I’ve worked with a lot of companies over the years, big and small.
I have found that even small companies are remarkably complex organisms. But of course, anywhere that ambition is allowed to focus usually is. Human beings are messy creatures.
It seems to me that in any company, large or small, you can divide the people into three broad categories.
1. The “Changers”. These are the people who use their work as a platform to “Change The World”. They go into a market and try to change it, in order to create something better, both for themselves and for the market at large. They can be the CEO or work in the mail room. Theirs is not a social position, it’s a psychological condition.
2. The “Contributors”. These are people who want to do their jobs, do it well, and get handsomely rewarded for it. They don’t necessarily see the need for “change” per se, they just want to see what works, and get it done. They want to find out who’s on the winning team, and get themselves a place on it.
3. The “Coasters”. They just want to turn up and get paid. Their lives and identities are outside their work- families, friends, hobbies etc- their job is just a means to an end; a way to pay for their “real lives” elsewhere.
None of the three is necessarily better or worse than the others- we all have different needs, different agendas, different temperaments. We’ve all made different decisions about what kind of life we want to lead, what kind of compromises we’re willing to make, what kind of adventures we want to have. All roads exact their own unique toll. All choices come with a price.
I suppose I’ve always ended up in the “Changer” camp, somehow. It was never deliberate. It was just about how I relate to the world. Sometimes it was a definite advantage. Other times it was career suicide.
So in the last couple of weeks I’ve been having a lot of conversations with people at Dell. The subject of the need to “Change Dell” has come up a bit. Actually, no. It has come up A LOT. A WHOLE LOT.
As a “Changer”, the word “Change” really doesn’t frighten me. To talk about “Change”, doesn’t necessarily imply that there’s anything abnormal or wrong going on. As I’m fond of saying, all business models are wrong. Whatever system you’ve got in place, it’s yesterday’s model. Whatever process you’ve got installed, the world has since moved on- all you can do is try to play catch-up, to greater or lesser degrees of success. Hence the cartoon posted above.
So in a meeting in Round Rock, I ask this one Dell person, “So why are you guys interested in talking to me? I’m no Peter Drucker, I’m just a cartoonist.” The person answers, “Because we like your very atypical point of view. We think it could perhaps be useful to us.” Fair enough. If I had been that person, I’d probably have said much the same.
So these last few weeks, I’ve been mulling over the word, “Change”, and how it applies to Dell. Or to put it more simply, what ACTUALLY needs to change? Sure, they’ve had their fair share of trials and tribulations over the last few years. But there’s a lot that they’ve gotten right, as well. Sure, you might prefer Apple over Dell for your personal choice of computer, but guess what? The consumer sector represents only 15% of their total business. In the other 85% of the business, B2B, they’ve not been doing too shabby. The company still makes a profit. Their biggest customers still return their phone calls. Sure, they have their issues, but hey, who doesn’t? As I’m fond of saying, this stuff is HARD. Get over yourselves.
i.e. “Change”. What does it REALLY mean for Dell? I’m just asking… Yes. I really, really want to know.
I’ve also been mulling over how this experience differs from the work I’ve done with Microsoft.
One thing I have noticed so far inside the company, is how often the word “Dell” is used interchangeably with “Michael”. Sometimes we’re talking about the man, sometimes the company. The lines seem very blurry. I don’t recall “Microsoft” and “Bill” being so interchangeable, I really don’t.
Michael Dell seems to cast a huge presence over the company, even more so than Bill Gates casts a presence over Microsoft. This is no bad thing. It just is what it is.
Actually, I find this quite an endearing aspect to the company. Michael is certainly no absentee landlord CEO, from what I can make out. Every day, I’m told he sends a lot of emails to people to lots of different levels in the company. He’s very hands-on, he doesn’t just hold court with the people reporting directly to him. Dell might be a Fortune 50 company, but there’s something about it that is STILL just this crazy college kid from Austin, building made-to-order computers in his dorm room for his friends. These humble roots still hold strong. Walk around the offices, and you can still smell them around you.
So one evening last week, after a long but interesting day over at the Round Rock offices, I’m having dinner with an old friend in South Austin. A nice little Mexican joint I’ve become very fond of. Avocado margaritas. Smoked pork tacos that melt in your mouth. It’s all good.
My friend asks me how I’m getting on with this new Dell project. I tell her, “Well, I’m finding it pretty darn interesting so far. But at the end of the day, if Michael Dell doesn’t grok it, there’s not much I can do. From what my gut tells me, it seems like it’s very much ‘his’ company, even more so than Bill Gates and Microsoft. I could be wrong, but there it is… Of course, if he does end up grokking it, then it’ll get pretty intense, pretty quickly. But in a good way.”
My friend and I are sitting there, enjoying the evening, talking about the good old days, back when we both attended university in Austin. Suddenly in the back of mind, I’m thinking about the “Changers” inside Dell. These, I decide, are the people I need to speak to. All roads ANYWHERE worthwhile begin with these good folk. The rest can look after themselves. The rest won’t quite understand me, and there’s simply no point pretending that they will.
It is true. I don’t know EXACTLY what I’m looking from them quite yet. It’s still early days. Then again, a jazz musician never knows EXACTLY what notes he’s going to play, before the gig actually starts…
We live in interesting times…
It sounds like you really need to meet Michael Dell and have a chat directly with him… But it also sounds like you are hesitant or otherwise skirting the issue. Due you worry that you don’t have the clout to go directly to him? Or are you trying to establish a collage of him, and thus the company, from the people around him?
This post seems to have several layers of interesting curiosities…
One of my mentors shared invaluable advice with me early in my career.
Embrace change, for change is the only constant.
Change is what makes makes average companies great. Change is what kills off competitors who become complacent.
For a while, Dell was about change. Dell eventually plateaued. Now Dell sits at a fork in the road. The can rest on their laurels and coast for a while, but you and I know coasting is a downhill affair.
Change will be the only way forward again, its up to ‘Dell’ to decide that, or not. I won’t lose sleep over their decision, neither should you.
I like Dell. I love my Dell gaming notebook. It does all my daily productivity stuff plus also allowing me to attend the occasional LAN-party.
It’s the perfect combo of powerful portable gaming hardware + the peace of mind from knowing you will get support from a large company and that getting spare parts won’t be a problem (unless you want to switch your notebook’s keyboard by one with a different layout, because at least in Europe Dell won’t sell it to you).
My next notebook may be a Dell again (I was satisfied about the quality, stability and warranty options), but I hope that, before I fall for a cheap desktop pc, they’ll bring a gaming notebook to market that:
1) weighs much less than the current generation (5kg + a massive power supply! My back hurts when I carry it in a backpack)
2) Has a clip-on cover that can make it look like something an adult would use.
3) Has pricetag that would keep people from flocking back to desktop pc’s during an economic recession.
4) Has palmrests in black plastic (transpiration during games wears off the silvery coating of the plastic.
I recognise the three C peoples;and the changers are the way to go. I reckon there is (at least) one other group in most organisations – what shall I call them? The Crappers? The Chainers? Fossils? Whatever. These people actively resist change because of fear, desire to control etc. Much more destructive than Coasters, and very different dynamic from Changers. Alienating and disempowering them can be satisfying in many ways.
I don’t think you are giving the Coasters their just due. They are the majority. They are a force. And who says just doing their job in order to have a real life is bad?
I envy coasters.
Great post Hugh!
I hope it serves as a catalyst to create a face to face with Michael Dell. While there may be people that push change at Dell there is only 1 person that can decide to make an idea into the corporate mission.
“He who pays… says” True in any organization in varying degrees. But still true.
I always looked at these three types as Innovators, Improvers, and Maintainers. But the three C’s has a much better sound to it. In either case, there is always a need for change to stay in front of the competition. There are definitely many levels to keep a company running, and it takes all three types to keep it moving smoothly.
The three C’s are a great model for explaining basic behaviors. I think that one thing you could add to them is that they are situational behaviors. Sometimes you must be a changer, sometimes you see the change too late and must become a contributor and other times you might have to be a coaster because of overwhelming family problems.
You need to add the “chainers” because these people are the worst. They are the ones that kill companies, putting their own personal needs above that of their company.
great post. i have 2 categories however: live to work, work to live. at the end of the day, if what u do is what makes u happy, then we are all good 🙂
find the rebels .. then go home
I shall certainly be using (and giving props accordingly) the 3 C’s
I think that much of the tension in corporate culture is caused by the fact that many coasters end up in controlling management positions as many changers cant be bothered with the formalities, whilst the contributors deliver the goods.
The balance in control therefore is in the wrong place due to a natural settling. All 3 classes are needed, but I suspect the distribution makes life hard for the changers. Mind you…. thats what makes them/us want to change things 🙂
As other posters I’d like to add a category. I’ll call then the “Cabateures” with the “c” pronounced as “s”. These people resist change strenuously and work hard to undermine change of all kinds because it will make them look bad or expose them for being the laggards they really are. I know a guy here who is one of your “water cooler” people. He makes a point of socializing with workers just enough to get the information he wants to use against them. He’s friendly to those when he’s on his research missions and then talks poorly about them behind their backs in his undermining role. Every company has a few of these people as well – people who work very very hard to make sure that nothing changes because that’s where their power lies.
Y’know, when I worked tech support for Dell, the Blue Monster was my desktop wallpaper. Everybody wondered what the hell it was, and everybody asked me about it. Now I’m interviewing for another position at Dell, and maybe, just maybe, I won’t be the only one with the Blue Monster on his desktop.
I’m glad to see you taking your energy and your insight to the colossi of the tech world, the Microsofts and the Dells, because I’ve been on the ground doing grunt work for these companies and they are painfully unaware of the emerging post-Cluetrain realities, the things people like you and Scoble have been shouting from the rooftops for thee past five years. It makes me think that there may be some hope for these old-school desktop-era guys yet.
Then again, by virtue of what they produce, these guys should be the smartest and the fastest, shouldn’t they 🙂
Coasters are the majority & I’m not sure how much would get done without them.They’re happy to go along to get along & don’t usually make waves. Sure it seems like they aren’t doing much, but they allow me, a Contributor, to do what I want to do – which is anything but Coast.At my job Changers are elites who take credit for change that’s set in motion by Contributors. 🙂
Hmmm … where’s the cynical Hugh I know and love? The one who drew this cartoon? https://www.gapingvoid.com/Moveable_Type/archives/000887.html
Tell us which of *those* you’re now selling to … 🙂
He seems to have mellowed since moving to Texas.