The Four Horsemen of Companies

I have worked for many companies in my career and noticed some basic trends regardless of size, industry, or composition. I'm labeling these trends the Four Horsemen of Companies, and each one is named after a specific type of inflammation (-itis). My advice to budding job seekers is to work for a variety of places so that experience and understanding can be gained. If you only work for one particular type of company, you and the company end up being more prone to these horsemen than you think. If you are already employed, consider whether any of these horsemen are already present in your organization.

The best part of being a consultant was that I was outside of most company politices. I was also in and out of companies within a year (sometimes repeatedly). That gave me fresh eyes whereas some people become blind to the change around them, simply by being at the office every day.

Failure to watch out for these horsemen mean that they will creep up slowly and then entrench themselves in your company's culture. At some point, it's no longer an abberation but it is now the way of life at your company. This may all seem very dramatic, but I've seen good company cultures go bad within a year simply because people weren't on guard. If one or more of these problems exist at your company, there's no need to go running around and fixing every problem right now, but try to make the problems visible because, as the saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Featuritis

Let's start with this horseman because it is something that is easily found at every company. Simply put, new features are given higher priority over existing features. The root of this is mixed, from developers themselves to managers, so not one layer of a company is to blame.

Existing feature work is known by many names: technical debt, refactoring, etc. A lot of these words have existing definitions and prejudices built in so I will not use them. In the end, it is about improving the quality of the software that already exists in the company. When a company is small, there is little need for this ask the basic instinct is to survive. However, as the company grows and survivability increases to an almost certainty, one must start giving higher priority to improving quality.

Not focusing on quality has some very serious externalities. As new employees arrive they take longer to get up to speed and learn the hacks and tribal knowledge surrounding existing software. Launching new software or business processes is slowed down because no priority was given to making anything more efficient. The reason these externalities are serious is because featuritis exists like an asset bubble. At some point, the bubble survives and grows on its own confidence, and when it finally collapses (as things always do) it bursts rather than deflates.

Often, when featuritis strikes a company, it can be seen in the following ways. People will start using euphemisms, stating that they need to find a way to prioritize technical debt. Or maybe they'll invent new words like "foundational work." Or maybe it will be dismissed as unimportant because people think a bubble simply deflates. Or, lastly, the idea of improving quality will be challenged with the idea that feature work cannot stop or else the company will suffer.

All of these activities are distractions: you need to shift thinking and focus on improving the quality of existing assets and processes. During the American financial crash of 2008, people questioned by car companies and home builders kept building things people no longer wanted and were instantly unprofitable). The short answer is that these companies optimized themselves to "make stuff" and had no ability to shift to other, more profitable, work.

Corporatitis

The next horsemen is a bit more sneaky because their ideas are based on speech patterns and word use to measure conformity within an organization. This conformity stratifies the company into the haves and have-nots (some call this an Old Boy's Club). While "corporatitis" is placing blame on corporations, it is more about the worst kind of corporate culture that can infect smaller companies (regardless of the business' legal structure). Here are a few ways this happens.

Something that affects all department is the use of corporate-sounding jargon. This jargon includes things like "have an ask", "move the needle", among other things. The problem with this isn't that they are a new way of speaking (all words are neologisms, after all), it is that they form of a cargo cult. The words are devoid of meaning and context, and only serve as a relationship building element between members of the organization that use the words. In order for people to join that clique, one must use the same words. That makes this jargon extremely contagious and it will spread among much of middle management. You can see this happen very easily: watch as someone uses standard language in normal conversation, then quickly switches to corporate jargon when taking on a managerial stance.

While on the topic of management, another aspect of corporatitis is the unbridled growth of middle management. Every company is broken into three layers: senior management, middle management, and workers. When this growth happens at the middle management level, people will find managers are now relegated to attending meetings, pushing papers (virtual or otherwise), or acting as gateways. The curious thing is: most people I have met want to become a manager, and I can see the appeal. You no longer are responsible for "doing the work," you set priorities knowing full moral hazard is present, you probably make more money than workers, and you hold sway over performance, promotions and other things. I understand the allure, which is why people naturally migrate there. That doesn't mean a company should have separate positions for doers and managers.

The last way in which Corporatitis can strike a company is in the form of jingoism. As an organization stratifies based on management or jargon, borders are erected in order to "protect" teams from outside influence. What results is a breakdown of inter-team relationships, those borne out of informal, hallway contact and chit-chat. You can see this when teams only talk to each other, go to lunch with each other and maintain spaces that other teams are not welcome. While this is not intentional or malicious, it is a side effect of jingoism. In an attempt to control this, what typically happens is that communication is funneled through formal meetings, or via a chain of command structure. In the software development world, I've written about my dislike for Scrum because it causes all of this to happen. Developers are at the mercy of the rigid sprint and meeting rules, and will not change or adapt to external requests (which are often seen as threats, hence the power struggle) in order to maintain focus. None of this ends well.

Happyitis

We live in dark times. Or do we? Maybe each era has its own set of problems, usually brought about by social and technological changes, and has its own version of good and bad. The problem with companies that only embrace optimism and happiness is that they become biased in their decision-making. Such bias ends up missing opportunities for mitigating or exploiting unhappy times.

It's not that bad things don't happen, it's that people focusing on being happy forget that the real-world operates on a pendulum. They are simply unable to understand that something can be bad, and instead redirect it into a dismissable occurence or a learning opportunity (yet another piece of corporate jargon to watch out for). This is the warning that George Owell put forth in "1984" where negative words had to be converted into New Speak ("bad" became "double ungood").

Companies need to accept that the real-world contains both good and bad times in life. Facing adversity head-on is what makes people and companies stronger, but one doesn't need to wait for bad times to take advantage of this. To borrow from Stoicism, thinking about bad times is not the same as dwelling on it, as the former allows you to train yourself how to prevent and overcome those situations. By being happy all the time, companies are robbing themselves of becoming forward-thinking institutions, with the ability to capitilize on bearish times. Eventually, people will stop raising unhappy things (criticism, failures, etc.) because they won't be heard. That does not end well because everything has a way of getting out, and a regular release of stress and adversity is key to a balanced, and happy (natch) life.

SEPitis

The last horsemen is my most hated. It is insipid, sneaky, and almost irreversible. The theory goes that everyone is happy to help with anyone's problems. Then the company grows and the organizational structure moves toward putting with specific job duties. As the lines between job duties becomes more clear, lines are drawn about what will be and won't be performed by certain people. The end result of this is people saying that's not my problem. Enter the SEP field which Douglas Adams helped illustrate in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."

It beings easy enough. Simply inflict pressure on a human being and they will do one of two things: submit or admonish. Submission turns into a self-preservation tactic where, to maintain sanity one simply stops helping anyone. This type of insulation seems like the right move at first, and it works well in an independent setting (e.g. consulting) but it has terrible effects in a company setting. There is a difference between correct and complete. Barely anything a company produces is done in isolation, so a person that only helps themself is not helping to finish a product completely. While a product may work correctly, it may not be complete until all checks and balances are made (security, documentation, etc).

The lack of focusing on anything but one's own work is that it is evolves into the next stage of SEP: no responsibility. If everything is someone else's problem, then everyone is pointing their fingers at others. No responsibility or accountability is taken and the company and its brand suffers as a result. Think that's overly dramatic and extreme? Think about the last time something failed horribly and how many people were quick to blame another. Now think about how many people jumped in to help.

Alternatively, if someone doesn't submit to pressure and instead admonishes it, this can be a good thing. They are more willing to rise up and help others even though they have other things to do. They will do their job and still help others. In some company cultures this is known as going "above and beyond the call of duty." Heck, the military gives medals for this. In companies where SEP is rampant, a person who helps others is often scolded for doing unauthorized work and is instead told to not help others. Think of the sheer amount of cognitive dissonance required of a manager and worker to maintain that level of uncaring behaviour.

Summary

To sum up this long article, let me end on this. Everyone says it is hard to find qualified people, from salary to skills. But that's rarely ever the problem from a company's perspective. People can be taught just about anything on the job, so skills are not a problem. There will always be someone willing to do a job cheaper, so that's not the problem either. The hardest quality to find in a candidate is their ability to Give A Shit (tm). This is an exceptionally rare attribute, and it is also fragile because it can be lost if it is not well cared for. This can be extrinsic or intrinsic rewards for the employee, but the rewards for the company are myriad and incredibly difficult to quantify. Consider that the next time you are making hiring decisions.

Tags: advice, business, work