Ask someone to describe the culture of companies in Silicon Valley and you’re likely to get responses like “unstructured”, “entrepreneurial”, and “decentralized”. Ask for examples of how they differ from their East Coast counterparts and you might hear about Friday afternoon beer bashes, T-shirts and jeans every day of the week, or the proliferation of stock options. And ask for companies that best exemplify these qualities and Apple, Yahoo! and Google will probably be mentioned.
For many, however, the prototypical example of Silicon Valley culture is Hewlett-Packard. HP’s corporate values codified in 1957 champion openness, flexibility and egalitarianism, and are universally recognized by the phrase “The HP Way”. As recently as 2004, Business Week declared “the methods of Hewlett and Packard remain the dominant DNA for tech companies – and a major reason for U.S. preeminence in the Information Age.”
Although I’ve never worked at HP, I have read David Packard’s book, The HP Way, and I think most people miss what I consider their most important advancement – the management style known as “manage by walking around”. Hewlett and Packard encouraged their senior executives to get out of the executive suite, bypass middle management, and spend time with the line workers. They believed that only through these two-way dialogues would line workers understand how they could impact strategic objectives and senior management recognize required changes to corporate strategy that might be otherwise invisible from their lofty perches. For Hewlett and Packard, managing by walking around was a way to get everyone on the same page; what they believed was the secret to their success. As Packard wrote in The HP Way, “It is necessary that people work together in unison toward common objectives and avoid working at cross purposes at all levels if the ultimate in efficiency and achievement is to be obtained.”
Manage by walking around worked well when companies tended to be centralized in one campus-style environment. Unfortunately, modern organizations have become decentralized with multiple locations, often spread throughout the world. The rise of off-shoring has only exacerbated this effect. The concept of manage by walking around does not scale well to manage by flying around. In response, organizations have turned to technology – from video conferencing to Web conferencing to podcasting – but in doing so, have usually focused on reducing the costs of having meetings. By emphasizing the one-way communication of information rather than multi-way collaboration, organizations miss Hewlett and Packard’s original premise: getting people on the same page. They do little, if anything, to help organizations become more aligned.
Which brings us full circle. The goal of this blog is to comment on the market for product and services that help organizations achieve alignment and highlight specific cases in which organizations have been successful in increasing their performance by getting people on the same page. I’d like us to rededicate ourselves to the original intentions of “managing by walking around.” If you know of an organization that has spent considerable energy around alignment or have suggestions for future posts, please take the time to add a comment. I look forward to the conversation…