Want to Future-Proof Your Company? Try Dogfooding Your Work Practices

In 1980, Michael Scott, the then-CEO of Apple, circulated an eight-sentence memo to his staff:  

EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY!! NO MORE TYPEWRITERS ARE TO BE PURCHASED, LEASED, etc., etc. Apple is an innovative company. We must believe and lead in all areas. If word processing is so neat, then let’s all use it!  Goal: by [Jan 1, 1981], NO typewriters at Apple… We believe the typewriter is obsolete. Let’s prove it inside before we try and convince our customers.

Scott’s memo was a rallying call for his employees to eat their own “dogfood”–to fully adopt the products they were developing internally before selling them to customers. Today, dogfooding is standard practice at Google, Microsoft, Oracle, and many other tech juggernauts. 

But dogfooding shouldn’t just be applied to product development. Companies can also benefit from dogfooding their work practices–like how they conduct meetings, how they design performance reviews, and even how they structure the 9-to-5 workday. 

Unfortunately, companies don’t rigorously test the habits, activities, and practices that employees perform day in and day out. Instead, they cling to these practices like safety blankets–even as they collect cobwebs and lose effectiveness over time. 

At Asana Labs, where I work, we dogfood different work practices and understand how they should be updated for the future of work. We’ve dogfooded different ways to conduct meetings, reprioritize goals, and even how to have “fun” at work. Our approach is one that you, too, can implement.

Here are three ingredients for success:  

1. Start small. 

Dogfooding doesn’t require wholesale changes to the way work happens. Conducting small pilots before scaling your learnings more broadly can be highly effective. 

This was our approach for “Meeting Doomsday,” an experiment that I led with my collaborator, Josh Zerkel. The goal of Meeting Doomsday was to rethink meetings and dogfood new approaches for making them more valuable.   

As part of Meeting Doomsday, participants were asked to do a complete calendar cleanse by deleting their recurring meetings from their calendars for 48 hours. After 48 hours, participants were invited to repopulate their calendar–but only with meetings that were worth their precious time. As participants added meetings back to their calendars, they redesigned them to be more productive–such as by changing 60-minute meetings into 45-minute meetings and weekly meetings into monthly meetings. 

By conducting a Doomsday with one team, we proved that taking a rather radical approach to solving meeting bloat worked on a small scale. On average, each pilot participant saved 11 hours per month just by reducing meetings that had become less valuable over time. After we demonstrated success on a small scale, we then set our sights on scaling the approach to hundreds of people. 

2. Iterate and learn. 

An advantage of starting small is that you can rapidly iterate as you scale. When dogfooding your work practices, you should follow a similar approach to dogfooding software. The objective should be to discover–and then squash–bugs and suboptimal user experiences. 

The Meeting Doomsday pilot taught us that people wanted more prescriptive guidance on how to assess the value of their meetings. So, we iterated our approach based on this and worked with Stanford professor and management guru, Bob Sutton, to implement a new rating scheme for assessing the value of meetings. This new way of assessing meeting value–which involved participants rating meetings according to both impact and effort–enabled us to more systematically assess what contributed to high-value versus low-value meetings. 

By iterating and learning from our analysis of over 1,100 meeting instances, we were able to deeply understand what makes meetings worth people’s time and what makes them timesinks.

3. Co-create with your employees. 

There’s no shortage of work practices that can–and should–be made more effective through dogfooding. But it can be daunting to decide what to tackle first. 

One of the most effective ways to design your dogfooding strategy is to co-create it with your employees. Employees have the contextual knowledge to understand what work practices are broken and might be prime candidates for dogfooding. We have a portal for anyone in the company to submit “pitches” for which work practices should be rethought, rebuilt, and redesigned. 

As you dogfood your work practices through experimentation or other channels, you should involve your employees as active partners. Don’t redesign work practices for your employees–redesign work practices with your employees. 

Dogfood for the future. 

Today’s leaders are wading into unfamiliar territory as they attempt to future-proof their companies for new dynamic ways of work. There’s no blueprint for success. That’s why dogfooding your work practices is critically important. This is your moment to become Customer 0 of the work practices that will define the next era of work. 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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