Maverick: Book review
My colleagues Frankie and Danilo have been recommending ‘Maverick’ to me for a long time and I finally got around to reading it.
In this book Ricardo Semler, the CEO of Semco, tells the story of the company and how he helped evolved the organisation into one which is more employee led and embraces ideas such as open & self set salaries while encouraging civil obedience in the workforce as a necessity to alert the organisation to its problems.
These were some of the ideas that I found the most interesting:
- Early on Semler points out that Semco doesn't have a culture of looking busy. He describes how a sales manager spends a lot of his day just reading the newspaper but then as soon as there's a problem for him to handle that's when he earns his salary. Even though this book isn't specifically about systems thinking, the description of this situation suggests to me that they are able to look at the bigger picture at Semco. In software teams we can often feel quite guilty if we're not busy but a bit of slack time is often useful for thinking about better ways to do things or to spike out new ideas.
- Semler emphasises the need to have small business units of under 150 people while matches up quite well with research done by Robin Dunbar which indicates that 150 is the 'theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.' Semler also adds that keeping the units small 'keeps them human'. I know ThoughtWorks keeps this in mind with respect to our offices and will look to open a new one if the number of people in one is getting close to the 150-200 mark.
- Semco have a culture of what Semler refers to as 'absolute trust' which he suggests is a more natural way. They implemented this at Semco by removing security checks on the gates into/out from the plants.
He almost then predicts the inevitable question in the reader's mind with the following statement:
2 or 3% will take advantage of an employer's trust. Is this a valid reason to subject 97% to a ritual of humiliation? Have thefts increased or decreased? I don't know and I don't care. It's not worth it to me to have a company at which you don't trust the people with whom you work.He promotes an approach of common sense amongst his employees, suggesting that 'rules freeze companies inside a glacier; innovation lets them ride sleighs over it'. The general idea seems to be that the small details aren't really that important and only serve to distract from the bigger objectives that the company are trying to achieve.
I was quite surprised to read how strongly Semler recommends job rotation:
Man is by nature restless. When left too long in one place he will inevitably grow bored, unmotivated, and unproductive. The cure, I believed, was to encourage managers to exchange jobs with one anotherHe goes on to point out that this type of rotation forces people to learn new skills which makes them more valuable but also discourages empire building because people don't stay in the same place for too long. I think we do this to some extent in the software industry between some roles but probably not as much as we could do. Having said that there is a lot to learn as a developer anyway so perhaps it's not so applicable here.
- Perhaps the most controversial idea in the book is that of transparent/self set salaries. There was initially resistance to the latter idea as cynics believed that a few people would take advantage and award themselves massive pay increases. However, they found that having those salaries public served as a strong disincentive.
He also identifies the fact that people have a stake in the success of the company as being key for allowing this to work:
The third reason our people tended to be modest about salaries has to do with self preservation...Our people know salaries account for most of our operating costs, and they think about our budgets when they set them. It's easy to solve a budget problem by eliminating a salary that seems too high, and noone wants to stick out.
The underlying reason behind why a lot of the ideas Semler implements seem to be about unhiding information as described by the following quote:
There is power in knowing something someone else doesn't...but when cards are held close to the chest, communication will be faulty and anxieties, misunderstandings, insecurity, and eventually hostility will manifest itself...which is why when we started sharing information at Semco it has such a profound effect. People in the higher echelons could no longer rely on the conventional symbols and had to develop leadership skills and knowledge to inspire respect.Spreading responsibility for problem solving across the organisation is another idea Semler strongly encourages and I think this partly explains why it's more fun working in an agile environment. Information in general is more accessible and because of that people have more opportunity to solve problems than they otherwise would.
- Semler discusses the need to keep the organisation lean even when times are good which he acknowledges is much more difficult than trying to keep it lean when times are hard! For Semco this involves being careful when hiring people to work on product lines which they knew had a short life span as well as ensuring that they didn't add any unnecessary roles just because sales were strong.
Towards the end of the book Semler suggests that his goal with Semco was to ‘make people look forward to coming to work in the morning’ which seems like quite a noble objective!
I found it quite interesting that although a lot of these ideas seem a bit radical, they made sense in Semco’s context because they were introduced incrementally and only after some other ideas had been introduced which helped smooth the way.
It’s certainly an interesting read and the ideas expressed at quite different than what is typical in most organisations.