Tick Tock, We’re Building a Clock

I was an admirer or Steve Jobs. The amount of creativity that he inspired made a huge difference to modern-day technology. To me, he was the ultimate example of a charismatic leader. However, I fear he was better at telling time than that he was at clock building. And as a admitted Apple fanboy, this worries me.

A valid question for anybody in a leadership role to occasionally ask themselves, is the question of legacy: after leaving an organization, is there anything that had lasting impact?

Of course, there will always be the custom emoji in your Slack with your face on it. Somebody created them as a joke, and now nobody knows how to remove them.

Anything else?

Code perhaps. You wrote some code. I’m sure many years after you have left, people are still cursing when they see your name appear in their git blame output. Again.

Anything else?

Jim Collins and Jerry Porras wrote a book called “Built to Last”. In it, they study companies that have been successful for over 50 years (some even longer than 100); companies that have stood the test of time. They compare these companies to other companies that “grew up” around the same time, in similar contexts, but either failed or were not nearly as successful. They looked at the differences between the successful and the failed.

And you’ll never guess what they found...

Their first finding (and the only one I’ll reveal) is that lasting companies have a tendency to focus on clock building rather than just telling time:

Imagine you met a remarkable person who could look at the sun or stars at any time of day or night and state the exact time and date: “It’s April 23, 1401, 2:36 A.M., and 12 seconds.” This person would be an amazing time teller, and we’d probably revere that person for the ability to tell time. But wouldn’t that person be even more amazing if, instead of telling the time, he or she built a clock that could tell the time forever, even after he or she was dead and gone?

Having a great idea or being a charismatic visionary leader is time telling; building a company that can prosper far beyond the presence of any single leader and through multiple product life cycles is clock building.

Writing code is telling time. Running a sprint is telling time. Having a great new product or feature idea is telling time. Jumping on stage at a conference and enthusiastically selling your idea to an audience of thousands, with the whole crowd yelling “take my money!” is... telling time.

Even if we don’t have the ambition to still be relevant in 50 or a 100 years from now — although probably most of us secretly do — it’s still worth understanding the art of clock building, even if just for our own sanity in the short term.

Like, to allow us to take vacations.

I often say a good test of management skill is the ability of a manager to go on a two-week vacation. Once they return and find that hell hasn’t broken loose — in fact that everything kept running pretty much as usual, they’re on the right track. If a team can still tell time after a week or two without you dictating it, that’s a good start. That’s a test of (short term) clock building skill.

It’s often said that the output of a manager is the output of its team. However, in my mind that’s only the time telling part of the story. Ultimately the output of a manager is also how their organization functions as a — excuse my French — machine — a clock.

A clock doesn’t need constant operation to be telling time. It scales much better than a time teller-person. It likely is more accurate, and lasts longer. It does need maintenance, though.

Built to Last, considers the extreme case of this. What happens to a company when its (original) leader doesn’t go on a two-week vacation, but leaves forever? In a timespan of 50+ years, the world changes a fair bit. Many of the companies in the Built to Last study (including Disney, IBM, Marriott, Johnson & Johnson, Sony, Wal-Mart) went through multiple product cycles and even complete pivots. What Disney does today is very different in scope compared to what it did when it was founded about a century ago. Why did Disney succeed where others failed? One of the answers (note that the book lists three more) is a focus on clock building.

To ensure that the company keeps running well for a long time requires a bit more clock building than: “Ok, I’m out for two weeks, so I just gave you permissions in JIRA to hit the ‘Start Sprint’ button yourself now. Also, here’s a rubber duck to talk to during our regular 1:1 slot. Good luck!”

Effectively the question is: how do you set up your organization up for success with little dependency on you?

As it turns out, the key is to shift your effort from operating the system to working on the system to become self operating. You have to go meta.

In this sense, one has to admire what Jeff Bezos achieved building Amazon.

While there are valid concerns to be had about Amazon as a company and its power and dominance, it’s an impressive feat to scale a company to over 1.4 million employees with this level of productivity, innovation, and growth.

While Bezos left Amazon little over a year ago, I am far less concerned about the future of Amazon than I am of Apple’s.

Because to me, Bezos is the ultimate clock builder.

The book “Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon” is effectively an ode to the clock that is Amazon. It details a ton of aspects of the Amazon culture and its many deeply ingrained practices, including:

  • Its leadership principles (like customer obsession, being right a lot)
  • Its hiring approach (like raising the bar)
  • Its organizational structure (like two pizza teams, single-threaded leaders)
  • Its communication practices (like the six-pagers)
  • Its products development approach (like working backwards from the customer)
  • Its use of metrics (like its focus in input metrics)

Note how none of these aspects reference Bezos. While Jobs’ brilliance was in his taste and intuition, Bezos’ brilliance is in his relentless focus on working on the system rather than operating it. In fact, the Working Backward book is written by ex-Amazonians, and dedicates a large chunk to describing how they couldn’t help themselves but to apply these ideas outside of Amazon. This is next-level clock building, influencing a whole industry. If you work at any modern tech company today, chances are high that you’ve adopted at least some of Amazon’s leadership principles (like customer obsession or the focus of team ownership) or practices (two-pizza teams, working backwards starting with a press release).

In addition, Bezos invested heavily in a “pipeline” of successors. I’m sure that while all will add their own flavor to the company over the years, they will likely largely keep running on the same practices and processes, the same clock.

What about Apple, though? Reading “After Steve: How Apple Became a Trillion-Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul”, it became pretty clear to me that Jobs was central to keeping the company together. With him gone, things had to change significantly. As the sub-title suggests, “it lost its soul.”

This doesn’t mean Apple is dead. In fact, financially it’s doing better than ever. However, it’s still early days. A lot is still running on Jobs’ legacy. Only now, things are starting to shift and are becoming more “Cooky.” Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but for sure different. The question is: how strong is the clock that Steve built, and will it last? The last time Jobs left, things degenerated rather quickly. Will it be different this time?

Time will tell.

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