We’re moving from Capitalism to Talentism

I’ve been reading an old McKinsey report from HBR (2001) about the “War For Talent” by Ed Michaels, Helen Handfield-Jones, and Beth Axelrod and loved this table:

The Old Reality
The New Reality
People need companies Companies need people
Machines, capital, and
geography are the
competitive advantage
Talented people
are the competitive
Better talent makes
some difference
Better talent makes a
huge difference
Jobs are scarce Talented people are scarce
Employees are loyal and jobs are secure People are mobile and their
commitment is short term
People accept the standard
package they are offered
People demand much more
Continue reading “We’re moving from Capitalism to Talentism”

Why videoconferencing is useful in an all-distributed team

Update for 2020

Since sharing this post, I’ve joined Publicis Sapient as Chief Experience Officer in 2019 to bring a computational mindset to established companies so they can become more “AI Ready.” You can learn more about our approach to remote work and also about our rapid response teams at our evolving microsite.

I am a fan of all modes of tele-anything because I find it to be one of the two great things that electricity enables for us (the second one being refrigeration).

When talking one-to-one on the phone, all is well because there is an understood “dance” we have all learned around taking turns. But when talking one-to-many on the phone, it works well if it is a 1-way broadcast — but a teleconference is a “conference” versus a tele-pontification. Instead, the painfully chaotic dance that comes to happen on a teleconference call with many-to-many is the subject of a lot of great Internet humor, like my all-time favorite:

Continue reading “Why videoconferencing is useful in an all-distributed team”
Remote Team

How to make a fully kitschy distributed company’s holiday video

Originally published December 20, 2017 on

Having been a longtime fan of the over-the-top First Round Capital holiday videos, I took it upon myself to imagine what a fully remote company could make. So I set off with Automattic’s Chief Semicolon Advocate Michelle Weber on a journey fueled by her reshaping of the lyrics of Jingle Bells to more accurately describe what it’s like in a remote company like Automattic. What’s it like? It’s a lot of joyous “pings and bells”(referring to the WordPress and Slack notifications that come in throughout the day). Without further ado, here it is:

Continue reading “How to make a fully kitschy distributed company’s holiday video”
Remote Team

Motivating your remote team can start (or stop) with a blogging habit

Update for 2020

Since sharing this post, I’ve joined Publicis Sapient as Chief Experience Officer in 2019 to bring a computational mindset to established companies so they can become more “AI Ready.” You can learn more about our approach to remote work and also about our rapid response teams at our evolving microsite.

As a fan of the late John W. Gardner’s work on “renewal,” I am also a fan of his work on “excellence.” I know that word “excellence” makes some people feel either icky or excited, but his treatise of the topic is fair and sufficiently sublime that I come back to his book on the topic at least once every two months.

It’s not easy to summarize in a few sentences, but at its essence Gardner points out that we love excellence and we love equality. But the two concepts fundamentally contradict each other. And that makes leadership a challenging task because there is always a need to balance excellence AND equality. And because excellence will always mean something different to each team member, the leader needs to first determine each team member’s zone of excellence as a starting point — otherwise equality becomes the prevailing topic over excellence. Meanwhile they must ensure that there is an equal and fair playing field to the stage for any unexpected excellence to emerge. It is a complex balance to manage as a whole, but it is this challenge as set within a fully distributed company that I have found to be a satisfying opportunity for new learnings.

Gardner writes on pages 145-6 on the topic of Motives, Values, Vision:

Leaders don’t invent motivation in their followers, they unlock it. They work with what is there. Of course, “what is there” is generally a great tangle of motives. Leaders tap those that serve the purposes of group action in pursuit of shared goals.

One could argue that such capacity to motivate others is a quality to be expected of only the most exceptional human beings. Nonsense. Anyone with a reasonably broaf acquaintance can point to an athlete coach or Elementary School teacher or head of a Salesforce who is an excellent natural motivator. The gift is rare but not exceedingly so, and in fields such as those mentioned it is pulled to the surface quickly because the returns from high motivation are so promptly apparent. In other fields the effect of high or low motivation may be masked and leaders in those fields May ignore it — to their loss. In addition, we have all become so sophisticated that the task of motivating may seem so much juvenile anyway. You’re asking me in my pin-stripe suit to act like that like an athletic coach?

So organizations die of sophistication and more vibrant organizations replace them. Someone must see to maintenance of the morale necessary to undertake arduous endeavors. Someone has to call for the kind of effort and restraint, drive and discipline to make for great performance. Someone has to nurture a workable level of unity.

Such leaders must understand the wants and purposes and values of their people, and they must know how to overcome the inertia that afflicts most people most of the time. In this process, shared values are crucial.

I took from this passage above how it isn’t really about motivating individuals, but knowing the individuals first. In a remote working environment that is an extremely difficult thing to do. Although it is trivial to communicate with anyone in an all-distributed company, it is difficult to get to know them.

As a small courtesy the 2019 #DesignInTech Report PDF link and the 2018 #DesignInTech Report PDF link will be sent to you soon after you sign up! —@johnmaeda

So a little over a year ago, I caused some waves within my design team around an idea of having them all blog regularly. I didn’t roll this idea out with any premeditated plan — it just felt like the right thing to get going because as a company we believe in the power of blogging. It almost failed for a variety of reasons that were mostly due to my being unaware of the many different factors at play within the existing managerial structures of our organization, but it also helped me find the various seismic lines within the company, too. All-distributed companies don’t reside within a physical building or campus, and so the politics that one can usually read from a perspective of geography (ie proximity to the CEO’s office) aren’t immediately obvious.

As someone who cares as much as they do about process as they care about results, the net result is as one central site where my entire design team is now blogging on a quarterly basis.

It has been a journey that has helped me to get to know their individual strengths, motivations, and curiosity levels as one step away from their daily work. And it has motivated ME to serve them better as a leader as I have gotten to know what their passions are for where design can head in the future with the 4 new design principles we have co-created.

Now, to be absolutely clear, the idea of making your whole team blog is not going to motivate them. It will likely be demotivating, at first. But for me as a leader, especially for an all remote team at the v large scale that we operate, it’s been helpful as one of my initial activities to learn how to best serve those who might choose to give me their trust. It’s frankly motivated me to do the work that I know that I need to lead them all, and now its my job to share that collective motivation back — through whatever means an all-remote jolt of team motivation can be delivered.

Exciting times! Now back to work for me … —JM

Remote Team

Drive by comments, or likes, while working remotely

In a quick conversation this morning with Davide Casali, who is a founding member of our new Design Ops team led by Alison Rand, he brought up a phrase I often hear while working remotely of a “drive by” comment. On the one hand that can sound a bit macabre like in the case of how it’s often used in the media involving shootings.

But if we consider it in more of a “pop” way, we end up on a YT music video with close to 150MM views called “Drive By” — referring to driving by a potential love interest and missing out on love. In other words, it’s about being non-committal.

That’s the spirit with which Davide described a phenomenon where one can post design work within a remote organization hoping for substantive commentary, and instead just get a drive by. What does he mean by that? I think it’s one of three things:

  • A “like” — which is as useful as a wet tissue when you’ve just sneezed.
  • One positive word, such as “Awesome!” — which beats a “like” by 5%.
  • One negative word, such as “Awful!” — which does a ton of damage.

Any of these three options lack commitment and fall into the category of being marginally more useful or more damaging than saying nothing at all. I think for that reason remote cultures can easily degrade to going silent.

Why? Because sharing a longer comment that is more substantive can break the flow of your day while working async. You may say the wrong thing, and then somebody will appear out of nowhere and start to argue with you. And if you don’t respond to them (because everyone’s watching to and waiting to see what happens) then you’re a bad person. Hey, that sounds like … the Internet (smile). 

As drive by comments and likes go, if you’re curious about my own method when working with my team it is:

  1. I use a “like” to signify to someone that I’ve read what they posted. It doesn’t have to mean I agree with it.
  2. I use a comment to share an opinion I might have. But I don’t expect anyone to change their mind — my goal is to drive the overall direction, but not to actually micro-direct. 
  3. I use a comment to ask a question that I’d love to know the answer around — or at least I’d like to be sure that the person has asked the question themselves. Ultimately I don’t need the answer.

Okay, this is kind of a drive by blog post as I need to get back to work. I hope it’s useful to you. It was useful to me to write this, so let’s hope for win-win! —JM

Photo by anja. on Unsplash

Remote Team

CLOS networks and remote teams

I was lucky to see a tweet by Dónal today that made me read more about CLOS networks.

The CLOS network removes the bottlenecks inherent in the main nodes of a classical hierarchical system.

via Network World

Instead, it expands the amount of communication that occurs between leaves and the spine.

via Network World

If there isn’t any oversubscription taking place between the lower-tier switches and their uplinks, then a non-blocking architecture can be achieved.

CLOS architecture allows each leaf to be only two hops away from another one. And if any spine node goes down, communication is still working. Bandwidth is increased by growing the spine and growing the leaves.**

Why is this important to me? It’s super relevant to something I’m working on with respect to scaling design in an all-remote team at Automattic. —JM

Remote Team

Scaling design with a 100% remote team

Making a YouTube video takes me roughly five to seven times longer than a blog post. And my production values always vary, but practice makes perfect! —JM

It’s basically a warm-up video … all of my videos tend to be warm-ups. Why? I guess it’s how I stay … comfortably warm.

Leadership Remote Team

A simple customer-centric question to ask while remote

This week I’m doing my annual customer support rotation, aka “Happiness Engineering Rotation,” where I get to work alongside our world famous (and all-distributed) support team. 

Matt and me

It’s an extra pleasure to get to work in the same rotation as Automattic CEO, Matt Mullenweg, because of something that Ben Silberman shared with me on the importance of actually talking with your customers. It makes complete sense: if you are going to serve your customers … then you want to talk with them to see how you’re doing. And if the CEO is doing that work, then your company is much less likely to go astray. I wonder why this commonsense is not so common?

Luckily all my sessions are quality controlled and constantly coached. My mentor this week, Mindy, gave me a fabulous point of feedback for how to best end a support chat conversation.

Wisdom from my Happiness Engineering coach Mindy

Ask, “Was there anything else I can help you with right now?

Mindy’s rationale for this phrase is built upon the logic of: 1/ creating urgency with the phrase ‘right now’ so the customer needs to make a decision, and 2/ simply working to serve all the customer’s needs while you’re right there with them. Seems like a good idea to use in all situations in life, to me. —JM

Remote Team

2016 Curious Minds podcast on design

I was curious to try out WordPress developer and guru Helen Hou-Sandí’s new Simple Podcasting plugin for Gutenberg. 

CM_062: John_Maeda on Great Design

Wow! That was so easy! —JM

Remote Team

Getting on the same page in an all-remote team

Update for 2020

Since sharing this post, I’ve joined Publicis Sapient as Chief Experience Officer in 2019 to bring a computational mindset to established companies so they can become more “AI Ready.” You can learn more about our approach to remote work and also about our rapid response teams at our evolving microsite.

Although the variety of tools available to fully distributed teams is staggering — everything from virtual stand-ups, sit-downs, async, sync, todo, not-todo, audio plus screen, all video, post-it shares, partial video, full video, AR, VR, and so forth — it’s not an easy to thing to connect 1-to-many. 

However connecting 1:1 is easy because there’s no ambiguity with respect to who’s communicating. That goes for all-remote or all-premise the same way. Direct, unfiltered communication is super powerful.

But when you’re in a group larger than two, then all-remote degrades much quicker than all-premise. I believe it’s because of the following reasons:

  1. Spatial cues vanish and it gets hard to coordinate a shared view of everyone in the same space. The left, right, back, front of a room aren’t usable as orienting devices. You can’t use your eyes to look to someone and they know you’re looking at them — so gaze doesn’t matter. In theory VR- and AR-based systems will help to solve this.
  2. Everyone isn’t comfortable with their video on and/or their audio on. When working remotely there may be a background noise so you need to turn the mike on mute; you or the room your in may not look great, so you turn the camera off. It’s hard to gauge the attention level of the room so misunderstanding forms more easily.
  3. Async is the norm, so being in sync mode feels extra constraining and slow. Over time when you are working all-remote, you come to get used to communicating async and get the benefits of being able to manage multiple streams of communication. So being in sync mode can feel slow and cumbersome.

These detractions aside, sync space can be useful for getting on the same page because it’s a significant investment by everyone in being co-present. It’s the closest thing to a handshake in an all-distributed environment to just show up in the same sector of spacetime.

As a small courtesy the 2019 #DesignInTech Report PDF link and the 2018 #DesignInTech Report PDF link will be sent to you soon after you sign up! —@johnmaeda

When working in sync-time, the importance of timezone inclusivity comes to the foreground. This was an early suggestion made by my Automattic colleague Paolo Belcastro — that I’m forever grateful he gave me. I tried running in three timezones a while for my all-hands as an experiment, but over time I realized that two worked fine. So whenever I run an all-hands in design, I run it twice with identical content: one in US/EMEA and another in APAC/US.

Looking back to my early days (a year ago 😉 ) I realize that I overdid my sync time asks in the beginning, and so I scaled them back because it didn’t fit the overall culture. But I’ve kept some regular sync time, and I keep experimenting with how to make async 1-to-many exchanges as impactful as sync exchanges can be. How? I try to keep listening to my constituents, and I am iterating as I blog! —JM