Inside the Elephant Room at Kayak.com
There’s an elephant in the room at Kayak.com. No, not the travel website’s recent $1.8 billion acquisition by Priceline.com. An actual elephant—a two-foot-tall stuffed animal named Annabelle that Kayak’s co-founder and chief technology officer, Paul English, bought and put in a conference room. “So often at work, people have issues that they can’t resolve because they won’t talk about it,” says English. “I don’t like that. We try to be shockingly transparent about everything here.” Annabelle is a symbol of that.
English runs Kayak’s 100-person office in Concord, Mass. (one of three Kayak offices worldwide), with a system he likes to call “planned anarchy.” Everyone has the freedom to work on what they want when they want, meetings contain only the most essential people, and employees are encouraged to be honest with each other. But Kayak has an open floor plan, and co-workers don’t like to discuss touchy matters at their cubicles in front of everyone. So last year, English renovated a conference room and brought in Annabelle the elephant.
The idea, he says, was to give the staff a place to have the kind of uncomfortable, face-to-face disagreements that too often get hashed out on e-mail, where they tend to escalate and waste time. Corporations sometimes try to remedy such passive aggression with conflict-resolution training programs and annual reviews. Kayak opted for a plush toy.
“Having a designated space can send a positive signal to people that you’re interested in sorting out problems,” says Tammy Lenski, principal and founder of an eponymously named conflict-resolution and negotiation firm. “There is one possible downside: the corporate rumor mill. If people can see you walk into the room, they might say, ‘Oh my gosh, guess who’s in trouble now.’ ”
Kayak’s elephant room is easily visible from the rest of the office. Given its glass walls, it’s also easy to discern the mood of the people inside it. “[My assistant] Kate and I use it a lot to clear the air, because there are a lot of things I do that annoy her,” says English. Employees say they’ve never seen anyone shouting or crying in the room; usually, it acts as a neutral space where they can work out problems with each other and their projects. Still, holding a meeting in front of Annabelle does have a stigma. “Sometimes you’ll get called into the elephant room and the person will have to be like, ‘Oh no, don’t worry—there’s nothing wrong,’ ” says Ron Lohse, an engineer. Lohse recently attended an elephant room meeting to discuss, among other things, the important issue of company bonuses.
“People who are getting bonuses will be getting them at the end of December instead of January,” announced the director of engineering, Ralf Boeck, to six people—and Annabelle, sitting idly on the table (no one actually holds her during these meetings). “It’s to avoid the tax hike next year.” “Who came up with that idea, Steve the Republican?” asked Jeff Rago, Kayak’s user interface chief, referring to the company’s chief executive officer, Steve Hafner.
Later that day, Annabelle witnessed the monthly meeting between Kayak’s chief architect Bill O’Donnell and one of his engineers, Vinayak Ranade. The updated version of Kayak’s mobile app had to ship to Apple’s iTunes Store by Dec. 7, but there were still several bugs that needed to be fixed before it was ready.
“I think the developers are worried that you’re angry the release is late,” Ranade said. “No, that’s silly,” O’Donnell replied, though he did admit some dissatisfaction. “I think we’re frustrated over the way stuff is going. It’s a little late to be refactoring stuff now.” The two men spoke in polite, noncombative voices, and by the time they left the meeting they had a plan to save the app.
O’Donnell has been at Kayak since its founding in 2005, but he’s been working with English for close to 20 years—including at one startup in the 1990s that he says was “the most dysfunctional office I’ve ever seen. Nobody talked about anything.” He understands English’s need for professional and emotional honesty, and though it can be difficult at times—“if you pour your heart and soul into a project, it can be painful if it’s criticized,” he admits—in the long run, addressing the issue is usually worth the awkwardness. Plus, when it’s over, you can cuddle with Annabelle.