The Year Without Pants: A book review by Bob Morris

Year WithoutThe Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work
Scott Berkun
Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Brand (2013)

A good story, well-told, about an outlier’s year inside the WordPress organization

First of all, this book was written by Scott Berkun who is – in my opinion – among the most original and rigorous business thinkers who explore both the neuroscience and anthropology of business. Unlike his previous works (notably Making Things Happen: Mastering Project Management, Mindfire: Big Ideas for Curious Minds, and The Myths of Innovation, The Year without Pants is a personal memoir of a one-year association (his “year without pants”) with Automattic, the company that runs WordPress. Also, he provides an insider’s perspectives on some of the most significant developments during the emergence of a “new world of work” in which WordPress is centrally involved.

Berkun allows his reader to tag along as be becomes involved with co-workers in the planning and launch of a new project, Team Social. The details are best revealed in the narrative, in context, but I am comfortable sharing a portion of what Berkun reveals about the WordPress culture. According to WordPress co-founder, Matt Mullenberg, there are three important elements: Transparency (“nothing is hidden”), Meritocracy (authority must be earned, never granted), and Longevity (“contributions to WordPress would be eternal”). None of these elements was forced into place. From the beginning (May 27, 2003), they have been core, non-negotiable values.

As Berkun explains, “The culture grew out of a small seed, just as all cultures do. And no singular decision defines a culture. Instead it emerges from back-and-forth between a leader [actually two, Mullenberg and Mike Little] and the contributors, reinforcing some things and pushing others away.” Berkun’s comments about the WordPress culture remind me of comments in 1924 by William L. McKnight, then CEO of 3M: “If you put fences around people, you get sheep. Give people the room they need.”

These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Berkun’s coverage.

o Background on WordPress (28-40)
o The Industrial Age and primates (58-65)
o Bonobo society: dynamics and revelations (74-78)
o Barriers to communication, collaboration, and curation (95-105)
o Beta leadership initiatives (106-111)
o Two mindsets: “bazaar” and “cathedral thinking” (135-137)
o Lessons learned from Matt Mullenberg (140-142)
o The Limits of Email (155-156)
o “Creative Abrasion” (161-164)
o How to give a project clarity (170)
o How WordPress makes money (186-189)
o Scott Berkun’s observations re Automattic (200-202)
o How and why Team Social changed (211-219)
o The Future if Work, Part 3 (230-233)

When concluding his book, Scott Berkun observes, “Because of Automattic’s open source routes and vision for democratizing publishing, meaning was easy to find. Few other organizations have roots like these, but all leaders can choose to make decisions for the long tern. The most profound things about Automattic center on its long-term view of the organization. Every perk, benefit, or experiment ties back to its commitment to build a company for years and perhaps decades into the future. Having deep values is one way to inspire long-term thinking, and any good leader can find others. But long-term commitments require short-term sacrifices. The question is, How willing are we to make the trade?”

To be continued….

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