Learning from Marissa Mayer and Yahoo!



I’ve just finished reading a book about Yahoo! and its current CEO, Marissa Mayer. A fairly slim tome, I got through it in a day on my Kindle.

It’s well worth a look for anyone interesting in how technology companies work (or in this case, don’t) and also how large companies can go around changing the way they work.

Overall, I think if Mayer is given enough time, she can make Yahoo! relevant again. It might not be in the shape that perhaps many of its investors would like, but it could once again be innovative and delivering real value to its users.

More on Yahoo! and Mayer by John Naughton and Jason Calacanis.

Here are my big three takeaways from the book.

There’s no fix for not knowing why you exist

Yahoo!’s well documented problem is that nobody knows what it is for. It’s birth was as a straightforward directory for the emerging web, something that is just no longer needed. All it has is a homepage that still has lots – although a decreasing number – of visitors.

Strategically, this is a killer. Not having a commonly understood vision makes it incredibly hard for an organisation to move forward, particularly during a time of change.

Before Meyer’s appointment, Yahoo!’s board had a decision to make. Was it a media company or a product company? They plumped for the latter, and appointed Meyer, who had a great track record in product development at Google.

Great start, but was everyone bought into the vision of Yahoo! the product company? Did they have the stomach for the fact that it would take years to move the company forward in that direction?

Undoubtably this is the biggest challenge at Yahoo!, and indeed any other organisation that has a problem identifying its reason for existence.

Stack ranking – no matter what you call it – is a bad idea

On her arrival, Meyer faced a problem – Yahoo! was overstaffed and had a lot of people who weren’t performing. Her solution was to bring in a performance review system that she had experienced at Google, and was used in other tech companies.

Here’s how it works. A manager sorts everyone on their team into five different rankings – from totally smashing it, to utter failure every quarter. These rankings over a period of time decide how big someone’s bonus is, or whether they even keep their job.

Sounds pretty standard. But where stack rankings differ is that managers have to have a certain percentage of staff in each ranking. So even if everyone on your team meets, or even beats, their targets, some of them will still have to be rated as failing.

This kind of thing can work well in the short term, in that it quickly weeds out those who really aren’t performing. Soon though, it starts to breed resentment, mistrust and a lack of collaboration.

The case of Microsoft’s use of stack ranking is a good example of how it can create a poisonous corporate culture.

Pitting employees against each other, no matter what the short term gains, is not the way to build a healthy, collaborative environment to work in.

Hiring is hard – but you have to get it right

Probably Meyer’s biggest failure at Yahoo! (so far) was the disastrous appointment of Henrique De Castro as Chief Operating Officer.

He joined the company with a huge financial package and when it didn’t work out, it ended up costing Yahoo! over $100m (!) for little over a year’s work.

A huge, costly, mistake and perhaps what makes it so bad is not the money wasted, but the time. The point of hiring De Castro was that it would enable Mayer to focus on product while someone else took care of the day to day media and advertising business.

For any organisation, hiring the right people is just so important. The people in an organisation forge its culture to a massive extent, and the time wasted, expense and sheer pain of getting it wrong can be incredibly damaging.

Lacking leadership

Recently on my visits to councils and to conferences, and in the conversations I have with people across the public sector, leadership in digital has been identified as an issue.

I think the problem is that within many organisations, there’s nobody with sufficient clout taking the digital agenda forward: identifying the vision and setting out how people can get there.

Part of this is because digital doesn’t easily fit into any of the slots of the traditional organisation chart. It’s definitely not IT, nor (just) communications, and probably not (just) customer services.

Perhaps the closest fit would be within the organisational development bit of HR.

To kick start an organisation’s journey to become truly digital, having an inspirational leader in place is, I think, vital.

I’ll be talking about this in more detail this coming Monday, in a free webinar. Sign up here.

Change is hard

It isn’t said enough, I don’t think, that change – particularly in big organisations – is hard. Really hard!

If it wasn’t, it would be happening all the time.

At events there are regularly discussions that go on along the lines of ‘my boss just doesn’t get it’ – tales of woe where someone wants to do something new but is stopped by management or bureaucracy or a combination of the two.

What makes a someone a real force for change is the ability to get knocked back, dust themselves down, and have another go.

Again, and again, and again.

It won’t happen the first time, or the second time. It might not even happen at all in one organisation – you might need to move on to get the chance.

But nothing worthwhile is ever easy and if you’re committed to making a difference, you’ll recover from setbacks, never get too disheartened and keep coming up with new ideas, new strategies and new ways of persuading.

It’s easy to have a go and give up. The ones who make the difference are those who stick at it.

Embrace constraints

Sometimes it’s better to embrace constraints. Why not even invent some?

Constraints don’t need to make things harder – they can make things easier.

Why take a year to deliver something if you can get it out of the door in months?

Constraints focus the mind, especially on what is important and what isn’t.

Say you’re handed a project at work. It feels like something ought to be delivered within six months. How about seeing what can be achieved in six weeks?

It might end up being a bit rough and ready, but there’s lots of pros to outweigh that con:

  • The positive feeling of having delivered something
  • The ability to get feedback from users on what you’ve done
  • Reducing the level of risk in the project

So rather than playing safe and asking for more time, more money, and more people, why not embrace some constraints and see what can be done quickly, cheaply and with a small group?

Digital transformation

The term digital transformation is being bandied about rather a lot at the moment.

That’s fine – people often argue about words and phrases and what they mean and whether they are helpful.

Usually they aren’t perfect but do a job as a sort of shorthand that everyone has a broad – if occasionally divergent – understanding of.

However, if by transformation people are meaning making a lasting and sustainable change in the way an organisation works (which is how I understand it), then I don’t think transformation is what you really want.

It’s a bit like words such as disruption. Disruption is a good way of getting people to notice something – but it’s not always in a positive way, nor in a way that will convince people to come with you.

Transformation to me feels big, and quick. Maybe that is what organisations want. I don’t think it is what they need though.

Developing the culture of an organisation is hard work, and it takes a long time. For digital transformation to happen, it needs to be incremental and slow. It has to be given time to bed in, for the laggards to catch up, for everyone to be comfortable.

It also has to take place in small chunks, not trying to fix everything at once.

Remember, ‘digital’ is all about small changes, made responsively in line with the needs of users. Not frantic efforts to build giant edifices.

Organisations need to use the mindset, skills and tools of digital to make digital happen, otherwise it makes no sense, and just won’t work.

So, if you’re planning a digital strategy, or are in charge of digital transformation, make sure you start small, iterate, don’t promise too much, and don’t be tempted to go for big, flashy high profile activities. They might make a short term splash, but won’t change much in the long term.

Reminder – if you need a hand with this stuff, the 10 Think Digital principles might be useful. Check out the slidedeck or the webinar recording.

Think Digital

I’ve found myself banging on a lot recently at events and other engagements about pretty much the same stuff.

It’s what organisations need to do to grasp the digital opportunity – but which isn’t about actual tools on the internet. At least, not just about that.

Embedded below is the first attempt I have made to write it up. I would really welcome feedback on this. If you can’t see the embed, download the PDF direct here.

[slideshare id=37041031&doc=think-digital-140716061200-phpapp02]

Where should internal communications efforts be focused?

shutterstock_129038351I was part of an interesting discussion recently where internal communications was being debated. It was revealed that only 40% of staff were engaged with the communications coming from the corporate centre.

The conversation focused on what could be done to engage better with the other 60%. What mediums should be used? What tone and style? Should it be online? What about those without computer access?

I jumped in, slightly provocatively perhaps, to ask why you would want to that. Perhaps there’s a bigger issue here, which is that probably 40% of people paying attention to internal corporate communication is about right, and nothing could really be done to change that more than a couple of percentage points either way.

Maybe it’s the case that 60% of workers in a large organisation just don’t care that much. They come to work, do their job, and then go home and do the stuff they are really interested in. I’m not being critical, it’s just that different people have different priorities.

It might sound insane to the readers of this blog, but not everyone gets excited about the idea of transforming local government!

Instead of spending time and resources chasing after this large group of people, who, with the best will in the world, couldn’t care less about the new corporate strategy, perhaps it would be best to focus that energy on those who actually want to talk about this stuff.

In other words, who are your 40% of enthusiastic, motivated people? How do you find them? What do they want from you, in terms of communication and engagement? Give it to them!

Yammer is a good example here. Someone said in the discussion referred to above that not that many people were active on Yammer. That’s an experience across a load of organisations I know who use that particular tool.

However, those people who use Yammer are likely to be positive about change, curious about new tools and ways of working, willing to experiment and to go beyond the usual ways of doing things. I’d say they are exactly the sort of people that a corporate centre would want to have on-side, engaged with what’s going on in the organisation.

What do people think? I’m not actually saying to stop trying to communicate with everyone, just that putting extra effort to persuade people to do something they don’t really want to do might not be a good use of precious resources.

Founders at Work

foundersatworkAm currently reading, and very much enjoying Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston of Y Combinator.

It’s basically lots of interviews with founders of companies that were once startups about what life was like in the early days.

The book’s blurb sells it well:

Founders at Work is a collection of interviews with founders of famous technology companies about what happened in the very earliest days. These people are celebrities now. What was it like when they were just a couple friends with an idea? Founders…tell you in their own words about their surprising and often very funny discoveries as they learned how to build a company.

It’s an impressive list of people, too, including:

There loads more too. What I like is the mix of new digital startups and some stories from earlier in the story of the technology based startup, particularly around the time of the birth of the personal computer and software industry.

Funnily enough, as I started typing this post, I got notification that Tim Dobson had written a book review post of this very tome! It’s well worth a read through his detailed notes, but his concluding paragraph sums the whole book up well:

As a book, it comes across as well written, and is full of genuinely interesting interviews. If you’re interested in the history, or how some of these companies and startups came into existence, or you’re interested in learning what people feel they did right… and wrong, then have a read through it.

What is always interesting to think about when reading this type of material is what those of us working in larger organisations can learn from startup culture and the way these scrappy little companies work.

A common theme of Founders at Work is the role that luck can play in the success of a startup. However, equally important is determination – a refusal to accept failure – and linked to that, flexibility – so when one route looks like it won’t work, pick another and have another go.

Making remote work work

SONY DSCA key part of working smarter is the idea of flexible or remote working. One neat way of describing it is that work isn’t a place you go to, it’s what you do.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding though about this concept, with it often being seen as a perk for an individual employee, say, rather than an organisational approach to work and how it should be done.

Here’s some success factors in making remote work succeed on your team.

Right location for the right work

Remote working doesn’t automatically mean home working. It means going to the right place for the particular work that is being undertaken.

Potential locations include:

  • Home
  • Cafes
  • Libraries
  • Co-working spaces
  • Other people’s offices
  • Your office

What’s more, a remote worker doesn’t just work in one of these locations but should use a range of them depending on what they are trying to achieve.

No single comms channel

Don’t pick one channel for communicating amongst remote workers. Again, as with work locations, it depends.

Some of the options include:

  • Instant messaging
  • Email
  • Group chat
  • Status updates
  • Collaborative editing
  • Video chat
  • The phone

The temptation is often to try and pick a single winner (and losers) for communications in a team. We’ll do everything through Yammer! Never use email – it sucks!

There are a range of variables that will affect which channel you might use for a particular comms task but the most important are: what are you trying to achieve; and what are your colleagues most comfortable with?

It’s always good to have a range of options available that everyone is familiar with so that no matter what the task is, you’ll have the tools to do the job to hand.

Keep communicating

In an office environment, it could be argued that over communicating is possible. Not so for a team that works remotely.

Part of the point of remote working of course is to escape the hustle and bustle of a busy office. In which case, an individual worker could just step back, switch off, and find a quiet space to concentrate in.

The rest of the time though, it ought to be possible to get hold of people individually or as part of a group. So find a way of doing group chat and encourage people to be present in it most of the time. Or ensure there is a way of privately instant messaging individuals to quickly check on the status of an action or project.

This means it’s important not to get into the habit of thinking that as someone is working outside the office, they shouldn’t be disturbed. In fact, because they aren’t physically present, disturb them more!

Meet up

Remote work really doesn’t mean never actually meeting your colleagues. What it does mean is that these get togethers become even more important to get right.

This means not meeting up for the sake of it, but ensuring you have some objectives for a get together. So, only meet when there is a need to, and not just because it hasn’t happened for a month.

Consider having a project for a meetup, with a specific deliverable to come out of it. Having everyone in the same room might not happen often, so consider whether it’s possible to run a micro project in that time.

Whole team or organisation approach – everyone adapts

Remote working only works when everyone buys into it – even (especially!) those who don’t work remotely themselves.

The important parts to remember are:

  • Remote work is not a privilege for an individual, it’s a better way of getting work done for the whole team
  • Remote work is not just home working, it’s finding the best place for an activity to happen, which could be any one of a number of locations
  • Remote work requires a shift in focus on measuring performance by qualitative outcomes and not quantitative outputs or time spent in the office

Without this wider development of working culture and acceptance of remote working and what it means for an organisation, it will always be seen as a bolt on, and many of the opportunities it presents will be missed out on.

What do you think? What are your experiences of remote working, and what helps and hinders its success?