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KF #31. Situational Adaptability Archives - Page 2 of 2 - How to be Awesome at Your Job

396: Insights into Embracing Emotions at Work with Liz Fosslien

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Liz Fosslien says: "You are going to have feelings. It's okay. It's not a weakness. It's not a flaw."

Writer and illustrator Liz Fosslien shares why we should listen to our emotions instead of suppressing them at work. She also reveals how to be considerate of others’ emotions while protecting our own.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why we should inspect instead of suppress our emotions
  2. Two ways to protect yourself from emotional contagion
  3. How to decode the wisdom your emotions are pointing to

About Liz

Liz is an author and illustrator whose projects have been featured by NPR, Freakonomics, The Economist, and CNN Money. Liz spent the past three years designing and facilitating workshops that empowered executives at LinkedIn, Facebook, Google, BlackRock, and Nike to build cultures of belonging. Previously, she led product and community projects at Genius and ran statistical analyses at the aptly named Analysis Group.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Liz Fosslien Interview Transcript

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

Liz Fosslien
Yeah, I’m really excited to be here. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh certainly. Well, I’m excited to dig into this. First I want to hear the backstory behind you have been eating the same breakfast every day for seven years. What’s the story here?

Liz Fosslien
I have. Yes. The breakfast is seven mini-scoops of non-fat plain Greek yogurts and then a granola bar that I crush into it.

It started as morning is my most productive time and so I just wanted to remove as much decision making from my morning routine. I just wanted to be able to know what I was going to do and then immediately sit down and kind of let all the ideas that had been going around in my brain out onto the computer page. But now it’s a really nice source of emotional support too when I’m travelling or just when life is getting really hectic; it’s just nice to always have the same breakfast.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s review. What’s the brand of Greek yogurt?

Liz Fosslien
Trader Joe’s. I’ve done-

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yes.

Liz Fosslien
I’ve done a blind taste test because people have questioned my loyalty and I get a perfect score every time, so it’s – I think it’s by far the best.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I agree that it is excellent and it’s a good price. Which amount of fat? Is it the zero and then there’s the two and then there’s the full.

Liz Fosslien
Yes, I do zero. I tried the two and the full, but I thought it just tasted so good that I ended up eating a lot for breakfast, so yeah, I go non-fat.

Pete Mockaitis
How about the granola bar?

Liz Fosslien
It’s LUNA Bar.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah.

Liz Fosslien
Yeah, I love them.

Pete Mockaitis
I got into this weird debate with someone about whether LUNA bars were made for women.

Liz Fosslien
I think they are, but I don’t really know beyond that being somewhere on the labeling why they’re made for women.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, well, they’re delicious and I’m a man and so-

Liz Fosslien
They’re definitely delicious. Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular LUNA Bar flavor that you’re working with?

Liz Fosslien
It was the Nuts over Chocolate and then Trader Joe’s discontinued stocking that flavor, so since then I’ve been doing the lemon.

Pete Mockaitis
We’ve also learned that Trader Joe’s is your go-to shopping location or grocery spot.

Liz Fosslien
Yeah, it’s there. It’s convenient. They have samples. I’m not being paid by Trader Joe’s.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, no, I love Trader Joe’s and I just wish they could deliver to us because we get most of them delivered.

Liz Fosslien
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess we’re too far away from the nearest Trader Joe’s, but when we go we end up stocking up and it’s usually in the frozen section like their chicken tikka masala and their chana masala.

Liz Fosslien
Oh, so good. Yeah. Yeah. So easy.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely.

Liz Fosslien
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, well, I ask the hard-hitting questions here on How to be Awesome at Your Job, so I’m glad we’ve got that settled. Now tell us, you’ve got a book, No Hard Feelings, coming out. What’s the story here?

Liz Fosslien
The story is the book’s central idea is just that emotions are inevitable, so we should probably learn how to deal with them. It doesn’t sound that revolutionary on the surface, but I think there is a long-standing tradition in the workplace, this idea that you should check your feelings at the door. That is biologically impossible. We’re emotional creatures regardless of the circumstances.

By suppressing our emotions, we actually miss out on what could be really useful signals. The idea between No Hard Feelings is that you – take for example envy.

With envy, which is one of my favorite examples of something that might be thought of as a hard feeling, is actually really useful information that’s contained within that. I think there is some stigma around if you’re jealous of someone, people might worry that that turns into bitterness and it often does.

But if you just let yourself sit with that, you might realize that you’re envious of a certain person because they have something that you really desire. Then that can help you figure out how to channel your energy and where you might want to go with your career.

We talked to Gretchen Rubin, who’s lovely and she wrote The Happiness Project and The Four Tendencies. She said when she was a lawyer and kind of thinking about what she wanted her next career move to be, she was reading about alumni from her school.

When she read about someone who had an amazing law career, she found it interesting. But when she read about people who had amazing writing careers, she said became like sick with envy. That to her was this really clear signal that maybe she should try pursuing a career in writing.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. It’s funny, when you say envy I think of it in like a sinful context, like, “They don’t deserve that. Why them?”

Liz Fosslien
Yeah, I think a lot of emotions have this stigma around them. Again, I’m not endorsing that if you’re envious you should walk up to someone like, “I’m envious of you.” It’s more just if you hold these emotions that we think of as bad and that should be always thrown in the trash, if you instead hold them up to the light and inspect them, you might find something really useful in there.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Then this notion that we’ve all got emotions and they can’t go away even if it’s quote/unquote unprofessional or whatnot.

Boy what do we do with that in a context or culture, environment where you’re sort of not supposed to express that you’re angry at your boss for doing something that inconvenienced you or made your life difficult or you are sad that this thing that you poured your heart and soul and so much time into is getting scrapped and going nowhere. What should we do?

Liz Fosslien
Yeah. I think something that might be a relief to people who are uncomfortable expressing emotions or in offices where maybe it isn’t as accepted to express emotions, is that there’s a lot you can do internally first. I think the very first thing when you’re experiencing a hard feeling is to try and understand the need driving that emotion.

Last year I was managing a design project and I found myself a few days ahead of the deadline just getting irritated with everyone I was working with. When I kind of went to my office and closed the door and sat by myself and thought about it, no one was doing anything that was super irritating. I really liked the people I was working with.

I realized that I was just irritable because I was extremely anxious about meeting that deadline. The need driving that anxiety was that I just wanted to make sure that we had the structures in place to meet the deadline.

We had a team meeting and kind of went over what the plan was over the next few days and ended up cutting a few things because we just wanted to make sure the core product was impeccable. I felt so much better and suddenly I wasn’t irritable anymore. I think a lot of the work is just what is the need driving this hard feeling.

Then I’ll say the second thing that’s really useful is in some cases to flag hard feelings in a way where you’re talking about your emotions without getting emotional about it. There are days when you’re going to have just a bad day and there maybe isn’t anything you can do about the need driving it. Maybe you’re just generally blue that day or it’s a personal issue that you can’t fix immediately.

In that case, people are going to pick up on the fact that you’re having a bad day, especially a leader, like your emotions have an outside impact on the people around you. If you don’t say anything, you’re just going to cause all this unnecessary anxiety.

Imagine we work together, I walk into an office. I just seem a little subdued. I’m not really responding that quickly or my responses are really short and curt. It’s super likely that you imagine that I’m upset with you or that you’ve done something bad or even worse case, you’re going to get fired. But if I instead say to you, “Hey, I’m having a bad day. It has nothing to do with you, but just want to let you know if I seem a little off, it’s fine. It’s just I have some stuff going on.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah.

Liz Fosslien
I’m not going into detail, but you now get it. I think it also gives you the opportunity to treat me with a little more empathy, so we’ve really done a lot for our relationship without me breaking down, saying that much, oversharing. It’s just that little flag that is so crucial.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so helpful. I remember once I was consulting and there was a partner. We were talking about I don’t even know what, but he said something about his anxiety and that he gets it from his mother. I thought, “Ahh.” I was just so relieved, just like, “Man, whenever I’m around you I just feel like we’re screwing something up.” It’s like, “No, you just tend to be anxious and that’s sort of been that way your whole life and I can chill out a little bit.” It was like, “Ahh, what a relief.”

Liz Fosslien
Yeah, it doesn’t require crazy teambuilding thing. It wasn’t like a retreat. It was just one comment.

I think putting structures into place when you’re working with people, where you maybe just go around at the beginning of a team project and everyone answers really quickly what are some things you should know about me, what are some things that have come up in the past that people felt when I was on a team with them, what do sometimes people misunderstand about me. Just quickly answering those and having everyone do it, maybe half an hour, can save so much grief and avoid so much strife.

Pete Mockaitis
I also want to dig into what you said about the spreading of emotions. We had a previous guest, Michelle Gielan, and her book Broadcasting Happiness talked about it’s not so much the person who has the most intensely positive or most intensely negative emotion, so much as the one who is most expressive in terms of what’s showing up in that kind of spread.

How should we think about our spreading of emotions and maybe defending ourselves from the spread of something we’d rather not catch?

Liz Fosslien
Yeah. The spreading of emotions psychologists call emotional contagion. It happens when we’re in person. I think like you said, this person you worked with was really anxious. I’m sure that you fed on that anxiety and found yourself often becoming anxious around that person. It also happens over text messages. If you’ve ever been in an argument with someone and they suddenly just start responding like, “Sure period,” “Kay, period,” you become stressed.

Humans we just pick up on these signals and start to mirror each other’s emotions. If someone is really stressed or anxious or even they are expressing that and they’re coming to you and they’re venting a lot, I think one of the easiest things to do if you can is just to keep physical distance.

MIT professor Thomas Alan found that people are four times more likely to communicate regularly with a coworker who sits 6 feet away as opposed to one who sits 60 feet away. If you’re in an open office space or if you have some flexibility to move around and someone just seems to be in a really difficult position, it’s okay to kind of separate yourself a little bit to preserve your emotional state.

Another tip that we give in the book that I really like is if someone’s consistently coming to you with the same problem, try and push them towards action. Something you can say is like, “Well, what could you have done differently?” or “What can we do to fix this situation?”

Just one question kind of forces them to – one it helps them because maybe they just have been so bogged in venting that they’re not thinking proactively anymore and two, it really does a nice job of gently shutting down the negativity. I think it’s really about putting a stop on the negativity and then also forming a little bubble in whatever way you can.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really cool. I want to dig now a bit into you mentioned different emotions can be providing us with sort of signal information. I remember, boy, back in the day I read – it was a Tony Robbins book, Awaken the Giant Within. What a title. He even had a whole chapter where he was like this emotion can mean this, like guilt means you have violated one of your core values.

It’s like, in a way it seemed kind of elementary, but at the same time when you’re in the heat of your emotions, it can be nice to just make it real simple. Okay, what can be going on here? Can you give us a little bit of the ‘if this, then that’ recipe book in terms of how we might go about decoding the signal from different emotions?

Liz Fosslien
Yeah, so two that I really like. One is if you think about – let’s say you’re making a decision and not doing or choosing one option over the other fills you with regret. I think this is also not groundbreaking. But you should maybe think about why you feel so much regret or why it hurts so much to give up one option.

I say this because I think when it comes to decision making, especially around work, there is again this idea of – I think people come down really strongly, either always listen to your gut or never listen to your gut. There’s some useful emotions and some emotions that aren’t useful, but regret is usually very useful. That’s an important one to listen to.

When I was thinking about taking a new job or staying at my existing job, when I thought about not taking the new job, I felt a lot of regret, so I realized that I was excited at the challenge and I didn’t want to give that up.

The other thing I felt was fear. I think fear can often be a really important signal around maybe you just really want this. I’m often the most fearful when I’m emailing someone that I admire. When we were writing the book, we interviewed a lot of people. I found that writing emails to people whose books I love, like I would put Gretchen Rubin in this camp or Daniel Pink, who wrote Drive and then just came out with the book When. It was – I was so afraid of emailing them.

I realized that I shouldn’t put off those emails because I was afraid. It was just I thought it would be so amazing if these people – if I could speak to them and learn more about them and kind of get to know them. The fear there was just a signal that this was really important to me. Instead of avoiding it, I should just put some more thought into how I went forward.

Pete Mockaitis
So both the fear and regret are pointing to what’s important to you. On the regret side, you’re sort of imagining a scenario in which you have chosen one thing or forsaken another and sort of observing the emotional response.

Liz Fosslien
Yeah. I think it can be incredibly illuminating into kind of how you’re feeling because your brain is doing all this calculation and then sometimes what it spits out is a feeling.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh certainly. I think about that fear in terms of emailing folks who have a real impact perhaps on your fate and then there’s fear and then that fear sometimes knee-jerk reaction is just to oh, do something else instead of maybe asking a better question might be “What could I put in this email that would make it all the more compelling and engaging and answerable?” as opposed to “What else am I going to do?”

Liz Fosslien
Yeah. I’ve actually started using fear as a way to prioritize my to-do list in the morning. When I think about – I have just a running list with everything I need to do. In the past I found that I kept falling into this trap of just going to the easiest stuff first. Sometimes that was organize my desk. Organizing your desk is important, but it’s not going to move your career forward in a meaningful way, unless you’re a very, very disorganized person.

What I would do is look at this list and then I would identify the three things that I was most afraid of doing or just had the most emotional resistance around. It usually meant it was because they were hard or they were important. Those are the things that I would do first if it did seem to bear out that these are really important things to me. Then I would leave kind of the little stuff for later in the day when research shows that our productivity starts to wane, we’re less able to focus.

Really, again, I think it’s just a great example of you’re afraid of sending that email, maybe that’s the thing you should spend your morning focusing on doing.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s really good. Since you have been there, done that many a time when it comes to “I’m afraid of this email. It’s high stakes. I want to send it out. I’ve got to make sure it’s right.” What have you found to be some of the best practices particularly in sending emails that you fear that get them responded to?

Liz Fosslien
I think one is just to write like a human being. I think that especially earlier in my career I definitely did this, put people off and get into business mode, which is like, “To whom it may concern, I am deeply passionate about,” whatever. That might be true, but just I think having some personality show through makes it – it reads more naturally. It doesn’t feel so much like a form letter, like someone is pitching you on something.

I’d say that’s one of the most important things, which also ties into a nice piece of advice that we have in the book, which is just always emotionally proofreading your emails, so trying to put yourself in the recipient’s shoes.

Something that I have done before with really important emails is I think so often when we find a typo or we find something we could have fixed immediately after we hit send. A way to avoid that is to write an email and then send it to yourself. That forces you to actually click on it and open it and read it.

I think that helps literally put yourself into the recipient’s shoes. Then it becomes clear as you do that, “Okay, what could be better? Where could I put in more specific example? What information is missing? How am I coming across?” I think really just having – putting yourself in the recipient’s shoes goes a long way.

Pete Mockaitis
I think that’s really cool. I’m sort of imagining myself doing that and trying to get some even extra distance, like I’ll take a little walk and then return to it. It’s like, “Oh, what do you know? I’ve got an email from Pete. Let me take a look. What do you know?”

Liz Fosslien
Yeah, yeah. I love that. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool.

Liz Fosslien
Yeah. I actually – this idea for sending it to myself came from – Mollie is my coauthor. We wrote the book together. There are eight chapters and we split them up into four chapters each and each did the initial draft and then we swapped the draft.

Mollie called me after a while and she told me that my emails were making her feel really bad. I was surprised because I thought that I had been responding in a really fast manner. I was giving her great tips on what we needed to change, what should be edited, what wasn’t working. But then she said, “Why don’t you just read one of the emails you’ve written to me from my perspective.”

I did that and basically what I was sending her were just long bullet point lists of all the things I thought needed to be better in the chapter. Nowhere in that email was like, “Thanks for taking a stab at this. Here’s what I really liked.” That emotional proofing, all of that was in my head, but I had never put it in the email. Mollie has no idea what’s in my head, so she was just getting these walls of critical feedback.

I think that really helped me understand, “Oh, I need to take some of the stuff that’s in my head and put it in the email because it is relevant, it is important and she’s not a mind reader. I can’t – I need to step away from only focusing on efficiency.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s very well said. I think sometimes it’s impressive just how fast it came. That’s a quick thing you can say is like, “Wow, great job on a quick turnaround. You’re really cranking through some words this morning,” and then that makes me feel good, like, “Well, yes, thank you. I was cranking on some words this morning. I appreciate that.”

Liz Fosslien
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let’s talk about the feedback point there. Feedback is boy, emotionally rife or rich, shall we say, in terms of both on the giving side and the receiving side. If you talk to managers behind closed doors, they’ll admit they’re sometimes terrified to give feedback to their direct reports. Certainly on the receiving side, feedback can make you defensive or angry. How do you think about feedback and what are some of the best practices for giving and receiving it well?

Liz Fosslien
Yeah, so I’ll start with giving feedback. I think really the way to come at it is to consider how do I give feedback that doesn’t pack a really painful punch. Great feedback allows the recipient to more quickly move past this inevitable defensive reaction and move on to determination and action. To that end we really encourage people to do three things.

The first is just focus on specific behavior. When we give vague feedback, it’s so easy for the recipient – first of all, they don’t know what to do with it. It’s much easier for them to ruminate on it and just think and think and then it becomes this big issue that more and more seems like an attack on their entire sense of self.

As an example, if I say to you, let’s say you send me an email and I give you feedback. The first is, “This email just could have been better. I think it missed the mark,” versus “The second sentence in your email was a little repetitive. I think it’s unnecessary and you should delete it to be a little more succinct.”

It’s so easy. You just delete the second sentence and go about your day. Whereas the first when I say, “It just missed the mark. It wasn’t good,” it’s much easier to go home and be like, “Oh my God, it wasn’t good. What do I do? I don’t know how to improve, so what else isn’t good.” Again, it’s about reducing unnecessary anxiety.

The second tip that I really love is present feedback in a way where it’s about building the person up. A great way to communicate that is just to start with saying, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations of you and I’m confident that you can reach them.” That immediately puts them on “I’m here to help. This is advice. I’m not here to tear you down. I’m not here to make you feel bad.”

Then the last thing is just really trying to understand. I think this goes back to the earlier point about taking the time to figure out how do people like to work with each other and how to they like to receive feedback. I love feedback. I love it in the moment. I just always want people to be telling me how I can improve.

Mollie, for example, that makes her really uncomfortable. She would always rather receive it over email and then have some time to think through it and also process her initial emotional reaction. If I’m just spitting feedback at her, I’m going to make her feel bad because I’m operating around how I want to be treated as opposed to how Mollie wants to be treated.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s really good. I like that actionable piece. I think about reviews in particular. How sometimes it’s just so vague, like, “Be more professional.” That’s one thing I loved about consulting at Bain was that the reviews, well, boy, they were extensive like five pages single spaced like every three to six months.

My ‘be more professional’ would be like, “Pete would sometimes use language such as ‘cool beans’ or ‘word’ in front of the clients and these word choices don’t convey as much of a professional demeanor.” It’s like, fair enough. I can see where you’re coming from there. That’s way more actionable, “Don’t say ‘word’ or ‘cool beans’ to a client until you’re really chummy,” than “Be more professional.” What does that even mean ‘be more professional?’

Liz Fosslien
Yeah, just thinking about what can you do to really help this person and ‘be more professional’ is just not that helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
Then how about on the receiving side of things?

Liz Fosslien
Yeah, we like to say that you need feedback to improve. If no one is ever criticizing you, if no one’s telling you what you’re doing wrong, you’re never really going to set yourself up for success because everyone has areas that they could be improving on. You want to make it awesome for people to come to you with hard feedback. I think the best way to do that is to be able to regulate your initial defensive reaction.

One thing is just keep reminding yourself that you need critical feedback to improve. Again, from the other side see it as this person trying to help you. A friend is going to tell you that you have spinach in your teeth. A non-friend is not going to tell you because it’s uncomfortable. It might hurt your feelings. There’s going to be this awkward moment. Really try and see it as this person is here to help me.

Another thing is to use the word ‘what’ instead of ‘any.’ People, I find, often say like, “Do you have any feedback for me? Is there anything I could be doing differently?” It’s really easy for people to respond to that with, “No, I thought it was good.” But if I instead say, “What are two things I could have done better?” it’s hard to say, “Ah, nothing.” People usually can come up with one or two things. Phrasing the question can invite feedback in a different way.

Then my final piece of advice I’ll give here that I really love is keeping, we call it a smile file, but it’s essentially a folder, that can be digital or physical, where you just keep – it can be a folder in your inbox, where when you get feedback or someone thanks you for doing something or says something really nice about you, you save all of that to a folder.

Then when you receive critical feedback, you can go back to that folder and remind yourself of all the things you do well. Then you’re better able to see the criticism as one data point in the entire picture of who you are. It’s like, “I need to work on this, but it’s not devastating because there’s all these other things that I am doing well.”

Pete Mockaitis
I really like that. That reminds me of when I was in college and I was feeling a little shaken in my confidence because I think I was rejected from all these clubs I tried to get into as a freshman. It was like, “What the heck? I was Mr. High Achiever in high school. What’s the deal here?”

I made a little notebook in terms of all the things that I sort of achieved or sort of gotten great feedback on. Sure enough, you make a big list of 100 plus things, you’re like, “Well, damn. These are minor setbacks. I’m going to find my place real soon here. It’s all good.”

Liz Fosslien
Yeah, I think it’s so nice to have that to go back to. Again, whatever works for you. I have a folder in my inbox, where I’ll just put a nice email in there. Then even when I’m not receiving critical feedback sometimes it’s still nice to just go back and be like, “Oh, I did some cool things.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m going to put you on the spot Liz. Can you share a favorite bit of feedback or accomplishment that consistently brings a smile to your face and gets you in a good place?

Liz Fosslien
Yes. The book is also illustrated and I drew the illustrations, so they’re-

Pete Mockaitis
They’re really fun.

Liz Fosslien
Yeah. Some of them kind of show the research or communicate an idea and then some are just meant to be light-hearted.

It’s not specific, but I think when people email me, I also have them on our website and then on Instagram. I’ll get comments from time to time especially around illustrations about anxiety and feeling stressed about work or feeling overwhelmed at times and normalizing that and saying everybody feels like this.

I’ve gotten comments from people saying, “I struggle with anxiety especially in the workplace and just knowing that you feel the same has made me feel so much better.” That is really meaningful to me I think connecting with people on that level and realizing that a little stick figure can have a profound impact on someone’s mood is incredibly motivating and lovely to hear.

Pete Mockaitis
That is very lovely. You’re bringing back memories for me. I think my favorite from a listener was “Every day an episode comes out, I make sure to wake up early so I can listen to it twice.”

Liz Fosslien
Oh, that’s so nice. I feel like I just got a warm glow from that ….

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, thank you listener.

Liz Fosslien
Yeah, that’s ….

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah. Now we’re both smiling. That’s good. Well speaking of smileys and emojis, how’s that for a segue?

Liz Fosslien
Beautiful.

Pete Mockaitis
When it comes to communicating digitally, that’s tricky because you don’t have the facial expressions, the tone and all that. If we’re texting and emailing and Slacking – not skipping work, but using Slack as a communication channel – then how do we communicate in these digital ways with regard to this emotional piece of things?

Liz Fosslien
Yeah. The first thing I would say is when you’re first getting to know someone, don’t just rely on digital communication. If I get a short email from my mom, whatever. We have a good relationship. We’ve know each other for 30 plus years. It’s fine. I’m not going to read into it.

If I’m working with someone new, that’s kind of all the information I’m going on, so I’m going to read a lot more into that email. That’s generally bad because digital communication is lacking in so many non-verbal cues that are really important in communicating actually your meaning and your feelings.

I would just always advise, start with video calls. Even just get on the phone if you can so you can hear tone of voice, cadence, how fast someone is speaking. These are all really important emotional signals.

Then the second is again, it just goes back to really trying to be as explicit as possible to avoid unnecessary anxiety. Let’s say that I’m a manager and I email one of my reports because I’m in a rush, I just say, “Hey, got your email. Let’s talk tomorrow.” That’s horrifying to receive as a report. If my manager sent me that, I’d be really anxious.

By I might have just meant, “Hey, I thought this was really good. There’s a few minor edits, but I can give them to you tomorrow,” but that does such a different thing for the recipient, so really being explicit.

Then the last thing I’ll say is that just typos communicate a lot of emotion. We liken them to just emotional amplifiers. Let’s say I send an email and I’m just slightly upset about something, but it’s filled with typos. Let’s say I send this to Mollie, my coauthor.

When she reads it, she’s going to see the typos and she’s going to imagine me banging away at my computer in a blind rage and not even caring about typos whatsoever. She’s going to perceive it as really angry when maybe I just meant it as “Hey, here’s this small thing that kind of upset me a little bit.” Just paying attention to these really small things that have big effects on how people perceive your email.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing when you call it an emotional amplifier. I guess can it work in a positive way if you think something is excellent and you’ve got some typos, like “Wow, he was so overwhelmed with joy and enthusiasm for my work product that he is blurting it out all over the keyboard.”

Liz Fosslien
Definitely. I think – immediately comes to mind is text messages when you share really exciting information. Then you get back like a ‘OMGQ exclamation point.’ The Q, it does convey you were just so excited to respond to me that you didn’t care about the typo.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s good. Well, now I’m tempted to do it deliberately, but then I’m like oh, is that inauthentic? Is that deceitful?

Liz Fosslien
Yeah, you have to use this information for good, not for evil.

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

Liz Fosslien
I would say one last thing is just I really am a fan of the concept of selective vulnerability. I think more and more people are asked to be authentic, to be vulnerable around each other and it can be confusing to understand what does that even mean. How vulnerable can I be? If I am going through something and I’m really stressed about it, how much of that should I share?

We encourage people share, again, talk about your emotions without getting emotional, but then in a work context, it’s still important, especially if you’re a leader, to follow that up by painting the most realistic but optimistic picture of something.

Again, let’s say that there’s a round of layoffs. If you as a leader don’t show any emotion, people are going to think you’re a robot. Obviously, this is affecting you in some way. But you also don’t want to be standing in front of your employees having a panic attack.

One thing you would do is “I know this is a stressful time. I am feeling it as well, but we are making changes on our end to make sure that we’re going to be in a good position and that we won’t go through this again. We’re also working with people who are laid off to do X, Y, Z.” Just sharing information that provides some hope for people, but also not making them feel alone in their emotional state.

Things are going to be hard at work. It’s normal to be affected by them. I think if we don’t acknowledge that, we risk – we’d lose trust. There’s no trust anymore.

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

Liz Fosslien
Yeah, I really like it’s a small mindset shift, but it’s “Any time you find yourself saying ‘I have to do something,’ instead try saying, ‘I get to do something.’”

I am sometimes nervous about public speaking events or about just giving a presentation in front of people. I will often the night before find myself just thinking, “Why did I do this to myself? I’m so scared. I have to do this presentation tomorrow.”

And taking a movement and just saying, “I get to do this presentation. This is a cool opportunity for me. I get to share what I’ve been working on. Maybe someone will respond to it in a way that makes me feel good. Maybe someone will be so interested in it that we have fascinating conversation that deepens our bond also on a personal level.”

A lot of things that we’re afraid of, again, are opportunities. We fear them because there’s a big potential upside, so always reminding ourselves of that. I think that ‘I have to’ switching to ‘I get to’ is a really simple way of doing that.

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

Liz Fosslien
Yes. My favorite study is out of Baylor University. They found that emotions can go viral. Earlier I mentioned that concept of emotional contagion, where we catch each other’s emotional emotions. They found that emotions can spread from one office to another. It works like this.

I come home from work and I’ve had a really bad day because I’ve just been sitting next to someone who is incredibly stressed and I have not successfully wrapped a little nice bubble around myself. I come home and I’m really grumpy towards my partner. We get in a fight and then we go to bed angry. He wakes up the next morning and he’s irritated. He goes into his office and now he spreads that among all his coworkers. This happens.

I think that’s just a fascinating look at how important it is to have some kind of emotional flak jacket and to learn the skills to protect yourself but also to create a great environment for the people around you.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite book?

Liz Fosslien
Oh, I’m going to go with Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock, who led HR at Google for ten years. I think their people analytics department is fascinating. They do a really interesting and fun job of quantifying a lot of things around emotions, so what makes a manager good, what makes a good team good, and putting numbers and real experiments behind that I think.

It’s also useful for skeptics around emotions to say, no, here’s quantitative data showing why it is important to make people feel safe throwing out ideas or taking risks.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Liz Fosslien
Favorite tool. Is this an emotional tool or an app tool?

Pete Mockaitis
It could be either or both. I’m intrigued. I mean just something that you use regularly.

Liz Fosslien
Yeah. I would say just flagging how I’m feeling. I know I mentioned this before, but it’s just so useful. Also, I actually use this a lot in my personal life too. I think just any interpersonal thing, just flagging for someone, “I’m a little grumpy.” I done a lot like, “Hey, traffic was really bad today. I need half an hour to get over it,” or like, “I haven’t had coffee. I didn’t sleep well. Feeling a little grumpy right now. Maybe let’s talk in 20 minutes.” It’s just so, so useful, so I’m just going to bring it up twice in this interview.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. How about a favorite habit?

Liz Fosslien
Besides breakfast, I think taking photographs of things. I do a lot of design work, so taking photographs of things I find inspiring.

I will broaden that to say if you just see someone setting an example or doing something really well and you want to emulate it, writing it down in some kind of file or a journal. I think you can screenshot. If someone writes an email that makes you feel really good or you think was really well done, screenshot it and save it somewhere. Just always being aware of the lessons that are out there and keeping them in a file so that you can refer back to them.

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

Liz Fosslien
Just that we all have feelings. I definitely experienced this. My parents are stoic, academic immigrants, so I grew up in a pretty emotionally unexpressive household, so just this concept around permission. You are going to have feelings. It’s okay. It’s not a weakness. It’s not a flaw. I think that – which maybe is a little sad – but I think it’s really useful to hear that. It can make people feel a lot less isolated wherever they are.

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

Liz Fosslien
I’m going to point them to our website, LizAndMollie.com. Mollie is spelled M-O-L-L-I-E not M-O-L-L-Y. They can preorder the book, No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, at your local independent book seller, wherever books are sold.

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

Liz Fosslien
Acknowledge your emotion. Next time you feel strongly, sit down, maybe journal about it, and really think about why you might be feeling that way.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Liz, thanks so much for sharing the good word and good luck with the book, No Hard Feelings, and all you’re up to.

Liz Fosslien
Thank you so much. This was a lot of fun. Thanks for having me.

390: Five Practices for Flexible Course Correction with Ed Muzio

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Ed Muzio says: "If you're a team, you have to act like a team. You can't bake a pie one slice at a time."

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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Michael J. Arena says: "You can't really have a breakthrough without something to break through."

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 says: "It's time for a new way to work that's compatible with human health, well-being, and satisfaction."

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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