Recently, I discussed with some HP colleagues about the old “HP Way”. This happens a lot, actually. I’d say that this is a topic of discussion during lunch at HP maybe once a week, in one form or another.
Employees who were at Hewlett-Packard before the merger with Compaq, more specifically before Carly Fiorina decided to overhaul the corporate culture, will often comment about the “good old days”. Employees from companies that HP acquired later, most notably Compaq or DEC, are obviously much less passionate about the HP Way, but they generally show some interest if only because of the role it used to play in making HP employees so passionate about their company.
Oh, look, the HP Way is gone!
One thing I had noticed was that the “HP Way” was nowhere to be found on any HP web site that I know of. It is not on the corporate HP History web site, nor does a search for “HP Way” on that site get any meaningful result. It’s possible that there is a better search string that would get the result, it may even be somewhere I did not look, but my point is that it’s not very easy to find. (Update: Since one reader got confused, I want to make clear that I’m looking for the text of the HP Way, the description of the values that used to be given to employees, which I quote below. I am not looking for the words “HP Way”, which are present at a number of places.)
Contrast this with the About HP corporate page in 1996, and what do you see here as the last link? Sure thing: the HP way is prominently displayed as an essential component of the HP culture. Every HP employee was “brainwashed” with the HP Way from his or her first day in the company. No wonder that years later, they still ask where it’s gone. Back then, the HP way even had its own dedicated web page.
Did someone rewrite HP corporate history?
So the fact that there is no reference to it anywhere on today’s corporate web site seems odd. It almost looks like history has been rewritten. It get the same feeling when I enter the HP building in Sophia-Antipolis. Why? Because there are two portraits in the lobby: Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. That building was initially purchased and built by Digital Equipment Corporation. If any picture should be there, it should show Ken Olsen, not Hewlett or Packard, nor Rod Canion for that matter.
I would personally hate to have built a company that left the kind of imprint in computer history DEC left, only to see it vanish from corporate memory almost overnight… Erasing the pictures of the past sounds much more like Vae Victis or the work of George Orwell’s Minitrue than the kind of fair and balanced rendition of corporate history you would naively expect from a well-meaning corporate communication department.
Google can’t find the HP Way either…
But the truth is, I don’t think there is any evil intended here. One reason is that Google sometimes has troube finding the HP Way too. Actually, your mileage may vary. I once got a link on the HP alumni as the second result. But usually, you are much more likely to find Lunch, the HP way, an extremely funny story for those who were at HP in those days (because it is sooo true).
As the saying goes, “never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by studidity“. As an aside, this is sometimes attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, but I can’t find any French source that would confirm it. I think that the closest confirmed equivalent from Bonaparte would be “N’interrompez jamais un ennemi qui est en train de faire une erreur” (never interrupt an enemy while he’s making a mistake), but that is not even close.
Back on topic, I’m tempted to think that it’s simply a case where the HP Way was no longer considered relevant, and nobody bothered to keep a tab on it in the HP corporate web site. As a result, when looking for “HP Way” on the web today, it’s become much easier to find highly critical accounts of HP than a description of what the HP Way really represented. Obviously, that can’t be too good for HP’s image…
Where can we find the HP Way today?
To finally find a reference to the HP way as I remembered it being described to HP employees, I had to search Google for a comparison with Carly Fiorina’s “Rules of the garage”. And I finally found a tribute to Bill Hewlett that quotes both texts exactly as I remembered them.
As the link to the historical HP way page on the HP web site shows, another option is to use the excellent Wayback Machine to look at the web they way it used to be at some point in the past. But that’s something you will do only if you remember that there once was something to be searched for. Again, the point here is not that you cannot find it, it’s that finding the original HP Way has become so much more difficult…
The original HP Way: It’s all about employees
The original HP Way was not so much about a company as it was about its employees:
The HP Way
We have trust and respect for individuals.
We focus on a high level of achievement and contribution.
We conduct our business with uncompromising integrity.
We achieve our common objectives through teamwork.
We encourage flexibility and innovation.
There are only five points and very few words. It’s a highly condensed way to express the corporate policy, which trusts the employees to understand not just the rules, but most importantly their intent and spirit. There is no redundancy, each point is about a different topic. These rules have been written by engineers for engineers. It’s almost a computer program…
The rules of the garage: What was that all about?
By contrast, the so-called “Rules of the Garage” introduced by Carly Fiorina, look really weak:
Rules of the Garage
Believe you can change the world.
Work quickly, keep the tools unlocked, work whenever.
Know when to work alone and when to work together.
Share – tools, ideas.
Trust your colleagues.
No politics. No bureaucracy. (These are ridiculous in a garage.)
The customer defines a job well done.
Radical ideas are not bad ideas.
Invent different ways of working.
Make a contribution every day.
If it doesn’t contribute, it doesn’t leave the garage.
Believe that together we can do anything.
To me, it sounds much more like the kind of routine you’d give to little kids in kindergarden… It’s not precise, highly redundant. More importantly, the relationship between the company and the employee is no longer bi-directional as it was in the HP Way. Notice how “we” changed into “you” except in the last one. If I were cynical, I’d say that this new set of rules is: “you do this, and we’ll get the reward”… Isn’t that exactly what happened in the years that followed?
The Rules of the Garage did not last long. They quietly went the way of the dodo, but I don’t think it was ever intended for them to last decades as the HP Way had. Instead, I believe that the problem was to evict the HP Way without giving the impression that nothing replaced it. But in reality, nothing replaced the HP Way: the Rules of the Garage were essentially empty, and after the Rules of the Garage, there was nothing…
How is that relevant today?
Despite its long absence on the HP Corporate web site, the HP Way is still seen as the reference for a successful corporate culture nowadays. It’s widely recognized that HP and the HP culture ignited the Silicon Valley. There is a good reason for that: highly creative people are what makes this economy thrive. See Phil McKinney’s ideas on the creative economy to see just how relevant this remains today. But guess what: creativity is motivated by the confident belief that there will be a reward.
The HP Way was about the various aspects of that reward: respect, achievement, integrity, teamwork, innovation. I can’t think of much beyond that in terms of recognition. I can’t think of better reasons to work hard. Now, I don’t care much about calling it the HP Way, but I do care about these values being at the core of what my company does. This is not by accident if the top technology companies in the world, including a large fraction of the Silicon Valley, have applied the HP Way in one form or another. It’s not charity, it’s simply the most efficient way to do business when the majority of your employees are highly creative individuals.
With all the respect that I have for HP’s current management, as far as corporate culture is concerned, they could still learn a thing of two from such history-certified business geniuses as Hewlett and Packard. About eight years after having been actively erased from corporate communication, the HP Way is still very much being talked about; it is still regarded as a reference. Maybe that’s a sign that there is something timeless about it…
Update: HP Way 2.0?
Today, Google “HP Way” and HP’s corporate values show as the second entry. No keyword stuffing here (I checked), but Google apparently decided that the page was relevant to the topic somehow. It’s a good thing: the keywords in HP’s corporate objectives are much closer to the old HP Way than to the Rules of the Garage. The five original keywords, respect, achievement, integrity, teamwork, innovation, are all there. New keywords have been added, including agility or passion. But the style is the same, very terse, very dense. The HP web site labels this as “our shared values”, but it wouldn’t be unfair to call it “HP Way 2.0”.
The next step is to make employees (and from there, outside observers) really believe that these values are back. People outside HP may not realize just how hard it was to turn HP around. Reorganizations were frequent. A number of good people, colleagues and friends, lost their jobs. This left scars. Many employees don’t feel valued or safe anymore. Many will no longer believe that “trust or respect for individuals” applies to them. This can be fixed, and for the long term of HP, this has to be fixed. Not because HP should be a charity, but precisely because the HP Way is what made HP such a successful business.
Il est dans le caractère français d’exagérer,
de se plaindre et de tout défigurer
dès qu’on est mécontent.