It turns out, car theft is a bulk business. There’s a whole ecosystem around it – the thief, the chop shop, the fences, the salvage yard – there can be a lot of people involved, which means that the individual profit is smaller than you’d think. And so, professional car thieves have to work in bulk.
Enter The Club. A length of steel that attaches to the wheel and prevents the car from being steered, The Club is an inexpensive, highly visible theft deterrent that says, “This car is going to be hard to steal. Try the one in the next parking spot over.” It doesn’t prevent car theft – it just prevents your car from being stolen (though even this is evidently in dispute).
LoJack, on the other hand, is invisible from outside the car, so provides no deterrent. However, once the car is stolen, a tiny radio transmitter secreted within the car alerts nearby police, who are able to arrest the thieves and/or chop shop mechanic, and return the car to the owner. In contrast to The Club, LoJack doesn’t prevent your car from being stolen – rather, it attacks the economics of car theft. The more cars are equipped with LoJack in a given city, the more dangerous and less economically viable car theft becomes. LoJack is like vaccination – it helps to create herd immunity.
I was thinking about this recently when a colleague and I were talking about “death by meeting”, a problem endemic to middle and upper management. There are so many problems that everyone acknowledges, then shrug off as though they were fundamental laws of physics – interesting to consider, but ultimately immutable. Like Rumsfeld’s infamous “known knowns”, we all know that there are too many meetings; that the modern office environment is actively inimical to focus; that the daily flood of email is a tremendous drain on productivity. But our solutions are piecemeal, and local – setting up email filters to ignore the vast majority of the constant landslide, scheduling time on our calendars to make it appear that we’re in other meetings, closing our doors or placing our monitors so that we can’t see the hallway, then putting on headphones to create barriers to unwanted interruptions. We’re all using the approach of The Club, creating local maxima of productivity, possibly even expanding them to our teams – but ultimately leaving others to fend for themselves. What would a LoJack solution look like? How could we solve these problems at the organizational level?
These problems might seem too deeply ingrained in corporate culture to escape, but it’s possible to find companies that did just that. Fog Creek followed the research and gave every engineer, tester, and PM a private office. Atos completely banned internal email. Amazon rewrote the rules for meetings.
It’s easy to imagine the complaints – one size doesn’t fit all! These wouldn’t work at my company! You don’t understand my situation! And you’re right – one size doesn’t fit all. None of these may work for your company. I don’t understand your situation. But that doesn’t give you an out – these might not be the right fixes for your elephant-in-the-corner problems, but that doesn’t mean that you should just throw up your hands and give up.
The current situation is always set in stone until someone (and it’s always an individual) gets annoyed enough and comes up with an alternative. Sometimes, as in the above examples, it’s an executive who has the power to decide by fiat (it’s good to be king). Other times it’s a manager deciding to do things differently on her team, and the change spreading throughout the organization. Sometimes it’s an individual contributor coming up with a crazy idea, working nights and weekends, and changing the game overnight. As an example, TripAdvisor was using CVS when I joined the company – it had become incredibly creaky (a tale for another time), and was significantly impacting productivity, but people were used to it – the frog had been boiled slowly. Luckily, there was a fresh college grad who hadn’t habituated, and got frustrated enough that he decided to switch the codebase over to Subversion on his own time.
The trick to solving impossible problems goes something like this: when someone tells you that something is impossible, just agree. Then ask, “OK, but if you had to solve it anyway, what would you do?” Then sit back while the person tells you exactly how to do it.
So, I put it to you – there are problems that everyone in your organization has. You and everyone else might be so used to them that they don’t even register anymore. Some problems are universal, or nearly so (meetings, email, distracting environment), but others might be specific to your workplace. Maybe it’s the slow-moving bureaucracy, or the procurement process, or the terrible equipment, or even the lack of conference rooms.
The first step is to understand and enumerate your company’s unspoken, incontestable, intractable problems. What are they, really?
Next, choose one of the problems.
Then, realize that it’s impossible to fix it. Can’t be done. Seriously.
Then go ahead and do it anyway.