Inspired by Co.Design’s piece on “5 Paths to Doing Great Work at a Terrible Company,” we’re going to look at what you can do if you’re stuck in this binding predicament. A great piece by Brian Millar that sheds light on the fact that “half the companies in any industry are below average. And somebody has to work for them.” Quintessentially his argument stems from the delusion we feed ourselves. We say, “If only I worked at so-and-so, my genius would be recognized and I’d churn out award winning work.” Brian argues that you get your best ideas realized right where you work. He offers great guidelines including:


  1. Mind over Matter. If you treat your dump company as if it’s a start up, you’re likely to be a little more lenient with what a dump it really is. Inject the vigor necessary for a startup and treat the company with the same ideation. Keep your goals in mind and keep showing up everyway working toward them.
  2. Tenacity Trumps Talent. Of course, both are best but the best companies (and the best workers) are the resilient ones that keep after their (better) original ideas rather than watering them down with improvisation. In real life application, I’d say if your company forces you to water down a process you know can be done better, you might want to try a small run with your original idea on the side. Present your boss the improved results with your better idea and you might just get tenacity to work in your favor.
  3. The Grass is Always Greener… It’s a routine line we always hear. Fact is, every place has some drawbacks. This is a losing attitude that won’t get you anywhere. It’s an excuse for excuse-makers.
  4. Do What You Love. If you’re really not happy at your job and can’t get what you want, Millar suggests moonlighting. The best of us have done it and it gives you a crack at something else without compromising your day job.

Millar’s gold nugget takeaway sums up with:

“Whatever you’re working on today, you have an opportunity to make it really stunning. And if you’re working on something that seems dull, then people should be all the more impressed when you nail it brilliantly. And if you’re being held back by the terrible place you work, then start up a new place in your mind. Head to your desk this morning as if you work in the early days of a better company. And I promise, you will.”

Thinking outside the box is key. Take for instance my own personal example when working for an HVAC company selling heaters/coolers and other utterly boring products. Charged with a new media and publishing role responsibly for getting them traction. I was at an utter loss. No one cared about these products, least of all me. My winning solution was to plug it all through a “green” and “mommy” filter – two bubbles that were just at the start of getting big back then. The process heralded the company tremendous success and made it fun for me.

Doing great work at a terrible company isn’t a strategy reserved for employees. Management and senior executives find themselves in the same situation often enough. In other cases, the problem is inherited by owners who’ve had the baton passed to them. In all these cases, there’s still hope. In fact, more so since you’re in a direct position to change business culture. Most problems can be overcome by cultural shifts. For example, creating a more open and friendly business culture solicits employee trust, which in turn leaves them feeling more secure in telling you what they observe. As a manager, you can’t possibly know every twist, turn and crank of the corporate machine. Many things will elude, but they’re unlikely to elude your employees.