A Great Place
(A Random List of Cool Qualities of Organizations)
Once upon a time, I wrote up an extensive list of the best aspects of
some organizations I've had the privilege of being a part of. Put
together, I think they form some ideal for what a near-perfect place
might be.... Here's my current version.
Vision. Freedom. Free will. Learning. Honesty. Tolerance.
Respect. Humor. Caring. Competence. Responsibility. Teamwork.
Fun. No pay. A bare minimum of rules.
- A Positive Heartfelt Vision. Come to think of it,
these organizations tend to be centered around an exciting or
otherwise interesting vision for something to offer the local
community. People who care about this vision feel connected to it and
put in a lot of effort (whether its goal is to make others smile or
feed the hungry), and the yardstick of the "community's benefit"
serves to keep quality and ethical standards high. It must have deep
heart-level importance in order for the best aspects of people's
hearts to become involved.
- Voluntary Projects Only. From more than one organization
I've been in, I've discovered that I really like places when people
work on projects voluntarily. There is no coercion to do one thing or
another; everyone picks something of his or her own, something he or
she is interested in --- which tends to mean that the person will do a
good job. One doesn't have to do any one thing in particular
--- though one is expected to contribute once in a while.
- Voluntary Membership. Better yet, though many groups I
know have a selection process, there is no coercion to have to belong
or stay. Anyone is free to leave, and many do.
- Teaching and Learning. I've run into a couple very good
teachers within my lifetime. I'd love to see more people who can
teach so well. But even those who aren't great teachers can still be
good teachers when they sincerely try to help others learn and
understand --- and I'm indebted to many of them! In some aikido
classes, everyone is a student and everyone is a teacher, and even the
experienced folks learn something new every class --- from the
beginners. One learns a lot by teaching. A humbling and rewarding
- New material. Projects done by these groups tend to be
things that haven't been done before, whether it's hanging a mock
space ship from a 3-story ceiling to porting code to a new platform.
Maybe it's figuring out how a handicapped fellow can use aikido
techniques. There's room to grow and learn. New ground is being
broken, complete with the excitement of real research (with real
- Commitment to Quality. That's a buzzphrase, but these
groups don't have to use the phrase. They know it. They live it.
Better to not do a job than do a bad job. This can't always be helped,
but experience is a great teacher.
- Leadership by Competence. In a few rare groups I've been
a part of, the elected leaders somehow almost always manage to be
competent, likeable, and reasonable. For some projects, the leaders
volunteer or are chosen by others --- or are just generally agreed
upon to be the "right person." It's not at all a formal process, and
yet it works. Leaders are chosen by the respect people have for them
as good leaders --- not just based on some track record of
performance. Leaders certainly don't feel they have the right to
- Competence. In my favorite groups, people are forthright
about their abilities. If people claim to know what they're doing ---
they do. And people tend to know what they're doing in general. If
they don't (after all, everyone is a beginner at first), they quickly
learn because they want to learn.
- Honesty. People I tend to hang out with are able to give
and receive criticism. They may say, "Wow, that's really stupid"
(kinda rude, I know) --- but then they can explain why and offer a
better way. The person receiving criticism has the ability to listen
and then either defend his or her position or accept the better
- Tolerance. Most groups I "hang out" with are very
tolerant of different types of people. Everyone is assumed to be
reasonable, and that is all that really matters. Race, gender,
religion, and other factors usually don't make a difference. Even
different ways of expressing oneself are tolerated to a large degree
--- except for signs that one doesn't tolerate others. In which case,
an outcry is sure to occur.
- Communication. People in these groups tend to feel free
to look at what others are doing and offer their comments. Sometimes
division of labor is absolutely necessary, but even then, helpful
comments are appreciated from everyone. There is almost never
a comment like, "Shut up --- you're not part of this group! What do
- Openness. Not only is there communication, but there is
openness within the group. Decisions are made where all the members
can see them, and the reasoning is clear and logical. Secrets are not
whispered behind closed doors. Judgments on people are not rendered
in private by a secret group of powerful people.
- Caring. A rare trait when consistently evidenced by a group,
this has a lot to do with the individuals involved. A caring group tends to
attract more caring people. Something about these groups just tells one
that the others will be happy to help if something comes up.
- Reliability and Responsibility. Though not always the
case, in these groups, when someone says he or she will get something
done, it's likely he or she will get it done. And done competently.
These people know their limits and are honest about them.
- Room to Goof Off. These groups almost always leave room
for play. Sure, someone's got to finish that coding, but she really
wants to take out a couple hours to play a game. No problem. Really
hungry? A bunch of people might wander off to grab food. Sure, class
needs to be structured to some extent, but a good joke is a good joke
and it really can liven up the place. People know when to goof off,
and it helps in the long run.
- Leadership Through Respect. More on defining a
"competent" leader: he or she almost never pulls rank. There's hardly
ever a need. The others usually defer to the leader's judgment
because either it's given with sufficient reason or because there's
sufficient trust that the leader has everyone's best interests in
mind. And the leader respects the talents and contributions of
everyone in his or her team. Even the quiet people who work in
the background are acknowledged and respected.
- Teamwork Through Respect. Team members also trust and
respect others' skills and efforts. Individuals know their own limits
and know others' limits, and know exactly what they can count on
everyone else to do. Everyone is committed to the project, because
(after all) it's voluntary, and nobody has to be there. Teams
like this accomplish a lot, even pulling things off that many
would have said were impossible.
- Projects Are Done for Fun. These groups tend to do
projects not for any particular greedy reason, but for the heck of it.
Because it's fun. And usually because it'll help others or make them
smile. When something is both fun and helpful to others, even
sleep-deprivation and hunger won't stop a good team! Now, here at
MIT, we tend to call this true hacking.
- Room for Mistakes! There has to be tolerance and even
expectation of some amount of failure, and there must be willingness
to work patiently to explain, train, and guide -- both as superiors
and as subordinates! No one is perfect. No one starts off knowing
everything. Mistakes are a natural byproduct of learning. (I've
learned: Apparent perfection is highly suspect!) That said:
- Honest Performance Feedback. A vital subset of communication.
People tell others quietly, plainly, compassionately, and helpfully
what's going wrong as soon as possible. No sudden "Your
leadership sucks and I'm pulling a coup" or "Oh by the way, you're
fired -- even though we never told you anything was wrong!"
Willingness to work with and train people into new roles -- to smooth
the path and make a difficult job easier -- tells people they will not
be abandoned, and lives up to the good old "treat others as you would
like to be treated." Moreover, maybe just helping someone see
something in a different light might be all that's necessary!
Are these characteristics of a great-sounding place? Or does the
loose framework and lack of structure sound a little frightening? In
any case, I think I need to make the point that almost none of the
groups I'm thinking of is a profit-oriented group. These groups are
almost always volunteer or non-profit organizations. They also tend
to be relatively small (no more than 50 active members at any one
time, and perhaps 200 other inactive members).
Sadly, some of these groups also tend to have strict entry
requirements, or a long scrutiny period before a person is "welcomed"
in. This is the one drawback of these groups. However, it is my
observation that with some of these groups, the selection is automatic
--- those not interested tend to drop out or stay away. Only people
with similar interests and mentalities remain --- and they sure form
some effective and sometimes awe-inspiring teams!
Qualities I really despise in a group:
Greed. Backstabbing. Lying. Power-hungriness. People who pretend
to be reasonable on the surface, but who are filled with uglier things
beneath. Leaders who pull rank to get their way. Leaders who
patronize. Secret empire-building! Pressure to provide personal
favors! Manipulation, of even the person at the top. Secret
tribunals and judgments. Leadership by fear and threats (and lies).
Basing all a project's designs on the goal of generating sales, not
based on any inner vision or heartfelt joy. Unreliable teammates.
All-powerful people whose words are law. The Dilbert theory of
management (promotion to the level of incompetency). Hypocrisy!!
Profit-as-the-goal mentality. Sexism/racism etc. Judgment based on
looks, not competence. No training or learning on any side. Leaders
who assume underlings are incompetent or unworthy. Leaders who take
all the credit (and none of the blame). Political power games.
Leaders and teammates who unfortunately are so busy protecting
themselves, they hurt their underlings or peers. Winners and Losers.
Adherence to the Clock. Superiority complexes in one group against
another, even internal to the same organization. Lack of
communication. Arbitary application of standards. Maliciousness.
How-loud-you-are determines if you're heard or not. Secrecy and
concealment. (Gee, so many of these are based on insecurity, aren't
Where do I tend to find or notice these traits? Profit-driven
corporations and power-seeking political groups. Big surprise.
I sincerely respect managers I've had and whom I've heard of who have
not let their positions affect how they treat others.... Their
priority is to help those below them get their jobs done. Whether or
not one is Christian, I think this quote might ring true in an odd
way: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and
their high officials exercise authority over them.... Not so with
you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your
servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave...." (Mark