I’ve been watching the TV series W1A on Netflix. It’s a three-short-season comedy that aired between 2014 and 2017, produced by the BBC. It’s also about the BBC—particularly the middle management, and it’s filmed at BBC headquarters in London. As a result it’s not the most biting satire, and it’s extremely inside baseball, but it also one of the most realistic portrayals of middle management in large organizations that’s ever been filmed.
The show is centered around a middle-aged man named Ian Fletcher, played by Hugh Bonneville, who is the “Director of Values” of the BBC, which is about as bad as it sounds. In addition to a lot of incredibly nebulous non-tasks, he’s in charge of making sure the Royal Charter for the BBC is renewed.
The actors treat BBC middle management the same way they might treat Jane Austen characters, and they each have little verbal tics; one says “Brilliant!” over and over; one says “I’m not being funny or anything”; another says “Exactly.” Basically these are people in such a constrained environment that they can’t say anything and so they say the same things over and over, and sometimes “Brilliant!” means “I hate you.” But you can never say, “I hate you.”
There’s a lot of stuff that just makes me squirm in recognition, such as when the external advertising/PR firm comes up with the idea of “BBC Me,” which is basically YouTube, but BBCish. I feel I’ve been to that meeting 20 or 30 times in my life. In particular, in one episode the new automated speech-to-text subtitling software (“93 percent accurate!”) turns “Dame Maggie Smith” into “Dame Baggy Smith” (among other terrible things), leading to public outrage on Twitter, and they can’t turn it off because it’s so deeply integrated with the existing all-company IT services platform, which is called Syncapatico. Syncapatico is basically a character in the show. It never works, and constantly screws up conference room bookings. This episode alone is probably the best portrayal of large organizational information technology release ever filmed, which, admittedly, we’re not looking at too much competition, unless you count Jurassic Park.
One of the points in the show is that for the most part no one really does anything, and no one wants to take responsibility; when Ian Fletcher takes any responsibility at all it feels like he’s scored the winning goal in the World Cup. Everyone has titles like “Director of Better” and they’re all very territorial. Meanwhile they are deciding the fate of thousands of people who actually do things, like the people making the nightly news program, or directing new TV shows. The central conceit of the show is that these are the people deciding the fate of the BBC’s programming, and some of them have never read a script in their lives. A lot of dreams get ruined as a result.
Meanwhile the Royal Charter, which is a very real thing and 41 pages in PDF, must be renewed, and there’s an enormous amount of busy work and meetings to hold, because it’s only renewed once a decade. You can’t have the BBC without the Royal Charter. It seems ridiculous as an American that you need a Queen to approve of your giant media organization in order for it to keep functioning, but then again we have Rupert Murdoch and Condé Nast.
There’s a lot of different theories of what defines workplace culture so I’ll put out the one that works best for me: The culture and practices of an organization are determined by the timeframes they use to measure their success. An organization like the BBC has people who must renew the charter every ten years and people who must update the website every ten minutes. And what W1A really, actually represents is the point of view that the faster-moving people—the makers, the directors—have of the slower-moving people, i.e. the middle managers.
I think that’s why it’s so valuable to watch, especially if you are a corporate leader or middle manager. (Or just watch the video in that tweet.) When you have different groups operating along different timeframes inside your organization, they are going to be unintelligible to each other. The people who move fast and ship every day believe that the strategists, who appear to be updating the same PowerPoints over and over, are basically doing nothing. Whereas the strategists often see the people who must ship their product daily or weekly as recipe-followers who “get to go home at the end of the day.”
In technology this is even more pronounced. Some technology teams are utterly future-facing and move very nimbly, others are supporting systems that are 50 years old. So some people are chasing 18 month deadlines, some are thinking five years out, and others want to ship every two weeks. If you’ve ever been told it will take two weeks to change something simple on the website you’ve run into this; you’ve also run into this if you’ve read a tweet where someone insists they could build a new (insert complex web platform here) in a week with two people.
No one is wrong. They’re just experiencing time differently. And ultimately, and this is the hard part, it’s management’s job to get everyone on the same clock. Resolving that tension between timeframes is really hard. You’ll find that a lot of solutions are really about providing reliable schedules—agile methodologies, for example, which are organized around sprints. Strategic and management timelines are different from delivery timeframes. Strategy is about moving humans around to meet goals, and defining processes, and that means that sometimes you just need to have twenty or thirty meetings before you can make something happen. Ideally you do things once, and very carefully, because of all the money involved and all the lives affected.
Delivery is about getting the thing over the line, publishing the newspaper, uploading the videos to the server, often so that you can immediately do it again, but faster and better the next time.
The people who made W1A are…TV-making people. They’re on the delivery side. Obviously they had been in so many confusing, ridiculous “strategic” meetings at the BBC that they needed to make a TV show about it. And it’s a very useful reminder for any manager, because no matter how well-intentioned you are, you’re living in a different timeframe from the people you manage, and you’re speaking a different language. They’re nodding at you but they don’t make a lot of sense. Bridging that gap is a lot of work, but you’re the only person who can do it, so you might as well start now. Brilliant.