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KF #31. Situational Adaptability

391: Preventing Burnout by Examining your Emotions with Dr. Shawn C. Jones

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Dr. Shawn Jones discusses the burnout epidemic and how mindfulness, reflection, and compassion can be used to combat it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Three ways people experience burnout
  2. How to re-personalize what you’ve depersonalized
  3. Four best practices for preventing burnout

About Shawn

Shawn C. Jones MD, FACS is a board-certified ear, nose, and throat physician, head and neck surgeon with 30 years of experience in medicine and a thriving ENT practice in Paducah, Kentucky. He’s on a mission to combat the effects of the growing physician burnout epidemic by sharing his own inspiring story of recovery.

Dr. Jones shares his story of burnout and recovery in his book, “Finding Heart in Art: A Surgeon’s Renaissance Approach to Healing Modern Medical Burnout.”

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Dr. Shawn Jones Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Dr. Jones, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Shawn Jones
It’s great to be with you. Thank you Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your good stuff. Maybe we’ll start with your story, which is pretty compelling. What’s your tale when it comes to experiencing burnout?

Shawn Jones
For me it really started one morning, in retrospect, when I was getting ready for surgery. I was shaving actually and I recognized I wasn’t feeling anything. It really brought a sense of abject intellectual terror in the sense that I recognized I was experiencing absolutely no emotion. I subsequently did what any well-training highly-functional professional would do and I ignored it hoping it would go away and of course it didn’t. It worsened.

Part of my difficulty was that – and I think the difficulty with burnout for a lot of people is that it’s a very disorienting experience, so it becomes troublesome to try to figure out why you’re not feeling quite right and what’s going on. Actually it was the assistance of my wife, Evelyn, who nudged me to get some help and to look into things. That sort of took me down the road of getting some outpatient intensive psychotherapy.

I was subsequently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder-related depression. It primarily was work-related stress that caused me to end up there.

Pete Mockaitis
Tell me a little bit about the work-related stress. What was going on? PTSD you often think of in terms of war time or trauma/tragedy, and here it was work-related. What was going on at work?

Shawn Jones
Well, I sort of personally liken burnout to, in terms of the work-related stress aspect of it, to sun exposure. You can certainly go to the beach and in one day get totally burned, but you can also over a period of time get small amounts of sun exposure that result in you having the development of a skin cancer or something else.

I don’t think we recognize as well the more chronic forms of PTSD, but all of experience some traumatic things in our lives. Sometimes if we don’t emotionally unpack those, I think they sort of always reside in the midbrain in the part they call the amygdala that remembers those things.

Particularly as physicians, we experience a lot of things that would shock or dismay or be an assault on the emotions and other aspects of our personality for normal people. We’re trained to deal with that, but over a period of time it sort of builds up and if I think you don’t deal with that in some way in a healthy way and unpack that and process it in a healthy manner then it can kind of rise [sic] up it’s ugly head and grab you and that’s what happened to me.

That’s part of the whole purpose behind my book was to raise awareness about how you don’t have to have an absolute blow out where something huge happens. It can be sort of a slow leak that takes your energy and your enthusiasm for life away.

Pete Mockaitis
In your book, Finding Heart in Art, what would you say is the big idea there?

Shawn Jones
I think that knowing that a sense of presence and awareness about who you are and your purpose can really drive you to staying true to yourself. It’s hard to give yourself to anything, to your profession, to your family, to your friends if you’re not in possession of yourself. Maintaining the connection to who you truly are and the true self is part of that. I think finding beauty in the world is part of what helps keep us healthy in that respect.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting. I’d love to get your take then in terms of what are some of the practices associated with getting that connection back and keeping that connection strong proactively.

Shawn Jones
The three primary ways in which burnout are experienced or is experienced is through emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a loss of a sense of accomplishment in the work that you do.

Particularly with respect to medicine, but a lot of work is steeped in deep fundamental meaning, it’s hard to figure out how in the world you would ever lose that. How could someone not feel a purpose or a calling or a real significance to doing that kind of work, whether it be fireman, policeman, CEO of a large corporation?

Quite frankly as that burnout envelops you and the emotional numbness takes over, nothing you do seems to matter, so coming back to center and recognizing the truth of who you are and why you were called to do what you do is partially rekindled as a result of reconnecting to life again.

That is done through the emotions, which are the voice of the heart according to the psychologist, Chip Dodd, who wrote a book called The Voice of the Heart. They’re not our heart, but they are the expression. The emotions are the voice of our heart, their outward expression.

Experiencing fully fear, loneliness, hurt and being willing to do that, then you get the gifts that those offer you, which are the fullness of living in what is essentially a tragic place and that connection to yourself, then you think you can experience through the recognition of media. It might be for me observing or looking at Renaissance art. For you it might be hiking Elephant Loop trail in Yellowstone. For another it might be making a guitar.

There are all sorts of ways in which we connect with who we are and become true to ourselves in an artistic sense. Part of that expression I think helps enliven us/enrich us and is one of the reasons those activities are referred to as the humanities because they have a way of keeping us human.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really intriguing here. When it comes to – you laid out three causes: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and the loss of the sense of achievement and significance. You’re saying that experiencing fully the not so pleasant emotions can actually be helpful and preventative against burnout?

Shawn Jones
Well, I think to a degree if you think about it, all of those things that I mentioned, fear, hurt, loneliness, anger, guilt, they are part of being human. One of the things that tends to happen when we experience them is we don’t like them. We don’t like the feeling that they bring, so we want to pack them away and not deal with them. Over a period of time that emotional detritus, if you will, builds up.

They are going to have their say one way or the other, but dealing with them allows you – for example, if your foot hurts, it might be because you have a cut on it. Recognizing that hurt and addressing it and bandaging it, caring for it, brings you the gift of healing. Each of the emotions are like that. They have a gift that they give you as a result of their full experience that you deny yourself if you aren’t fully willing to enter into them.

Part of being a surgeon, for example, is emotions don’t help me a lot when I have an emergency operation to perform at two in the morning. We’re trained in a sense and rightfully so to take our emotions about the experience at that moment and set them aside. I think sometimes, certainly I did, got so good at setting them aside, I never got them back out again.

I think that’s one of the reasons you’re seeing really an epidemic in burnout amongst physicians is because we haven’t been historically trained to get those feelings back out and look at them. I think that’s one of the reasons why … are having difficulty with that now.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m curious to get your take on it in terms of in practice what does that look like in terms of what you do in terms of, okay, I put an emotion aside and then later on I’ve got some quiet, some opportunity to work with it. What do you do next?

Shawn Jones
I think that’s really important because we all, we know that there’s a lot of data that suggests that isolation and being alone is dangerous for human beings. We all crave connection and relationship in whatever form for each of us that takes. Living in a community and having someone with whom I have a trusting relationship to unpack those feelings in a way that can be beneficial to me.

Even sometimes nobody has to fix anything per se, but to just listen to what I experienced and acknowledge the grief, the anger. “Yeah, that really sounds like that was difficult. What was that like? Wow.” Just having that connection with someone I think I really beneficial to experiencing the gift of having those feelings.

Then as we talked about before being true to who you are. Sometimes we get so busy and there’s so much screen time and busyness in every day, we never stop to take account of where we are and what we’re doing and being truly present in the moment.

Mindfulness is one thing that’s been shown to be really beneficial in helping to be able to center in that moment and be aware of what you’re actually experiencing, which makes it really helpful to come back later even if it’s necessary and unpack those feelings again at a later time.

Pete Mockaitis
When you say mindfulness, are we talking about meditation in terms of just sitting quietly and returning your thoughts to breath or how are you thinking about mindfulness?

Shawn Jones
Well, I think there are a lot of different ways you can do that. Mindfulness space stress reduction is popularized by John Kabat-Zinn, an Emeritus professor at University of Massachusetts, who has created a program there.

He essentially studied Buddhism. As he would describe it I believe in paraphrasing took the trappings of the religion or Buddhism out of that and used mindfulness as a way to center on the breath or other types of things that helps your pulse rate and does all sorts of beneficial things from not just your ability to monitor your body, but it is also been shown to do some really interesting things.

Richard Davidson, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, has demonstrated that never-before meditators do ten minutes of meditation three times a week for three months compared to a same group of non-meditators who don’t meditate. If they’re given a flu shot, the meditative group has triple the antibody response to the flu shot that the non-meditating group has. It improves immune function.

It has all sorts of benefits I believe that we haven’t really figured it out yet in terms of research, but it’s really been probably one of the most beneficial things to come out of neuroscience research in my opinion in the last ten years is some of that data that talks about mindfulness.

You can also for instance talk about meditative practices that are within the spheres of religion some people would have more comfort with for a lot of different reasons that is the desert fathers of the Christian stripe in that sense, like St. John of the Cross, the Cloud of Unknowing. Rumi was a Sufi mystic who meditated.

There are lots of traditions. All of them seem to have benefits to them, but meditative practices in general I think are very good at being able to discern and to let go and to be present in the moment.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a real nice lineup there. I had not heard the study about the flu shot. That’s fascinating. We talked a bit about the emotional piece. What do you mean by depersonalization?

Shawn Jones
A classic example from medicine would be to speak of a patient in a very impersonal way, like “The gallbladder in room 247.” While in some respects, depending on the circumstance, that might be appropriate because of HIPAA and other things like that, that tendency to not relate to people as on a personal basis puts in a distance between you.

I think in that sense, the electronic health record in medicine has been a severe impediment to that when you hear stories of patients going to see physicians and the physician the whole time they’re in the examination room are typing on the computer.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Shawn Jones
It’s not a human-to-human interaction. I think the same sorts of things are happening in corporate boardrooms around America, where people are on their phones and not present. I mean really present in board meetings and things of that nature. The technology that is meant to connect us is actually disconnecting us in many ways.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, so then in terms of your daily workday experience, what are some sort of simple ways we can bring the personalization back into it?

Shawn Jones
Well, I think a lot of this really requires intention. I have to set out with purpose on a daily basis to live my life a different way because it is so easy to get caught up and swept away in the moments and movements that occur to us when we’re very busy.

I think starting the day with purpose even if it’s just five or ten minutes of some meditative or centering prayer/practice is really helpful because it sets the agenda for the day just like you would if you were going to set the agenda for a phone call.

When you feel yourself getting out of control and sort of losing and being distracted, meditative practices will help you be able to take a moment, breathe, remember what you set your intention for that day, re-center yourself. That helps you, again, to be present, to not live in the past, not live in the future, but be truly present in the moment, which allows you to respond to situations and particularly crises in a way that is more appropriate for the subject and the event at hand.

I think those are two things that are really important. The other thing I’ve personally really tried to work on is what I think people refer to as mindful listening. That is making sure that when someone else is speaking that I’m looking them directly in the eye and I’m listening intently to their words and not planning on my response or what I’m going to say or how I’m going to interject.

I think those are three things that have really helped to make a difference on a day-to-day basis.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, when you set an intention, what does that sounds like in practice?

Shawn Jones
Today I’m going to make sure that I’m not going to be distracted. I’m not going to try to multitask. I’m going to be on task during the day. I’m going to listen intently to people and if I feel myself starting to become angry or to even respond and behave in a way, which I’m not inclined to want myself to be like, then I’m going to stop and pause and be intentional about taking control of that moment.

Just knowing that and setting that intention during the day – sometimes I’ll be in the middle of the day and it will all of the sudden hit me, I need to stop here for a second and sort of re-center myself and do what I said I was going to do today because I feel myself rising up in an emotional way in a sense.

I think that really helps because sometimes you can get carried away. People will come up and they’ll say something, “Oh Dr. Jones, you’re really going to be angry about this.” Before I even hear what the issue is, I’m already like, “Yeah, I’m going to be angry.” It sort of it helps to kind of take a breath and make sure that you’re being you and present in the moment.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. I’d also want to get your take on the lever there or the factor that loss of achievement and significance. Do you have some thoughts for keeping connected to that when you’re in the midst of work?

Shawn Jones
That was very difficult for me because I completely lost my sense of purpose to a degree. Somewhere deep down I knew that I’d always wanted to be a physician. I was one of those kids that even though no one in my family had been to college, I knew I wanted to be a doctor when I was five or six years. I never wavered from that.

Deep down I knew that was really who I was, but I just wasn’t feeling like I was accomplishing much of anything. There wasn’t any sense of satisfaction there. Mostly it was because I’d lost myself. I had become detached from my inner emotional environment in a sense.

I think finding that purpose is great. The last thing I think anyone ought to do when you’re feeling burned out is to make a quick decision and change jobs or get out or – I think it really is important for people to take stock of what’s going on and try to get some perspective on it.

Because I think, for me at least, the purpose was there all along. It was the way in which I’d engaged that purpose. I thought by working harder, longer, faster, more that I would find it again. Actually, I needed to do just the opposite. I needed to step off for a moment, take a rest and re-examine that and find me.

Because compassion is the recognition of suffering and the desire to do something about it, to alleviate it in another human being. It’s pretty normal, natural human response to suffering. But when you have compassion fatigue, which is part of that burnout spectrum, you lose the sense of your purpose, so having that compassion rekindled and recognizing that you can only give what you have, it’s really important that you have yourself to be able to give it yourself.

Many of us need to have more compassion with ourselves because we become very negative in our self-talk and that isn’t helpful in developing compassion towards others. Compassion is contagious and I think the more that we extend compassion towards others and towards ourselves then the more compassion we’re going to experience.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, it’s funny when you talk about you’re feeling sort of under-resourced, tapped out, you’re less likely to act compassionately that reminds me of the study of the seminarians who had to turn in a paper. I believe it was about the story of the Good Samaritan. Half of them were told that they were late. The other half was not. I imagine you’ve encountered this in your work.

Then they encountered someone who was just coughing tremendously, like directly in their pathway. Those who were told that they were running late or that the deadline was very near, with alarming frequency just totally blew right by the guy versus those who did not feel they were that rushed were able to stop and help. These are seminarians who had just recently covered that story.

Shawn Jones
Studied the Good Samaritan. Yeah. It’s amazing I think sometimes once we get headed in a direction, how hard it is to turn ourselves about, but that’s a great example of what it means to actually put into practice what logically you’ve put into a different part of your brain.

Pete Mockaitis
When you’re compassionate with yourself in the midst of negative self-talk, what does the corrective or compassionate response to, it’s like, “Oh, I screwed up. I’m such a moron. Oh, I did it again.” It’s like, “Why can’t I ever get my act together with this?” kind of whatever. There’s the beat up self-talk. Then what is the intervention self-talk sound like?

Shawn Jones
There’s a loving kindness meditation. Actually there’s a free eBook called Compassion – Bridging the Science and Practice that’s available. If you Google that online, you can pick it up. It was developed a combination of some of the best neuroscientists in the world. In fact it was at the Max Planck Institute in Germany in cooperation with Buddhist monks who underwent functional MRI scanning. It’s got videos and tutorials.

But loving kindness mediation is essentially is, “I feel good. I am good. I want the best for me. I want the best for other people. I desire only what is good in life and want to extend mercy and compassion and grace.” Really, it sounds almost too good to be true.

The first couple of times I did it, you feel kind of foolish looking in the mirror doing that sort of thing, but it is amazing how that comes back to you at times when the negative self-talk will begin to pop up. There’s really a plethora of data that suggest that those who have a greater profundity of negative self-talk are more susceptible to burnout. It really is important in terms of trying to mitigate against the effects of burnout that you work on some of those.

There’s basically two ways you can try to affect burnout. One is by increasing your resilience. Those are the things like mindfulness space stress reduction, making sure you get plenty of sleep, eating correctly, exercising, all the things we know that we need to be doing and be diligent about in terms of our discipline.

But then there’s also decreasing the work-related stress, making sure you set aside time to do the projects you need to do in a concerted way, being intentional about what you want to do during the day and not being distracted, making sure you limit your screen time as much as you can. Even with me I know that’s difficult because screen time is important for the electronic health record.

But doing the best we can to mitigate the things we know that organizationally cause stress because Christina Maslach, who’s done as much work on burnout at a corporate level than anyone, with Michael Leiter wrote a book in 1997 called The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It.

She said in that book that burnout is an organizational problem. It’s not a failure of people on an individual level. It is an organizational issue. Addressing it at that level is much more complicated and much more difficult because the things I’ll tell you to do in a hospital to decrease stress and burnout, might not work at Procter & Gamble, for example, or other – Google and Apple and things like that.

It’s going to be more generic recommendations about how to decrease stress, so it makes it more difficult to make application in each individual sense from an organizational standpoint.

Pete Mockaitis
Nonetheless, I’ll take a couple generic recommendations if folks find themselves in a leadership capacity, whether it’s for a couple direct report or for thousands, what are some of the generalized best practices to help prevent the burnout?

Shawn Jones
There’s an interesting study that says Americans more than any other culture, generally don’t take their vacations. I think one of the things that really would … is have their people take their vacations. It’s important for the work you do here for you to have time off. We give you that time off and we want you to take it. It’s not a negative and you’re not going to be a hero by not taking your vacation. I think that’s a pretty simple one to institute.

Then be really willing, as we talked about earlier, to listen to people about the things that cause organizational stress. With physicians, for example, and this is true of other leaders, if you allow one of your best workers to do what he thinks is most important 20% of the time, his risk of burnout is reduced 3 times. You can have him doing things he’s really not as interested in 80% of the time if he can do what really charges him up at work 20% of the time.

Finding out what people really are interested in and want to do in their job that fits your job description, the purpose of management in organization in my view is to fulfill the mission of the organization but to allow people the room and the space to accomplish that task while fulfilling the mission of the organization.

Sometimes that’s simply getting out of people’s way and not micromanaging them because that feels a lot of times like mistrust. If you don’t think I’m able to do this job and so you’re going to tell me how to move the widget from A to B and B to C when I’ve got a better way.

Pete Mockaitis
What’s also intriguing about that 20% guideline is that person may very well have a clearer, more accurate, astute perception of what truly is most important than the leader or the manager in terms of so it’s not just work 20% of your time on whatever the heck you kind of feel like doing and playing Candy Crush on your phone, but it’s like – it’s projects related to the organization that you find to be important.

Shawn Jones
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s pretty powerful.

Shawn Jones
Yeah. I’m sure Candy Crush is important somewhere, but it wouldn’t be in most places.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m researching the competitors on addictive app best practices. Cool. Well, Shawn, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Shawn Jones
I think that being really interested in ways to remain healthy in general is a way to incorporate this idea about burnout into your daily life. Most of us have an idea of the things we want to do on a daily basis to remain physically and otherwise healthy. This would just be putting another piece of that into that pie. It doesn’t take a lot of time. It just, again, takes some decision making process and some intention.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Shawn Jones
I really think that one by Cynthia Bourgeault is compelling to me. “What the caterpillar calls disaster, the master calls a butterfly.”

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Shawn Jones
What I like about that is there’s so much that we do not have control over in this life. Things happen and many times we react to that in ways that reflect our dislike of what’s just occurred, but we don’t know how the story ends. Many times when we look back what we thought was really a horrible thing that happened to us in our life turned out to be one of the best things that could have ever happened.

I think it’s important to recognize when we’re in that moment to realize there may be something else at work and to be open to those possibilities.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Shawn Jones
The one about the meditators with the flu shot response is one. But there’s another one in kindness research, where a researcher took a blue and a pink elephant and he presented them to very young children, 18 months and younger.

The first elephant, the blue elephant, would – a duck would try to open a box and the elephant every time would jump on the box and keep him from opening it. Then they would show a video with the pink elephant and every time the duck would try to open the box, the pink elephant would come over and help him open it. 95% of the children when presented with both elephants chose the pink elephant.

What that says in essence is that all of us are attracted to compassion and kindness. That’s what we innately are born with in many respects. It says something I think about the heart of human beings and the recognition of what we all desire in a certain sense and what we’re attracted and what we want to be. To me it really makes me feel hopeful for the world.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is very powerful. I’m going to be chewing on that. Thank you. How about a favorite book?

Shawn Jones
A favorite book. I’ve been really enamored with historical biographies. I would say that Washington Irving wrote a biography of George Washington that was thoroughly researched. Part of it is how well it is written and the fact that Irving knew contemporaries of George Washington that were amazing.

But the character and integrity of George Washington is absolutely outstanding in reading the book and the kind of man he was and the kind of – the way he comported himself in different situations, absolutely courageous, was spellbinding for me.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. How about a favorite tool?

Shawn Jones
I think for me mindfulness is my favorite tool. It has in many ways transformed my daily life as well as my inner life in a way that has been so helpful for me in so many respects. For me, mindfulness would be that tool.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Shawn Jones
I enjoy exercising. Believe it or not if you saw me you wouldn’t think I liked powerlifting because I’m 5’ 10’’ and about 175 pounds soaking wet, but I really like deadlifting and squatting and doing Romanian deadlifts. There’s a lot of data that suggests that as you age maintaining muscle mass and functional strength improves your overall health. I enjoy doing that a couple times a week. It really helps me kind of unwind.

Pete Mockaitis
Can I put you on the spot and ask about the weights that you’re lifting?

Shawn Jones
Sure. I will do my best not to make this a fish story. I will tell you that I was in a gym not too long ago with a friend and he was lifting what he thought was a really great deadlift weight, like 350 pounds. A gentlemen came over and said, “Are you finished with that weight?” He said, “Yes.” Then he picked it up and did bent over rows with it. It was like, okay, we’re not at that level. But at first we thought, “Wow, this is really good.” But, yeah, my max deadlift is around 350.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, nice work. Nice work. Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate for folks?

Shawn Jones
I think the idea that we all are attracted to the beautiful things in life and what beauty means to each of us is different. One example of that is if you look at the Renaissance masters, the early Renaissance masters, their idea of beauty was perfection. Nicholas Poussin, if you look at his paintings, there’s no dirt, there’s no grime – everyone is perfect.

It’s just beautiful, but it is a different aspect of beauty than if you look at the later Renaissance and the Dutch masters such as Rembrandt or Caravaggio where there is realism there. There is darkness and light. Mixed in with that is the beauty of the relationship between the people and the paintings.

For example, The Return of the Prodigal Son of Rembrandt, it is astounding how seemingly grimy and dirty and torn the clothing can be and yet overall it is aesthetically so deeply moving and beautiful. I think that’s a reflection of life. We have to look for the beauty in everyday life. If we look for it, we’ll find it. It will astound us and it will enliven us and enrich us, but we have to look.

Pete Mockaitis
If folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Shawn Jones
My website is DrShawnCJones.com. That’s S-H-A-W-N for Shawn. They can follow me on Twitter at ShawnCJonesMD.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Shawn Jones
I think setting the intention and if you’ve not tried mindfulness or some meditative practice, it is very easy to start and there are a couple of apps even that will do it as much as I hate pointing to technology. Last night actually on NBC news there a story on Headspace, but there’s also one called Calm, which is very good, which is a great way to start without having to go to a class or do anything where you’re putting yourself out there.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Dr. Jones, this has been just – it’s been profound and beautiful. Thanks so much for taking this time and good luck in all you’re doing in helping to heal medical burnout and your other adventures.

Shawn Jones
I appreciate it, Pete. Thank you. It’s been great to be with you.

390: Five Practices for Flexible Course Correction with Ed Muzio

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Ed Muzio shares how teams can function better through smarter iteration.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How many organizations are planning poorly
  2. Approaches for greater clarity
  3. How to make wiser group decisions

About Ed

Ed Muzio is CEO of Group Harmonics and an award-winning three-time author. An expert in the scientific study of measuring and modifying human behavior, he is a sought-after consultant to business and industry worldwide and a popular media source. His new book is Iterate: Run a Fast, Flexible, Focused Management Team (An Inc. Original, 2018). He can be found at IterateNow.com.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Ed Muzio Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Ed, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Edward Muzio
Hi Pete, thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, well, it’s good to have you. I’m excited to chat about your good stuff, but first tell us a little bit about you learning the piano at the same time your kindergartener is learning the piano.

Edward Muzio
My kindergartener had a talent for music, so we got a piano and got him in lessons. I’ve always wanted to learn to play the piano, so I asked the instructor in the one-on-one lesson, “Can I take lessons as well?” thinking he would say, “You’re kind of too old for this.” He said, “No, adults can learn. It’s a little different.” We go every week and he does his lesson for 30 minutes and I do my lesson for 15.

What I can tell you is I’m ahead of him now Pete and I’ll be ahead of him I’m guessing another six months to a year because I can take on more complex concepts, but he’s going to get ahead of me and never look back because he has no problem with repetitious activity. He’ll keep learning. He has no problem making mistakes and trying because that’s just how kids learn. They fall down, get up again.

He has a sort of infinite patience in the sense of he does get frustrated, but it’s sort of like his whole life is about kind of bumping your head and going on, so he has no hang-ups at all. Plus his brain is so flexible. I’m watching him get better and better. I’m going I have six months, maybe a year and then he’s going to just be amazing and I’m going to be still pecking away at one note at a time kind of a thing. That’s going to be it after that.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I have a feeling he’s going to love that moment. I can remember when I beat my dad in chess and I knew he didn’t let me win. It was powerful in the sense that it’s like, “Whoa, I am capable of learning and growing to a point in which I have never been able to attain before.” I read a lot of books about chess from the library along the way. It’s like, “Wow, there’s something to this learning, this discipline, this sticking with things that yields cool results.”

Edward Muzio
That sort of try, fail, try, check, try, fail, try again loop is human powerfulness in learning action. He’s doing it. I think you’re right. I think when the day comes he’ll be pretty happy and I’ll be pretty happy too honestly.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, you talk about try, fail, try, fail that’s about as good a segue as you can ever get. You’ve got a book. It’s called Iterate. What is the story behind it?

Edward Muzio
Well, Iterate, it’s that same idea. Iterate is take a step, learn everything you can from that step – assuming the step was in the best direction you could figure out – but now check in again and see based on what you’ve learned what your next step should be. It’s a general concept.

Iteration is used by software programs that produce models for aircraft flight or weather. Iteration is used by plants as they grow. It’s incremental adjustment and it’s a learning loop, kind of like learning the piano, which is take what you’ve learned and incorporate it into the next step. My book, Iterate, is about what we know that management teams in really strong organizations do in that space to make sure the whole organization is iterating.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Well, so that sounds like a prudent, wise thing to do in terms of as you’re trying to accomplish things and make them happen. What’s sort of the alternatives that folks tend to try with less effectiveness?

Edward Muzio
Well, I like to talk about sort of the story of – you maybe have seen this in the book, but the story of walking to your car. You walk out the door of the office or the mall and you’ve got three minutes to get to your car. You start walking. What I just said happens. Every step is the best step you can take from there.

But what’s important about that is as you’re going along, you’ve got your feet, which is the workforce, and they’re detecting changes in the surface or they’re detecting it’s wet or something. They’re able to adjust without calling the CEO, which is your brain. Your brain set the pace and direction, get to the car in three minutes, but your CEO is not involved too much in the work of your feet.

Your feet use a resource. That’s blood oxygen. They can call to middle management, which is cardiovascular, get some more. If they need a whole lot more, that gets escalated even further. Then you do get the message in your CEO office, which is breathe harder or walk slower. At the same time you’re looking out over the horizon. You’re trying to see is that my car that I’m walking to, is there an obstruction in my way. You’re feeding information down.

You’ve got this sort of metaphorical organization, where information is flowing both up and down and it’s meeting at the right places and decisions are getting made at all levels just so that every step you take is the next best one from there. When you notice, for example, that you’re headed toward the wrong car, that’s the moment you change direction, not two steps sooner and not five steps after.

That’s the model. The alternative and what we see in a lot of organizations unfortunately, is this sort of make a plan and then manage people as if sticking to the plan is the goal. You make a plan, you start walking on the line, and then you have this scenario where the people are sort of metaphorically saying we’re not heading toward the car anymore and yet the institution can’t seem to turn.

That’s management by one strict plan at the beginning of the year. It is the alternative; however, it does not produce nearly the observable levels of growth or agility or market dynamic receptiveness or any of those kind of things than an organization, which can actually turn in small ways and big ways when new information comes out.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so you mentioned a few potential indicators of performance or result. Can you share maybe any studies or research you’ve done that show what kind of a difference it makes when you iterate versus stick doggedly to the original plan?

Edward Muzio
There’s all kinds of anecdotal stories out there. What this book is based on is it’s based on actually about 70 years of research and experience. The research actually goes back to something called The Institute for Social Research, which was post-World War II, literally following managers around and writing down what they were doing and looking to see does management actually make a difference. Does it matter how you manage.

Then it tracks all the way up to we have information coming to us today about self-organizing systems like ant colonies out of the neuroscience field, which say ants kind of can find their way back and forth in these long lines because they leave a trail and they leave indicators of where they were and where to go next. That’s called … I believe. Don’t quote me on that.

We’ve got this sort of long line of research that all kind of comes together and says natural systems, computer systems, we know this is an effective way to solve problems. It’s intuitively obvious. You can go find the big bears in any space, like you’re look at sort of Intel for example. I used to work there during their growth years.

The famous sort of anecdotal story about Intel is in their early years they were competing with Motorola and someone from Motorola – this is folklore really – but someone from Motorola said, “I can’t get an airplane ticket approved in the time it takes you to adjust your entire approach to our market,” because they could just take this whole big company and just shift it.

That’s what we see in these inner shift companies is once we get these managers doing these simple five practices and doing them consistently, we start to see this agility emerge where we can stay the course for as long as we need to, but as soon as we need to turn, we can turn.

Pete Mockaitis
What are the five practices?

Edward Muzio
Well, the first one is called output and status broadcasting. I should say before I start, these are my words. One of the challenges in this work is language because if I say something that sounds like something you’ve heard of before, you’ll sort of assume I’m talking about that and that becomes problematic because really what we’re trying to do is describe behaviors.

As I talk through these, Pete, you have to sort of think about the behavior I’m talking about as opposed to the terminology. But just broadly speaking, there are five of them. The first, output and status broadcasting is managers are clear and repeated with their teams, everyone else about what they’re trying to produce with the resources they have under their control.

Secondly, they produce dashboards and plots and a particular kind of forward-looking data that shows two levels of the future, so they can sort of show graphically “Here’s where I thought I was trying going to go. Here’s what I now think is going to happen. Here’s the difference between those two things,” so that conversations can be held about the difference. That’s number one.

Number two is what I call work preview meetings. That’s those conversations. That’s management teams getting together saying where do we see this future variance, where do we see a difference between the goal we’re trying to achieve and the likely outcome of the path we’re on and what might we do with our resources to compensate for that.

One of the great sort of tragedies I think of North American management in general is that so much time is spent in meetings looking backwards, “Here’s what was done,” “Here’s a graph of everything I made up until this week,” “Here’s a list of all the things that got done last year.” Some of that is fine, but all you can do as a manager is move resources around at this moment to affect what happens in the future.

If you’re not mostly spending your meeting time talking about that, how do we change the resources around or not based on what we now understand about the future that we didn’t understand before, you’re having a problem. That’s work preview meetings.

That also gets into the third one which is called group decision making. That’s just the issue of once you’re in one of those meetings and you detect a variance, it becomes complicated what you should do about it and there’s some particular information about how to make good group decisions, things like, for example, voting is not a rational way to make decisions because people get focused on obtaining support rather than good information. It’s all around sort of coming to a good decision.

That leads into the fourth one which is called linked teams. We can talk quite a bit about this one, but the idea is that it’s not an org chart. We don’t have a set of individuals each with their own goals. We have a set of teams run by managers and each management team has a set of goals and works as a team so that everyone’s looking up at their manager’s goals instead of fighting with their peers on their own goals. That way those teams link together and do the work for the organization. All of that is necessary.

The last thing is the fifth practice and that is what we call frontline self-sufficiency. That’s the idea that an individual contributor, someone on the frontline has what they need to do their job and to do it efficiently and is so empowered to do it – I hate to use the word empowered. It’s more specific than that. But the net effect is they have what they need, nothing is in their way.

They’re so enabled I guess I should say to do that work that they can actually forecast their output. We don’t have frontline supervisors telling the staff how it’s going; we have the frontline staff telling the supervisor, “I’m on track,” “I’m ahead,” I’m behind.” That’s what leads to those forecasts that I was talking about because that’s how management ultimately knows what’s going on.

That set of five things really keeps the organization always taking a step, looking forward, saying, “Here’s what we thought was going to happen. Here’s what we now think is going to happen. What adjustments should we make? Here’s our decision to make them. Let’s do that and move on.” Then just iterating that cycle over and over again as they chomp away at their goals.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s dig into a little bit of this now. When you mentioned having dashboards and you have two levels to the future, what do you mean by that?

Edward Muzio
Well, dashboards, by the way, is one of those dangerous terms because everyone has one and they already think they know what it means. I do use the word, but I always kind of worry about that. Here’s the concept. Let’s take a really simple example.

This can work for complex things too, but in a simple example, I’m producing something, the line that I run, and I’m supposed to make 100 a week. In a typical sort of North American management situation, I would come to you Pete if you’re my boss and I’d have a graph. It would show week by week how many I made up to today.

Maybe if it was a good graph, it would also have some kind of a plan or forecast line that would show, “Hey, I’m supposed to stay flat. That’s the plan,” or “I’m supposed to do 10% more every week until I ramp up to this level,” so that’s the future. That’s pretty standard in management.

The problem with that is, of course, what you’re going to ask me is, “Ed, are you going to hit that forecast?” Then there’s going to be a long narrative discussion in which I sort of opine about that. Then you try and sort of figure out if I’m trying to hide anything. It becomes this very ceremonial dance.

What we need instead is I need to have a second future on that graph. I need to have what’s done in the past. That’s fine. I’ve got my plan line. This is what I’m supposed to deliver. Then I’ve got a second line that says based on my best intelligence today, here’s what I think is going to happen.

Now that second line might be right on top of the plan line, in which case there’s nothing to talk about, or maybe it varies. Maybe I’m saying, “Look, I’m not going to get as many as I thought,” or “Hey, I’m going to overrun.”

If that variance is big enough, that becomes something that you, me, and my peers and your management team need to talk about because someone else may need to adjust some resources or I may need to adjust some resources to deal with that fact, whether it’s good or bad. Even if I’m ahead of the game, it’s still potentially an issue for somebody who’s going to get overwhelmed by my output. Difference is difference and difference needs attention.

Pete Mockaitis
You said that there’s the plan and then the projection is your best guess as to how things are going to unfold here. I guess what gets interesting there is that there’s – you mentioned the dance, there’s all these layers associated with expectation and authority and punishment, shoot the messenger activities or not.

It’s almost like you have to have a somewhat mature and respectful culture to even deal with the fact that a variance exists. They might just be like, “Ed, no, Ed. Do the thing we agreed that you would do.”

Edward Muzio
Right. It’s funny. The North American management – I always call it the North American management model – we have this sort of mythology. It’s beautiful mythology. It says, Pete, you’re my boss. You say to me, “Ed, look, these are your goals. Go and get them. I don’t want to hear it, just go and get your goals. Don’t bring me forecasts that are different. Just get your work done.”

That’s the mythology. By that mythology you tell my peers the same thing. Then we all bring you our goals and you knit it together into what your boss wants.

The problem with that is that I am going to have variance and my peers are going to have variance. At some point I’m going to come to you and say, “I can’t do this unless you give me some of Fred’s money.” Fred’s going to come and say, “Don’t do that. I need more of Ed’s money.”

You’re going to become – and you know this if you’ve worked in any kind of management space – you become the referee. You’re almost like a parent in a dysfunctional household, where everyone is bringing you their problems, everything is framed as mission critical, and it’s your job to sort it out.

Meanwhile, your boss is looking at you saying, “Is it going to happen?” Your boss is looking down at you, you’re looking down at me and my peers, and everyone is trying to sort out kind of are these people lying to me, are they telling me the truth. It’s a very non-trusting culture, but it’s also a very preoccupied culture with trying to sort of sort out information.

What I’m saying is, you’re right, it is a cultural shift. We sometimes start it by saying, look, no news is bad news because we don’t know what’s going on, bad news is good news because we want to see variance early, and good news is no news because if there’s no variance, we don’t need to talk about it.

What that looks like sort of mechanically is on that graph that I have, I’m going to carry my past production and my past forecasts. Part of what you’re sort of looking for from me and expecting from me is that my forecasts are pretty good.

I’m not allowed to change my past forecasts to match my past production, so over time you’ll see, “Hey, Ed’s pretty good at forecasting his work. When he says this is going to go off the rails, I have a reason to believe him, the team has a reason to believe him. We probably should adjust to that.” Otherwise it just becomes like you said, sort of a fingers in the ears, don’t bring me bad news and don’t tell me – just go fix it kind of thing, but that doesn’t really work.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m right with you there. On the second practice, the work preview meetings, can you give us some perspective or tools on what are some great ways to provide previews?

Edward Muzio
One of them is that graph. I’m going to come in and I’m going to say, “Hey Pete, I’ve got this problem. I’ve got some variance. I need to talk about it.” Once you’ve got a team that’s presenting that to you and recommending to you what goes on the agenda, that sets you up to say, “Okay, of all these different variances, I’m going to put this, this and this on the agenda.”

One of the practices is as the manager of managers, have people tell you 24, 12, whatever hours in advance, “Here’s my biggest variance I want to talk about,” and then you be in charge of building the agenda and say, “Okay, from my perspective, these are the most important ones.”

Once you’re in the conversation, we have something called the OSIR – O-S-I-R. It’s an acronym – the OSIR report. That just stands for objective, status, issue, and recommendation. You manage me to make that kind of report.

You say, “Ed, you’re going to make your report now. Tell us about the variance.” I’m there with you, my boss and my peers. I’m going to say, “My objective is X, Y, and Z as you know because you’ve heard this from me before because of my output and status broadcasting. My status is here it is on my graph. You can see the variance. You’ve seen my graph before. You know how to read it,” so that takes a minute.

“My issue is the root cause of my variance,” whatever that is. “I’m short on people,” or “Things are happening differently than I thought.” “R is my recommendation. I recommend to the team that X, Y, Z happens,” “that Fred give me some of his resources,” “that you relax my deadline,” “that I do this or that thing.”

What that does is in about 3 minutes, it tees up the conversation. It’s not 10 or 15 minutes of me talking about reasons and root causes. It’s me talking for a very short period of time, putting a recommendation on the table, a strawman, and then saying “Okay, now here’s what I think we should do. What are we going to do?” You’re the boss, Pete, but we as a team are going to decide together what are we going to do.

Pete Mockaitis
That is helpful certainly, especially because if your variance is bad, it’s probably very natural temptation to make excuses and to share numerous reasons, external factors that can contribute to it just so that the folks who are reporting to you don’t think that you are underperforming because you’re maybe sensitive about it. You’re not delivering on what you hoped to be delivering.

But when you sort of summarize it in terms of this is the expectations that we go in this format, it’s going to take three minutes, I think that could really go a long way in reducing the length of long meetings.

Edward Muzio
Well, it does. One of the pieces that’s important is we always say discussions of status and discussions of history are minimized, not eliminated, but minimized.

We do in that same meeting – the first thing that will happen for the first let’s say five minutes is me and all my peers will just put up all our graphs all at once, that’s that dashboard concept, and say, “Here’s what I’m doing. This, this and this are going well. This one we’re going to talk about in a few minutes.” My next peer goes and says, “We’re all on track here.” Next peer goes and says, “These three are a little behind. We talked about that last week.”

There’s this very brief kind of quick status update that takes maybe ten minutes out of the hour if that. What that does, to your point, is it starts to let people see, so my peers and you to some extent, start to see, “Hey, Ed’s house isn’t on fire. He’s not just a collection of problems. He’s running this whole thing. It’s mostly going okay. Now he’s asking for help in this area.”

It’s a way of building trust because you’re right. If all we ever did was bring in our problems, then what happens is pretty soon my peers see me as nothing but a collection of problems. Then we lose trust. That little brief status at the front end, which educates us by each other’s graphs also educates us as to the fact that we’re trustworthy. Then from there we can go into that brief format and have a conversation. That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, then let’s hit the group decision making piece there. You mentioned voting is not the greatest of means to arrive at decisions. What are some key ways that we arrive at optimal decisions?

Edward Muzio
I always feel like I should preface this by saying this is not political commentary. This is business, small group decision making, but voting produces irrational result. Now, some people have said, “Well, we think that’s true in politics as well,” that’s to the listener to decide.

But what we know is if we put a group of people together and say, “We’re going to vote on the best answer,” then the focus turns to garnering support. I’m not going to worry too much about information. I’m going to say, “Hey, peer number one, if you go with me on this one, I’ll go with you next time. I’ll owe you a favor,” kind of a thing. That may be good for me and peer number one, but that’s not so good for the organization. We can’t do voting.

Consensus, which is we don’t do anything until we all agree has been shown to produce good quality decisions; the problem is the time. By the time we get everyone to agree, we’re too late for the business cycle.

We go into what’s called a consultative mode. Now traditional consultative decision making is Pete’s the decider, we’re all not the decider, we each talk to you one-on-one, and then you make a decision. That’s okay, but what we know is in these complex scenarios where everything is interdependent, I actually need to hear my peers talking to you and you need me to hear my peers talking to you because they’re going to raise an issue that I have information about.

We do what we call group consultative, which is each of us has a job to teach you what we know. That’s important. You basically say to us, “My agreement at this moment is off the table. Here’s how I’m leaning or not, but my agreement is off the table. Teach me what you know.”

Then I say to you, “Pete, if we don’t do this, X, Y, and Z are going to happen.” You say to me, “Ed, I think what you’re telling me is from your perspective, if we don’t do this, this, and this then X, Y, and Z are going to happen. Do I understand that?” I say, “Yes, that’s it.” Then that part of the conversation is done. It relieves me of the stress of feeling like I have to convince you to go my way. It also puts the focus on the information transfer.

You learn as much as you can from all the team members. In the process, they’re learning from each other. Then as the decider, we already know before we start it’s going to fall to you to make the decision. The decision you make is not necessarily the most popular decisions. It might or might not be.

It’s not a vote. It’s not a who spoke the loudest or who spoke the most. It’s you saying, “Hey, I’m the person in this seat and I’ve got the role of decider and based on what you all are teaching me right now, here’s my decision.”

Here’s another tip your listeners can use. Your decision isn’t done until the team can say it back to you both what was decided and your rationale for it. Not only Pete decided to give X number of dollars from Fred to Ed, but because he and we believe that Ed’s work in this area is higher priority or more immediate, whatever.

That’s important because we’re talking about managers, the managers have to be able to take that decision back to their teams and say, “Here’s what we as a management team decided and here’s why.” I call that commissioning. The decider makes sure to take the time that everyone understands both the decision and the rationale before we consider the decision to be complete.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, now when you started that conversation, “Hey, teach me what you know,” you said “I’m putting agreement to the side,” what do you mean by that?

Edward Muzio
Well oftentimes, I’m sure you’ve had these experiences and many of us have, we may know that you’re going to make the decision, right Pete? I’m going to say to you, “Pete, you’ve got to go my way and here’s why.” You’re going to start to detect some emotional content in there. I’m going to be animated and I’m going to maybe not even stop talking because I feel like you haven’t come around yet.

But once you say to me, “Look, we’re not at the part of the process where I’m going to agree with you or not. We’re just at the part of the process where my job is to understand you. Let me say back to you Ed what I think you just told me. Do I have it right?” If I say, “Yes, you have it right.” Then you say to me, “Well, do you have anything else to add, other information I need?” I go, “Yes, here’s some more.” We do that until I finally say, “That’s all the information I have.”

It’s a way of getting the information out of me while sort of relieving me of both the pressure and stress and also the reality of trying to convince you because then you can literally turn to me and say, “Ed, thank you. Thank you for the information. I’m going to consider that. I can appreciate that you’re – not only is this difficult for you logistically but it’s going to be really kind of an emotional thing for you. I’ve learned that as well. But I need to move on now and hear what the others have to say.”

It opens up the air time because everyone has something to contribute in terms of facts and information. Nobody feels that need to sort of filibuster until you come around.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, understood. That is helpful when you segment or separate those dimensions from each other. Now I’m curious, when it comes to frontline self-sufficiency, what tend to be the bottlenecks, the obstacles that mean we don’t have the frontline self-sufficiency, the recurring things that folks need but don’t have so they can’t do what they need to do?

Edward Muzio
On one level the frontline self-sufficiency is one of the easiest, maybe the easiest of the key practices to understand because the components all kind of tie together very simply. It’s really three things that lead to a fourth.

But your frontline employees need to have clear output goals, just to say that they know what they’re supposed to do and they can count it. They know what it is. That’s one’s pretty easy to understand.

Self-managed feedback, which means they are tracking their own work more frequently than management is tracking it. It’s not a question of management telling them what’s going on; it’s a question of them already knowing how they’re doing.

Then the third thing is what I call control of resources. That just means they have what they need to do the job. If there’s material or something they need, they can get to it. Again, that’s not always easy to do, not too hard to think about.

But the formula is goals plus feedback plus resources equals forecasts. What happens is once you have a workforce that’s equipped that way, they know what they’re supposed to do, they know if they’re doing it and how well they’re doing it, and how fast they’re doing it, and they have everything they need at their disposal to do it, then they start to be able to make those forecasts.

They start to be able to say when the boss asks on Tuesday or Wednesday, “What are we looking like for Friday?” They can say, “I’m on track. This is typical,” I’m a little behind, but it’s recoverable,” “I’m way behind.”

That’s the information that gets rolled up into that second forecast, that second future line where I say, “Hey boss, hey Pete, here’s what I know is going to happen in the next two to six weeks,” I’m getting that from the frontline because they’re the ones that actually know where we are. Without the frontline self-sufficiency, forecasting becomes sort of academic and hypothetical and the process does not work nearly as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. I’m also wondering when people don’t have those things, the goal is unclear or the feedback is incomplete or the resources are also incomplete, what are the things you see time and time again are among the most common things that are incomplete and missing from the self-sufficiency picture?

Edward Muzio
In terms of specifics, it varies, but I’ll give you a couple examples. One of the ones that’s often missing, not surprisingly, is clear goals. We have someone who they know their job is to let’s say get these orders filled, that’s a goal, but there’s not really a how fast or turn time or anything like that. If you sort of ask them how it’s going, they go, “It’s okay.” If you say “Are you on track, ahead or behind?” they sort of almost can’t answer you because it’s not a clear enough goal. That’s one failure mode.

Another one is maybe the foal is clear, but the resource control is an issue. It’s like you have to get these orders filled or whatever, but there’s a step in your process where you have to get approval for a shipment let’s say. Sometimes that approval takes two hours and sometimes it takes three days.

Then when I ask my frontline for a forecast, they’ll say, “Well, I’m okay, but I don’t know what’s going to happen because I’ve turned this thing in so it will be Wednesday or Friday.” That’s an issue of control of resources. It’s a different thing but it’s also in the way of that forecast.

It’s a good way to kind of look backwards and say if you can’t get a fair forecast or reasonable forecast, you can look back and say, “Okay, why can’t they do it? Is it because they don’t know what the goal is? Is it because they don’t know how they’re doing at it? Or is it because there are these things that are out of their control in the way?” It’s always one of those three.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. That’s a helpful framework in terms of segmenting that into discrete pieces. I guess I’m thinking about sometimes we have no idea because we’ve never done this before. It’s new stuff. I guess sort of like feedback is missing and maybe not so much from management but just from almost like the work itself. It’s like we’re entering new, uncharted territory and I don’t know how long it’s going to take for me to learn how to do this thing or to build this thing we’ve never built before.

Edward Muzio
Yeah, that’s a reality. That can actually happen just like that, but one of the things we also know is there’s a whole major category of work out there that we call troubleshooting work, which is the phone rings – you think of a call center for computer repairs – the phone rings and the problem is put in front of me. If I’m the frontline worker, I don’t know what the work is until I get the problem.

In that kind of scenario, although it’s true that I can say, “Well, I don’t exactly know how long the next one is going to take because I don’t know what it is,” there are still tools we can use around those goals and feedback and resources to make forecasting possible.

One of the tools we use is batch queues. I can say, “I have this many issues, which are received and undiagnosed,” meaning it’s in my queue to figure out the problem, “I have this many issues, which are diagnosed but unsolved,” meaning I know what the problem is but I’m not done implementing it yet, and then “I have this many that are solved.”

Sometimes people will further segment those into something like category A, category B, whatever. These take longer than those. But when you start to see individual contributors who work on that kind of work use those kind of systems, what starts to happen is they can, again, start to make forecasts.

You’ll say midweek, “How are you doing?” now they can’t tell you what the next thing on the phone is going to be, but they can say, “Normally by this time of the week I have 15 things that are received and undiagnosed. Right now I have 42, so I am behind,” or “Normally I have this many of type B solutions to implement and I only have 10% as many right now, so I’m ahead.”

Even though we’re all doing things to some extent we’ve never done before, you can start to work around that a bit and still get some intelligence of the system about within some broad bounds, what does this week look like relative to your other weeks of doing things no one’s ever done before? We still need that information.

Pete Mockaitis
When it comes to forecasting, you mentioned being fair and you used the term ‘a fair day’s work forecast.’ What precisely does that mean and how would you contrast that with the alternative?

Edward Muzio
Well that I do a fair day’s work forecast is once I have those three things, if I’m a frontline worker, I’ve got those goals, self-managed feedback and control of resources, then I can know what I can accomplish reasonably.

I think traditional managers will be afraid of this, say, “How do I know they’re not going to sandbag or how do I know they’re not going to lie?” But what we know about humans is they tend to try and perform pretty well most of them. Once I sort of know what I can get done in a fair day’s work, I can start to make a forecast and say, again, “I’m ahead,” “I’m on track,” “I’m behind.”

That’s contrasted with in the North American management model, the boss tells me how much to do and then I either do it or I don’t. What happens? Well, for one thing, I can only do so much. My capacity doesn’t change by my boss’s opinion; however, my presentation of what I’m doing will change.

You’re going to tell me, “Get this much done or not,” and if I can’t reasonably do it and I want to survive, which I do because I have that reptile part of my brain that’s geared toward survival, then I’m going to paint a picture or tell a story or find a reason why that wasn’t possible and I’m going to sort of make it okay. If the boss is really setting unreasonable goals, nobody can do it, then whoever has the most reasonable story gets to keep their job. That’s how it plays out.

But now we’ve got some really bad information in the organization because we have these quote/unquote expectations that first of all aren’t realistic and now we’ve got this layer of storytelling on top of it, which is here’s how you get around that and that will get trained to new people.

This is where management ceases to be functional and starts becoming ceremonial. Now we’re getting the work done despite management instead of thanks to the feedback and adjustment of management. That’s what we’re really trying to avoid.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. I think it takes a pretty good level of understanding in terms of what’s really on your plate and what you’re really committed to in order to have those. I think there’s a lot of people in work/life experience almost sort of like a chaotic sea of just too much and it’s kind of just all a big old cesspool of requests and action items. For many it’s a matter of what is latest and loudest, the most urgent and terrifying fire that they need to handle. It’s not a really fun way to live.

Edward Muzio
No, it’s more than that. … your cesspool quote. It takes years off your life. It’s not even funny. It literally does.

That goes back to that output and status broadcasting, which is one of the things we advise managers at all levels is you need to have three or five or seven things which you can use – it’s almost like an elevator pitch – to summarize the output you’re delivering. That output and that story and that summary needs to be presented over and over again to your next level, your next level so that people understand what they’re doing because we’re all subject to overload. We’re all subject to that cesspool of endless stuff.

If there’s not a clear drumbeat from management saying here’s what we’re measuring, here’s what we’re doing, here’s what we’re forecasting on, here’s where we’re going, then it’s just easy to get lost.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Ed, tell me anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Edward Muzio
I think probably the last thing I would say is as you think about this, as the listeners think about this, I’ve found that there’s some confusion in that we need some more language around managing.

When you become a manager you start reading and getting advice about how to manage people, I like to call that managing with a capital ‘ing.’ That is true for anybody who manages people. You have to set goals, you have to deal with compensation, you have to help them solve their issues, you have to help them develop. That’s all tremendously important.

There’s another category of work that I call management with a capital ‘ment.’ That is being a member of the broader team of managers who together work in concert with each other and coordination with each other to coordinate and adapt the resources of the organization to achieve its goals.

I believe that most of what’s written for managers is written about managing with a capital ‘ing.’ My book, Iterate, is written about management with a capital ‘ment.’ I think it’s complimentary and equally important and often overlooked.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Well, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Edward Muzio
One that I really like is – it’s from Pema Chodron, who’s actually a Buddhist, but she says, “We’re all capable of becoming fundamentalist because we get addicted to other people’s wrongness.” I like that kind of on a personal level, but I also like it on a group meetings level. We’ve all been in meetings where someone was a fundamentalist because they were addicted to everyone else’s wrongness.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. How about a favorite study or experiment or a bit of research?

Edward Muzio
There was a study done years ago by a very famous guy named Asch. It was about social conformity. The idea was five people are around a table and you show all five people these different lines. Two of them are the same length and you ask them which two. The first four people give the wrong answer, but they’re in on it. The fifth person – the question was will the fifth person speak out against the group or will they go along. Overwhelmingly they went along.

But the piece that I find myself quoting is that thing’s been – that’s from the ‘60s. It’s been redone a lot of times, but somewhere around 2005 – 2006, somebody did it again with an MRI machine on the subject. The question was are they just sort of rolling over and they secretly know the answer, but they’re not saying it or is their perception being changed.

Asch, himself, always thought it was just a question of people – they just didn’t have the something, the courage or the stamina to speak up. What we found out was it actually changes your perception.

Group think is more than we thought. It’s not just about a lack of courage. Your perception changes. That just I think highlights the importance of if you see a difference, speak out in a group because even if you’re wrong, just you speaking out might help the next person who actually sees the real thing to actually be able to see it. You’re actually helping the perceptiveness of the group.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s a nice implication to highlight. Thank you. Yeah. How about a favorite book?

Edward Muzio
I’m just finishing up a book called The Insightful Leader by Carlann Fergusson. It’s about – it’s sort of the flip side of the coin to play to your strengths, which is how any one of those strengths, like results orientation or something, can become a hindrance. I think she did a really good job of explaining it got you here, but also it can become a hindrance and how to sort of keep your strength and not overdo it.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

Edward Muzio
A couple. Ladder of Inference by Chris Argyris. If you don’t know that one, you can Google it. It talks about how we build sort of our perceptions of what’s going on around us.

The other one is if you don’t know Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I won’t try and spell it, but just look for Flow. It’s about sort of having these great experiences of enjoying ourselves and it has to do with challenge and knowledge or ability being held in bounds. Those have been useful to me personally, but also professionally.

Pete Mockaitis
My hat’s off for correctly pronouncing his name. I imagine you’ve practiced it before.

Edward Muzio
I did one of my whiteboard videos – I have a series of whiteboard videos. I actually called his office and said, “Please just say his name to me enough times that I can get it because I don’t want to say it wrong.” Now I’ve got good notes on it.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve Googled it myself. Well done. How about a favorite habit?

Edward Muzio
It’s sort of boring but I live my life by my calendar. I’ve got my calendar on a separate monitor next to me at all times. I schedule everything from meetings to things I have to do. I think I would be I would guess 80% less effective if I didn’t live by my calendar. I feel like that’s a good one.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks who are listening to you?

Edward Muzio
It’s from my mentor actually. The quote is “You can’t make a pie one slice at a time.” His name is Bill Daniels. He taught me a lot of this stuff when I first got into this space. It’s about that idea of those linked teams, which are you can’t assign Ed to one thing and Fred to something else and Pete to something else and then knit it all together later. If you’re a team, you have to act like a team. You can’t bake a pie one slice at a time.

Pete Mockaitis
If folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Edward Muzio
A couple places. IterateNow.com, that’s just I-T-E-R-A-T-ENow.com. That’s the site for the book. It’s got my bio and my social media handles and things like that. My firm is Group Harmonics and GroupHarmonics.com. That’s where our offerings and classes and stuff are.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Edward Muzio
I think the thing I would say is we’ve been talking about without talking about culture, the culture around us. I think people tend to feel powerless. On that walk to your car, it’s like the culture is the weather.

But the culture really isn’t the weather; the culture has actually been clearly defined by people who have thought about it a lot as the collection of habits we took forward from the past. The implication is what you’re doing now is going to become the culture of tomorrow. If you’re walking to your car, it’s not the weather; it’s your habits. It’s how you swing your arms, it’s whether you smoke a cigarette, those kind of things.

I think my challenge is if you’ve got a world where it seems like management is more ceremonial than functional, don’t just say “Oh that’s the culture, nothing I can do,” and throw your hands up. Instead say, “Oh, that’s the culture. What can I do differently today that people will notice and repeat tomorrow so that I can change the culture?”

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Well, Ed, this has been a lot of fun. I wish you tons of luck with your book, Iterate, and all you’re up to.

Edward Muzio
Pete, thank you, likewise. Enjoyed the time and good luck with your show.

383: Driving Adaptability in your Organization with Michael J. Arena

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GM’s Chief Talent Officer Michael J. Arena explores the idea of ambidextrous leadership to help lead your organization in its current state and in its future – at the same time.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Ways to positively disrupt the way you work
  2. Concrete ways to mine the ideas of your organization
  3. Why conflict is essential to the evolution of ideas

About Michael

Michael is the Chief Talent Officer for General Motors (GM), where he launched GM2020, a grass roots initiative designed to enable employees to positively disrupt the way they work, which was highlighted in Fast Company and Fortune. Michael is the author of the book Adaptive Space, which is based on a decade long research initiative that won the 2017 Walker Prize from People + Strategy.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Michael J. Arena Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Michael, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Michael J Arena
Thanks Pete. I’m looking forward to this.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh me too, me too. Well you’ve got what sounds to be to me like a pretty fun job as the chief talent officer at General Motors. Can you orient us a little bit to what does that mean in practice?

Michael J Arena
In essence it’s really about how do you optimize human capital across the overall corporation, so how do we bring in the best people possible. In short, I’d like to say, how do we bring in the best people possible and then bring the best out in those people. That’s all about human capital and how do we get those people positioned to be able to leverage what they know. Yeah, it’s quite fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Now in practice over the last few years you’ve been doing a lot of bringing out the best in people it sounds like. If you look at sort of the financial picture at General Motors in 2009, they’re filing for bankruptcy and now you’ve got some great profits. The business press would point to cultural shifts as being an essential part of making that transformation.

Could you give us a little bit of the behind-the-scenes or in-the-middle-of-things narrative for how this came to be and the human capital pieces play into it?

Michael J Arena
Yeah, absolutely. Just to clarify, I joined the company in 2012, so I can tell you – I can describe that journey from that point forward and more precisely around this role here in HR. I do think it’s about culture. It’s certainly – it’s been quite the journey.

I can remember when Mary Barra took over as CEO. One of her very first quotes and comments was this industry is going to change more in the next five years than it has in the last 50. What that means is you need to rethink everything you’re doing.

Culture is a core element of that. It’s not the only one. It is either an enabler or a stifler of what you want to do with things like business strategy and how you’re going to drive operational management, how you’re going to think about new consumers and new business models and all that sort of stuff. It’s been quite the comprehensive journey from that point to this with much of it still in front of us.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so could you give us a little bit of the particulars with regard to before the culture was more like this and now it’s more like that and here are some of the key things we did to bring about that shift?

Michael J Arena
Yeah, and again, I think it starts kind of with the industry. This was an organization and an industry that was all about driving execution, all about continuing to drive scale across the world. The game’s changed quite a bit. It’s now – we’ve got a – it’s now the future mobility.

We now need to think about what are customers demanding, what are customers – the best illustration I can give about that, then I’ll go back to the specifics of your question is people are moving to cities, just to put it in a real live external marketplace example. People are moving into cities and everyone’s becoming connected. The way you think about mobility inside of a city versus mobility in a suburban environment is very different.

We need to then get the business to start thinking about things differently. That certainly requires us to instill new sets of behaviors and to challenge everybody to think bigger than perhaps they had in the past. Again, to move faster as well because the world outside is moving super fast compared to what we’ve been used to.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, so it seems like we’re changing sort of the total focus in terms of what General Motors wants to be excellent at in order to succeed in a different environment with more people in cities and sort of car sharing and ride services, sort of a different landscape than it was in 2009. I’m curious to hear what does that look like in terms of day in/day out humans at GM interacting with other humans and how they’re doing it differently now?

Michael J Arena
Yeah, one of the big things we did to start to drive this transformation is we plugged in a program that we call Transformational Leadership. This was a partnership with Stanford. It’s a year-long cohort program with Stanford where we take the top of the organization, 35 people on an annual basis, go through this program.

The reason I call out that program is because it answers your question rather directly in that we’re not just shifting to the future, we’re thinking both about the current state of the business and the future state of the business in the same moment. We call that ambidextrous leadership if you will. That came out of that program.

Everything we talk about here is growth and core. We’ve got to be excellent at the core of the business. We’ve got to continue to be – operations, we have an operational excellence program. Operations have to be maniacally precise and everything we produce has to be durable and everything else, but at the same time, which is what makes it ambidextrous, we need to be thinking about the future. We need to be thinking about where is the customer tomorrow going to be and how can we get there sooner than anybody else.

There’s a lot of people talking about agility in the world today. The way I like to talk about it is most large organizations shouldn’t talk about themselves as being completely agile. They need to be agile in places. They need to be agile on the edge. They need to be agile in the growth side of the business because the growth side of the business is where the future is. They need to be disciplined and operationally excellent in the core.

In fact, one of the studies that I read recently that talks about this, and then I can share exactly how we’re doing that, was a Mackenzie study where they said organizations need to be both fast at times and stable at other times. About only 12% of the companies they reviewed were able to do those two things at the same time.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think that makes a ton of sense with regard to boy, if you think about sort of any organization, sort of what it can handle well and what it can’t, I even think about customer service interactions in terms of it’s like if you want to check your credit card balance or sort of get some basic information and sort of – or get a replacement card or report a stolen card or do some fraud stuff or change the credit limit, it’s like that’s kind of very basic.

But if you sort of go out beyond the edges, suddenly it gets really I guess confusing for the people in terms of what they’re trying to do. It’s like we’re really built up and tooled up to do these dozen things very quickly and efficiently and systematically.

But now I’m trying to get my private mortgage insurance canceled with my new insurer – my new mortgage holder because they transferred them over as they do. It’s been rather challenging. It’s like, “No, no, no, I understand your policy, but in fact if you looked at the original text, the original mortgage, this is kind of how it’s supposed to work, so can we do that?” They’re just so flummoxed, like, “We’re going to have to look into this, sir.”

I think that’s intriguing to think about it. In some ways you want to just be high-scale, high-efficiency with doing that thing repeatedly with, frankly no innovation because it’s working great and other areas where you really got to adapt and see what’s new and what are people starting to really ask for.

Michael J Arena
Yeah, 100%. 100%. It’s funny that you mentioned banking as your example because I grew up in banking.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Michael J Arena
I remember that exact question coming to me at one point in time when I was asked by the president, the company I was working for, “Michael, how can we become more innovative?”

I told the same story you just did a moment ago. “Are you really sure you want to be innovative where you’re driving precision and you’ve built expectations for consumers and you want to be reliable and you want to create a consistent set of interactions or are you asking if you want to be innovative on the edges?”

At that point in time, this was before mobile banking, so it’s a great illustration. When it comes to something like mobile banking before it had existed, you have to be innovative there because no one’s ever done that at that point in time. No one had ever done that. You have to be agile. You have to think differently. You have to move, shift, flux, understand the consumer, shift with the market. You have to do that super fast.

That’s where we are now as a company on things like car sharing and what we’re doing with Maven, what we’re doing with electification, what we’re doing with self-driving vehicles. You have to be completely agile and you have to manage that side of the business with a whole different set of muscles while continuing to keep an eye on the core of the business and making sure that you’re doing that flawlessly.

My analogy for this is every organization is both a super tanker, which is critical to getting stuff done precisely and at scale and a set of speed boats that are being sort of tossed out into the white water so that they can move fast and agilely shift with the environment and then ultimately grow themselves into what the next core of the business is and should be.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you talk a little bit about sort of the people practices that bring that about? I’d be curious to hear if in the course of having meetings or interactions one-on-one, you’d say whereas before at GM people more so spoke or interacted or accepted or challenged these kinds of things, now it looks different in terms of their interactions.

Michael J Arena
Yeah, so the first thing to know is that in that model the era of one-size-fits-all solutions is inappropriate. You’ve got to use different solutions for the different parts of the model. Some of the practices are – we use a lot of design thinking on the growth side of the business. We’re out talking to consumers. We’re out engaging consumers in Manhattan and San Francisco and places that we might not interact with on a day-to-day basis traditionally.

Then we’re thinking about how do we bring those ideas back into the business and connect up with other parts of the business, build bridges, if you will, to do agile design and to move fast. Amazon calls them small two-pizza teams, very small teams that can first of all build something, like a minimum viable product or solution and then ultimately the reason the bridges matter later is scaling. That’s the growth side of the business.

Now on the core side of the business, you just incrementally have to ask yourself the question, how do we make this better every single day. How do we continue to get more nimble and more agile even in the core so that whenever the new growth part of the business comes to fruition, that the core is already ready to sort of cast it up onboard and take it on?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then in forming these teams, can you give us an example of something that you’re able to quickly react to and how it was done?

Michael J Arena
Yeah, so a couple different examples. The one that I can think of most notably off the top of my head is what we’ve been doing with Maven, which I’ve mentioned already. Maven is our car sharing platform. Maven by its very definition is access to a vehicle as opposed to ownership of it. We sell cars and in the core of the business we continue to and will continue to for quite some time.

But on the other hand just like there is Uber and Lyft, which are ride sharing applications, there’s a need to get from one point to the next inside the city. We found this sort of whitespace that no one was serving, which is how do get outside – how do you not own a vehicle, but maybe take that vehicle for longer durations than just from one of the end to the other end of the city.

Maybe you’ve got it for a couple hours. You’re driving it as opposed to someone picking you up and you’re actually deploying an asset – someone else’s asset – that may be sitting in the garage at some point in time.

This whole shared economy model, we went out – to be very precise – we went out and started interviewing people in the streets. It was in design thinking. What we found out was owning a vehicle inside of a city may be more of a burden than a benefit for some, but we can build a solution around that so that they still have access to a vehicle in such a way that they get the conveniences of it without the burdens of it. That’s where Maven really evolved from.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Now you were big in pushing a concept called GM 2020 throughout the organization. What does this mean?

Michael J Arena
Yeah, it’s, again, we’re now back in the core of the business. One of the things we want to do is we want to think about the core of the business in regards to how do we build the culture where people just can’t wait to show up to work the next day. People just really want to be part of something bigger than themselves.

Back in 2014, we launched this, I’ll call it a movement. We launched this movement where we invited – and this was back when we were really trying to attract young people into the organization. We were really just starting to as corporations as a whole create different environments that were, at that point in time, I would say were more Millennial friendly. I don’t believe that any more. I think that’s true for anyone and all of us.

But we launched this initiate where we thought about okay, if we were to recreate the culture or rethink culture or rethink the workplace, why not invite the people in the room that will actually be living with those outputs in the year 2020.

Literally using some design thinking methodologies and inviting 30 people into a two-day event, we went out, we took them out on buses, and we went and looked at all these creative workplaces first across Detroit. That movement, those 30 people, ended up growing into a movement that we call GM 2020, how do we positively disrupt the way we work.

They continue to grow into a much larger body of people. It’s thousands now of people that show up into these events, constantly thinking about how we can get better and all volunteers, but constantly thinking about how we can organically get better on a day-to-day basis.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s excellent. Then what have been some of the key adopted practices that have shown up in terms of doing work better and in a more enjoyable way?

Michael J Arena
The great part about this is that all kinds of ideas emerge out of this. One of the – perhaps my favorite story, there are plenty that I can share, but perhaps my favorite story was we were about ready to open up a new building.

It was a ten-floor building where generally what happens is you go in, you bring a facilities crew in. You bring in some architects. They look around the space and they decide what the footprint should look like. They plug in standard furniture and everything else. Well, rather than approaching it that way, what we decided was why not invite the people who are going to be working in that space into designing it.

We did what we called a two-day co-lab, kind of like a hack-a-thon, if you will, across two days. We invited in 35 people. We put them into teams of 5. We asked them to – we walked them through the space. We gave them the same parameters that any facilities team would have in regards to cost constraints and architectural barriers and all that sort of stuff.

We literally had these teams and teams of five build prototypes. After giving all those constraints and talking to individual users, which were their fellow employees, we actually had them build prototypes of what that space should look like. They competed against each other.

At the end of the – I said two days, it was actually 24 hours from beginning to end, from 12 o’clock to 1 o’clock the next day – at 12 o’clock the next day, they presented their working physical prototypes to a design team and the winning team actually created the design of the way that that building ultimately was created.

Pete Mockaitis
Very cool. Then how did they like it?

Michael J Arena
Again, it was very different then perhaps what would have been designed for them. One of my favorite stories was the winning team actually cut a hole in the – they said if you want to collaborate, you need to be able to look up and down across multiple floors, so they actually cut a hole in the center of the building in their prototype three floors deep. They said “This is will be the collaboration zone. The two floors above that will be the concentration/deep work zone.”

Whenever they did that, well, of course they’re not architects, so they weren’t thinking about how sound this was, so there was all this push back on, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but architecturally that doesn’t stand up.” I’m thrilled to say that that team ended up becoming part of the overall design team.

They didn’t cut a hole in two floors, but they ended up – or in three floors, but they ended up cutting it in the two in order to make their solution work. They were thrilled, the short answer. They were thrilled at the end of the day with the new design.

That’s not a huge example, but there are all kinds of those everyday examples that I’m giving you now, like where people designed an onboarding app or people designed a learn and share so that they could do a career fair and all these little things that manifested throughout this community so that they’re able to move really fast and organically create these new solutions.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting. With the hole in the floor, you could – one person could stand on one floor, the other person stands on the floor above and they look down at each other?

Michael J Arena
Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
You could accidently – if you weren’t paying attention, walk into a hole and fall down.

Michael J Arena
No, no, it’s not quite that way. They had the railings and all that stuff up. But it was really much more to illustrate that we’re not separating ourselves from different groups. If we’re going to collaborate, we at least need to have this sort of proximity to one another as opposed to hitting our floor button and showing up.

It’s, again, a small thing, but as you engage people in making those decisions themselves, they become very, very proud about those outcomes and they figure out how to iterate on it and make it better over time.

Pete Mockaitis
So people don’t speak to each other through the floors? It’s more of a symbolic-

Michael J Arena
Yeah, absolutely. They see each other.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Michael J Arena
So they can certainly correspond back and forth. I guess I’m just sort of the dispelling the safety myth.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, got you. The railings certainly, that makes sense. We’ve got the safety covered. They would in fact speak through the hole from one floor to another.

Michael J Arena
Completely.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s cool. That’s fun. Now, you’ve also got a book, Adaptive Space, that captures some of these principles that you put into practice. Can you sort of share with us kind of what’s the book all about?

Michael J Arena
I’ve talked around a lot of it already, but it’s this core concept of why are some organizations adaptive and are able to respond to the changing marketplace and the other organizations perhaps aren’t quite as adaptive.

As a researcher, this was even prior to my time I come into General Motors, as a researcher, four of us actually launched a research initiative, went out and studied 60 different companies, all Fortune, really, 100 companies, and asked that question, why are some adaptive and why are others not.

What we found, and this is the part that I talked around a bit already is that those were – every single organization had two things. They had these sort of core systems, we call them operational systems, which is the formality of how you get work done and they all had entrepreneurial pockets, even organizations that aren’t adaptive have innovative entrepreneurial activities happen within them.

What the adaptive ones had that the non-adaptive organizations didn’t have was what we ultimately called adaptive space, but basically it’s the bridge to get those ideas through the organization and pulled into the formal systems.

Think of it quite literally as how do you more intentionally mine the idea, everyday ideas throughout your organization, both big and small in such a way that it becomes part of the adaptive fabric of an organization that can respond differently to the outside market. That was a lot, but-

Pete Mockaitis
What are some of the – what was that?

Michael J Arena
No, I was just saying, so that was more than a mouthful for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh no, that’s cool. Then what are some of the practices associated with getting those bridges up and going in terms of these things make all the difference if you’ve got them versus don’t?

Michael J Arena
Yeah, yeah. The interesting part about this is it’s a social phenomenon. The interesting thing is the connections that you create inside an organization are more important than I think we ever believed they were before.

Think about it this way, we all want to think about who are the – how do we build a bigger network and how do we build our network inside of an organization. What we discovered was your network matters immensely, but your network needs to be different for different intentions.

I talk a lot about social capital. I’m in the talent space and spend a lot of my time talking about human capital, but I also talk about social capital. Human capital is what you know, social capital is how well positioned you are to leverage what you know. Remember, I said that every organization had entrepreneurial pockets, but not everybody was able to leverage that and that was because they weren’t connected appropriately.

A couple of the practices to get very precise with you is there are times where you need to create discovery networks. A discovery network is a network that’s actually going outside of the insular walls of an organization and finding out what the customers of tomorrow really need and want, like the Maven story I shared with you a few moments ago.

There are also times that ideas were too. Organizations, all organizations have lots of ideas. You’ve got to bring those ideas into the world. It’s important to have discovery connections because that’s how you stay relevant, that’s how you can move – you can keep pace with the outside market, but you’ve got to bring those ideas in and you’ve got to actually put them in the very small, tight, what Amazon calls two-pizza teams. We call that agile design in many organizations or scrum teams.

That requires a different set of connections. You want very trusted small groups of teams of maybe six that are taking ideas that were discovered and then bringing them into the world and iterating them, move them fast.

Then once they built a minimum viable product, this is where a lot of companies sort of fail, once you build a minimum viable product inside of a small pocket, you then have to start to think about how do I get that scaled on across the broader business. That requires yet a different set of connections that we call diffusion connections.

That’s – when you think about those different practices, it’s a different set of connections and a different set of practices for each of those steps, if you will, on any given product lifecycle or any given solution lifecycle into the business.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m really intrigued by the notion that you said that the ideas are a dime a dozen. There’s tons of them in a scaled organization. Boy, I imagine a critical lever that is really make or break here is effectively choosing, selecting, deciding which of these ideas are worthy of getting a two-pizza team to advance it and go after it a bit. What are some of the key ways that these decisions can be made optimally?

Michael J Arena
Yeah, you’ve got to be disciplined in that process. I’d say ideas are cheap. I say that somewhat tongue in cheek. They’re cheap if nothing’s done with them. If somebody just shares an idea and they don’t do anything with that idea to bring it to life, then who knows if that was a good idea or not.

An idea is nothing but an abstract, but if you actually take that idea and you build something around it and you go test that idea, which gets into your question, the best way to find out if an idea is worthy is to actually build some aspect of it, low-resolution prototype and get out and test it. Test it first with some friends inside the business, find out if some colleagues get excited about it. Then ultimately test it with consumers or would be consumers.

Then that’s not enough because it’s still this low resolution sort of fragment of an idea. It’s better than the idea itself I should say, but it’s still a fragment of a concept. You then have to decide, okay, what are the thresholds to know whether or not we can win with this idea or this is a real idea that would have real market impact or this an idea that’s worth our investment.

That’s a whole different series of practices and the only way to know that is to set up milestones around that concept or an idea and hold people accountable for getting to those milestones. If they don’t, you kind of decommission it and you say we can only take so many of these at a time.

Every organization has a finite set of resources, so you just simply decide how many people am I going to invest in this idea, how many people – what do they need to prove between now and the next milestone, whatever that is, and if they don’t prove it, do we have the courage to shut that idea down so that we can take those resources and reinvest them into something else.

In short, what you just heard me describe is there are parts of the organization where you need to act and think much like a startup.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. I think that’s excellent in terms of having that discipline and those clear thresholds that you’re identifying. I guess I’m thinking about backing it up a little bit earlier in the process. I imagine GM has thousands of ideas emerging. Then you may only pilot test out dozens at a time. Why don’t we say 1 out of 80, little ratio, shows up and gets the minimum viable product treatment.

How do you decide what hits that initial threshold, like, “You know what? We are going to spend some time, money, resources six people on this one.”

Michael J Arena
This is where I think it truly is a social phenomenon. I think our inclination – when you or I have a new idea, our inclination is to go take it to a leader and to go get it formalized. That may be the worst idea possible. That may be the worst step forward possible because you don’t even know if that idea’s good at this stage.

What I’m – and we’ve done this very much in the GM 2020 community, where we basically say, “If you think you’ve got a great idea, go find a friend.” That first friend is really social proofing your idea. That first friend – somebody who you trust, somebody who you respect, somebody who you think would get this – is your first litmus test.

Once you share that idea with that friend, if they look at you like, “Michael, this is really stupid. I have no idea what you’re talking about,” well, you might just be wrong and you might just decide that it’s time to shut it down. But if they’re excited about it, then our next step, what we talk about a lot is, go follow the energy.

If I share this idea with you and you’re excited about the idea, then okay, so who else might be excited about this idea. At this point it becomes more than it’s Pete’s idea, Michael’s idea together and we go find a few more friends.

This, what I’m describing to you, is much more organic than mechanistic, which is how we want to tend to think about innovation inside of a company. It’s much more social than process driven.

At some point, you need formal support. At some point once you know you’ve created network buzz and people are excited about this idea and they believe in the beauty of this as it’s co-created and it’s no longer just my idea, it’s all of our ideas and we can all find ourselves in it, well then the likelihood of securing support and resources is amplified ten-fold.

That’s the way that you get these, as I stated it earlier, these entrepreneurial pockets fired up and linked up across the broader organization for grander success.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Awesome. Well, any other kind of key practices you think the typical professional needs to know or do you want to move ahead to hear about some of your favorite things?

Michael J Arena
Yeah, well I guess one thing – because I haven’t talked about one – there’s one thing that everybody who’s listening to this conversation is wondering. Okay, that’s all fine. That sounds great. But what about the resistance? What about when somebody doesn’t like my idea? Then what do I do?

One of the things that I like to talk about is conflict sometimes – charge into the conflict. The conflict later – once you believe your idea is good, once we’ve got a band of a half dozen or so of us, then the conflict is really critical to the evolution of that idea. The conflict is essential to getting it scaled.

One is take that conflict as a compliment because you’re probably not doing anything innovative if you haven’t created some disturbance. Charge into it and start to think about it. Oftentimes what I like to say is you can’t really have a breakthrough without something to break through. If you’re not expecting some degree of resistance or some degree of conflict, then you’re probably not being so bold.

A lot of people ask me, “Well, what do you do with conflict? What happens whenever the antibodies kick in?” What I say is, “That’s awesome.” It’s about how do you pivot in response that that, how do you bring them in to the process so that you can pressure test those ideas, you can morph them and you can challenge them in such a way that you make them bigger and more scalable both within the business, but far more importantly outside into the marketplace.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Thank you.

Michael J Arena
I just would not want to underplay sort of the value of tension even more than conflict, I wouldn’t want to undervalue that, but what I will say is tension too early in the process actually prematurely kills ideas. Tension later in the process becomes almost like this pressure testing sort of amplifier, if you will, to get lift off sooner.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Thank you. Well now can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Michael J Arena
You probably have noticed even though I live inside of a human capital job that social capital is an area that I spend a lot of my time.

One of my favorite quotes and this will get a little bit into the conflict thing is it’s a quote by Colonial Picq. This quote goes like this, “Five brave men, who do not know each other well, would not dare attack a lion.” I know that’s masculine, so I’ll pivot it in the next part of the quote. “But five lesser brave men or women would do so resolutely.” I think this is a team activity. What I’m talking about, you have to have friends. You have to find friends. You have to have people who are in it with you.

One of the things that I know is that if you try to do this alone and you try to take all the credit for yourself and you try to hold onto an idea, you try to hoard it – this idea can be anything, any kind of solution – you will not succeed. But if you find and enlist friends and you work together as a team, you’re chances of succeeding are amplified significantly.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. How about a favorite study, experiment or bit of research?

Michael J Arena
Again, this whole networking space, I studied a lot of network theory. I guess the one that just jumps out at me right off the bat is a professor over at University of Michigan, Wayne Baker, a good friend of mine, went out and studied – we didn’t even talk about this – but went out and studied energizers and people who bring energy into an organization, which is one of the core network roles that I talk a lot about.

What he found out was that high performing, agile adaptive organizations have three times as many energizers as average performing organizations. That’s a study, where in the HR space we talk a lot about engagement. My belief is we’re going to be talking much, much more about energy moving forward.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. How about a favorite book?

Michael J Arena
I guess in the last couple years books that I’ve read, the one that jumps out the most is Adam Grant’s Give and Take, like givers and takers. His whole philosophy, if you haven’t read it, is that long-term, givers, people who are constantly helping, supporting and lifting each other up are the winners in the long-term game. It’s a phenomenal book.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite habit?

Michael J Arena
I think it’s easy to live inside of an organization and become somewhat inculturated. One of the disciplines – I don’t know if this is a habit – one of the disciplines that I have instilled for myself is to – I have, on my calendar I have, literally this is what it says, ‘critical distance day.’

Literally once every six weeks I have a day on my calendar where I have prescheduled, I’m getting out of the day-to-day business and I’m going to go do something very, very different. I’m going to talk to consumers. I’m going to go to a conference. I’m going to a university campus. But I’m going to do something to refresh myself to think differently than I would if I were just managing the daily business.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate and get quoted back to you frequently?

Michael J Arena
Yeah. I guess the one that I think of is we live in the era of disruption. We’re all talking about digital disruption these days. We want to talk about things like agile, but I personally believe that in the era of disruption, social is king. We’re going to be talking much more, much, much more about both energy and social capital as we move forward over the next decade.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. If folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Michael J Arena
The book, there’s a website for the book, AdaptiveSpace.net. They can certainly go on there. I’ve talked a little bit around some different network roles. There’s another website out there called NetworkRoles.com that they can actually go sort of take a self-assessment to better understand their own individual network role.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Michael J Arena
Stop talking about it and start doing it. Go find a friend. That first friend matters more than you can ever imagine. Find a first friend to partner with on whatever it is that you’re thinking about it is the first step forward. We oftentimes think of things and oftentimes don’t act on those.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Well, Michael this has been a lot of fun. Thanks so much for sharing the good word. I wish you and GM lots of luck in all you’re up to.

Michael J Arena
Yeah, absolutely. Thank you. I’ve enjoyed the conversation.

177: Getting the Right Fit at Work with Moe Carrick

By | Podcasts | One Comment

 

 

Moe Carrick discusses discovering and creating the right fit in the workplace, its significance to us, and the elements that contribute to it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The meaning and importance of work fit
  2. The critical 6 elements that comprise work fit
  3. What to do when something does not fit in your workplace

About Moe

Moe Carrick is Principal and Founder of Moementum, Inc. a Certified BCorp and consulting firm dedicated to the vision of creating a world that works for everyone using business as a force for good. Her diverse client portfolio includes Prudential, REI, Nike, The Nature Conservancy, TechSoft3D, Hydroflask, amongst others.
A frequent blogger and contributor to Conscious Company, Success.com, and the Work Smart Blog, Moe is also a frequent and in demand speaker and facilitator. She has shared her insights and energetic style with TEDx’s and numerous universities, professional organizations, corporations, and trade groups.

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