Dave Gray, founder and chairman of the visual thinking company XPLANE, has just released his new book ‘The Connected Company’. The speed that information moves across, customers, markets, investors and beyond, changes the environments in which our companies are operating. More and more, customers request special and tailor-made treatments. In ‘The Connected Company’ Dave Gray asks questions and proposes a model on how companies should keep up with these changes. I had the chance to interview him.
Ruben: It strikes me that the your last book is not overloaded with graphics, it’s more a text-based book. Is that a deliberate choice?
Dave: The reason I started writing ‘The Connected Company’ is because I was interested in the topic. I started a learning process and began to write blog posts about it. My publisher asked me if I would be interested in putting these writings into a book. Writing is a process to understand things, it’s actually just like painting or drawing. I originally started as an artist and as an artist I draw to understand the world. Writing a book is another way to do just that.
Ruben: I didn’t know you started as an artist. How then did you become a business consultant?
Dave: There is actually no straight line from artist to business consultant. I even was a journalist in between.
Ruben: In ‘The Connected Company’ you’re talking about the adaptability of companies. It sounds like you’ve adapted yourself quite a few times in your career. What implication does adaptability have on future career lines?
Dave: Leaders will have to accept that there is no straight line. We couldn’t predict the financial crisis, WWII, the Greek deficit, so why do we think we can predict something so microscopic as someone’s career. Steve Jobs said: ‘You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward’. So learning to adapt is essential.
Ruben: That reminds me of improvisation, a word that is somehow lacking in you book. How important is improvisation for you?
Dave: Improvisation is the nature of all innovation. Any project-oriented work can only become innovative with improvisation. There is never certainty about the end of a project. You always need to improvise along the way, with all the risks and many dead-ends that this involves.
Ruben: Why do companies have so much trouble getting this right?
Dave: Because we’ve been perfecting the division of labour. We’re working in divided companies. Tasks are all set in advance and can easily be repeated. Workers just have to do these repetitive tasks. That’s the way we’ve organised our companies. So the last 100 years or so, we’ve trained the creativity out of our employees. Our organisations are seeking efficiency, reliability and productivity and these things can all be automated. We have yet to change our organisational structure and our education system. But our schools keep churning out people that learn the mechanistic view. We see that companies that still work that way need loans from the government. And that keeps them alive for another while. But for the people within these companies it gets harder and harder. They can’t find new jobs elsewhere. Service designers, user experience designers, etc… don’t have that problem. They can easily find new jobs.
Ruben: But there’s more than services in the world. We still need to manufacture products, so we also need those mechanistic jobs.
Dave: I’m convinced that services will replace manufactured goods. In essence a manufactured good is a service, it has functionality and that’s what you’re buying it for. You’re buying the product for its service. And increasingly manufacturers will make customized things. That’s what we’re heading for. You already see initiatives like Zip Car (car sharing company) where a single car is being used by about 15 families. Customers don’t own cars anymore they buy the service a car provides.
Ruben: But still, innovative products like the iPad need to be manufactured?
Dave: These are not devices, they’re stores! It’s just a screen that you take along with you. The real product that you as a customer are interested in is on the screen and that’s not even a product by Apple. So all these iPads are customised. The device is so simple you don’t notice it anymore.
Ruben: You talk about the analogy of the ’city’ as an organisational model for connected companies. The ‘city’ provides the structure and leaves small units (pods) within the ‘city’ develop their own services. The ‘city’ is the platform for pods to thrive. That’s a great analogy and it’s how the iPad works. But it raises the question about the bad reputation of government services. What advice would you give governments to improve that?
Dave: The difference with other services is that most services can be offered globally. But moving to a different city is quite difficult. The switching costs between cities, governments are quite high. That’s not the case with companies. In that respect, governments and cities don’t really have competition. I would say: get your citizens involved to improve the service.
Ruben: What about meetings? What’s their place in the connected company?
Dave: First of all meetings exist because we need alignment and coordination. I would reckon that at least 50% if not up to 80% of all meetings aren’t necessary at all. The issues discussed are essentially to maintain control over things that people should take care of by themselves. Meetings are there to fulfil the manager’s need. In a connected company people have a better idea on what their jobs are because they craft them themselves. They’re not automated, so control is less needed and meetings will become more and more optional.
Ruben: How do we get managers to accept this idea?
Dave: Managers should ask themselves what makes self-organising systems more effective than top-down controlled systems. Most meetings are just called out of laziness. If meetings are optional then there will be no more problems with the meeting itself. It will become the manager’s problem on why he or she needs the meeting. In that respect agile software is cutting edge. It makes the work process visual. Not only on the inbound side as is traditionally the case, but also on the process and output side. What have my co-workers planned? What are they working on? What have they finished? And making this visual at all times makes most meetings obsolete because everyone can see where the process stands. More and more people are going to manage their own work and they don’t want to lose productivity. So they’ll find new ways of arranging their work.
Ruben: That’s a great way to make employees more connected. But in my opinion tools won’t be enough. How to change the culture towards the connected company’?
Dave: That’s an extremely difficult transition. Traditional workers and managers have grown up with the ‘stay in lines and follow the rules.’ It’s easier to do nothing because doing anything requires force and jeopardizes your promotion chances.
Ruben: How long will it take before the connected company is everywhere?
Dave: Amazon was founded in 1994. It took them 15 years to become the global player they are now. Look at Skype; they completely disrupted the market. It takes time. How long will it take to disrupt industries like energy or health care? Information-oriented industries are the first to be disrupted, that’s why traditional media is having big problems right now. But industries with higher financial entry barriers will be able to hang on a bit longer. How fast will it go? I don’t know but it will happen.
Ruben: How do you prepare for this shift?
Dave: Workers should be looking at their own company and make two estimations. First, Will the industry be around in say 20 years from now? Second, does my company have the awareness needed to make the changes that will be necessary? If you don’t believethat, then you’d better start looking for a new job. Most people wait too long. Some friends of mine are still in journalism and it’s interesting to see they’re still going to the same old conferences. The big difference is that students now populate these conferences. Journalists have no money any more so they hardly attend. And that’s even more frightening because the students are learning useless things.
Ruben: this brings us to the theme of education. You’re particularly harsh on business schools in your book.
Dave: I’m harsh on all schools. We have a factory-oriented education style in which the learning is standardised. It’s not designed for creativity and collaboration. We’re being evaluated as individuals but not as teams. You get a degree for yourself. So of course, there is no collaboration. In that respect sports teams are ahead: athletes know that working together leads to better results. I believe we’re past the point of factory-oriented education. It does not work anymore. Increasingly employers will ask for people that work in teams, network efficiently and are self-directing. That in the end will drive the change.
Ruben: These are nice words to end with. Thank you very much Dave.
Dave: Thanks to you.