Built to Last (Essay)
Author: Ubahsur Kindellaer
Dear Mr. Collins and Mr. Porras,
I have recently finished reading your book Built to Last for the Organizational Development class offered at the University of Richmond, in Richmond, Virginia. I found your book to be quite exciting as I saw some of the successful habits of visionary companies reflected in companies that I have worked for and in web communities of which I am a member of and staff for.
Let me take a moment to explain to you further about the community I will reference most while discussing points of Built to Last. I use the word community interchangeably with organization because, while TarValon.net is built to be nonprofit organization and function with a business mindset, it is primarily for communication of like-minded individuals and is entirely run by volunteers. TarValon.net is structured to emulate part of the fictional world written about by Robert Jordan in the Wheel of Time series.
TarValon.net prides itself on its humble beginnings, two friends sitting around discussing The Wheel of Time (WoT) and contemplating how one 'became' a real Aes Sedai. It was decided that one must be made Aes Sedai by another, so they made each other Aes Sedai - then started 'Ajah' Head Quarters which grew into the entire 'Tower' and in two years time expanded to include the city of TarValon. The community went from being a time teller to clock builder using the BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) to take over the world (of WoT communities) and has accomplished this.
TarValon.net focuses on emulating the values portrayed currently by a group of characters known as Aes Sedai that boil down to honesty and harming no one except in defense of yourself or loved ones. The key aspect of TarValon.net that sets it apart from the plethora of other Aes Sedai/Wheel of Time web communities is its real life aspect that members meet en mass several times a year and provide for members in emergencies. As an example, in Spring 2004 seventy members, including members from England and Canada, met for one weekend to camp and enjoy the company of others in the Chicago area. There have been examples of members in life threatening situations where other members were able to retrieve them, shelter them, and/or offer funds to help them leave that situation and start afresh. TarValon.net was able to provide a Christmas with gifts, decorations, and a full dinner to a member's family that was unable to have these things otherwise.
TarValon broke "the myth of having a 'great idea'"(p.23) as well as not being focused on an idea (time telling) but on building a clock through processes, principals, and ideology that will enable them flexibility and resiliency that are hallmarks of visionary companies. Also it "did not set new core values and purpose; they discovered a core that they already had in common" (p. xvii). I know that Melissa Craib, CEO of TarValon.net, feels that her "greatest creation is the company itself and what it stands for" (p.23).
Melissa has also proved that she "values change, experimentation and constant improvement" and has in fact "mechanisms to stimulate change and improvement" while giving "managers the authority and freedom to run each department" independently yet as part of the whole as Sam Walton did (p.38). In building these processes and being open to change, Melissa has been able to breathe spirit into this clock, using "human ideals and values" and "human needs and aspirations" just as the American founding fathers did (p.42).
"Evolutionary progress is unplanned progress" (p.145). This most certainly can be said of TarValon.net. Throughout its history of nearly four years TarValon has evaluated and rejected hundreds of plans, proposals, procedures, activities, and services. All were held up to a strategic plan and core values to see if those plans supported, enhanced or furthered the community. Email was offered, but over time one method didn't work, so there was no firstname.lastname@example.org available; then it was outsourced to a reliable company and became available again. With all the special events and big parties it was determined an events calendar was necessary and was created. Games were offered and those with little or no usage were 'pruned'. Anything that is and has been remotely associated with online communities, TarValon has had, but of many services, procedures, etc., only a select few have shown the test of time. TarValon has proved that it 'branches and prunes' (p.146) and "no decision was ever sacred" (p.147).
When TarValon started, it was two of seven Ajah headquarters. Melissa never thought that the membership needs of TarValon would necessitate not only the entire Tower (all seven Ajahs) but the city that surrounds the Tower as well. Instituting the City has proved to be one of those "big things" that "often evolve from little things" (p.156). In the vein of "since you can't tell ahead of time which little things will turn into big things, you have to try lots of little things, keep the ones that work and discard the ones that don't" (p.156), many measures were tried before and at the same time as the City, from breaking up the message boards, to offering 'apartments', to letting older membership 'retire' to the City, to offering of guilds. The retirements and guilds did not take hold and were revoked, though the guilds will be attempted at a later time when the climate might prove more nurturing. It can be seen that Melissa and her staff 'fixed, tried, did, adjusted, moved, acted and did not sit still' (p.163).
TarValon gave its members "room" that "they need" (p.164) while 'taking small steps' (p.164) and that "change is encouraged" (p.37).
Some of the most successful branching is found when TarValon was able to "embrace the genius of the AND" (p.43). In the books and other communities at the time TarValon started there is proof of the "tyranny of the OR" (p.43). Two cultures in the books viewed relationships in different ways. In the bulk of 'the Westlands', where the books are predominantly located, Aes Sedai bond men who are like business partners. It is very much a one on one relationship standard. In the 'Waste' the culture valued people 'adopting' people they have a close relationship with (such as siblings) to the point that a man must marry both the woman of his choice and her first-sister. TarValon saw that both the role of a protector and a partner were important as well as family that we find and develop at the community - thus at TarValon you will find bonded Aes Sedai and their Warders as well as first-sisters.
In WoT the Aes Sedai are powerful women and any man is subservient to them. TarValon has unique ways of making this disparity more equal. TarValon.net offers men companies, like the Ajahs, and equal placing in leadership positions. This is also done so that a wider variety of men will join the community and thus enrich it further. Another example in which TarValon embraces the AND is in terms of funding for the site. Many sites, after they gain a membership of 200-500 people, find that the costs of maintaining a site become more than the founder can handle out of pocket; then it becomes a struggle to get donations from members, impose for-pay services or membership dues or find sponsors willing to contribute, with the trade off being ads at the site, or (the least favorable option) using free services which also have ads and the restriction of creative control. TarValon was able to find a synthesis of membership donations, for pay services and sponsors without the presence of ads which is seen with strong distaste.
Since its inception, TarValon has been riddled with jests about it being a cult. While there is never force, and isolation from reality and life offline is frowned upon (both key factors of a cult), it does exhibit many qualities of a cult, endearing it to its members. One reason that TarValon is imbued with cult-like qualities is that it puts membership first, with a similar inverted pyramid as seen on page 117 in the example of Nordstrom. TarValon also uses the same trust as Nordstrom exhibits in its employee hand book and 360 degree feedback. It holds fervently to its ideology, has many examples of indoctrination (mentors, big siblings, tests before rising to the next level of membership, peer review), and tightness of fit (p.122). There are many examples where people have come to join and simply did not fit with the culture and either left or were asked to leave after refusing to adjust their behavior (p.121).
At conventions where there is friendly competition with other communities, TarValon always presents itself as a tight group, dressing similarly and having their own chant, which is similar to how IBM started out with their anthem (p.125). "Like Nordstrom, IBM, Disney, Proctor & Gamble [...] (TarValon) displayed an intense penchant for secrecy and control of information" (p.134). At TarValon there are things members do not learn or cannot participate in until they have officially earned and reached a particular rank.
In fact, the biggest example of indoctrination is the terminology used in WoT; just as at Disney and employee is a cast member, (p.128) members at TarValon are Novices, Recruits, Accepted, Soldiers, Aes Sedai, and Gaidin (Warders). Instead of a department manager there is a Head of Ajah or Company, Mistress of Novices or Captain of the Guards, Master of the Watch, the CEO is Amyrlin Seat. There are rings and shawls to earn. Perhaps the most cult-like attribute of TarValon is proved in its membership: several couples have met through TarValon and gotten married. Members bring in their family and friends to share in the great community and spend time in a different format with their relatives or husbands or friends.
Despite the truth, there have always been rumors floating around about 'inner circles', in particular of the administration. The truth is that everyone has earned their position with trust and proof of ability, but some people will always feel left out as Robert did at Nordstrom (p.120). One of the best things for TarValon is that "promote from within to preserve the core" (p.173). Members know the site and its core values better than anyone, continuing to push people to grow and develop personally and within the community; TarValon is preserving the continuity of leadership (p.173). Sometimes a rotation is instigated not because the person in a position is no longer doing their best, or has left, but to offer opportunities to more members to bring in fresh blood to stimulate, question, and recognize issues (p.83).
"Merck acted on the assumption that such acts of goodwill "somehow ... always pay off.?"(p.48) It is in this spirit that TarValon also acts. TarValon is not looking for profit, but for ways to spend its income to better the lives of its members. "[H]igh ideals ... a core ideology ... often existed in the visionary companies not just when they were successful but also when they were struggling to survive" (p.49). TarValon has 'made it' but has acted thusly since the day its inception. Yet, even with these goals, neither has acted foolishly "pursuing their aims profitably" (p.55). And even still, "the hierarchy of responsibilities descending from customers down to shareholders and the explicit emphasis on fair return, rather than maximum return" (p.58) is proven in that not even the CEO gets perks.
"People don't work day to day in the 'big picture.' They work in the nitty-gritty details of their company and its business. ... [I]t's the little things that make a big impression, that send powerful signals" (p.213). It has been shown that TarValon.net has many small details that when seen as a whole give a big impression. One of the key factors is "all elements of a company work together in concert within the context of the company's core ideology and type of progress it aims to achieve" (p.202). In other words, every detail is working in a matrix, where the tiniest imperfection or misalignment would be noticed and fixed immediately.
While working in perfect alignment, in a cult-like clock with spirit that branches and prunes as necessary only needs to infinitely continue, Melissa knows that "the best never rest" because resting would mean comfort and that enables competition to catch up.
Seeing the big picture, while working with the details for continuous change is what, along with the other factors mentioned, makes TarValon a visionary company which longevity - the final characteristic mentioned in Built to Last that TarValon has not yet experienced - will prove.
Thank you for pointing out the distinctions of what separates a good company from a great one, and how those same characteristics break myths of a good organization.