Democracy and Leadership in Business

October 3rd, 2006 by Hugh

Kibble DemoOnce upon a time (roughly last Spring) Exbiblio was a bright and bushy-tailed young software company. It was also a very democratic place, where decisions were made as the result of lengthy brain-storming sessions. Its ideal was a ‘flat management structure’ without any job titles. In fact, when I read the ‘people page’ on the website as it stands even now, it’s hard to tell what anybody does at Exbiblio. Most seem to grow organic vegetables and ride bicycles to work. You certainly get no idea of who the CEO is (apparently they are still looking for one).

Way back then, Exbiblio had a Big Idea about the uniqueness of text (five or six words are usually enough to identify a document) and it wanted to do some cool things with that. Its plan was to take a scanner pen, and use it to link a paper document to its digital copy with a brief swipe of a few words.

Exbiblio began to experiment with some of the scanner pens on the market – worthy and useful products that serve their customers well – but found that none of them quite met its requirements for this particular job. And so Exbiblio made the fateful decision to make its own scanner pen, with unique features just perfect for activating a quick paper-digital linking task, while adding a voice annotation. This decision will cost a few million by next March and has added some thrills and spills to the Exbiblio story, some of which the financial backers could probably do without. All this, and it’s still a software company too.

When I first visited in July, as the oPen scanner project was getting underway, Martin told me that there were complaints among the employees about a lack of direction. He had to take a more active roll in leading the project. I don’t blame him. When money is burning fast, there isn’t a lot of time to sit around and discuss a 101 different plans. Top product development consultants from Synapse had been brought into the project. I sat in a meeting with Dave Zucker of Synapse, in which Martin – not a democratic committee – was taking the lead.

JoshOn our recent visit to JMK, the industrial design firm which is working on the look and feel of the oPen, I got a strong impression of how Exbiblio has been led over the past months.

This is how JMK often works with a company. It researches the market for potential users. It comes up with a host of possible designs. It presents these to the client. Gradually these are narrowed down to the ideal.

When Josh Kornfeld of JMK presented his ideas to Martin, they were all thrown out. Martin’s instructions had been for a “black obelisk” and that’s what he wanted. Not 59 different varieties of scanner pens.

‘It’s pretty rare that we work with companies where there’s one guy who’s calling all the shots. Here we are in this situation where this guy has a very clear vision of what he wants,” says Josh.

After that early meeting with Martin, Josh admits that he considered turning down the project.

“I went back to my office and thought about it and was a little frustrated and thought ‘Well so what do we do now? Do I tell these guys to go away or what?’ I said, ‘You know what, I think this product is a great idea, and I think that the morals of the company are outstanding, and that Martin is a really interesting guy, and a smart guy, and I want to see where this will go , and I didn’t feel that we had the egos to say ‘If you’re not going to do it the way we want to do it, then let’s not do it at all.'”

JMK feels that on this particular product, its role has been as adviser rather than as designer. However, there are a myriad of minor details that can make a big difference. For instance, there’s black and there’s black – the current black finish has a certain amount of green in it. A few millimeters added to the lens-cover changes the balance of the product. The corners of the obelisk can be more or less rounded. JMK is influencing all these decisions.

So is democracy or leadership best? Josh says that the most interesting products are sometimes the product of a single-minded vision:

‘When you have one person who is driving the show and making the calls and has a really clear understanding of what he wants then you have a product that maybe isn’t acceptable to everyone but the people who use it absolutely love it.’

As it turns out, I think the design is what the “democratic” Exbiblio team would have wanted anyway. If it has a fault, it’s a bit too Apple. I think this reflects a respect which not just Martin, but the whole Exbiblio team, has for Apple and the uncompromising way it does business.

2 Responses to “Democracy and Leadership in Business”

  1. Francisco Soto Says:

    Great post. Brazen. To the point. Open ended. Food for thought.

    The key questions remain. Is a different way of organizing a startup possible? How do values affect business organizations? How to balance the search for creativity through an open collective, with the need for efficiency in processes and focus in execution?

    ExBB is right there, in the frontline with Google: ’Chaos by design’.

  2. Hugh Says:

    Franciso, I think these open questions are why everyone who comes into contact with Exbiblio is so fascinated by it. Everyone wants to see how it will turn out.