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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Freedom and systems

So, what do you find when you search for a Google Image for "freedom and systems"? I came across Freedom AC-Heat-Metal in Santa Fe, Texas. I don't know them well, of course, but their website suggests they combine the right mix of employee freedom and business systems to thrive as a local contractor.

I have always perceived that the best and most satisfying business is one where employees and contractors are free to be themselves, to use their own imagination and skills with minimum direction and supervision. This freedom, I postulated, would coincide with higher levels of achievement and greater work satisfaction, more satisfied clients, and overall a much healthier and more sustainable enterprise.

Through several long years of agonizing business decline, however, I realized that freedom has its limits and that a business built entirely on free agent spirit will crash under the weight of, for want of a better phrase, unenlightened self interest. We had writers doing the bare minimum with us to maintain their freelance income compensation; administrative employees picking when and where to work, regardless of operational requirements for someone to be in the office during regular business hours, and salespeople effectively piling up the orders, while building fiefdoms of power and (sadly) alienating the marketplace because they were 'efficiently' doing nothing but selling, forgetting that non-selling personal relationships are equally important.

Add to this, I made business decisions under the pull of employees personal self-determination, rather than the best interests of the business (and I am one of the people who stand accused of this failing). So we expanded to markets where we had no business being, and I engaged in diversions which, while emotionally satisfying at the time, proved costly in managing the business operations.

I learned my lesson. We now have a few rules which are clearly articulated in our processes and systems.

New employees are hired through a careful, work-focused evaluation process.

We want to see initiative, self-responsibility, and talent -- and the ability to work with others in the team -- before hiring anyone. So candidates are invited to prove their abilities through defined processes. These vary depending on the position; our guidelines are different for administrative, sales and editorial employees, but everyone within the category must follow the procedures to be hired.

Everyone must attend the weekly meeting; and our bi-annual 'deep' meetings, except in the most exceptional circumstances.

This is not an onerous burden, of course -- the weekly meeting never lasts more than an hour and if you are out of town or exceptionally busy, you can attend by teleconference. The bi-annual meeting is a free all expenses paid trip for out-of-town employees. The meetings allow us all to connect and update ourselves on progress -- and hold ourselves accountable for commitments -- and I can use the meetings to gage the mood of the business, and the work of individual employees. (I caught a major problem with one former employee just a few weeks ago by noticing a subtle inconsistency in his behavior at the meeting.)

I will act decisively -- and quickly -- if our basic business guidelines are not met.

If an employee is not performing, doing the work required, then time is not wasted in addressing the problem and seeking out causes and solutions. This is not an arbitrary or brutal process; under performance issues are handled with respect and sensitivity, and everyone is given more than one chance to improve.

Freedom is respected, and rules are kept to the minimum.

With these ground rules in place, I revert to my 'old' values of encouraging independence, respecting freedom and allowing innovation. Successful businesses thrive when processes work smoothly, but administrative and management bureaucracies and empires are kept to the minimum. You need discipline, accountability, and mutual respect, of course, but you don't achieve this by forcing everyone into the same corporate straight-jacket.

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