Sacred Kow

Treat, or Trick? The Skeleton Key Conspiracy

Every fall at Skeleton Key we have a Staff Konference. Whether it’s conducted virtually or in person, it provides our team a few days to collectively reflect on where we’ve been, and to plan for where we’re going.

Last year we started a new tradition: The Sacred Kow Hunt. This session topic was described by its originator, Greg Lane, as follows:

Skeleton Key has many standards and practices that have been in place for almost two decades. While there is value in tradition and consistency, it’s also important to bring fresh ideas that challenge the status quo. Here’s a chance to call out something we should stop doing and propose a better idea.

Come prepared to challenge a standard, process, tool, or habit and pitch your idea about why and how to eliminate it. While no idea is too small, aim for ideas that will have an impact.

Some truly challenging ideas come out of this collective effort each year, and it always surprising what our team will choose to vote up, or down.

After last year’s round of pitches, our colleague Jeremy Upton took the whole idea one step further, crafting the (fictional) story that appears below. While some of the players have moved on since then, upon rereading it felt like the perfect “ghost story” to share with all of you on this Halloween morning.


The Skeleton Key Conspiracy

The story of how an innocent request for ideas on how to improve a company turned into the perfect employee heist. But it wouldn’t be money that was discovered missing. It would be the employees themselves.

Stu @ 1:10 pm

It was decided that the biggest shoe would actually drop first. The biggest reveal. What they believed to be the most difficult ask.

“Who would say yes to this?”

The question rang clear in the room, but Stu insisted that he could drum up some statistics to make it look like it actually helped the company.

“If this thing goes south it’ll be my butt, not any of yours”

So it was agreed, and Stu took on the highest risk of the team and made the ask – Unlimited PTO.

Jay @ 3:20 pm

They knew the shock of Stu’s actions would sit on people’s minds.

“We’ll have to play it cool for a while.”

Jay would wait an agonizing 2 hours before playing his role. The entire plan would be for nothing, though, if all management had to do was hold annual reviews.

“It won’t matter if we’re not there. They can still schedule it and just mark it down as a terrible review when we don’t show.”

When the time finally came, Jay made his suggestion for the complete removal of the yearly review process. Sure, he offered a carrot as well in the form of ‘quarterly’ reviews (as though that were even a real thing!), but he knew by the time something like that could actually be implemented it would be far too late to stop them!

Bryce @ 3:30 pm

Always the nervous one in the group, Bryce insisted on further strengthening their position. There was a good deal of back and forth on the matter.

“It’s going to look suspicious, and it’s not even going to make that big a difference.”

“That’s why it’s perfect! Besides, no one’s actually going to work 10 hr days. That would be insane.“

Bryce wasn’t wrong. A four-day workweek would reduce management’s capacity to react by up to 20%. At this point, they needed every advantage they could get

Alan @ 3:40 pm

His was supposed to be the easy part – just cut communications, by sacking Slack.

“With Slack offline no one is going to even notice that we haven’t communicated in a while. I mean, how WOULD we even communicate.”

More importantly, Alan’s “simple” act would not only cut off management’s ability to communicate with each of them but also with one another. But something went wrong. The easy part wasn’t easy at all. Alan’s suggestion got voted down!

A mixture of fear and anger laced with bouts of nausea spread through the conspirators, all of which had to be expertly hidden to the prying eyes of the webcams. Was that it? Was it over? Without removing communications it was possible that management might still be able to coordinate efforts and thwart their plans. Maybe they could still pull it off, MAYBE.

But each member of the team wondered if they made the decision to keep going, would the other three do so as well???

Greg @ 4:00 pm

They were all in a daze. They had hardly even listened to Mark’s session; something about deleting videos. Like that mattered now! Ha! But they were out of time, and none of them could be sure that the plan was even still in place.

But then, a miracle! Were they hearing correctly? An observant eye would have seen all four of them simultaneously adjusting their headsets. Did Greg really just suggest dropping not only Slack, but Zoom, Basecamp, Rumpus, Google Docs, and Storage as well?!

Glances of shock and renewed hope were shared between them each, in turn, as the gallery filled with (mostly) unsuspecting faces. Greg, without realizing it, was shutting down not just communications but the whole network!! In their wildest dreams, they hadn’t hoped for this kind of luck. Their eyes grew even wider as they watched Greg’s suggestion (which everyone knew was basically exactly what Alan had already suggested) get voted up – 16 to 0!

The aftermath

It would be nearly a month before anyone became even mildly aware that something was different. No one had heard from Alan, Jay, Bryce, or Stu, but why should that matter? No one had heard from anyone.

Slack and Zoom had gone cold and who could be bothered to learn how to use their replacement (Microsoft Teams)? Half of Skeleton Key was gone every Monday, and the other half every Friday, anyway. It was basically impossible to know what was going on with anyone at any given time.

Upper management was eventually able to get word to each other (by cell phone) on a Wednesday several months later. Not that it did them any good. Four employees were gone, on permanent (unlimited) vacation. There was no way to reach them. And, even if they could, what would they say? They weren’t breaking policy. It might be possible to bring up grounds for punitive action based on some other factors, but when would those actions be made known to the employees? Yearly reviews were a thing of the past.

They had pulled it off. To this day Skeleton Key’s books still reflect paychecks that go out twice a month to the ‘ghosts’, as they would become known. The four team members that played the system… and won.