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Yahoo and its critics are both heading for failure

Yahoo’s Merissa Mayer has faced a barrage of criticism since her HR chief announced a crack-down on home working in a leaked memo on Feb 22nd. Many of the criticisms are valid. Banning home working is not the only way to reform a culture that lacks collaboration and innovation. It also looks like turning the clock back.

Not everyone is critical, however. In this article, HR blogger John Sullivan sees this as part of a wider corporate drive for innovation at all costs. Yahoo is not alone: Best Buy has now abandoned its “Results Only Work Environment” (ROWE). Both companies are driven by the need for collaboration at work, leading to innovation. Sullivan says we need to get real.

I know which side of the argument I have tended towards, ever since we published the Manifesto for the New Agile Workplace in 2005. Human talent and energy are best released when given maximum choice and accountability. That’s a message that most senior teams find too hard to grasp, because it requires us all to do the difficult stuff of management – being clear and holding people to account, without an ounce of bullying. That needs strong leadership and practical guidelines like this amazing guide to getting the culture right at Netflix, praised as possibly “the most important document ever to come out of the (Silicon) Valley” by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (author of Lean In).

But here’s the challenge. We have known these secrets for many years. Why is it proving impossible for most others to copy those few – like Netflix – whose radical approach is reflected in stellar business performance? I think a key reason is that HR functions and their leaders in large organisations almost always impose practices across their entire organisations, rather than enable experiments in smaller work units. That is the mistake shared by Yahoo and its critics. Is home working inefficient? That depends on the work, the context and the culture.

Until we allow ongoing experiments and intelligent evaluation of the results (including controlled trials where possible), leaders – like politicians – will continue to swing from fad to fad.


Excellent update! Yahoo and Best Buy appear to have succumbed to the bureaucratic answer syndrome. It is truly easy to publish a memo or policy, but it is extremely difficult to treat your workforce as an integrated assembly of thinking and performing human beings. The latter takes much more time and almost infinitely more effort. It also takes faith that the leader need not dictate every single action of the organization, but rather inspire, motivate and point the way. Somewhere along the way, we lost the key idea of leadership. Maybe it was Taylorism (Scientific Management).

Written by Guy Higgins, April 29, 2013

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