I used to have a pretty negative opinion of exit interviews in the past because they seemed like a bureaucratic waste of time. The person/company has already made their decision and they’re not going to change it now, then what’s the point? In more recent years, I learned that similar to other organizational practices, my “hating” on them is not because the practices are inherently bad or evil, but because I’ve only seen poor/ineffective execution of them.
Since I strongly believe that language matters, the “branding” here is problematic as well, “exit interview” sounds cold and mechanical to me, so I’m also proposing a rebranding focusing on the aspirational purpose of those interactions: “closure and learning conversation”.
So below is a little cheat sheet, to help me, and maybe also you, run better exit interviews going forward.
How to run effective closure and learning conversations?
Purpose: A learning opportunity for the company and positive closure for the person leaving. This is a meaningful touch-point, one of the final impressions that the company/manager will be leaving in the person’s memory of their time with the company. Make it count.
Timing: Roughly half-way in between when the person/company had given notice and the person’s last day. Far enough from the notification that everyone involved had enough time to emotionally process the decision, but not too close to the last day when the person’s already 100% focused on the next thing.
Who? I see value in giving the person leaving choice here. The goal is for them to have the conversation with someone they feel they can be candid and vulnerable with. Sometimes it’ll be their manager, sometimes a peer and sometime someone outside of their org. Regardless of who it is, notes from the conversation should be captured in a centralized place so broader organizational learning based on patterns and trends can take place.
How? This is a good starting list of discussion questions:
Why did you join? What compelled you to come here and make the required trade-offs and compromises that it required?
How did your experience live up to your expectations?
What should change here to make up for the gap? What would you do differently to make up for it?
What advice would you give a new hire here?
What advice would you give us when hiring for your replacement?
Who here has been a mentor or supported for you?
What did you manager/team/company/HR do well? Is there any feedback that you haven’t already shared?
What is your best memory from your time here?
What are you hoping for in your next opportunity?
Follow-up: 3–6 month later. With a bit more time to process, reflect and gain perspective, is there anything else you’d like to share?
When Abrahams Maslow first proposed his hierarchy of needs in his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation”, he also outlined some key characteristics that self-actualized people tend to possess.
Scott Barry Kaufman set out to find using a more modern set of tools whether these characteristics do indeed sum-up to a unifying factor of self-actualization. That self-actualization factor, in turn, was found to be associated with multiple indicators of well-being, including greater life satisfaction, curiosity, self-acceptance, positive relationships, environmental mastery, personal growth, autonomy, and purpose in life. As well as multiple indicators of work performance and creativity, including greater work satisfaction, as well as greater reports of talent, skill, and creative ability across a wide range of fields from the arts and sciences to business and sports.
Out of the 17 initial traits Kaufman tested based on Malsow’s hypothesis, 10 were found to indeed contribute to the broader self-actualization factor, listed here in order from the biggest to smallest contribution:
Continued Freshness of Appreciation(Sample item: “I can appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy, however stale these experiences may have become to others.”)
Acceptance(Sample item: “I accept all of my quirks and desires without shame or apology.”)
Authenticity (Sample item: “I can maintain my dignity and integrity even in environments and situations that are undignified.”)
Equanimity (Sample item: “I tend to take life’s inevitable ups and downs with grace, acceptance, and equanimity.”)
Purpose (Sample item: “I feel a great responsibility and duty to accomplish a particular mission in life.”)
Efficient Perception of Reality (Sample item: “I am always trying to get at the real truth about people and nature.”)
Humanitarianism(Sample item: “I have a genuine desire to help the human race.”)
Peak Experiences (Sample item: “I often have experiences in which I feel new horizons and possibilities opening up for myself and others.”)
Good Moral Intuition (Sample item: “I can tell ‘deep down’ right away when I’ve done something wrong.”)
Creative Spirit(Sample item: “I have a generally creative spirit that touches everything I do.”)
Why is it that the most self-actualized people are those who are the most self-transcendent?…
Self-actualized people don’t sacrifice their potentialities in the service of others; rather, they use their full powers in the service of others(important distinction). You don’t have to choose either self-actualization or self-transcendence — the combination of both is essential to living a full and meaningful existence.
According to this research, Maslow drew some of his inspiration to the hierarchy of needs for the time he spent at the Blackfoot (Siksika) reserve in Alberta, Canada in the 1930s. Regardless of attribution, what’s interesting to me in this narrative, is that in the Blackfoot version of the hierarchy, self-actualization is at the basis of the pyramid (or in this case, tipi) supporting two higher level aspirations: community actualization and cultural perpetuity.
Michel, quoting Blackstock, explained the latter in her post:
“We have been given the ancestors’ teachings and the feelings and the spirit. We can do a couple of things with that. We can say that what we know is inadequate and that we’re not Indian enough and that we don’t know enough about it or we don’t want to pass it on. And we hold our breath and our people stop. Or you can nourish that breath. You can breathe in even deeper the knowledge of others and understand it at a deep level and then breathe it forward. That’s the breath of life,”
I’m still reflecting on this beautiful metaphor, so I’ll stop here and encourage you to do the same.
Been a while since I’ve written one of these. Not because I haven’t read any books recently (that’s rather unlikely), but because not many of them were related to the topic of this publication in their entirety.
As we learned at the beginning, all models are wrong, but some are useful. So let me say this before we depart: this book is not perfect. Mistakes were made. Perhaps I portrayed an organization differently from how you (or the organization) would. Perhaps I failed to describe a concept or distinction as well as another expert might. It’s even possible that something big is missing — something that will reveal itself to us in years to come and irrevocably transform how we organize. I can live with that. Because what I’ve presented here is enough. It’s enough to stroke that disenchantment that you feel. That this can’t be our best. That we’re capable of more. It’s enough to get started. Enough to go on. And that’s all that matters. Progress over perfection. Courage over caution. This isn’t business as usual. This is brave new work.
I chose to start with a quote from the last page in Aaron’s book because it beautifully frames the right mindset for reading the book, as well as my review below.
In my mind, Aaron’s book is the evolution of a blog post he wrote almost three years ago, introducing the OS Canvas — a framework for describing how progressive organizations (referred to in the book as “evolutionary organizations”) operate differently than legacy/traditional organizations.
The three main parts of the book cover the history of work (how we ended up working in the way we are working today), the Operating System itself, and how to go about changing the operating system in an existing org.
One of the book’s greatest strengths is its accessibility — for a general business reader, who’s curious to learn more about the “future of work” it’s a great primer and a jumping off point to more advanced, nuanced and dense content in this domain. For the sake of comparison, it is more easily read than “Reinventing Organizations”, for example. And I’ll go a little deeper on the comparison between the two later on.
Part 1: The Future of Work
The first part paints a very clear narrative of how we got to where we are today, giving a bit of a history lesson on how the current paradigms of work developed through the 20th century, describing the existential business risk that they are leading to today, and outlining a path forward based on two high-level principles: “People Positive” and “Complexity Conscious” both resonate strongly with me.
My only qualm with this section is that the abbreviated history of work paints a more linear arc than what I’ve personally found it to be. We always start with Taylor, and it’s great to see McGregor’s work mentioned. But by skipping Lewin, Trist, and Emery, the paradoxical nature of the current state of work is being missed out on. Some of the progressive practices of evolutionary organizations are based on insights discovered in the 50s and 60s. What happened over the last 60–70 years that these insights are still not common knowledge??? For a more comprehensive overview of the history of work, I highly recommend Marvin Weisbord’s “Productive Workplaces”.
Part 2: The Operating System
The second part lays out the Operating System consisting of the following pieces:
Purpose — How we orient and steer?
Authority — How we share power and make decisions?
Structure — How we organize and team?
Strategy — How we plan and prioritize?
Resources — How we invest our time and money?
Innovation — How we learn and evolve?
Workflow — How we divide and do the work?
Meetings — How we convene and coordinate?
Information — How we share and use data?
Membership — How we define and cultivate relationships?
Mastery — How we grow and mature?
Compensation — How we pay and provide?
It’s interesting to note the evolution from 3-ish years ago: from 9 elements to 12, by splitting “strategy & innovation”, splitting “people, development & motivation” into “membership” and “mastery”, and adding “compensation”.
Each element is covered using:
List of more abstract/conceptual “thought starters”
A few concrete practices capturing the element “in action”
Discussing how change in that element looks like
Descriptions of how the key principles of “people positive” and “complexity conscious” apply in that particular context.
I particularly liked that last section. The practices are only valuable if you understand and buy into the underlying principles otherwise, you end up with the “theater phenomena” where teams are going through the motions of new practices, but capturing very little of the value that they’re supposed to unlock.
Taking a step back for a bit, my perspective on the OS concept remains unchanged — Having a comparative taxonomy for the way organizations operate is invaluable in moving the conversation about the future of work forward. Organizations are complex systems and without the right language to describe them and their behavior it’ll be hard to make progress. At the same time, the current version of the OS still leaves much to be desired. Some of the elements still seem a bit odd to me (should compensation be its own element, or just a specific use-case of resource allocation?), and the different elements are treated in the book rather inconsistently. In some case, like “authority”, rather comprehensive practices are offered. In others, the practices are rather anecdotal or piecemeal. What the OS lacks the most is a way to capture the interactions between the elements, which are a complex system in and of themselves. A good example can be the relationship between decomposed dynamic roles, and compensation.
Part 3: The Change
Lastly, the third part of the book covers the theory of change in a complex system. This is perhaps where Brave New Work innovates the most. Most books tend to focus on either the What? (future state) or the How? (how to get there) but hardly ever on both. And most “future of work” books that I’ve read tended to skew more towards the What?, leaving the How? completely unanswered. Here Aaron introduces the concept of Continuous Participatory Change and six patterns that support it and are worth reinforcing:
Commitment: When those in power and influence commit to moving beyond bureaucracy.
Boundaries: When a liminal space is created and protected.
Priming: When the invitation to think and work differently is offered.
Looping: When change is decentralized and self-management begins.
Criticality: When the system has tipped and there’s no going back.
Continuity: When continuous participatory change is a way of life, and the organization is contributing to the broader community of practice.
And finally, he discusses the importance of psychological safety, the role of the leader in creating and holding space, key principles of change, and how scaling change might look like.
To wrap up Aaron’s closing words capture my overall take on Brave New Work quite well:
this book is not perfect… [but it] is enough. …It’s enough to get started. Enough to go on. And that’s all that matters. Progress over perfection. Courage over caution.
“Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. (…)
“As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.
He starts by diffusing some of the loaded reactions that hierarchy tends to trigger, reminding us that that the term itself is just a useful metaphor to efficiently explain thatthis is contained by that:
If you tell me you hate fruit, I know not to offer you an apple. It would be impossible to make sense of the world without these hierarchical relationships.
Bartlett argues that the obsession with “hierarchy vs. flatness” is an unhelpful distraction from the issue that really matters, which is power dynamics. He builds on Mary Parker Follett’s distinctions to define 3 types of power dynamics:
Power-from-within or empowerment — the creative force you feel when you’re making art, or speaking up for something you believe in
Power-with or social power — influence, status, rank, or reputation that determines how much you are listened to in a group
Power-over or coercion — power used by one person to control another
With those in mind, he defines the approach to power dynamics that we actually strive for and often hides behind the hierarchy-related language:
Maximize power-from-within, make power-with transparent, and minimize power-over
Note the directional and relative (as opposed to absolute) language that’s used to describe this aspiration. The more descriptive articulation of that aspiration is also worth including here:
Maximize power-from-within: everyone feels empowered; they are confident to speak up, knowing their voice matters; good ideas can come from anywhere; people play to their strengths; creativity is celebrated; growth is encouraged; anyone can lead some of the time.
Make power-with transparent: we’re honest about who has influence; pathways to social power are clearly signposted; influential roles are distributed and rotated; the formal org chart maps closely to the informal influence network.
Minimize power-over: one person cannot force another to do something; we are sensitive to coercion; any restrictions on behavior are developed with a collective mandate.
In part 2, Barlett outlines specific behaviors and practices in support of this aspiration, which I’ll only include here in their headline form:
Encourage your peers
Create practice spaces
Find your mentors
Make power-with transparent
Break the power taboo
Name the level of engagements
Limited decision mandates
Share the ownership
This framing strongly resonates with me and the mapping of specific practices and behaviors to the key pieces of healthy power dynamics is really powerful. The next here would be to explore some of the nuanced tensions between these practices and their implications.
One of the things I’m most grateful for in my AltSchool experience has been learning to look for solutions in the progressive education domain for problems in the organization design domain.
Granted, there is still much to fix in our current education system. We talk such a big game about innovation, especially in Silicone Valley, but the “science of learning” has had much more breakthroughs and progress over the last two decades than the “science of working”. I’d also guess that at any given moment there are more experiments in learning differently than there are in working differently.
was “Duh. How come nobody else saw the parallels sooner?”.
In the workplace, office space design and remote work continue to be hot button issues with plenty of media debate around them, and thankfully, a small trickle of credible academic research that’s starting to surface some interesting insights. While some companies opt for a more extreme perspective of either eliminating remote work altogether or being 100% distributed, most companies try to find a healthy medium between the two. At the core of the debate is the tension between individual work, which is location agnostic and benefits from an environment that is optimized differently by different individuals, and collaborative work, which benefits greatly from co-location and consistent environment design that fosters serendipitous interactions and collaboration. While both types of work are critical for business success, typical organization and space design force a trade-off between the two.
Now comes Baum’s a-ha moment: Guess what? This challenge is not limited to the work environment, it’s also an issue in the classroom. Effective learning requires both individual work and collaborative work, so learning institutions have grappled with the same tension for decades now. One solution, implemented in multiple variations in some institutions in the “flipped classroom” model. Here it is in a nutshell:
And in Baum’s own words:
Instead of listening to lectures in class and doing homework at home, flipped learners watch lectures and read at home and then use class time to ask questions and practice applying their learning. Teachers are no longer instructors; they are coaches. Peers are no longer distractions, but collaborators.
You may already be connecting the dots and seeing the parallels but Baum paints an even clearer picture for us:
Productive individual work is done outside of the office, on your own time, in your own place, at your own pace. Consequently, the office transforms into a space purely dedicated to meeting people, asking questions, brainstorming, and making unexpected connections. Liberated from enforcement of time-based productivity, managers don’t need to be babysitters. Instead they are coaches, enablers, and facilitators focused on unlocking each employee’s unique value to the entire organization.
The “flipped workplace” seems like a great way to thoughtfully navigate the tension between the poles, rather than collapse the solution towards one of them and lose all the benefits of the other. And Baum does a great job making the case for that:
A flipped workplace is better for both employers and employees because it optimizes for productivity, not presence. A universally accepted flexibility of structure makes true diversity possible by accommodating the varying styles, strengths, and constraints of employees. Balancing remote work with in-person collaboration ensures cultural cohesion, creating an environment of momentum and trust when in the office.
Note that I’ve picked a very different title to my own post, because I’m taking his content in a different direction. But first, a bit of context.
Compensation in my mind represents a core attribute of the professional collaboration effort that we call work. The fact that we’re not only trying to do something together, but we’re also trying to distribute the benefits of doing so in a fair way adds a massive amount of complexity to the effort. The thought exercise I always like to go through when thinking about large-scale collaboration efforts (aka work) is “would this still be a problem on an open-source project?”. Open-source projects are massive collaboration efforts in which the primary value that contributors expect out of the effort is the work product itself, which in economic speak is “non-rivalrous”: its use by one contributor does not prevent its simultaneous use by another contributor. Revenue, on the other hand, is a perfect example of a rivalrous good: if I take a dollar out of the pile, it’s one less dollar that can be distributed to anyone else. And that makes things, well… complex.
Recognizing similar challenges in the use of equity to the ones I (and Henry Ward of Carta) called out, Nathan initially decided to avoid using equity grants altogether in his startup, ConvertKit, and instead implemented a revenue/profit-sharing system, which we’ll dive deeper into in a moment. Nathan’s post, however, covers his decision to supplement the profit-sharing program with some old skool equity grants. His decision was primarily driven by fairness, recognizing that company value appreciates faster than profits and therefore withholding equity grants leaves his team significantly worse off in the long-term. Nathan’s new and holistic approach, beautifully captured in the 2×2 at the top of this post is in my mind the biggest generalizable lesson from his experience: recognizing the fair compensation needs to span to distinct dimensions, the long-term/short-term and the guaranteed/success-based leads to the conclusion that a different compensation instrument is needed in each quadrant.
I believe this 2×2 is a great blueprint for other organizations as well, with a couple of tweaks, one mechanical and one philosophical.
The mechanical tweak has to do with venture-backed companies, who tend to not turn a profit for quite some time. Without fully opening pandora’s box on that matter, profit in Nathan’s framework is simply a proxy for the company’s success. So in situations where it’s not a good proxy, a portion of revenues can be allocated proportionally to a more adequate success metric (revenue target, user growth, margin improvement, etc.).
The more philosophical tweak has to do with “performance-based” which I’ve replaced with “success-based” since performance is also one of the key challenges in my mind, with ConvertKit’s specific profit-sharing implementation.
A fixed % of profits is distributed to the team every 6 months (the remainder goes to taxes and reinvested back in the business).
That pool is distributed across 3 categories:
52% — Team profit sharing
8% — Leadership bonuses
40% —Ownership distributions
Team profit sharing is further allocated as follows:
25% (13% of total) is allocated based on tenure: your share = your tenure/sum of all tenures
75% (39% of total) is allocated based on individual 0–4 performance rating: your share = your score/sum of all scores
The payout for new hires who started in the last 6 month is pro-rated to the portion of the period they’ve been with the company (3 months = 50% of your share).
There are no details on the “ownership distributions” so I won’t engage on that.
But both the “leadership bonuses” and the performance component of the team-profit sharing don’t sit well with me as I strongly believe that rewarding short-term performance does more harm than good (more on that here and here). Furthermore, I don’t think that “leadership”/execs are special snowflakes that require special treatment more than engineers are. They just have a proportionally higher impact on the success of the business, just like a tech lead will have proportionally more impact than an entry-level engineer, and that needs to be baked into the allocation. This is also where the logic behind the decision to ignore salaries, because “salary is a reflection of your market value and not exactly your value to the company”, breaks. While potentially correct looking cross-functionally, there is proportionality between salary and value to the company within a given function.
Better aligning the allocation with my own compensation philosophy is pretty straight forward. First, eliminate “leadership bonuses”. Second, replace the performance component with a factor that’s proportional to salary. A more egalitarian alternative would be a factor proportional to level, and somewhere in between is applying role-specific factor (a-la Buffer) on top of the component proportional to salary. Further carve-outs to either company value or personal needs drivers can be done similar to the way tenure is handled.
ConvertKit’s holistic compensation approach represents an important step-function improvement to the default compensation schemes that are out there, and with a few tweaks to the profit-sharing mechanics can be aligned with everything science tells us about the connections between compensation, fairness, and motivation.
To catch everyone up to speed, I was having a conversation with a group of colleagues on “the limits of feedback” which really got me thinking. We spend a great deal of time building “cultures of feedback” in our organizations. But can these cultures have a downside?
The case for feedback
A quick glance at the Johari window makes the case for feedback quite clear:
We all have blind-spots, insights about ourselves that are known to others but are not known to us. Feedback is the mechanism to disclosing those blind spots, which in turn allow us to build a more accurate picture of ourselves to drive our growth and development.
Furthermore, as Adam Grant pointed out, our own capacity for self-reflection is bounded and imperfect:
Sixteen rigorous studies of thousands of people at work have shown that people’s coworkers are better than they are at recognizing how their personality will affect their job performance.
Lastly, since we’re talking about feedback in a professional context, with the intent of collaborating better together, how others perceive us and react to us matters just as much (if not more) as we perceive ourselves. This in and of itself is a good enough reason to pay attention to feedback and to take it into account.
The case for self-reflection
Despite the compelling case for feedback, it’s not without its shortcomings.
To reference the Johari window again, some of our knowledge of ourselves is only known to us (“hidden area”) so any feedback will be based on partial information and will, therefore, be incomplete and inaccurate.
Furthermore, delivering good feedback requires a high level of mastery, from avoiding projecting our own values and beliefs on the person receiving the feedback to only addressing the things that we can credibly observe and know (staying on “our side of the net”).
Lastly, while self-reflection and self-knowledge will never be perfect, our ability to more accurately know ourselves and how we impact others is a learnable skill, a muscle that we can build. An environment abundant with feedback or a culture focused only on feedback will crowd-out any motivation to strengthen that muscle and will leave it weakened and atrophied.
So which one is it?
Astute observers will recognize the patterns of a polarity in the tension between self-reflection and feedback. Therefore, the answer is not an either/or one but a both/and one. We need to create cultures that help our teams build both their feedback muscles and their self-reflection muscles. Favoring one at the expense of the other will lead to a sub-optimal outcome.