Video producer Keith Nickerson had been hearing the instructions for weeks: make his presentation "shorter, faster, louder." At last it was show time. Managers herded employees into their seats at the posh Houstonian Hotel. The crowd of 300 or so quieted down. The lights dimmed. Rock music began blasting through speakers. A massive three-gun video projector sprang to life and Nickerson's four-minute MTV-style corporate video, set to R.E.M.'s "Finest Worksong" had the audience bopping.
When the video finished, the CEO raced down the center aisle carrying a plastic flashlight festooned with colored metallic streamers. He jumped onto a small stage, jogged in place for a moment, then jumped off. Dressed in blue running togs, he was meant to be a torch-carrying Olympian. The members of the audience, he later said, must also perform as Olympians. "We have to be the best there is."
BSG Corporation, a $65 million computer services company based in Austin, Texas, has hardly cornered the market in raucous company gatherings. Neither is Steven G. Papermaster, BSG's 37-year-old founder and CEO, the first entrepreneur with a flair for the theatrical.
What made this meeting different — and what makes BSG an undeniably "fast" company — is that it was the signature event in a collection of rituals through which BSG consciously accelerates time. The only way to outmaneuver giant rivals such as Andersen Consulting and EDS, Papermaster believes, is to move faster than they do. The only way to move faster is to create a culture in which urgency is at the core of everything the company does.
"Culture and values are at the root of our ability to move fast," Papermaster says. "We are designed for speed and change."
BSG holds meetings like the one in Houston every three months. But they aren't quarterly meetings, Papermaster insists. They are annual meetings that occur every quarter. "The pace of our business is very fast," he explains. "For us, a year's worth of change occurs every quarter. So the need to reinforce our culture and values — as well as to focus on business issues — is the equivalent of a year's worth of issues."
Hence the quarterly annual meeting. It's more than a semantic distinction — or, put another way, it's one of countless semantic distinctions that separate BSG from the competition. The company is overflowing with homegrown rituals and metaphors that reinforce the pace of life and underscore BSG's uniqueness.
On Mondays, for example, white shirts and blue skirts are forbidden. (IBM in reverse?) BSG has been known to have "culture cops" who send BSGers to "jargon jail" when they talk the language of the old world of business. Even the look of BSG's offices makes a statement. Each regional location is divided into "neighborhoods" with street signs and mileage markers that indicate the distance from other BSG locations — an effort to reinforce a sense of community amid the day-to-day frenzy of business.
Why go to such lengths? It's simple, BSG believes. You can grow only as fast as your culture lets you. And you must communicate with your people as rapidly as you grow. "You can't have out-of-the-box thinking with inside-the-box metaphors," Papermaster argues.
It seems to be working. Papermaster founded BSG with 4 people in 1987. It now has revenues of $65 million, has grown at greater than 50% every year, employs more than 600 people, and is adding people at a dizzying rate — nearly 230 last year. All of which, the CEO explains, puts more emphasis on rituals such as the quarterly annual.
Papermaster has begun to worry that even the quarterly annual meeting is too slow. He plans to convene "monthly annual meetings" over the company's high-speed wide area network. The meetings will work like a chat room on America Online — freewheeling electronic discussions in which people can exchange ideas and information in real time. "I'll just say, `Let's have a meeting at this time on this day,' and anyone who wants to join the meeting can log on."
The monthly cybermeeting won't replace the quarterly annual — that's a sacred ritual at a company in which rituals count for a lot. It will be, Papermaster says, just another way of "programming employees to make them ready for change."
Robert Bryce (email@example.com), a writer based in Austin, Texas, covers business, politics, and the environment for publications including the "New York Times" and "The Christian Science Monitor."