamental change in the structure and nature of work, and allow organisations to harness data, connections and transactions towards a shared purpose. More a transition than a disruption. Different organisations, I think, would evolve differently – some would not evolve at all. This is more hope than anything else, but I do believe that social technology has it in itself to be transformational, and not just transactional.

until next time, back to a socialist, communist workforce 😉

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Empowerment

In ‘Is Kindness a Strategy?’, Jeffrey F. Rayport shares the story of an American Airlines employee who ingeniously helped a passenger catch a flight though he was late, by using the express lane for ‘invalid’ guests. He mentions that many colleagues of the employee might not be happy with her way of dealing with the passenger. He also writes about Ritz-Carlton’s use of “service recovery” – a company’s ability to respond quickly, decisively, and effectively to a service problem of its own making — is a powerful way to increase loyalty among existing customers. He rightly draws the distinction between the two approaches – they vary on who’s at fault, the customer or the company, and asks what any business might stand to gain if it oriented its associates to look out aggressively for opportunities to perform true acts of kindness for their customers.

In my mailbox, a few minutes earlier, I had seen this, in which Hugh MacLeod takes a (what I considered a) legit shot at meetings. As always, the toon says it all. When confronted with a business problem, (generally) the organisation’s first impulse is to meet, discuss, analyse and arrive at a consensus… probably 24 hours later. Yes, even when it involves a real-time platform.

As I was writing last week’s post on culture, I was asking myself on the ingredients that make up a great organisational culture. Based on the above, I’d say Empowerment. When you have hired a professional to do a job that he has skills in, he/she should be empowered to apply his judgment to situations and not have to go through red tape or meetings involving people with minimal perspective on the matter. The first tenet of Zappos’ famous core values is “Deliver WOW through service”. In the same breath, Tony Hsieh also talks about “investing in a corporate culture that allows employees freedom and space” and follows it up with “If you get the culture right, then most of the other stuff, like great customer service or building a brand will just happen naturally.” On a related note, their unique hiring policy ensures that their sales staff don’t need scripts, they are trusted enough. It also ensures that an excellent culture is built by finding a fit between what makes the individual and the organisation tick. Empowering the employee so that he grows and so does the organisation.

until next time, power trips

Culture.org

For quite a while, I have believed that culture is the most underestimated and underutilised tool among the organisation’s means of gaining strategic advantage. A few like the much venerated Zappos have used this lapse to maximum effect and by assembling a group of passionate and aligned individuals generated profits and publicity, all while retaining a culture that continues to thrive. Remember “Anyone can do what we do, but nobody can be who we are.”?

Last week, Maneesh wrote an excellent post titled ‘The Importance of Culture‘ that started off a discussion on twitter involving him, Harish and me. Having experienced a few instances when the influx of money into an organisation (not necessarily a startup) changed the internal landscape completely, I wondered whether scale (that many a time follows money) and culture are usually mutually exclusive. It’s not always so, but it takes not just a very skilled management team, but also an empowered employee bunch down the line to make it happen. It takes communication, rewarding the right behaviour and a lot of clarity to ensure that the culture is not lost. To quote from the post, “Culture is attitude, it is not behaviour. Everyone knows this, but we all get it messed up.

When he linked professionalism and culture, I smiled because I remembered an incident from a couple of years back. That (very interesting) discussion, which prompted this post, was on whether passion or professionalism could better help the organisation scale. For various reasons, at that time, the two were mutually exclusive in the organisation. I argued for professionalism, because to me, it represented consistency and reliability. We both refused to accept the easy compromise of ‘both are necessary’. Towards the end, the management guru equated a professional to a mercenary. To me, the difference, was in alignment. In that sense, I agree with Maneesh that professionalism is practically non-negotiable. To quote from the post again, “You become a professional when you care. Your culture defines what you care about.

A couple of days after this discussion, this tweet appeared on my TL

Posts across years, across industries, across lines of work, but if you read them, you’ll sense the similarity.

To me, culture is not a fancy set of perks and trappings that money can buy. It’s a sense of belonging, a feeling of being connected to a set of objectives and activities that give the individual a sense of purpose. A sense of enjoying the ride even when it’s a tough one, because you know there are many who will be your parachute in case you fall off a cliff that you didn’t anticipate. When that feeling is lost, the light in the cubicle is switched off. More often than not, permanently.

until next time, culture counter