Freesteel Blog » Watching the CEO 20% of the time

Watching the CEO 20% of the time

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013 at 12:32 pm Written by:

Whether you like it or not, there is a cult of personality around the CEO. They have personally appointed layers and layers of qualified managers shielding them from the peasants. Even when they are not your CEO they can at any moment point to your place of work, and say: “Give that to me now.”, and it will be done for them.

It’s unsettling. Particularly as the takeover act is done swiftly and secretly, like a knife in the twilight.

If you somehow find out what’s going to happen before the cut, they tell you to keep it secret for fear of the FBI throwing you into jail for insider trading on the stock market. But when the story actually gets disclosed, the stock market price doesn’t respond. The stock market analysts don’t care. So it’s a lie. The story is just plausible enough to keep the quivering animal ensnared in the trap until it’s all signed, sealed and delivered into its new working environment.

And that working environment is the one which the CEO defines. Like a politician, he stands up and gives little speeches now and then. But whereas politicians merely write the rules that you can read in advance and argue with the judge about, the CEO and his hand-picked management hierarchy are the judge, jury, executioner and lawmaker all at once. You can’t find any rules written down.

So what does the CEO feel about the working environment? There are very few clues. So I come to this video between him and the management writer Dan Pink sparring off in an appallingly fact free zone about google’s famous 20% innovation time off.

Carl Bass may be playing devil’s advocate here, but I’m not sure he doesn’t mean it.

Carl: That example of Google was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard. What people confuse is the cause and the effect. There’s not a single thing you’ve talked about in all the reward systems at Google that actually created the success. These are all by-products. The 20% thing that makes the money, the dry cleaning, the gourmet food, the snacks for free, the 20% off, none of that has to do with it. It was all done by Sergey and Larry when they were in their dorm rooms. The rest of it is mythology.

Dan: Obviously you’re delusional. How does Google make it’s money, Carl?

Carl: Ads.

Dan: How did google come up with ads?… They came up with that innovation on 20% time. Larry and Sergey came up with something that was algorithmically beautiful, they couldn’t find a way to make money from it. Inspired by what Bill Gross did with an initial advertising sponsored search engine, they said, Let’s do that. It was deployed doing that, created it, so you can have your own opinion, Carl. You can’t have your own facts.

Carl: By the way, my favourite thing to google on Google is Larry and Sergey’s paper and the beautiful disclaimer at the bottom says the worst thing in the world that could happen is that this technology gets in the hands of advertisers.

Dan: What about google maps? That has nothing to do with 20% time? Nothing to do with you running a public company spending your time googling fun facts.

Audience: What about gmail?

Carl: Gmail is a P.O.S. That is the worst email system that I have ever used.*

Dan: You went to Cornell, right? What did you major in at Cornell?

Carl: Math

Dan: Can you help me with something? What is larger? Nine, or 198?

Carl: What base?

Dan: As it happens, these numbers correlate very nicely to the annual revenue of two companies: Google and Autodesk.

Carl: I think what you are confusing is cause with effect. Like I said, not a single person who eats in that cafeteria, who has that fancy food, who has 20% off, has anything to do with the money-making machine that was created. So my hats off to the money-making machine, all the rest is perks.

Dan: The money-making machine came from a guy who was deployed in the early days of Google to say how we can make some money.

Carl: And they went and bought another company.

Dan: They did not buy. They stole the general idea.

Carl: And they needed fancy food and clean clothes to steal? We can steal with dirty clothes any day.

Dan: Let’s move to another topic. Executive compensation…

* You’ve got to worry about a guy who thinks that Microsoft Outlook, with its lack of threading, crappy attachments, and the inability to access it from anywhere but your designated company computer, is anywhere close to a state of the art email solution. But if the CEO likes it, we’re stuck with using it.

Come on, folks. Western society has been hosting these vast supposedly innovative organizations at scale for years. Surely by now there is a bit more science and information to it. Out in the mid-west those industrial farmers have worked out an optimal environment for pigs and chickens to get them fattest quickest and the lowest cost. Why can’t any CEO be bothered to read, let alone sponsor, the necessary research to understand what the optimal environment for human creativity looks like? There have been enough experiments done with different corporate environments to create the data by now. And I don’t think it will be found in those aggregated employee survey results, to be honest. The answers are going to be discovered from observing the minute by minute behaviour of numerous people throughout the day, shifting from one thing to the next, and giving up when they’re making no progress.

Here’s my take on the 20% innovation time off rule: You expect me to keep my mind on the job for 80% of the time? Man, I’m all over the place. That’s why I chose to be self-employed for the last ten years until now. I need to let it all out. For any thinking, breathing human being, 20% has got to be the minimum. It’s like a bathroom break. In some factories they try to cut down on breaks for the toilet, but when you’ve got to go you’ve got to go. It’s a fact of life. The mind wanders hour by hour. It always does. The only thing Google has done differently is schedule it in, so people can be honest and not cover it up. All the rest is an attempt to rationalize this within the normal profit-driven corporate story. Is it: How much money did I just lose the company by sitting on the bog for ten minutes taking a dump? or is it: How much better can I work now I have worked through that nagging thought?

So, to wind down, I bring you this video that’s been doing the rounds and cheering us all up.

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