Question 242 of 365: How do we build things that we want to own?

New Belgium Brewing '08
Image by JOE MARINARO via Flickr

The New Belgium Brewing Company has only been around for 19 years.

Every employee owns part of the company after the first year of work. You get a bicycle too.

After 5 years, they send you to Belgium and relive the founder’s inspiring trek through Europe.

After 10 years, the company plants a tree in your honor on the grounds of the brewery.

After 15 years, you get a 6 week sabbatical to become energized anew.

They haven’t decided what to do at year 20, but I have a feeling it won’t be getting a golden watch.

In short, these folks are building something that each and every person that works there wants to own. They have created a culture around it and have continued to refine it as they reach each new milestone. It helps that they are making beer, the process does seem more lubricated. And yet, they have decided to not build something that people want to work for. They are building something to own. There is an enormous difference, and that is where we all could take a lesson.

School districts build culture in the hopes that others will want to take part and continue to grow upon the foundation. There is no hope to own the district, only to give your service before moving on to something else. Unions are necessary because a district never lets you in close enough to be a real stakeholder. Instead, we pay dues to try and approximate what it is like to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

Businesses build products and they make profits for those that had the original idea. They are not concerned with getting everyone’s buy in because each employee is expendable and fickle. They build redundancy rather than ownership so that if anyone leaves it isn’t a devastating blow on the whole organization. There are no mile markers at most corporations, except to give more vacation days or do yearly reviews with more compensation.

Perhaps the comparisons aren’t all that fair. Most businesses and school districts are entirely too large to start giving out large chunks to everyone that sticks around for more than a year. New Belgium set off in the beginning to do this. Oracle did not. Oracle, it is said, is more strategic than that. They buy up companies rather than build organically. Isn’t it that they don’t need ownership from their employees to survive? That excuse is uncompelling for one reason: Culture eats strategy any day of the week.

We build things that last through culture and not acquisition. Culture can’t be ignored, replaced or deleted without the consent of everyone who makes up that culture. It doesn’t work to try and build things without a consistent culture. They fall apart, having terribly high turnover rates that have a quicksand effect to any well-meaning initiative or ambitious project. And you can’t build on quicksand. No one wants to own that.

Upon visiting the brewery for the first time, I found myself less in awe of the nearly 99% of waste that is recycled and over 50% of renewable energy that is used in the factory. I was more amazed by the fact that everyone in the company wanted to be there. They want to own a better company, so they keep on making it better. The tour guide had 10 years of brewing experience, and he started in the tasting room 3 months prior after applying four different times. This is a dedication that no company sees without a culture of ownership. No one waits months to be hired into an entry level position without the hope of authentic experience (like being able to talk about beer with fellow beer lovers every day) and the promise of owning the company that you are helping to construct every day.

The real question here is how do we make students into real shareholders instead of just people who are passing through? How do we make employees work toward ownership and culture creation?

What if there were actual milestones in high school rather than just moving from one grade to another or going to a dance? What if you were actually rewarded for doing well with a 6 week sabbatical to investigate a passion of yours? Students could earn their laptops or work toward an ownership of a social network. They could become more responsible in a tangible way for the transcript that will one day represent them. There is no limit to intrinsic rewards, but they are helped immeasurably by a culture that promotes them. So, let’s make it so the milestones students see are not the ends of the quarter but real accomplishments.

What if we let employees self-organize? What if they could choose team members and tasks? They should design their own development path and work toward owning each project they are working on, literally. If each employee felt as though they had co-ownership of the work they were doing (meaning, it could be taken and posted on a blog or showcased outside of the organization in some way), they would internalize their portfolio much better than keeping it a secret. There is no hope for organizations that don’t harness the raw power of their employees to create knowledge and productivity. We shouldn’t be afraid of what happens when employes own their creations. We should embrace their capacity to create.

Whether beer brewing is the perfect model for education and business is besides the point. 19 years on, New Belgium is a case study in what is right with community crafted value. It is one that is worth paying attention to it, and I for one am looking forward to what their 20th anniversary is going to look like for all of their employees and for the rest of the world.

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