Think. Write. Code.

Up or Out: How I've Managed to Embrace the Elephant

April 23, 2017 • ☕️ 5 min read

We at Pixelgrade have been going through some sort of an epiphany since we’ve embarked on the process to clarify who we are, why and what we are doing, what are our expectations from each other. In fancier terms, we’ve defined our core values, mission, principles, long term strategy, and last but not least, a big ass BHAG.

Early on in this process I’ve been confronted with a soul shaking paradigm when it came to people: “Guys, in the end it’s Up or Out!” Say what ?!?! Just like that? You are talking about people here, about my teammates, about my second family. My first (inner) reaction was one of rejection as this elephant-idea laid siege at some of my deepest convictions.

After all, these were the beliefs that saw us through the previous 4 and a half years. Have I been so wrong? To give you a little bit of context, me and my brother have started Pixelgrade with no prior business training or experience. We were two passionate, decent guys that wanted to build something meaningful. Common sense was the guiding principle:

  • we will care for and treat each team member fairly, just like we would like to be treated and cared for — we would be one happy family;
  • we will trust them and give them the freedom to pursue their passions;
  • we will work together towards the same goals;
  • we will all share the ups and downs;
  • we will not be bogged down with bureaucracy and corporate nonsense;
  • we will not pursue growth for the sake of it — we will keep the team as small as possible so each could have a meaningful impact on the path ahead;
  • passion and grit will prevail in the end — we will find people that share our drive and willingness to do things, beautiful things.

This was, and to a great extent still is, the “manifesto” that helped us stay on track. We never thought about writing it down as we knew people will hear it from us and see us living it day in and day out. That would be more than enough. In the end, it was just common sense right? How hard can it be to live by it?

As it turns out, quite hard. And it was equally hard to understand why. Those pesky three little words have been nagging me for the past nine months and each time I sat down to write this story something didn’t make sense, some fundamental insight was eluding me. How could I reconcile “Up or Out” with my deep belief that people are inherently good, that given the right context each can reach new, unexpected heights?

After thinking and reading plenty (maybe too much?) about management, culture, organizational logic, motivation, work environment, I feel quite confident that I’ve managed to make sense of this paradigm. It all comes down to applying personal life concepts to a professional environment without any adaptation.

The hardest blockage to overcome was us being a family. We are not, at least not in the classical term. This mindset does more harm than good as it slowly, but surely, allows us to get soft, to lose our hunger for improving ourselves. We definitely want people to feel a sense of belonging, that they are surrounded by others who truly care about them, who will forgive their mistakes.

But unlike a real family who is forever bound by blood, a team is bound by something much weaker and delicate: values and expectations. As a consequence, one must live by those values and meet those expectations if he is to be part of the “family”. Unlike blood, as we grow older we can shift our values, we can refocus onto new directions — and that is OK! What is not OK is to expect the team to accept that you’ve changed in incompatible ways and keep you on board.

The second hurdle to overcome was the obvious one: why in the world one must go up, constantly? In the beginning, “Up or Out” got me thinking of greed, workaholism, hamster wheels, corporate ladders, perpetual insatisfaction, growth for the sake of it, and ultimately lack of happiness. I would have none of that. What I needed to come to grips was that we are not a family, but a team — and a team is a different kind of beast.

A team is a complex, living, breathing organism with an intricate web of connections amongst its members — and to top it all up, on multiple layers. As part of a team, we are constantly assessing ourselves in relation to the others, we give and receive feedback (verbally and non-verbally), we have expectations towards the others (even if we don’t communicate them), we get encouraged or discouraged by our peers and their evolution.

On top of all this human interaction comes the mother of all commodities: time. It’s in limited supply, has no shelf life, and we need to spend it for everything we chose to do. Just about anything can be reduced to its human-time value: from love to the pencil you scribble your thoughts with.

In the context of a team, time is an overarching presence: we use it to assess work, make decisions about strategy or pricing, to set priorities and focus our efforts. But more importantly, on a personal level, we rely on time to attribute authority to our peers, to gauge their efficiency, passion, commitment and dedication. We can’t help it as time is too important to each one of us and it all comes down to merit.

So, what do we expect our peers to do with the passage of time? Sure as hell we don’t expect them to waste it and stand idle. No, we expect them to improve: expand and build upon their skills, take on new responsibilities, be more experienced and share that experience for the benefit of those that lack it, have a deeper understanding of things and share their insights with those that have a hard time making sense of it all. We naturally expect them to go up! One may have lower expectations from itself, but when it comes to others we are far less lenient. It’s just the reality of human nature.

So you see, I had to reconcile my common sense with the realities of life: it is crucial for the good health of the team that everyone goes Up! Anything else is a recipe for a two class system: on the one hand the achievers, the thinkers, the rock stars if you like, and on the other hand the workers, the ones that endlessly do just about the same thing. I will have none of that! It’s just wrong from every conceivable angle, especially in an environment as vibrant as the web. Each one’s life is too precious and short for that.

I will leave it at that, but I am keen on hearing others’ thoughts and feelings about this. I am only human after all.

This story was published first on Medium.com. I believe it needs to take it’s place here, as a witness of times gone by.