I recently discovered some of the interesting work that the folks at the Mind Gym are doing, through a tip from a colleague. In a domain that’s rife with dogma and (not-really-)”best practices”, I found their approach, which is deeply rooted in behavior science and real data, to be a breath of fresh air.
The content I’m about to cover in today’s post comes from a piece I’ve spent quite a bit of time noodling on:
The webinar covers the “7 talents of effective managers” and spends the majority of the time on one talent that matters more than the rest — “Relate: the ability to create, strengthen and manage relationships of all types”.
Once I got over my general excitement with the research-based approach and the beauty of the framework, I found myself getting a bit stuck on what seemed like a critical assumption that is implied by it: that “management” is a role, and that the abilities and responsibilities covered by this framework are therefore the responsibilities of people in a “manager” position. While this may seem like a trivial/obvious assumption to most people, many organizations these days are experimenting with operating models in which the traditional managerial responsibilities are handled in a more distributed fashion. If this framework requires those responsibilities to be grouped under a single role (embodied by a single person), then its applicability is limited — which makes it significantly less interesting.
But then I decided to test that assumption. I asked myself: what portion of the content will stop making sense if rather than associating these abilities with the manager role, we’ll generalize further and make these the required abilities from everyone in the organization?
To my pleasant surprise, most of it still made a lot of sense. The guidance they offer on how to make working relationship work, for the most part, does not rely on an asymmetrical manager/employee dynamic. Most of it is just as applicable in a peer/peer dynamic.
Even with this big roadblock out of the way, there are still aspects of this approach that I’m still working through. But nonetheless, it’s a great reference point to triangulate one’s point-of-view to and is, as always, best read with a critical eye:
1. Remember why you’re here — we are here to accomplish something together, the relationship is not a means to address our egoic needs (be liked, be the hero, etc.) or an end in and of itself.
2. Keep emotional control — self-regulation trumps all. Identify your emotional triggers and the “alarm calls” that can help you tell that you’re in a triggered state (fight/flight/freeze).
3. Set the boundaries — formally and informally contract to create the right level of intimacy, involvement, and control. Those of you who’ve been following this publication for a while would identify this as a very good example of using polarity management to avoid being too distant or too close:
4. Reinforce and repair the boundaries — we’re all humans. And we all have psychological needs. Sometimes, as a result of that, or other reasons, either we or the other person will overstep the boundary we’ve set up. It’s our responsibility to proactively repair those ruptures.
5. Build trust over the long haul — adopt a long-term attitude. Focus on connectedness, credibility, and consistency.
One of the most humbling lessons from my tenure at AltSchool is that it is often the case that progressive education has leapfrogged progressive workplaces, in accomplishing some shared goals they both have in common.
My approach to tackling a new organizational challenge I just uncovered always starts with some research, to see whether other practitioners in my domain (people) have come across the same challenge and how they went about solving it. Often times they have, and building on their solution leads me to a better outcome than reinventing the wheel, making the same mistakes they have made, and learning from them the hard way.
Nowadays, I try to supplement the search in my own domain, with a search in the school/education domain. Educators are often times trying to tackle similar organizational challenges in their classroom. And what’s working well with kids, tends, with some mild modifications, to work well with adults.
Jennifer’s list is a good example. Large group discussions (often referred to as “meetings”) are an integral part of corporate life. Creating a meeting experience in which participants feel fully engaged is a challenge, regardless of whether the participants are kids or adults. Jennifer offers some good strategies that are worth considering for your next meeting or workshop.
One of the most fun aspects of curating of and writing in this publication is when a new challenge reveals hidden connections between seemingly unrelated pieces. This story is an example of a recent occurrence tying these three stories that were published more than a year ago:
About a year ago, I took a stab at synthesizing my thinking on compensation at the time:
I’ve argued that compensation is not a hidden intrinsic attribute of an employee, that should be revealed through market mechanisms, but an attribute of the company and the way it values an addition to the team, based on its compensation philosophy (and therefore, it makes total sense that different companies would value a certain individual very differently). I also suggested that a compensation philosophy is evaluated mostly through a “fairness” lens, in comparison to 4 key drivers: market, personal needs and preferences, contribution/value to the company and company success.
Recently, I ran into a compensation question that I wasn’t able to fully reconcile with the framework: Thinking about fairness in external and internal contexts. Let me try to explain. Companies often times hire employees in roles that have very different market rates. For example, the market rate for a junior software engineer can, in certain markets, be 2–3x the market rate for a junior ops person. From an external context perspective, paying these rates seems fair. But from an internal context perspective, comparing the value the software engineer adds to the company and the value the ops person adds to the company, some companies may find it difficult to reconcile the compensation discrepancy. Some companies may not see any issue here, which is totally ok, but is the less interesting use case to explore.
How can a company that experiences a tension with its values and compensation philosophy in the above situation, reconcile what seems to be at first glance like an irreconcilable paradox between “external fairness” and “internal fairness”?
Polarity management helps us see that this tension between “external fairness” and “internal fairness” is not an either/or problem that needs to be solved, but a both/and polarity that needs to be managed.
Going through a polarity mapping exercise can help a company determine where it currently falls on the polarity spectrum, in which direction it wants to move, and what may be the warning signs that it’s getting too close to one pole or the other.
If that sounds a bit too abstract — fear not! Unbeknownst to me at the time, the Buffer salary formula, is a perfect example of the way one company chose to manage that polarity:
A key element of Buffer’s salary formula is the “role” component, which is the calculated as follows:
Role: (overall base + location base + cost of living)* role value
The first three components: “overall base”, “location base” and “cost of living” are, using the distinction I introduced earlier, “external fairness” components — they are set by the external market rate for the role and other factors driven by the location of the position. However, “Role value” is an “internal fairness” component. The Buffer team explains that perfectly:
We don’t agree with the market salary data all the time (for customer service roles, for example) and so we create our own “role value adjustment” based off what we feel is fair.
So here you go: a paradox emerges in a framework, a new tool helps reconcile it, and a real-world example grounds the whole debate in reality.
Reading through old posts is a humbling experience. It’s hard not to adopt the omniscient hindsight perspective and feel a bit embarrassed by the simplicity (and sometimes dead-wrongness) of some of the posts. But I hope to experience the same feeling as I read this post a year from now. Because it’ll mean that my understanding of the world around me has continued to grow, develop and evolve.
I’m enjoying following Tom Nixon on Medium. While I don’t always agree with his point of view, of with the sometimes-controversial way that he chooses to present it, his writing, and further conversations that sometimes ensue, are always a learning opportunity.
In this piece, Tom unpacks his general criticism of Holacracy into a more nuanced point of view that addresses both the good and the bad. Having personally gone through a similar process myself, I’ve landed in a similar position.
Tom describes “Bad Holacracy” as:
when the whole effort to adopt it becomes about Holacracy. Leaders are sold on the Holacracy concept and then a project begins to ‘install’ it… In the worst cases it’s used forcefully, even when the people doing the work don’t believe it will help them. The people are considered the problem. They’re labeled ‘change resistors.’ … In Bad Holacracy, the rules are tightly held… Bad Holacracy seems to value its own processes and rules above all else, and it’s all or nothing… If adherence to Holacracy dogma is valued more highly than doing great work, living the values, and contributing to the vision, you’ve got problems.
And “Good Holacracy” as:
Good Holacracy always works in context. That means solving real issues that are getting in the way of the work and overall progress. It offers process and structure, not to constrain or for its own sake, but to open up creativity and autonomy for people doing the work.
The focus isn’t on selling people on Holacracy and coaching them to use it, but on the underlying principle of self-management. Above all, Good Holacracy doesn’t start with process… The most important thing is the inner work for people collaborating together to better understand themselves and connect to each other. To become clearer in our intentions. To uncover and work through the unconscious biases and stories from our past which shape our behaviour yet do not always serve us… If you add some strategies for org process and structure to an inner journey like this, the possibilities for people to work together to realise worthwhile ideas in the world are enormous.
As a nice bonus, Tom also shares his self-management principles (the Three A’s):
Autonomy (for people to take the initiative and make decisions)
Accountability (to keep on top of how commitments are being met)
Alignment (to ensure everything’s contributing towards an overall vision)
At a high level, Tom touches on two core principles/failure modes in adopting new ways for people to work together (aka “organizational operating systems”). You can easily replace Holacracy with Team, Agile, Lean, TQM or your own pet system:
Treating the system as dogma — viewing the practices as rules that must be followed, rather than suggestions that should be considered and adapted to the organization’s unique context.
Wrong motivation — trying to adopt the practices in order to accomplish some external business outcome (faster time-to-market, higher quality, etc.) rather than in order to better reflect our current or desired shared core assumptions about people and the way they work together.
These two failure modes will lead to the “theater phenomena” (practices adopted with no/marginal benefit) at best or to a complete “organ rejection” at worst.
Adopting a new way of working together has to start with articulating a set of assumptions about people and the way they can work together. If those assumptions are significantly different than the ones that are widely accepted in the organization, the adoption effort must be accompanied by work that exposes those assumptions and helps people grow and develop to be able to adopt those core assumptions. The specific practices that reflect these beliefs need to be viewed as means to an end, and adjusted to the unique context and the progress that the organization has made on that journey.
One of my all-time favorite quotes is a Franz de Waal quote which seems highly relevant to the topic of this post:
The enemy of science is not religion. Religion comes in endless shapes and forms… The true enemy is the substitution of thought, reflection, and curiosity with dogma.
Marvin Weisbord’s Productive Workplaces came up in a conversation I was having this week. If you’re into Organizational Design, this book is a must read. But when asked about my biggest insight from the book, I came to a surprising conclusion. My insight wasn’t about a particular concept that the book covered. My insight was a tangible sense of the fragility of human knowledge. Reading through the 80-year history and evolution of the Organizational Design field from Fredrick Taylor circa 1910 to Weisbord’s approach circa 1990, my most glaring insight was how much we seem to have forgotten in the 25 years since then. And how much of our “new” insights are just rediscovering of insights first discovered as early as the 1950s and 1960s.
Today’s paper, referenced in one of the IEX whitepapers I covered a couple of weeks ago, is a real gem, first published in 1991:
In an economy where the only certainty is uncertainty, the one sure source of lasting competitive advantage is knowledge. When markets shift, technologies proliferate, competitors multiply, and products become obsolete almost overnight, successful companies are those that consistently create new knowledge, disseminate it widely throughout the organization, and quickly embody it in new technologies and products.
Nonaka makes the key distinction between explicit knowledge (seen, understood, easily communicated, captured in documentation and processes) and tacit knowledge (unseen, habits, hands-on skills, subjective insights and intuitions). Recognizing that tacit knowledge is core to what a company is, stems from the idea that:
A company is not a machine but a living organism. Much like an individual, it can have a collective sense of identity and fundamental purpose. This is the organizational equivalent of self-knowledge — a shared understanding of what the company stands for, where it is going, what kind of world it wants to live in, and, most important, how to make that world a reality.
He then lays out a framework for knowledge processing which distinguishes between 4 types of knowledge transitions (depicted above) — Socialization, Externalization, Combination, and Internalization. SECI for short:
Socialization (Tacit → Tacit): Knowledge is passed on through practice, guidance, imitation and observation. Example: a novice cook takes an apprenticeship with a well-known chef.
Externalization (Tacit → Explicit): Tacit knowledge is codified into documents, manuals, processes, technology, etc. so that it can spread more easily through the organization and outside of the organization. Example: a product manager communicates her vision for the product using a spec.
Combination (Explicit → Explicit): Codified knowledge sources are combined to create new knowledge. Building the full picture from the parts. Example: a comptroller puts together a financial dashboard for the company based on the dashboards of the various departments.
Internalization (Explicit → Tacit): As explicit sources are used and learned, the knowledge is internalized, modifying the user’s existing tacit knowledge. Example: an employee applies a new technique that he learned from a book to her day-to-day work.
Nonaka’s key insight is that new knowledge is created in the transitions from tacit to explicit (externalization), and from explicit to tacit (internalization).
Of those two, Nonaka drills deeper into the less understood process of externalization, and outlines three interim stages in this process — metaphor, analogy, and model:
Indeed, because tacit knowledge includes mental models and beliefs in addition to know-how, moving from the tacit to the explicit is really a process of articulating one’s vision of the world — what it is and what it ought to be.
One kind of figurative language that is especially important is metaphor. It is a way for individuals grounded in different contexts and with different experiences to understand something intuitively through the use of imagination and symbols without the need for analysis or generalization. Through metaphors, people put together what they know in new ways and begin to express what they know but cannot yet say. As such, metaphor is highly effective in fostering direct commitment to the creative process in the early stages of knowledge creation…
But while metaphor triggers the knowledge-creation process, it alone is not enough to complete it. The next step is analogy. Whereas metaphor is mostly driven by intuition and links images that at first glance seem remote from each other, analogy is a more structured process of reconciling contradictions and making distinctions. Put another way, by clarifying how
the two ideas in one phrase actually are alike and not alike, the contradictions incorporated into metaphors are harmonized by analogy. In this respect, analogy is an intermediate step between pure imagination and logical
Finally, the last step in the knowledge creation process is to create an actual model. A model is far more immediately conceivable than a metaphor or an analogy. In the model, contradictions get resolved and concepts become transferable through consistent and systematic logic.
I’ll wrap up with three insights from Nonaka that are more directly tied to Organizational Design, covering the roles of organizational redundancy, reflection, and teams in knowledge-creating:
The fundamental principle of organizational design at the Japanese companies I have studied is redundancy — the conscious overlapping of company information, business activities, and managerial responsibilities. To Western managers, the term “redundancy,” with its connotations of unnecessary duplication and waste, may sound unappealing. And yet, building a redundant organization is the first step in managing the knowledge-creating company. Redundancy is important because it encourages frequent dialogue and communication. This helps create a “common cognitive ground” among employees and thus facilitates the transfer of tacit knowledge. Since members of the organization share overlapping information, they can sense what others are struggling to articulate. Redundancy also spreads new explicit knowledge through the organization so it can be internalized by employees.
The key to doing so is continuously challenging employees to reexamine what they take for granted. Such reflection is always necessary in the knowledge-creating company, but it is especially essential during times of crisis or breakdown, when a company’s traditional categories of knowledge no longer work. At such moments, ambiguity can prove extremely useful as a source of alternative meanings, a fresh way to think about things, a new sense of direction. In this respect, new knowledge is born in chaos.
Teams play a central role in the knowledge-creating company because they provide a shared context where individuals can interact with each other and engage in the constant dialogue on which effective reflection depends. Team members create new points of view through dialogue and discussion. They pool their information and examine it from various angles. Eventually, they integrate their diverse individual perspectives into a new collective perspective. This dialogue can — indeed, should — involve considerable conflict and disagreement. It is precisely such conflict that pushes employees to question existing premises and make sense of
their experience in a new way. “When people’s rhythms are out of sync, quarrels occur and it’s hard to bring people together,” acknowledges a deputy manager for advanced technology development at Canon. “Yet if a group’s
rhythms are completely in unison from the beginning, it’s also difficult to achieve good results.”
Psychological safety is a hot-button topic these days, that’s been getting a lot of attention, at least in my circles.
There’s a growing understanding of what psychological safety is, and its importance in enabling high-performing teams, but there are very few good resources that are able to offer some concrete advice on practices that promote it.
Laura Delizonna’s recent HBR piece is a rare exception which offers some concrete tangible advice:
Of the six pieces of advice she lists in the piece, the one that really struck a cord with me is a beautifully simple reflection exercise that she credits Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google with using, in which participants are asked to consider the following statements:
This person has beliefs, perspectives, and opinions, just like me.
This person has hopes, anxieties, and vulnerabilities, just like me.
This person has friends, family, and perhaps children who love them, just like me.
This person wants to feel respected, appreciated, and competent, just like me.
This person wishes for peace, joy, and happiness, just like me.
I honestly can’t wait to try a simple variation of it in one of my upcoming meetings.
Suster often takes an extreme position on matters, and this one is no different. His advice for what you should do when you disagree with the direction that your company is taking is — quit.
I’m not sure that I’m all the way there with him. To me, the most useful part of this piece is the way that he so accurately describes an organizational challenge that many of us have faced — unconstructive dissent:
Dissent is fine. Dissent actually makes groups stronger. I love being challenged because it forces me to think harder about what my convictions are. I love when people come with ideas that conflict with my world view because the conflict either ends up giving me more confidence in my convictions or helps me to evolve. Sometimes it even causes me to consider revolution.
But dissenters need ideas of their own. Dissenters need facts and logic. Dissenters need to be willing to roll up their sleeves and help do the work. Dissenters need to be willing to have their own necks on the chopping block and admit that they were wrong in the end.
Dissenters don’t get to be “back benchers.” They don’t get to yell from the peanut gallery but never own results or the consequences of decisions. Dissenters don’t get to second guess but never lead.
Throughout life I’ve realized that many people are back benchers. “That will never work” is their motto. They like to criticize but they don’t have strong ideas of their own. They “know” what’s wrong but they never do anything about it. They never lead. Yet they don’t follow.
From my perspective, I don’t assign blame to those who have expressed unconstructive dissent by default.
Constructive dissent is not something that comes naturally to many of us, myself included. If you were never taught or never experienced what constructive dissent looks like, it’s not unreasonable that we’ll default to the unconstructive form.
Constructive dissent must be taught. And Peter Senge in his seminal book The 5th Discipline gave us a quick cheat-sheet that can jump-start our efforts:
I’d advocate for patience in dealing with unconstructive dissent, but not endless patience. Unconstructive dissent is debilitating and demotivating, not just to the person expressing it, but more importantly to everyone around them. Once someone was given the benefit of the doubt, was given the feedback that they must change their ways, was given the tools to do so and the time to do so — and still no change. Then, it may be time to part ways…