Every day for the last five and a half years I’ve gotten into my car and driven the 40 miles from home to work. And though Boston is known for its bad traffic, the commute has clearly been getting better over time (five years ago, leaving the house after 6:15 AM was an invitation to a two hour commute – now, not so much). Someone, somewhere, is tasked with improving the roads, and without my having to lift a finger – without my even having to think about it – this aspect of my life has been getting better, a little at a time.
I had the same thought at work when we got our new laptops and dev servers. And then when the staging environment was rebuilt from scratch to better resemble the production environment. And then when another environment was set up for stress testing riskier projects. And then when we moved tools machines from under desks to data center racks. I wasn’t involved in any of these improvements, didn’t even really know about them until they were already done – someone else was taking care of it while I wasn’t looking.
In a healthy organization, things are constantly getting better, all around you. HR improves your health plan and provides new benefits, accounting reimburses expenses faster, hardware gets beefier, tools become more powerful and efficient. Product, of course, continues to improve – ideally, both from a UX and revenue perspective. Add-on responsibilities get automated, staffed, or contracted out. In a great company, people are constantly applying their creativity to driving their areas, and the company, forward. This may sound utopian, but it’s actually kind of normal – when you’re in an ambitious, energetic company.
In unhealthy organizations, nothing happens unless you invest time, thought, and energy in pushing it yourself. Improvements are driven by a small cadre, but for the most part, everyone’s just treading water. There are no pleasant surprises, because no one’s doing anything to change the status quo on their own. Of course, organizations aren’t homogeneous. Bad companies can have pockets of excellence, and good companies can have areas that stagnate. You know you’re in an unhealthy environment when no one around you feels the drive, or the self-efficacy, to make improvements on their own.
One of the worst indictments you can make of a team or department is to say, “X hasn’t improved in the last year.” “No one’s pushing Y forward.” “Why isn’t Z getting any better?” If you spend some time thinking about your company, I’m sure you can think of an area which needs improvement, but which has languished for years. Why? Does change threaten a sacred cow? Is it important enough to staff, but not interesting/challenging/rewarding enough for A players to get involved? Is there one person who’s blocking change?
The good news is that these can be great opportunities. The bad news is that success sometimes means you’ll be put in charge.