Friday, November 13, 2009

A Lesson From Mad Men

I used to work for a company who had the slogan THINK plastered all over the walls. I have a box full of trinkets and mementos in the basement adorned with that word in all capital letters – reminders of a time when thinking at work was encouraged.

Some of you know that I recently discovered the AMC TV series Mad Men. It may even be fair to say that I am addicted to the show. (The third season of the show just ended and I seriously wish there were more than two back seasons to catch up on.)

Now there’s a lot not to like about the work environment portrayed in the show. (In case you’ve been under a rock like I was, it’s about the advertising industry set in the early sixties on Madison Avenue – hence the title.) There is constant chain-smoking and a lot of drinking in the office. The men are mostly philanderers and believe they have a right to be. The women are clearly oppressed – those in the office are mostly secretaries but their goal is to get married and live a very boring life in the suburbs where they can dote on their husbands when they get home from work. (Yikes! Clearly I would not have fit in.)

Unlike The Office, the hilarious NBC sit-com where absolutely no work gets done, on Mad Men there is real work going on. The show even draws you into the drama of the work.

More importantly, there’s a lesson we can learn from Mad Men.

What I admire most about their work environment is that they have time to think. They work hard, they have deadlines, they have clients to please, and yet they still take time to think. And they collaborate. They get together and brainstorm. They re-work ideas until they get it just right. When a client meeting is coming up they plan who is going to say what and exactly how to reel the client in. No haphazard meetings here. They think, they decide, they plan, and they pitch.

I wonder if the people working in Corporate America in the 60’s knew what a luxury they had?

From where I sit it doesn’t look like there’s been a lot of thinking going on in Corporate America recently. Surely Bob Moffat and others weren’t thinking much at all when they shared company secrets. But even on a smaller scale – how much time do you have to really think about the work you do?

When your boss asks you to send a revision two minutes before a meeting, it’s usually just not an option to say, “I’d really like at least ten minutes to think about it before I send it to you.”

When was the last time you really felt like you could finish a project before you turned it in? When was the last time you got to think for yourself – instead of being told what the answer was? When was the last time you felt really confident about the quality of your work?

When was the last time you had the luxury to think about your work?

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

I still work for the company that proclaimed "THINK" (32+ years). In the world of virtual teams and faceless (except via the company electronic phonebook) colleagues, not many take the time to think or even talk with people except via conference calls (overtaken by dogs barking and airport announcements) or via instant messaging while multi-tasking during the same awful conference calls. The technology that has taken over the lives of kids has taken over the corporate conversation. What the characters in Mad Men have going for them is at least talking to their co-workers face-to-face...

Anonymous said...

THINK = OBEY.....now

Anonymous said...

Well pining for the 'good old days' is a luxury we all indulge in as we grow older. But in truth IBM has lost its touch in motivating its employees and in making the workplace something interesting and challenging. IBM UK has just recorded the lowest employee satisfaction survey anywhere in IBM since records began. As the previous poster said THINK = TOE THE PARTY LINE no matter how stupid and alienating it is..

Colette said...

You all raise some really good points, and I agree. Our corporate leaders "pull rank" far more often than they motivate.

Cindy said...

I really liked this blog. I, too, am a former IBMer, as is my husband. I think the company used to be a much better place in which to think and then be crestive and deliver. Thanks for this post that got me thinking.

Colette said...

Cindy, thanks for reading! Welcome to the blog!

Anonymous said...

Years ago, when working for IBM, I knew a couple of guys in the Design Change Group (DCG) (Architecture). Their job description said they should spend 10% of their workweek (4 hours) every week (most intended to do it Friday afternoons) reading, studying, thinking.

One of these guys was written up in his performance appraised as being 200 hours behind at the end of the year. Needless to say, all the requirements, travel, projects, deliverables were not considered when giving him that "dinger."

Colette said...

Anonymous -- you made me laugh -- ironic, isn't it? I guess he was supposed to find that four hours of think time on his personal time. And if you think about it (pun intended) shouldn't we all be thinking for at least four hours a week?

Anonymous said...

The culture of IBM has become one of clueless, arrogant and ruthless executive tyrants issuing ridiculous mandate after mandate. We aren't allowed to think, or innovate or suggest alternatives. The communications are top down only. Do as you are told.

IBM execs don't give a rat's butt about employees or customers - all they are concerned about is short term stock price and cashing in.

I'm convinced that IBM will die a very painful death, not because of us in the trenches trying to serve our customers, but because of abysmal executive leadership and arrogance.

Colette said...

I do agree that the culture has shifted dramatically, but I'm still an optimist. And I'm happy with the stock price -- at least this week!

Anittah Patrick said...

The only person responsible for not taking time to think at the office is _the person not taking time to think at the office_. Do not let "corporate leaders" or "culture" be an excuse.

bobbiea said...

so I have a big THINK plaque also. My "think Fridays" were always being used to catch up on things I couldn't get done during the rest of the week. I only worked for big blue for 13 years but I have to say when I first started I bought into THINK hook line and sinker. I thought I had finally arrived at working for the best of the best. How times have changed. the last 2 years I worked for people who did not want me to THINK and if I managed to THINK they didn't listen to my ideas. I went from being the greatest thing since white sliced bread to being just another replaceable employee.

Funny thing Colette. I never expected to be in corporate america, and definitely not in computers. I grew up with June Clever and Donna Reed and that's what I wanted to be. A wife, a mother a homemaker and I would be a teacher until I found Mr Right.
When was the last time I really had time to think on the job??? my early days as a programmer when it took all day to get a compile of your program, If you were lucky you had the opportunity to run one test a day. I shared a terminal with 8 other people. There was a lot of drinking after work and work was fun. The faster the technology gets the less time there is for old fashioned water cooler gossip.

Colette said...

Bobbiea, thanks for sharing your story! Sharing a terminal with eight people? wow -- I only had to share with four!