Bookcase Semler’s Strange Sequel

The Seven-Day Weekend
By: Ricardo Semler
Publisher: Century
Price: $59.95

He’s an odd bird, Ricardo Semler. There he is on the cover of his latest book, The Seven-Day Weekend, surrounded by gaggle of bemused ducks which look more like geese to me. But like his first book, Maverick, this latest glimpse inside the Brazilian’s managerial menagerie will probably sell very well.

Semler advocates form of corporate anarchy – posing options like “choose your boss”, “decide your own salary”, “spend your working day in hammock” and of course, “a seven-day weekend” attitude toward life. As he explains it, “the traditional weekend ended long ago. This book faces that fact and uses it (the metaphor) to explore making work more fun, to finding balance between it and private passions.”

Brazil-based Semler seemingly has turned his 50-year-old, inherited family business into $160-million year manufacturing, professional services and high-tech software business that employs 3000 people in three countries. His company, Semco, is “sociological and anthropological experiment” that also “makes an excellent business case”.

In defence of his unconventional approach to stimulating his employees he says simply: “We’ve spent 25 years questioning the way we do things. When we started, everyone said we wouldn’t last.” It seems he and his company have lasted and the business still has no “official structure” and no organisation chart. There is no business plan or company strategy, no goal or mission statement and no long-term budget. “The company often does not have fixed CEO,” he proclaims proudly.

With no standards and proscribed practices, no human resources department, no career plans and job description or employee contracts, no report or expense account approvals, supervision or monitoring, how does anyone measure either their personal or the organisational success of Semco?

Well, success is not measured only in profit and growth terms. Semco, says the author, “succeeds in practice” and the book is his attempt to explain the theory behind it.

The theory is embraced by the phrase “on-the-job democracy”. The author’s particular form of democracy has unquestionably created one of the world’s most unusual workplaces. The basic tenets “fly in the face of even the most progressive business owner or manager”. I wasn’t so sure about that. The description of his business sounded strangely like some pretty old-fashioned business owners I know who muddle along much like Semler and his team, but without the deliberate intention to do so.

The author claims to have “given up control” so workers can follow their interests and “their instincts” when choosing jobs or projects. He insists that workers “seek personal challenges and satisfaction” before trying to meet the company’s goals. And then, disconcertingly for the process-driven manager, he confesses that Semco encourages “employees to ramble through their day or week so they will meander into new ideas and new business opportunities”.

If the company has “cardinal strategy” which forms the bedrock for all its seemingly radical practices, it is this: “Ask why. Ask it all the time, and always ask it three times in row. This doesn’t come naturally. People are conditioned to recoil from questioning too much. First, it’s rude and dangerous. Second, it may imply we’re ignorant or uninformed. Third, it means everything we think we know may not be correct or true. Fourth, management is usually frightened by the prospect of employees who question continually. But mostly, it means putting aside all the role or pat answers that have resulted from what I call crystallised thinking, that state of mind where ideas have so hardened into inflexible and unquestioned concepts that they’re no longer of any use.”

Semler says his company is “rambling into” its future by ending “boarding school” mentality, having the courage to give up control and asking three successive whys and then “going to the movies on Monday afternoons (after feeding the ducks)”.

The seven-day weekend is the metaphor and reminder that change is constant and that we shouldn’t be afraid of it. The seven-day weekend is also “an opportunity, not threat”.

“The world desperately needs an ‘Age of Wisdom’, and workplaces would be an inspiring place to start,” writes Semler. His company has little to teach and even less to ‘sell’ in packaged form. “We’re just living experiment in eliminating boredom, routine, and exasperating regulations.”

And that, I think, is good reason to spend weekend with Semler’s new book.

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