The Daily Parker

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Almost sad

I haven't finished all of Almost Perfect yet, but I think I understand now what happened to WordPerfect Corp.: they had accidental success, naïvely thought they authored the success, and never thought strategically.

Now, possibly, I'm imputing Pete Peterson's own failures to the entire company, but I have to assume the other board members condoned his approach or they wouldn't have kept him on for so long. Peterson himself seems hopelessly without self-awareness, stumbling from decision to decision without a thought to the implications of each and without any coherent plan for how they all fit together. He is, in the Myers-Briggs jargon, an off-the-charts Thinker making him almost indifferent to other people's feelings, with an added load of Sensing making him detail-driven with a disdain for abstractions. For example:

For practically every week from December of 1989 through mid-1990, I invited 16 different managers to have lunch with me for three consecutive days starting on Tuesday. After lunch each day, I spoke for about an hour and a half. ...

Near the end of the first lecture, I explained what WordPerfect Corporation was not. This set the stage for the next two days, when I would explain what WordPerfect Corporation was.

WordPerfect Corporation was not a platform for personal achievement, a career ladder to other opportunities, or a challenging opportunity for personal improvement. The company did not put the needs of the individual ahead of its own. The company was not concerned about an employee's personal feelings, except as they related to the company's well-being.

WordPerfect Corporation was not intended to be a social club for the unproductive. While other companies might condone many personal or social activities at the office, ours did not. Things like celebrating birthdays, throwing baby showers, collecting for gifts, selling Tupperware or Avon, managing sports tournaments, running betting pools, calling home to keep a romance alive or hand out chores to the children, gossiping or flirting with co-workers, getting a haircut, going to a medical or dental appointment, running to the cafeteria for a snack, coming in a little late or leaving a little early, taking Friday afternoon off, and griping about working conditions were all inappropriate when done on company time.

In other words, how employees did things was more important than other concerns that one might prefer to use as yardsticks for employee value: productivity, creativity, well being, cameraderie. All right, as my dad says, "it's their football," and if you work for them you play by their rules. But contrast that passage with this one, from the same chapter:

[A requirement] was that we needed to communicate freely and frequently. In many companies it was common for supervisors to keep information to themselves, conceal their mistakes whenever possible, and never allow subordinates to go over their heads. I wanted a company where information could flow freely without regard to formal lines of communication. I imagined a room filled with light, without any portion remaining in darkness. I wanted a company where no one kept secrets and where everything was kept out in the open. Advisors who expected their employees to be so loyal to them that they would not take problems to someone else were exactly the ones I wanted to kick out of the company. Any loyalty should be toward the company, its purpose and objectives, not to individual advisors. Advisors who did not want the light to shine in their domain did not deserve their positions. Lines of communication should be allowed to go in any direction. If employees made mistakes, then the mistakes needed to be known so they could be corrected and avoided in the future. I wanted a company where employees could make mistakes, admit them freely, and learn how to do better without fearing for their jobs.

That's great if every person in the company is exactly like him: heads down, ISTJ, work is for working and home is for everything else. But to most people, in my experience, generating that kind of atmosphere requires flexibility around the periphery. In other words, if people have the freedom to work in the specific ways that make sense, and if they're judged by their output rather than how they achieve the output, they're usually happier. The occasional office baby shower might "cost" two hours of "company time," but it pays back disproportionately in productivity if it helps people feel happy about coming to work.

More practically, though, Peterson demanded loyalty towards the company while at the same time telling people they have no way to advance within the company because of its flat management structure. What he fails to understand, despite getting close to seeing the patterns while remaining maddeningly oblivious to them, is that in an organization the size of WordPerfect Corp., politics happens. It's an emergent phenomenon of groups. By "groups" I mean in a sociological sense: any aggregations of two or more people.

Throughout the book Peterson shows these amazing blind spots, often on the same theme. He wants people to openly speak their minds to management, yet "[f]or years I was the person most feared in the company. If I walked down a hallway, I was used to hearing the sound of desk drawers closing as people hid their snacks from view." The mind boggles.

Not too long after the events described above, the employees of the company presented a petition to the other two board members to have Peterson fired—and they fired him. Shortly after they sold out to Novell, and WordPerfect became irrelevant.

More later.

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