Retention and Growth are Hard.

I’m going to go out on a limb and bet that most folks reading this post know who the Borg are. They are a fictitious (yes, fictitious) alien race who ravaged the Star Trek universe in the 24th century by forcibly absorbing entire humanoid species. The Borg had a solution to the problem of growth and retention. You became part of their collective or you ceased to exist. Once you were a part of the collective, leaving wasn’t an option. Your will was taken and you became part of the hive mind.

You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile
– The Borg

Let me be honest – growth is not hard. We are so incredibly fortunate to live in this time in history. Software and interactions with hardware are more popular than they have ever been. It is pretty easy to find and take on work. It is also pretty easy to find people to do that work. What’s hard is finding good work and good people to do that work. To do that, you need to build quality. To build quality, you need to grow and retain good people. Growing a company sustainably and consistently is one of the biggest challenges a software design and development firm can take on.

Quality is Even Harder.

I’d venture that although the Borg overcame the growth and retention problem, they didn’t do it with quality. Those Borg drones dropped like flies throughout the Star Trek universe and even the Queen (supposedly the most quality part of the collective) turned out to be pretty stupid. They had the ability and technology to obliterate anyone that stood in their path and yet, time and time again, they were defeated by a small group of puny humanoids from the planet Earth.

Without freedom of choice there is no creativity.
– James T. Kirk

Somehow, this small group of humanoids managed to construct a partnership across planets based solely on values and commonly held beliefs. The only thing keeping members there was a continuing commitment to mutually held beliefs. They chose to be a part. It seems improbable that an outnumbered group of technologically inferior beings could beat the superior Borg time and time again. And yet, they did. Somehow, they managed to attract and maintain quality, creative people. That quality beat numbers and technology everytime. Sure, it was a fictional universe. None of that was real, but you have to admit it felt right. We identified with that bald-headed captain in the red jumpsuit and that roly-poly bundle of masculinity wrapped in gold. I doubt any of us found ourselves rooting for the Borg.

Growth and Quality Require Belief

So what is the Federation’s secret sauce? I think it goes beyond Kirk’s charisma and Picard’s frosty confidence. I think there was something at an organizational level that made the Federation able to grow and maintain quality over light years and eons.

Sometimes a feeling is all we humans have to go on.
– James T. Kirk

At Mutually Human, we intentionally foster qualitative growth. It is a challenge we actively grapple with. Anyone who has formed a company or exercised leadership at any level knows that this is an audacious task. As we tackle this challenge, what can we learn from the Federation of Planets? The Federation has a clearly defined set of values and principles that they believe in and practice. Individuals are either attracted to that set of values and principles or they aren’t. Those that do are free to join and those that aren’t, don’t. Somehow, these values and principles become so important to the members of Starfleet that those red tunicked ensigns keep signing up for away missions even though they have to know by now that they are going to bite the dust.

We acknowledge how hard this type of devotion to values is in the real world, but we think it is a differentiator and the key to qualitative growth. We actively put those values and beliefs all over our communications. Look around this website. Less Technology, More Humanity and Clear Innovation are consistent messages. Look at what we have decided to call ourselves: “Mutually Human” at its core is a values statement. We are human. We are together. We recognize the value in one another. We broadcast far and wide who we are and how we intend to do what we do.

This practice of transparent honesty and explicit explanation of values has attracted a certain kind of employee who believes in the value of these things. They do great work and interact with clients in a way that makes these values apparent. This practice has served to usher in quality clients with quality projects. But as we continue to grow, how do we pass on the understanding and knowledge necessary to ensure qualitative integrity over time?

Different companies have confronted this problem in a variety of ways. With the passing of Steve Jobs, Apple is facing a similar dilemma. The leader whose values defined them as a company is gone. It’s almost like their heart has been ripped out of their chest. A lot of commentary has already been dedicated to speculation about whether or not Apple will implode over the coming years into an internal vacuum where Jobs once existed. To combat this effect, Apple have chosen to set up an internal leadership development institute for all their up-and-coming leaders. In their effort to “build a better boss”, Google has focused their data-mining expertise on determining what their “leaders of the future” should look like. With those answers, they founded training programs to mold their managers into the best bosses they could be. Essentially, these are both efforts to infuse new growth with the values of the organization. As they grow, Google and Apple want to maintain quality.

Assimilation for The Rest of Us

Obviously, not all of us have millions of dollars and an endless supply of employees to throw at a problem like this. Apple and Google can afford their own version of Starfleet Academy. But many of us can’t afford that luxury. What are we to do?

I would hope that we all have new people joining our respective crews. Many times, these new additions are unaware of company history. They might even be unaware of organizational values and beliefs. Vague awareness of a communal vocabulary and values systems may have been gained through an interview process or casual encounters with members of the team, But this isn’t really enough to get them on the same page with the rest of your organization. Left to their own devices, it might take them months and even years to really understand your organization’s values. I’d like to share a few easy activities that have helped us at Mutually Human to grow our company while passing our values on to new members of the team.

Internal Projects

Any project has stakeholders. Internal projects have internal stakeholders. Putting anyone who you want to become more integrated in your organization on an internal project is a great way to put them in a position to engage with colleagues on a meaningful level. They become aware of values, opinions and relationships that they might not engage with for quite a while after being hired. Putting in some work on a section of your organization’s website is a great direction to go. It puts an individual in direct contact with many different colleagues in a variety of roles. No amount of courses or pages in a company handbook can take the place of this sort of in-depth organizational orientation.

Work History

One internal project that I’ve found extremely informative is an overhaul of Mutually Human’s portfolio. We’ve not only compiled new content for that section of the website, we’ve also redesigned the entire section to be more indicative of the breadth and expertise we’ve shown over the past 6 years. As the newest hire here, I can safely say that I know something about every project and every client that has ever been related with Mutually Human. I know what went well, what didn’t go so well and have a very good grasp of our capabilities. For the cost of my time, Mutually Human not only got a complete list of clients, projects and project descriptions; they got to download a company history and values to a new employee in a variety of different ways.

Pairing

Other Humans have already blogged in the past about pairing here at Mutually Human. As Zach wrote, “Pair programming is essentially two people, one computer, together solving problems.” In this context, communal problem solving imparts organizational practices, values and knowledge on multiple levels. Newcomers learn the distinct vagaries of your organizations’ coding practices. Pairing also naturally creates opportunities for mentoring, teaching and learning. Sure, pairing costs twice that of one individual working on a project. But in exchange you get better code, a more prepared organization member and better working relationships. Certainly cheaper than setting up a new institution to mentor young leaders! Heck, it could even be billable!

Extra-Curricular Activites

How often does your team spend time together outside of work? I’ve been a part of organizations where time together outside of work was not encouraged or desired. We saw each other at work, relationships were cordial but distant and sometimes we went out to lunch together. The people I worked with were nice and affable, but none of us were there for each other. To be completely honest, I showed up everyday because I got paid. I suspect a lot of my co-workers were there for that same reason. If the pay stopped, I’d have disappeared quicker than you could blink. There was nothing else keeping me there.

At Mutually Human, we like each other. We like working together. We hire people we think we’d like to spend time with. It is part of our ethos and practice to help one another when the need arises. We build organizations outside of work together. Most importantly, we have fun together. We go out for beers together. We throw parties together. Lately, we’ve been going out to shoot pool periodically. In these times, we learn from one another what is important. Speaking respectfully to one another, valuing others and striving for excellence.

Make It So

Being first at any cost is not always the point.
– Jean-Luc Picard

Although these practices are yielding success here at Mutally Human, I don’t think I could tell you that choosing to be a “Federation”-type organization doesn’t cost us something. There are people who come and go when they realize that their values do not align with those of the organization. I am sure that there are other models of organizational construction that are more profitable or that line up well for those folks. Great! As I said before, this is an amazing time to be in the software business. There is no shortage of work and extremely profitable work at that. But as Captain Picard once said, “Being first at any cost is not always the point.” It may cost you something to build an organization of incredibly intelligent folk who enjoy one another’s company and who look forward to coming to work everyday. You might have to turn down work or choose not to accept an applicant for a post because you can’t really see them fitting in on a cultural level. My challenge to you is to choose to pay that price and build a company worth living for. Make it so.