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Get Off the Train, and Join the Fleet

I remember the first time I was in a management role, more than 25 years ago at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). I was a bit anxious because I had been put in charge of people who had been my peers. Then I surprised my new direct reports by asking them questions no one in management had ever asked them before.

I met with each of them one-on-one and asked them, “What do you want to do? Where do you want to go with your life and your career?” Sometimes these questions are asked as part of a job interview, where we ask the questions to assess the ambition level of the job applicant. But here I was asking the questions for an entirely different reason.

I’ve always had the belief that people and organizations have a natural direction, with different directions for each individual person and organization. Most companies subscribe to the “get on board the train” approach, in which the company sets a direction, defines the jobs that it needs (the boxcars in the train), and then finds the people to fill the jobs. This approach simplifies administration, particularly in large companies, but it doesn’t take maximum advantage of the capabilities of the employees. It also creates some strange models for individual behavior. Workers can be motivated to some degree by the “vision” of the company’s direction (the train’s destination). But when that vision is too abstract, unfocused or distant, the employees are more likely to be motivated by more mundane activities like jockeying for a better boxcar on the train. As a result, much of the employee energy is wasted on things which don’t contribute to the company’s direction or to achieving the personal life goals of the employees.

The most important omission in the “get on board the train” approach is the lack of attention paid to individual employees’ natural direction. But consider an alternate approach, which I’ll call “join the fleet.” Imagine a company as a fleet of ships that sail the oceans. Then imagine that the company wants to carry a large amount of cargo from port A to port B. The cargo quantity is too large to be carried by a single ship, so the cargo is put into containers that can be carried by multiple ships.

As with the train approach, the company has a destination. But our container carriers aren’t as rigidly constrained as boxcars. Smaller, faster ships can get their cargo to the destination sooner. Sailboats can tack back and forth to take advantage of variable wind direction. Ships can even make intermediate stops on their way to the destination, taking on supplementary cargo to optimize their own performance. Some ships may reach the destination and go back for more cargo. Others will make one trip and move on to other things.

Applying the analogy to employees, the “fleet of ships” approach takes advantage of the inherent differences among employees. Each employee is given high-level tasks (“cargo”) that are consistent with the employee’s long-term direction. Employees carry out the tasks in a way which is optimized for them as individuals, working at different speeds, and simultaneously maximizing their own performance (and their own lives) as well as their contribution to the company (the “fleet”).

So what happened twenty-something years ago when I asked people about their own personal goals? One employee told me he wanted to work toward going home to his native Greece. We contacted the DEC office in Greece to find out what skills they would require, and arranged his work assignments to help him develop those skills. Another person said he was very interested in gaining technical proficiency, and that operating systems had always fascinated him. So I moved him toward increasingly more technical tasks. A third person said she wanted to travel more. We worked out her responsibilities to do more support of DEC’s remote manufacturing plants, and she got to travel as part of that support role.

I’m not saying that everything always falls naturally into place when you try to align company goals with employee personal goals. It often takes ingenuity and redefinition of jobs. But when it works, it’s fantastic: the employees are enthusiastic, and they’re doubly motivated because they know that their goals and the company’s goals are aligned. Productivity skyrockets because high goal alignment means that employees can focus on the tasks at hand without being distracted by their “other life.”

So get off the train and join the fleet! You’ll be amazed how much everyone can benefit.

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