Is hard work irrelevant?

In a recent NPR Planet Money podcast, they ask the question – “Is hard work irrelevant”? I have stolen the title directly from them.

They take the example of Netflix as a company that evolved into the culture of only focusing on the results. It did not matter how hard someone worked at their job at Netflix. If your role was no longer needed because the business had changed, Netflix was keen to let you go. The irony is that the key person in Netflix that engineered this culture had to be let go, as she did not possess the skills in dealing with Hollywood Studios and the change of focus to streaming. We are not going to focus on the “being let go” aspect of one’s job in this post.

I think everyone has had a phase where hard work did not produce intended results. If the company culture only focused on the results and not on how one went about doing one’s job, it is likely one would lose out on rewards and career growth. There are many reasons why someone’s hard work did not produce successful results – office politics, flaky customers, temporary illness, change in the market environment are among a few. It is always embarrassing to defend lack of results and hard work in the same sentence, but it does happen a lot in the workplace.

In a start-up, results take on an even greater significance and impact. Results can mean the difference between going big vs going home. In this environment, a lot of experimentation also happens. With many people wearing many hats, it is hard to put a finger on who was ultimately responsible for a result. With everyone being very busy, thoughtful management is also hard to come by. We know that there is no dearth of hard work in a startup, so everyone is in the same boat. Is “results” the common denominator? How do you create a culture where results are very important, but people are not in fear of thinking and trying new ways to get better outcomes?

Some thoughts:-

  1. Daily Standup – This is an awesome innovation in project management. It lets each individual declare each day what they have achieved the previous day and what they intend to achieve today. People also use the word “do”, but I like achieve better as it is closer to a result. Super successful teams do not let the daily standup get diluted at all. If you see a team member go for days without making any progress, it is a warning sign and needs to be corrected right away.
  2. Clear and transparent publishing of the company’s goals – Weekly, Monthly, Quarterly. If someone’s work is not clearly aligned to these goals and they are yet claiming to work hard, it should become evident quickly and course correction should be made.
  3. Communicating the how in addition to what – It is always insightful to read and hear about how a person went about doing something. While every aspect of how a job was done is not likely to be interesting, encouraging everyone in the team to share their “how’s” creates an environment of collegiality. This can be done over many mediums – lunch, all hands meetings, slack, trello, wikis etc.

Those are some quick thoughts. How have you handled the “effort vs results” scenario in your own companies or teams ? I would be delighted to get some comments.

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