A hack illustrated through the context of health care company, Praetorian Rx, and its strange experimental design. Though still in an early stage, the company's method shows promise as a step in the right direction to unlocking human potential.
Here Be Dragons...
Way back, before we set out on our endeavor, we asked, "What will we be?" we then asked, "What won't we be?" Our desire to bring radical change to our industry lead us past the very limits of the traditional business world. Beyond the precipice of convention, our traditional contemporaries could only warn- hic sunt dracones. That's when I knew, we were on to something big.
I am a co-founder of Praetorian Rx (we call it PRX). I am heavily involved in many of the strategic efforts and projects the company undertakes. My very first task was to design something capable of withstanding the crushing dominance of your usual health retail suspects and Big-pharma titans. As you may know, the healthcare industry is steeped in tradition, risk avoidance, and formality. It is very risk/change-adverse. Sadly, our new venture required massive cross-specialty communication and new thinking- two things you don't see often in healthcare. The problem was, and still is: how do we get and keep the right people and blend much needed innovation with tradition? My journey started in 2011 and continues today; however, I have learned a few surprising things along the way and that is what I'm sharing with you here.
With most companies, you enter at the bottom and spend your whole career working up to the top... of the bottom half if you're lucky. Not very popular, but it "works." This belief system of multiple industries also turns out to be a major vulnerability because of its nasty byproducts of burnout, high turnover, and at extremes intentional sabotage and employee theft. The intangible cost to the employee is high as well. You get a job, you work hard, you are rewarded, you move up and get more permission to do more things (you probably could have done just as well without said permission). If you keep this up, at the end of your working years, you can live the life you want. At the end of your working years! This was what I am willing to bet many of us saw as kids. But there is something severely wrong with zero progress or improvement to such a philosophy in more than 20 years.
Throughout high school and college, I had terrible bosses with a few good ones sprinkled in there. Their actions taught me that self-interest is an unstoppable force in today's business environment. My early career is littered with strange quotes I keep around as a reminder of who I am not. Regularly, my bosses would say things like, "I want to be the boss of something, anything."; "You will remember me!"; "You'll understand one day you can't do what you want until you do what your boss wants"; "People wont change, they are too stupid."
As I listened to the experiences of others, I learned that the tragic philosophies of my past bosses are, unfortunately, not necessarily confined to just a few "bad apples". As I explored the mechanics of organizations in work life, in grad school, and independently, I realized that there is a serious problem with the way we see the purpose of work. I look at the average worker in the U.S. and I see, in general, the same sentiment of my old bosses:
• Resignation of passion
• Loss of identity
• Abandonment of trust
• Loss of compassion
• Reckless self-interest as a defensive measure
• Job protection at the expense of others
• Embracing roundabout politics to protect interest
I have come to understand that this occurs as a byproduct of deep sociotechnical interaction. Satisfied employees aren't necessarily the ones with the most freedom to do what they want. Nor are they always the highest paid. People who work in today's industries require autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Similarly, many social interactions at work are subject to isomorphic pressures that compel organizations and to some extent, the individuals within them, to behave in a specific manner based on a shared set of beliefs. This is nothing new, but the application of these complex principles to the real world tend to get smashed into the square hole of business on their way to becoming workplace practices- and therein lies the root issue we must grapple with. Getting rid of that square hole. It is this most basic assumption of what work is that kills every new thought and transforms it into something familiar. It is an invisible dragon guarding the way to maximizing human potential.
To summarize, the solution to the problem is not to attack the issues head on; rather, it is to create an environment in which those issues cannot exist. To go where others can't. To do this requires that one abandon all preconceptions of work and ask "What works?" We are hacking culture, we are hacking beliefs, not individual processes.
Assumptions of the Hack
1. Work is a social construct and technology
2. Everyone must work to some degree to provide for themselves
3. People must adapt to the concept of work (it's not an inherited instinct)
4. The organization has limited real control of individual decisions/interpretation of rules
5. Maximum human potential is defined as the sustained capability and willingness to work to the best of one's ability. It is a function of motivation, context, and control.
6. Technology grows from technology, so it's not that old methods have never been important, just that their relevance tends to diminish over time and the relevance of other methods increases over time. Meaning, command and control have their place, but they shouldn't be regarded as maxims of workplace management.
What We Did
We took the idea of the workplace, blew it up and started with "what if?" We assumed no laws, no ethical concerns, and finite resources. Then we applied the absolutes of legal limitations and ethical requirements (our personal versions of decency). We came up with something that looks like this:
A Fuzzy Structure
PRX looks weird and we hear it all the time. It makes me proud. We have an ephemeral structure that's not exactly as chaotic as Valve Inc.; rather, it is periodic. A snapshot of the organization at any given time looks traditional, but multiple snapshots show it as a cloudy mix of movement actively adapting to company needs based on each individual task "valence."
• A three-tier categorical structure to organize tasks that exists independently of individual functions.
What does that mean? It means employees have options and can excercise preference. This is to prevent the dilemma of security vs transience and the dynamic of high movement/low focus vs stagnation/high focus. So, while there are some rigid boundaries, they are not constrictive at the personal level. Further, each tier is not necessarily stacked in a fashion such that one is always superior to another.
• The "hardware" of roles are compound constructs- consisting of Job Cores, Specializations, and Auxiliaries. (We borrowed this concept from academia). One's Core is identified as their long-term passion and their specialization(s) as their (possibly temporary) interest. This means that recruitment must only be based on the core. We select our people based on their passion from the start. This prevents recruiters from selecting based on super narrow or group-biased criteria, yet giving them enough specificity to rank and evaluate candidates. The idea is to blend security with transience and insulate the company from attrition brought on by a sense of boredom and captivity.
• Built-in innovation room
Innovation is cool, but how do you keep up wild innovation without the company exploding into a thousand subsidiaries or starving itself by being spread too thin? We created a program to process, rank, and facilitate innovations independent from employee performance and task evaluation. It's a safe zone to fail. Further, based upon our beliefs, we partner with our innovators, we don't steal from them. *This part is 90% theoretical but ready to go*
This is the hard and uncomfortable part for many new employees. We don't presume that one person should bear the responsibility for other perfectly functional adults. This is what parents do for their children- and then those children grow up and go to work, so how does the mere fact of a person being at work justify someone else being responsible for their actions as if they were a child again? Instead, the organization expects total ownership of tasks so that decisions are made at the level of operation rather than passed down three or four levels away from the action. Sometimes, there is no time to "let me check with my boss," therefore everyone has the permission to make executive decisions regarding their current task (the depth and breadth of these decisions vary based on tier & core). Further, responsibility is to peers, not a superior. We modeled this largely after a familial structure in which an individual member is not just committed to the mother and/or father but the entire unit. Yes, we may have team leaders in specific cases, but they are in place to lead a team towards a specific goal, not make decisions about the careers of others (they have a diminished formal power).
Incredibly Simple Rules
Admittedly, to a newbie, this structure is disarming. It is a lot of new stuff to remember, but the beauty of our method is that it is incredibly lightweight. It allows the organization to expand aggressively and retract quickly with minimal resource dedication. We can work virtually, or in person without missing a beat. It is more of a cultural software than a set of apps, programs, or forms. Our policies and procedures are readable, clear-cut, and basic. We keep to cultural rules, ethics, etc and push out formalization authority to the core level.
Addressing the "Tragic Evils" of the Bosses
We set out to sate-self interest, not starve it. We did this by dismantling the notion of feeding responsibility in exchange for compliance. That is manipulative and only breeds resentment amongst the victims of this mentality. We shift increase in "importance" from destructive forms of power to proof of impact. Individuals are rewarded for their execution of initiatives, not tenure, not who they know, just pure skill. The periodic structure eliminates the politics associated with ladder-climbing. After all, there is less need to protect a job if it is unique to the individual's needs and not contingent on "doing tricks for treats". Instead, power is accumulated based on trust and capability. By attracting passion, emphasizing developing knowledge, and separating task attrition from employee attrition, we hope to have created something that is incredibly efficient resource-wise.
What about loyalty?
What about it? Lack of loyalty, in my experience, is the result of a failure to uphold a social contract. Think back to Hobbes. A social contract is to keep things civil and to stop the backstabbing. If that is broken, then what can you really expect? Our structure is totally geared towards upholding the integrity of a social contract. We don't peddle job security for normative commitment. We foster connection and bet people will stay because we have created an environment that satisfies their needs as a person that works.
So, Does it Work?
So far, Yes! But it is a bit like speaking a new language or locomotion in zero gravity. It requires our employees to abandon the notion of all past formal work rules and rely upon themselves to be secure in their work identity (as opposed to having your boss shape it for you) and to connect with others wholeheartedly or risk failure. My saying about my company: a lonely employee does not survive at Praetorian Rx. and I'm fine with that. Work should be about the connection you make, which leads to the impact you create. This structure is a blend of hard and soft, rigid and fluid, chaos and order. We don't presume to know what the future holds, and so we gave this creation the means to define itself based on that future as it comes.
Admittedly, upon implementation, everyone was a little confused and I almost scrapped the idea for a more traditional concept. The first round of employees were confused and didn't know how they fit into the company. The nature of our structure requires a battery of interviews, so they interviewed, and interviewed, and interviewed again- got the job and then… "What do I do?" "Who do I report to and when?" Some left, some stayed. This prompted me to ask people how they feel about our method of employment. Some responses included: Confused, uncomfortably free, not sure of what happens next or how to progress. One person told me, "I like direction, everything is clear, but now I understand how it limited me. I couldn't do what I do here at my old place and the freedom is scary." Conversely, others can't imagine working any other way. They are committed and strive to achive more because they feel the control they have to make an impact. Given the two extremes, the jury is out on this; however, Personal differences do matter and present their own challenges.
- Technology. Eventually, this system will need a digital presecnce as time goes on and the employee count expands.
- Antiquated Laws. Two classes (and a sub class) of employees? Really? What makes 40 hours so magical? Why hours? Current employment law is based on fiduciary responsibility, but what happens when its no longer bigger vs smaller/ agent vs principle and changes to peer-to-peer? Currently, I suspect that companies trying to adapt to 2010's problems in business must limit their creativity to 1930's law.
- Large numbers. There's no guarantee of what may develop when the employee count of organizations with this stucture reach into the thousands and beyond. It may be good , it may be bad.
My advice to existing organizations: Tread carefully and prepare to lose some people if you plan to just "switch over." Committ fully and, if possible, test this structure out on a new project with new hires and far away from the existing organization. Slowly move people over as the project picks up steam.
Though I'm fairly sure we're blazing a trail in the healthcare industry, I didn't come up with this concept purely on my own merits. A major influence and catalyst for an operational framework was a fellow MIX participant, Paul Green Jr. and SMI's CLOU design. As a theoretical lens, I relied heavily upon teachings from Complexity Theory, Social network theory, Motivation theory, and New Institutional Theory.