Ricardo Semler was a young Brazilian man who wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll star, but instead he inherited his father’s industrial manufacturing company. Semler was unhappy with the old-fashioned set-up of the company and so took a rock ‘n’ roll sledgehammer to it. He fired more than half the top managers, scrapped policies, told workers they could choose their own work timetable and salary, and ordered that no report to the Board should be longer than one page. Under his leadership, Semco’s annual sales went from US$4m to US$212m.
One of Semler’s simplest and most copied innovations was an annual day when all production and office work stopped and a clear-out of all junk and clutter in the business was the priority. A morale-boosting spin-off was that it became a great social occasion.
The current pandemic has necessitated a lot of changes to working practices, and replacements for team-building and skills training are happening thick and fast. One management course is using the skills of an improv comedy troupe using a video based on Groundhog Day where the characters keep repeating their mistakes day after day. The philosophy is based on a book called Radical Candour by Kim Scott and the show can be downloaded and discussed by teams remotely.
Another example of changing practice is the use of poetry in training videos. A poet called Gary Turk has been using his art to help address difficult work issues. He is probably better known for adverts for British Airways and LNER using poetry to convey the marketing message. The rhyming patterns and lyrical structures of poetry apparently make you listen carefully to every word.
But there is nothing new under the sun. In the early 13th century, Genghis Khan moulded the Mongol clans into a highly skilled army via a number of approaches, one of which was the annual hunt. This was no ordinary hunt. The starting line for it could be up to a hundred miles long, and the exercise would last up to three months at a time (remember this was a nomadic people). The hunters would move forward in a coordinated way, driving the wild animals forward in a way that made them converge in a target area. In the process, the army practised coordinated cavalry manoeuvres, fast messaging across long distances, and short-range communication using flags and heliographs.
Not only was this a lengthy training exercise, but the hunt provided food for the travelling population (the animals were hunted for food not for sport), and it also provided a large-scale bonding exercise. The result was a highly skilled and co-ordinated army at a time when the larger part of most armies comprised untrained yokels conscripted at short notice for some incipient war. Genghis thus had a well-practised army with exceptionally well-honed skills that enabled him to defeat much larger, richer nations, and establish the largest contiguous land empire in history.
The pandemic has provided a pause and a reassessment, a time to think about how to do things differently, and just maybe, more effectively.
Data Sources: Maverick – Ricardo Semler, The Economist – Bartleby column, Genghis and Risk – Duncan Stephenson