Self-manager: Zappos' Tony Hsieh © Zappos
When I first wrote last year about Zappos’ efforts to introduce a self-managing system called Holacracy, I said that for most companies to adopt such an approach would take “time, a leap of faith and an act of unusual self-effacement by their leaders”.
An extraordinary memo from Tony Hsieh, chief executive of the Amazon-owned online shoe retailer, has underlined just how difficult it is. In the memo, published by Quartz this week, Mr Hsieh says that in the face of potential resistance, the company is now going to take a “rip the bandaid” approach to accelerate its progress towards self-management.
Quartz reports that some of the things I predicted would be stumbling blocks — confusion about the absence of titles, defection of staff — have already affected the transition. Mr Hsieh is not giving up; indeed he’s offering severance packages to staff who are not comfortable with the new approach. The fact that a chief executive has to order a change to a system with no chief executive is only one of the apparent contradictions here.
Whenever chief executives babble about “ecosystems” — as they often do — I picture one of those school biology diagrams of a pond: bacteria at the bottom, algae floating on top, and maybe a stickleback or two darting about below the surface.
After Etsy revealed its plans to go public on March 4, discussion forums for sellers using the online craft marketplace ignited with a mixture of those two great stock market emotions: fear and greed.
© Henrik Sorensen/Getty
Remember those days when long-haul flights were sometimes only a half, or even a third full? The joy of sprawling out across four seats in economy for the original “flat bed” experience?
Airlines’ use of technology to manage their flights more efficiently has largely killed that 20th-century pleasure. I’ve struggled to count more than a handful of empty seats on most of the flights I’ve been on in recent years.
Now “big data” seems to be on the cusp of streamlining many other workplaces in a similar fashion — with consequences for workers that go far beyond a mere bad night’s sleep.
The latest edition of Harper’s magazine picks up on the growth of labour scheduling software in business, which, by matching shifts to demand more accurately, is helping to make sure businesses are not overstaffed. If only it stopped there. Read more
In 1986, Tom Stemberg opened the first Staples superstore in Massachusetts. Stationery retailers have not stood still since. By 1990, Mr Stemberg’s disruptive bright idea had spawned dozens of lookalike office supply warehouses. “When people asked how it felt to be the father of the industry, my answer was ‘I wish I’d used a condom’,” Mr Stemberg tells me.
Hello, my name is Andrew. I’m the customer service associate dealing with your inquiry today. I’m sorry to hear about the problem with the online order that your true love sent to you.
If I were the new chief executive of Tesco and had just learnt my profits were overstated by £250m, that the regulator was investigating and that I had lost the confidence of the world’s best-known investor, my first instinct would be to nail my accountants, shareholder-relations staff and PR people to their desks until they had sorted it out. I would not be urging them to don a smock or a hairnet and head for the front line.
Je m'excuse: Andy Street © Bloomberg
France is economically doomed and no place for an entrepreneur. “Nothing works and worse, nobody cares about it.” If this is what Andy Street is like at a public engagement, just imagine how dreary he’d be on a home counties golf course. It’s like being bashed around the head with a ringbinder full of Economist back issues.
Piqued by a bad Eurostar journey, the managing director of the leading UK retailer John Lewis morphed into John Bull at an awards event for start-ups in London on Wednesday. Such events can have an aphrodisiac effect on middle-aged executives running staid businesses. But what has John Lewis done recently to give it the right to appropriate the rock star smugness exhibited by many modern entrepreneurs? Read more
Shortly after Philip Clarke made his surprising – and, it turns out, prescient –admission at a conference in March that his days as Tesco chief executive were probably numbered, the boss of another blue-chip British company asked me, worriedly: “Does it sometimes take two CEOs to turn a company round?”
What puzzles me about Sports Direct’s campaign to pay founder Mike Ashley a bonus – which finally succeeded on Wednesday, despite shareholder opposition – is that it focuses City attention on the weak spots in the sports retailer’s make-up: its governance and its dependence on Mr Ashley himself. Read more
Inefficiency is not a quality usually associated with Amazon but Jeff Bezos’s company is behaving as if it is a small, disorganised bookstore that cannot quite control its stock. “You want that book, do you? Very sorry but we have run out. We can order you another copy but they are taking a long time to arrive at the moment. How about buying another title instead?”
Companies expanding overseas have made great efforts to counter past mistakes of corporate imperialism – rather than merely exporting home grown staff and products they make an effort to adapt to local culture and consumer tastes.
McDonalds, for example, offered vegetarian burgers and samosas in Gujarat, where most citizens are vegetarian. In New Delhi, it sold the Maharaja Mac with lamb and chicken for non-beef eaters. It also recruited local managers in New Delhi, which helped the company negotiate bureaucracy. Read more
Free business school case study in every box (Dreamstime)
Altering prices is a delicate art. When Pixar was a hardware maker in the 1980s, for instance, it realised it was charging too much for its computers. Yet a price cut failed to dispel its reputation for hawking excessively pricey kit. “The first impression stuck,” recalls Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull in his informative new book, Creativity, Inc.
But this does not mean that it is impossible to raise or lower prices successfully. The decision by Amazon to increase the price of its Prime delivery service in the US last month could be a case in point.
Pricing strategy consultant Rafi Mohammed has praised the way Amazon went about increasing the annual Prime charge from $79 to $99. Read more
Pets at Home’s IPO prospectus opens a window into the lucrative world of Britain’s cats and dogs. The company, which went public on Wednesday, has a 12 per cent share of the £5.4bn pet care market and there are some fascinating nuggets in its 261-page document. Here are six of the best.
1. What recession? Britain’s pets haven’t been tightening their collars.
Living standards in the UK have fallen to their lowest in a decade (a fact not unrelated to Poundland’s successful IPO on Wednesday) but the country’s pets appear to be better off than ever. Read more
Unless Euan Sutherland’s resignation letter is published in full, the context of his claim that the Co-operative Group, where he is chief executive, is “ungovernable” will remain unclear. But it is a strange declaration for any professional manager to make: cats are ungovernable; humans, however cussed and contrary, generally do respond to direction. How they are directed is another matter.
The Co-op is a strange beast, as the saga over Co-op Bank chairman Paul Flowers’ appointment and eventual disgrace revealed. But I think Mr Sutherland has been doing a decent job of taming it. He took some flak last month for appearing to ask Co-op members – and the general public – how the group should be run, rather than setting his own strategy. I read this, however, as a clever combination of an advertising campaign, an opinion poll, and a response to those insiders who disliked his management style. Read more
Pets.com's once-ubiquitous mascot (Bloomberg)
It is probably unfair to draw a parallel between Pets at Home, with its real stores, real turnover and real earnings, and Pets.com, the US pet products etailer that was one of the dotcom bust’s most notorious flameouts. But the ghost of Pets.com’s sock-puppet mascot haunts the latest plans for initial public offerings, of which Pets at Home’s flotation is the freshest. Here are the lessons: Read more
The eulogies last week for Justin King, outgoing chief executive of J Sainsbury, make clear he won his crown as Britain’s most successful grocer by reconnecting with his loyal subjects – the shoppers – after years of neglect. But his abdication as chief executive of the country’s second-largest supermarket chain, after a decade in charge, is a good moment to ask whether customer loyalty really matters any more.
You come back from holiday to find your chief executive has given up power to a central constitution. Your team has been disbanded and your title scrapped. You are now all partners, each with an agreed role and a duty to support others whose work overlaps yours. Instead of allowing tension to fester internally, you will raise problems openly at regular meetings that promote positive action.
In the middle of the western world’s annual holiday shopping spree – which runs from the day after Thanksgiving to the end of the January sales – even hardened shoppers may occasionally feel exploited.
Many economists – including the FT’s Chris Giles – feel the anti-consumption mood is “profoundly wrong”. Business academic Linda Scott, whom I interviewed for the FT’s “Thinking Big” series of videos on radical ideas, goes a step further: she believes the consumer free market has the potential to unleash vast benefits, particularly for women in developing countries – as consumers, investors, donors and workers. Read more
Inside Britain's 'everything store'. Photo: Bloomberg
A no-frills retailer offering a keenly priced range from AA batteries to Z-frame suitcases launches its own tablet device and prepares to expand its same-day click-and-collect service. Amazon? No, Argos, which was Britain’s “everything store” before Jeff Bezos reached high school. Read more