the fatal lens

The Soviets are about to fall again. FAVI , a 'designer of and manufacturer of copper alloy component and mechanical sub-assemblies' was written up over a year ago in the Wall Street Journal. Seems FAVI makes money in markets in which its competitors lose money -- or have long since outsourced production to Asia. How does FAVI do it? Jean-Francois Zobrist leads the company and is a man of many maxims, but one of them is that the company he runs (he owns no stake in the family-owned company himself) makes its employees happy. The key to happiness, in Mr. Zobrist's view, is to free workers from the arbitrary restrictions of the chain of command, or rather, the chaine de comment -- the chain of "how."

When Mr. Zobrist was put in charge of FAVI, he set about to break the chain. Most businesses, in his view, are "Soviet" in character -- they rely on centralized control by bosses, whose priority is the reduction of risks to themselves. This in turn means control of "how" things are done and the assertion of authority of managerial nomenklatura through deference and perks. At FAVI, what matters is "why" and "for whom," not "how." That is, workers aren't told how to do their jobs, but whom they are doing them for -- the customer, not their boss. "The only power lies with the customer," Mr. Zobrist avers. "I have no power in here. I enter a meeting, no one stands up. I don't have a parking space, and if I start pretending to expertise in a meeting, my people will often cut me off."

What's more, FAVI has no personnel department; Mr. Zobrist eliminated it 20 years ago, "because this department's main job was to put constraints on people's activity and grow its own ranks to enforce these constraints." There is virtually no middle management at FAVI; the company is organized into teams, which each serve one customer -- one automaker, for example. Those teams choose their own leader, who reports to Mr. Zobrist. Thus, the organizational chart is only three layers deep.

Instead of obedience, Mr. Zobrist seeks responsibility and initiative from his employees. And to get it, he gives them freedom -- to innovate and experiment, but also the freedom to solve customers' problems in their own way. He tells them they work for the customer, and gets out of the way. His only demand, just about, is that they always look for ways to do it "better and cheaper" -- and never deliver late.

Since the dawn of marketing it has been the marketers job to tell people how to do things. How to get food. How to get salvation. How to brush your teeth. How to listen to music. How to live. And since the rise of the marketer happened after the dividing of labor into specializations, the marketer has been fascinated with 'producing' these messages. And we haven't removed the production lens ever since.

Browse the hard core marketing porn of the last 5 or 6 years (Tipping Point, Blink, Purple Cow, Free Prize, Clue Train Manifesto, What Sticks etc.), listen to what's happening to media fragmentation and user created content and they point in the general direction of the open source movement - the idea of transparent intellectual property, collaboration and flat org structures.

A Movement. Viral. Organic. Authentic. Sustainable. Relevant. Community. Social. These are not phenomena that are 'produced' regardless of how much central planning you undertake. These are not Soviet. This is centrally what has marketing departments all over America scratching their heads. How do we produce a viral campaign? You don't. You leave the 'how' to people. They will organize around a thoughtfully prepared patch of land. They will pick up a well made shovel. Then they will proceed to hack the shovel to meet their needs and plant and grow the things they want. The best you can hope for is that they'll trust you enough to help them modify said shovel and watch over their garden. Their garden.

This is hard to do. It's hard to give up the illusion that you're in control. It's hard to accept that you are one of many experts with only a few answers at best. It's hard to not dictate 'how' - 'how' is power. 'How' is how you control risk.

Marketing is not dead. Marketing at its best is storytelling. There will always be a job for good story-tellers. But we need a new lens. The production lens is outmoded. It's time for movements. Whether we like it or not. The movements are coming. And when the movements come, the Soviets will, once again, be against the wall.