Deleted From The Bucket List: Basecamp And BrewDog
Last month, Future of Work skeptics must have felt satisfaction at seeing both Basecamp and BrewDog fall from grace and lose their rock-star employer status. Equally, Future of Work apostles will have been caught by surprise, feeling disappointed and even fooled. To me it reinforced a principle we established at the start of Corporate Rebels: 'I'll believe it when I see it.'
Over recent months a lot has been written about software company Basecamp after CEO Jason Fried published a blog post on "policy changes". It announced (among other culture changes) that Basecamp would ban “societal and political discussions” from company platforms.
This now-infamous post escalated quickly within and without the organization. People just didn't seem to like it, as demonstrated by the pubic outcry. Despite a mea culpa by Fried, nearly a third of Basecamp's workforce left in the aftermath.
I'm still not sure what to think about this move by the Basecamp leaders. But one thing is clear: Basecamp, once one of the brightest stars in the Future of Work universe, burned out this year.
BrewDog's co-founders, James Watt & Martin Dickie, must have noted the Basecamp tragedy with an ass-twitching feeling. They had claimed for years, on social media, to have built a human-centric workplace culture.
Whereas, in reality, it seems they built a toxic culture based on fear—with staff afraid to speak out. At least that is what more than 100 former BrewDog employees claimed in an open letter published in June.
The letter reveals that BrewDog's progressive workplace reputation seems to be little more than a marketing-driven facade built on a “cult of personality”.
In fact, the letter claims that working at BrewDog led a significant number of former employees to become mentally ill. It also says that responsibility for the toxic culture lies with co-founder, Watt.
While Watt offered his own penance the open letter had let the genie out of the bottle.
As in the Basecamp tragedy, BrewDog's revelation proved again that the bigger, more famous, or publicity-thirsty you are, the harder you fall.
Basecamp And BrewDog, once two of the brightest stars in the Future of Work universe, both burned out this year.
Although Basecamp and BrewDog were on our Bucket List, we did not get the chance to visit them (yet).
And yes, we were guilty of believing the social media driven mirages they created about their workplaces. In the past we shared some of the inspirational stuff coming from their channels, or their books, but we didn’t report extensively on them yet.
These recent, rather painful disclosures from (former) employees moved us to remove both companies and their founders from our Bucket List.
In our book we wrote about that list: "We jotted down the names of those who inspired us. Naturally, Ricardo Semler was at the top of our list. But Richard Branson, Spotify, Simon Sinek, Google, and Dan Pink quickly followed.
Our Bucket List became more refined with time, a list of progressive organisations, entrepreneurs, academics and writers who have something to teach the world about radically different ways of working.
We wanted to see and speak to all of them and share everything that we learned on a blog."
As we wrote, the main reason we visit all these workplace pioneers in real life is to learn from them first hand and then share our learning with anyone willing to read about them.
Another reason to visit the pioneers in their natural habitat is to speak directly with a range of current and former employees. In doing so, we are able to see before we believe.
It also prevents us from blindly copy-pasting inspirational stories that might have been written about these pioneers earlier (sometimes decades ago) but which, now, turn out to be myths or urban legends.
So, what should we learn from these exposed mirages?
We should be aware that advertising workplaces as progressive will become a marketing tool to recruit talent to mediocre organizations.
Advertising workplaces as progressive will become a marketing tool to recruit talent to mediocre organizations. We must check if companies making these claims actually walk the talk. We must separate real from fake.
This makes it even more important to check if companies making these claims actually walk the talk. We must separate real from fake.
And with social media dominating society, this is now more important than ever.
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I don't think anyone should be "satisfied" per se, but rather a feeling of disappointment to those of us that aspire to create organizations like the ones described in the books, blog posts or articles. Additionally, a sense of sadness and empathy for those employees that joined under false pretences or subscribed to a culture of openness and transparency, which turned out to be unfounded or misguided. Maybe we should be looking for the lessons in these stories, rather than just striking them off our "lists", and maybe reflect on what it means to be a progressive organization and if we truly want to build an organisation like the one that Watts, Fried, and many others promote we too should maybe consider that very few of us never falter nor make mistakes. Fortunately for most of us, they are not showcased on such a public stage, however, if we the readers and promoters of progressive thinking and organizations lack the capacity to forgive then I'm not sure we're much better or progressed our understanding of what a human-centric organization is, further.
Rather than deleting them, perhaps these revelations should move both companies higher up your list. Finding out what went wrong, where the disconnects between ambition and reality happened, why the message changed or didn't get through, would be really useful in helping others avoid similar fates. It also seems rather regressive to just delete them when it would be more useful to see if and how they can course-correct and find their ways back.
I do feel we have to be focussed on the do what we say- this means understanding the intent - if basecamp intent was to create safe working place and inclusivity for all by not creating a voice for potential discriminatory actions or not . We can assume yet being human centric is we are all fallible and therefore we have to be able to accept, acknowledge and accept that things will be done wrong. If basecamp is one error of failing to effectively communicate then being able to challenge and query (I haven’t seen Frieda follow up) - brewdog has a longer term issue and it’s not a one time error. Balance and fairness, challenge and query, intent versus impact, influence vs perspective. It’s an interesting discussion and one that we can and should be discussing
I think that there is more to learn from failure than from success stories. Don’t just delete them. Analyse them to draw conclusions and find the lessons we have to learn. Maybe it’s time for a second list.
In the case of the two companies it may be that their leaders did not really adhere to their values. In the case of these companies this is much more destructive, because the values are the foundation for the whole company.
I was going to post my first comment on this site to suggest that you actually keep them on your list, and I was very happy to see that my fellow rebels also agree. They need you now more than ever - not the CEO, but the employees.
Moreover, this can be a truly eye-opening lesson for all of us. How did we let this happen under our eyes?
Are disruptive ways of working potentially harmful for the workforce?
Or is there a problem with the way we assess these companies?
Could we have known without the open letter? How?
Everyone was fooled.
IMO removing Basecamp (don‘t know enough about Brewdog to have an opinion on them) is a too drastic move. The world is not that black and white. Basecamp has done great things that lots of orgs can learn from. And these things still hold up. And why would a discussion about which topics should be discussed on company platforms or not make you dismiss a company from your list? Just because 1/3 of employees had a different opinion? 2/3 (which is still the majority) staid on…
I have enjoyed reading your blogs and showcasing stories of different companies &cultures. It's a means of showing there are many ways to run successful companies and I applaud that.
I also appreciate this blog update on how two of the bucket list, and there could be more coming, have burned out recently. Companies need to know and be held to account not only from their shareholders or external observers but from their people. We all need to do our due dilligence to ensure what's being sold is what's being delivered. One or two poor opinions of company culture can be put down to poor fit, bad luck or another reason.....many voices cannot be ignored.
We should all be slightly sceptical or positively curious to know whether the external brand or company sales pitch is the experience by people across the business across the people lifecycle rather than the views of perception of the senior execs or founders. What they set out to achieve and what is experienced as the business moves beyond start up and into maturity can often be different. That's to be expected. Businesses and their cultures are not static. Keep showcasing, visiting and sharing. Thank you.
I hypothesize that the companies of Basecamp and BrewDog are but the limited public face of multitudes of companies who set values and then do not live up to them to (over used word alert) toxic results.
With that in mind, what can we learn from these two public examples?
- are there warnings / red flags that are indicators that they were off our path? what were they? when did they show up? why did they get ignored?
- what steps were strengthener steps towards values?
- what steps were underminer steps away from values?
While I agree that they are off The Bucket List, perhaps they and many others deserve a list of their own - The Works-In-Progress list. The hard lessons they are learning right now just might help other and future companies get on The Bucket List and stay.
How are work outcomes affected by the treatment of those who do it? I have been exploring this question for ~50 years. In that time, one comment stuck with me more than any other. It was made in 1998 when I interviewed a group of men in Indianapolis who had redesigned most of the US city’s waste collection and disposal operations. “We are no longer expected to park our brains at the door when we come to work.”
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