The DO Lectures and Tim Smit’s nine principles of management

I had a great few days last week in cold, rainy west Wales, speaking at the DO Lectures about Acumen Fund, generosity, and how we need to reinvent fundraising (talk to be posted soon).

The DO Lectures are described by founder David Heiatt as “a cross between TED, Burning Man and Where the Wild Things Are.”  30 speakers over the course of four days giving lectures in a small, unassuming tent (hay bales and all) and just 80 total attendees creates an incredible egalitarian spirit and a shared sense of community.  You don’t just have the chance to ask one of the great speakers a question; you’ll probably have dinner together at a communal table, then make your way over to the pub for a few beers, and finally listen to some Welsh poetry together over an open fire pit.

(if it was this year, you’d also spend a good deal of your time talking about how incredibly cold, wet and muddy it was…but I’m told that was an exception.)

I’m still processing most of the great, eclectic talks, but the one unifying theme I took away was “the time is now to do things in radically different ways if you want radically different outcomes.”  From Joel Bukiewicz talking about how he created Cut Brooklyn, the only handmade knife store in Brooklyn, to Michael Acton Smith, who’s on the cover of Wired this month thanks to the incredible success of moshi monsters, there was a lot to take in served up in gobbing heaps of inspiration.

Probably the most energetic and fun talk was by Tim Smit, the founder and creator of the Eden Project in Cornwall.  The biodome project, which cost £141m to build, has attracted more than 13 million visitors and generated more than £1.1bn in revenues for the local economy – all on a rehabilitated manufacturing site.

The Eden Project

One would imagine that a project of this size and scope would require a massively buttoned-up approach to doing just about everything (the financing, team structure, ways of doing business, you name it).  With that in mind, imagine my surprise upon jotting down Tim’s Nine Principles of Management for the 700 staff at the Eden Project:

  1. You cannot start your workday before saying “hello” to 20 other people
  2. Intentionally read books (I can’t remember how many) that will spark new ideas that you normally would not read
  3. ..and plays
  4. …and movies
  5. …and concerts (for rules 2-5 I lost track of how many…the point was intentionally seeking out new ideas and inspiration)
  6. Once a year, stand up and “explain why you love to work for Eden” (said tongue-in-cheek, and explained as “if you have to do this, I believe that you’ll deal with all the reasons you don’t love Eden before giving your talk”)
  7. Eden’s top 80 team members must all do something unspeakably nice (a “guerilla act of generosity”) for other people at Eden at least once a year
  8. At least once a year, each employee must prepare a meal for the 40 people who make it better for him/her to come to work (apparently modified slightly in recent years given a distribution of cooking capabilities)
  9. All 700 employees of Eden must learn to play Samba drums together.  Seriously.  And they perform.   (70 drum captains, teams of 10)

The Samba drumming was what really got me – Tim said that it was not only unspeakably fun to have a team of Brits shaking their hips to samba, but it was impossible not to have a sense of optimism and hope (and, I bet, joy) result from this crazy undertaking.

Who knows what these feel like in practice – they’re pretty nuts to be sure.  I mostly love them, and must admit that doing things differently feels comfortable to me at a startup or at Google, but I’d never seriously considered that an undertaking of this size and success could go about their business in such a different way.

The words I was left with upon hearing Tim were “trust” and “discovery” and “respect” and “pride” (also his fundraising approach is apparently is to shake people by the lapels and ask them “do you want to be the guy who turned down the Beatles?!” along with other references to their tombstones).

My big takeaway is that we really can do things differently – not a little differently, not just at the beginning, and not only at a small scale – but we don’t because we’re dogged by the notion that there’s a “right” way, a buttoned-up, grown up way to do business.  The huge problem is that this “right” way has done a great job at creating mostly disengaged employees who check out the moment they show up to work.

Why have we so quickly and easily abandoned the notion that work can be joyful?