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treat people differently, case study people

At present I’m engaged in helping a typical corporate move towards being a “software-led business”. Setting aside any strategic questions of why the organisation might see this as desirable, there’s the simpler question of why I’m advocating treating people differently (i.e. differently from the status quo).

Some folks may be bemused or confused by this new direction, so here’s the basics of the proposition:

In a software-led business – or any knowledge-work organisation, for that matter – the success of the business ultimately depends on the applied intellect of the folks writing the software which forms the core of the organisation’s products. Top intellect, cleverly applied, leads to better products, more suited to the demands of the market. And that leads to more customers, higher margins, more business, more revenues, and ultimately a more valuable business, generally expressed as a more salable company, or a higher share price (better for investors).

So, the task at hand boils down to hiring, cultivating or otherwise acquiring “top intellect” a.k.a. smart people, and seeing their skills, talents, enthusiasms – and brains – cleverly applied to creating and evolving great products.

The thing is, “top intellect” is in short supply – no matter where in the world we are. These kinds of folks have their pick of companies to work for. And being smart people, they can see through the typical snow-jobs so beloved of corporate recruiters, and coolly evaluate companies as to whether they’re nice places to work (or, much more often, not).

“There’s no shortage of talent, only a shortage of companies that talent wants to work for.”

Companies that rely on these folks for their success stand or fall by their ability to recruit, retain, enable and engage these folks. Job satisfaction is all.

Typical corporates are utterly unequipped to understand these folks, their motivations, and what it takes to provide them with job satisfaction. And even in those corporates where some folks do understand, making the changes to effect suitable conditions can be nigh on impossible.


Here’s a brief list of things typical corporates take for granted in dealing with their employees, alongside a list of the things top talent looks for in a job:

Supervision | Autonomy
Interchangeable employees of average competence | Individuality and Mastery
Compensation | A clear sense of purpose
Standard work | Bold challenges and opportunities to explore new ideas

Brain Work

There’s a lot more to getting the best out of people’s brains than just giving them job satisfaction. Modern psychology, sociology, neuroscience, etc., is just beginning to shine a light on the conditions necessary for effective cognitive function (having the brain work well). This research also shows the gulf between our typical level of cognitive function in e.g. a corporate work environment and the amazing levels of cognitive function possible when conditions are tailored to optimise for that.

Creative brainwork, as epitomised by software product development, demands conditions so dissimilar to the typical corporate workplace as to be all but unrecognisable to folks familiar with the latter.


Commercial success for “software-led organisations” is utterly dependent on the collective cognitive function of its product engineering – and arguably, other – staff. Optimal cognitive function demands conditions very dissimilar to those found in typical corporates. Only by cultivating conditions very counter-intuitive to the typical corporate view of employee relations will knowlege-work organisations open the door to future commercial success.

Oh, and by the way, these counter-intuitive workplaces are much nicer places to work for everyone concerned, and contribute much to the positive health and wellbeing of all the people involved, and of wider society too.

- Bob