A site of endless curiosity

Riding the bus with “Spiffy”: forging informal networks of people 10 seconds at a time

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Downtown Chicago is the home of a number of large corporations.  Thousands of people commute into Chicago every weekday via the commuter rail system – Metra.  Many of these commuter trains terminate at Union Station in downtown Chicago.  Although there is a comprehensive public transportation including cabs some corporations, as a convenience, provide a charter bus service to shuttle employees to and from Union Station.

So what’s the big deal?  The big deal is one bus and, more importantly, one bus driver in particular.  His name is “Spiffy” – that’s what they call him.  He is in his 60’s, very well dressed, and very polite.  You will find him driving the first bus back to Union Station from a particular financial services firm.  The bus arrives at about 3:45pm to load passengers and leaves, on the dot, at exactly 4pm.

The Community of the Bus

Working in downtown Chicago on a short term project with a few colleagues I encountered Spiffy for the first time several weeks ago.  And it was not really Spiffy that I encountered so much as it was my encounter with, what I will call,  “the community of the bus”.  The community of the bus?

What is unique is that people who ride Spiffy’s bus all know each other in a curious sort of a way that I didn’t, at first, comprehend.  Take a bus from the same location 15 minutes later with a different bus driver and what happens on the bus is completely different.  There is no “community of the bus” on those busses.

What happens on Spiffy’s bus during the 15 minutes when the bus loads up with people and the 12 minute ride to Union Station is that the people on the bus talk to each other in a way that suggests they are a community.

I  am new to the community of the bus.  But I knew something unique (and interesting) was going on when I heard one of the the women tell Spiffy that one of the regular people that rides the bus was in the hospital, that she was going to get a get-well card, and would he sign it.  “Sure”, he said.  It was going to be a get well card “from the bus” and everyone would sign it.

How it works – 10 seconds at a time

Although I am new to the community of the bus I think I know how it works and why it only works on Spiffy’s bus.  Spiffy is a very outgoing, humble, pleasant, and courteous person.  When people get on the bus he has a little conversation with each of them – it only lasts about 10 seconds.  He talks to each person.

If he does not know your name he will say something like, “Hello young man” or “Hello young lady” – no matter how old you are.  Even if he does not know you – if it’s your first time on the bus –  he will always initiate some sort of conversation – about the weather or anything.  Or, he will make some observation about what is happening on the street in front of the bus and invite you to comment – “Did you see what that guy was wearing out there?”  He will get the conversation going.

People that he does know he calls by name or a nick name that you and him will work out over time through some sort of trial and error of choosing, experimentation, and agreement  For people that he does know the conversation goes a little deeper.  One woman brought pictures of her grand kids to show Spiffy during the 15 minutes of passenger loading.  To another one, “Hello Wonder Woman, did you save anyone today?”

Conversations of opportunity

While these little conversations are going on between Spiffy and each of the people coming on the bus everyone else is listening.  What Spiffy is doing is jump starting or providing an opportunity for conversations among the people on the bus who could be complete strangers – complete strangers who, 10 seconds at a time, learn something new about each and every  person every time they come on the bus..  In a sense, Spiffy is in the center of a network of people.  Through him everyone has the opportunity to learn about everyone else – if they simply listen.  And, if you are so inclined, you have the opportunity to have a conversation with another person on the bus based on what you learned about that person through Spiffy’s 10 second conversations as they board the bus.

Taking what happens on the bus into the organization

The particular corporate headquarters where Spiffy loads his passengers for the 4pm ride to Union Station has thousands of employees who work in the same building.  You can look at an organizational chart of who reports to who. You can look at the various business processes that run the business and get an idea of who interacts with who.  But, in many cases, this is not how “the real work” (difficult work)  actually gets done in an organization.  The real work – the work that requires transcending organizational hierarchies, organizational boundaries, silos, and is not visible in the business processes is done through informal networks of people.

Forging informal networks of people and relationships

I am new to this company being here only for a short project.  But, every chance I get I try to have a little conversation with someone that I don’t know.  For example: at the area where the coffee pots are on each floor of the building; waiting for the elevator; standing in line at the Starbucks on the first floor of the building; or just anywhere that is a common area.  Of course, you need to develop a sort of knack for doing this.  I’ve talked to everyone from the guy changing the light bulbs to the executives.  All with short serendipitous conversations at serendipitous locations.  They are “conversations of opportunity”.

It has paid off. The particular project we are working on has to cross organizational boundaries and penetrate silos.  While weeks are spent in getting formal introductions across organizational boundaries according to the dictates of the organizational chart sometimes I find that the person we need to talk to is someone I have already talked to in a short conversation.  At least we know each other by sight even though we don’t know each other by role.  Serendipitous conversations in a business casual environment can net you an individual contributor, middle manager, or senior executive.  You never know who this person is other than they work for the company and play some role.  In a business casual environment everyone is pretty much equal – at least by sight in a common area.

What’s going on with Spiffy on the bus and what I (or you) can do is have a series of serendipitous “conversations of opportunity” with other people.  The outcome of this is to forge, and continue to build, a network of informal relationship among people.  The assumption is that work – sometimes really hard work – is accomplished not within the formal organizational structures but despite the organizational structures.  The really hard work is sometimes done  in informal networks of people and relationships that exist mostly hidden in an organization.


Zappos was founded in 1999 by Tony Hsieh.  In 2009 Zappos was sold to Amazon for $1.2 billion .  Zappos has a unique corporate culture which some have suggested is the key to the success of Zappos.  Amazon, realizing that Zappos had a unique culture, left it intact in the acquisition while feeding it resources for growth  and expansion.

Zappos is one of those companies where “People are the new wealth of the organization” is on full display.  Corporate shared values are not only clearly articulated but are lived out on a daily basis.  Zappos is unique in that it offers to pay $2,000 to new employees to quit if, after the training period, the employee does not think they are a good fit for the company.  Applicants to Zappos get two interviews.  The first is the standard assessment of skills and competencies.  The second is an assessment of cultural fit.  You have to get past both to be offered employment.  After you get hired and trained, just in case you have doubts, there is the $2,000 offer to quit.

Zappos forges and reinforces the network of informal relationships every day.  When employees login to the Zappos corporate computer systems they are presented with a random picture of another Zappos employee along with a personal profile and asked if you know this person.  It gives you a few choices in names.

The Zappos corporate login system presents you with a face, a name, and a profile of someone in the company – at random.  If you see them in the hallway – then you know something about them.  And here is your opportunity to build your informal network alongside the formal network of the organizational chart.  This is exactly what Spiffy the bus driver is doing when he has that short 10 second conversation with everyone that boards the bus in full view of everyone already on the bus.

Making a 10 second investment

On the bus, Spiffy is at the center of opportunity for an informal network of  people who can form a community – if they so desire.  In the particular case of the 4pm bus ride in Chicago from a financial services firm to Union Station it has worked – if as evidence you have ever before seen a “community of the bus” send a get well card to a regular bus rider.  Serendipitous conversations at the coffee pot or the elevator or any place for that matter in a corporation can net you anyone from an individual contributor to a senior executive.  Zappos explicitly creates a continuous opportunity to get to know someone at the company every time an employee logs in to the corporate computer system.

All these cases are examples of forming informal networks of people and relationships outside the formal descriptions of organizations.  In many cases, this is where the really hard work in organizations is accomplished.  Can’t get things done at your organization through formal structures?  You might want to try a new strategy – 10 seconds at a time.  You might be surprised at the results.


Harnessing the power of informal employee networks

Written by frrl

March 17, 2011 at 3:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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  1. […] recent blog post about commuters to Chicago’s financial district makes the connection between commuting and […]

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