Welcome to our interview with Bob Gower. Bob is an Organization and Design Consultant and the Author of Agile Business: A Leader’s Guide to Harnessing Complexity. Bob is also a contributing writer at Inc. Magazine.
Welcome Bob, and thank you for contributing to the questions that are at the heart of Forward Thinking Workplaces.
How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
Bob Gower: I think it’s the million-dollar question, and it’s what most organizations are asking these days. The frame that we work from in the organizational business agility community that I’m part of is the team of teams. Stanley McCrystal’s book, Team of Teams, articulated this idea very well, but the team of teams is the best way to go. This concept allows each voice to be heard.
In a team of teams, you have a team that has a mission, and that mission is ideally tightly related and synchronized and coordinated with adjacent teams and a grouping of teams as well. But that team will have autonomy and ability to make decisions on the ground without having to check with anybody else first. The team of teams concept is a principle that comes very much from the Toyota production system and lean where they said, “Hey, to improve our process, why don’t we ask the people doing the process what would work? And what if we just said, “Let’s try it” to whatever ideas they came up with. The result was that they found they were able to beat the US car companies in the late 80s and early 90s. This principle of distributed authority essentially says we’re going to give individuals in small teams the authority to manage their work within certain guardrails. At the same time, we’re giving them a mission, and that mission is tightly coordinated with the other teams that they’re working with. A team of teams is the natural way to go to give people a voice.
Regarding the second part of your question, autonomy seems to be a very core human need. It certainly seems to be something people want, and so we would hope that while we are giving them this ability to have a voice that we’re also giving them the opportunity to create an environment where they can thrive. There’s a lot of caveats in there obviously, but I think those two things are tightly coupled.
The third part of your question which is around continuous improvement and innovation, I’ll take separately because I think those are separate issues. To continuously improve, it’s not enough to have a small team, but that team has to be working on a cadence that allows it time to reflect on a regular basis. This comes straight out of Toyota production system and the Agile Manifesto where we’re going to pause and reflect at regular intervals and figure out how we can get better. Whether you’re committing to a retrospective no matter where you are on the project or a post-mortem after the project, just creating that discipline to pause and reflect, even if it’s just a quick 5-minutes.
My wife and I host a brunch series in our home once a month. It’s morphed and changed over time, but it’s a lively event. It’s one of my favorite days of the month. I’m in the habit of asking her, “What worked about this one?” Where did we get stuck? What didn’t feel do good? What can we do better next time? That’s allowed us to reinvent this event on a regular basis. You have to pause regularly, and you have to reflect to improve.
You also mentioned innovation. Innovation is a slightly tougher problem as a lot of people have pointed out who write about this topic. I think there are a lot of things that work against innovation. The frame I would take with it is that people want to innovate, they want to do something new, but we tend to design our organizations in ways that prevent people from doing that. One common obstacle can be this multiple upon multiple levels of approvals that exists in many organizations. If you give people autonomy and give them a mission, they are likely to innovate. But they’re only going to innovate within the guardrails that you set for them. Maybe one of the first things we have to think about when it comes to innovation is why are we innovating? Are we innovating just to grow or are we innovating out of the joy of creation and a desire to provide value to other humans? Or are we just trying to get that 5% growth rate to appease the Wall Street analysts?
What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
Bob: Hope. Let me explain my response. I’ve done a lot of work in the technology sector, and now I work in heavy industry. What I have seen is that there are many bad teams and bad environments out there. Organizations are mostly made up of pretty good people, but I believe they’re responding to an awful lot of forces. Many people rise in management simply through inertia. They start off out of college in a cubicle then graduate to the corner office slowly over time. They tend to manage in the way they were managed from habits that were built up inside these organizations. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve also seen some great teams inside these organizations. But I see a lot of really bad teams. I see a lot of people who are just putting in their time waiting for the day to be over and then waiting for the pension to kick in.
So when I say “hope” what I mean is that I have to demonstrate to an organization that there’s a different way to do things. There’s one game that I play with almost every team that I work with that inserts a little bit of joy and visceral learning. People will say, “Oh, things are feeling different, we’re getting work done.” The game involves passing ping pong balls around. But they’re getting this feeling of we can work in a different way and my job is to defend that 1) there’s a new way of doing things, and 2) that there is precedent out there for doing it well and for doing it well while achieving the financial and metrics-driven goals of the organization.
I also have to win them over intellectually on the first day the first time I walk in front of the room. A lot of that involves I think frankly just the way I show up. If I show up meek and unsure of myself, then they don’t follow me. But if I show up very sure of myself, it’s like over the years I can answer almost any objection because I’ve heard so many now. But early on, quite frankly I’d get stumped and get tongue tied and sometimes that would blow an entire engagement in one moment. Then they have to be able to take some ownership of it themselves. My goal is always to hand ownership off as quickly as possible to the team. I’m always trying to train an internal coach along side of me who will take over facilitation of key meetings. I think a short engagement is just good business. We’re not in the business of making a company dependent on us, we want to make a company independent.
What do people really lack and long for at work?
Bob: I think we all want to bring more of our quirky selves out in the workplace than we feel comfortable doing. People are kind of messy. We’re not necessarily neat. We have quirks, we have weaknesses, we have strengths. I think people would like to bring more of their authentic selves—to feel not like they have to edit themselves so much when they come to work. People want to feel like they can build authentic and real relationships with people, and they just aren’t a number hitting cog in a machine. I think we often try to give people that. For example, dress codes have obviously been relaxed over the last 20 years and the emphasis on bringing dogs to work.
A friend of mine runs a shop up in Ann Arbor, MI where people bring babies to work all the time. It’s a much more family kind of place. They build some of the best software in the business. They’re an incredible shop. Their defect rate is low and their customer satisfaction rate is through the roof. They never want for business. They’ve done it all through allowing people to be more human in the office. I think that’s what we all long for—that and some connection and more intimacy. Intimacy is a little bit of a charged word, but I want to feel like I care about the people I work with, not just my colleagues but my clients as well. I want to be in their lives and be somebody they feel they can count on and not hide behind the veneer of business all the time—be a real human.
What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?
Bob: I’ll refer to the Toyota production system. How do I make this better? What am I getting wrong? What am I doing that gets in the way of you doing the best work of your life? One of the questions my wife and I ask each other all the time is, “Hey, what can I do to make your day go better?” I think if more managers were walking around and authentically asking their teams with curiosity, we’d see a lot of improvement. People know what they need. I love Drucker’s definition of a knowledge worker—it’s anyone who knows more about their job than their boss does. Frankly, most bosses don’t know what they need to know, and it’s the people on the ground who know what they need. Asking employees is probably the most important thing they can ask.
What’s the most important question employees should ask leaders?
Bob: That’s a good one. I have to tell you my joke. There’s a film called Buck about a horse trainer. What the horse trainer says in the movie is that people hire him to help them with horse problems, but he’s helping horses with people problems. I always say that managers hire me to help them with team problems, but I’m helping teams with manager problems. Most of the time I feel like the question needs to be inverted, but I think the thing teams need to be asking of their managers is they need to let their managers know what they need to be successful. It’s not so much asking questions, but it’s proactively being curious. Every broken process inside your organization was at one time an elegant solution to a problem that was close at hand. For example, the classic cover on a report. I’m sure it was at one point an elegant solution to somebody’s problem. Not everybody’s, but it was an elegant solution to someone’s problem. Rather than sit around and complain, which I think is the common thing for we employees to do on the front line, just be curious and ask, “Why is this the way it is?”
As a consultant, I frequently ask that question in a variety of ways when I’m working with a middle manager. I frequently have a sponsor who’s not at the top of the organization but a project sponsor. I want to get this person promoted. I want to get inside their head about what they care about is really important. I think employees can do that with managers as well. I think we help everybody win.
What is the most important question we can ask ourselves?
Bob: I have a framework that I use whenever I’m engaging with something new. Sometimes I just ask myself these questions and often I’ll ask my partner. These are four foundational questions. When I ask myself of them, I find that I gain a great deal of clarity about why it is I’m doing what I’m doing.
The first question is, “What are my intentions?” If I have a job, I want to know what my intentions are. Intentions I would frame as we all have long term goals in life. Things we want or want to create in our life. Maybe it’s a family; maybe that’s a certain kind of impact with our career. We have these kind of values and these long-term goals, so whenever we engage in something we probably are operating from a hypothesis that this is going to help me achieve one of my goals. It’s either going to pay me money, or it’s going to help me learn something, or it’s going to introduce me to the right people, whatever that might be. It doesn’t have to take long to answer that question but what are my intentions?
The second question is, “What are my concerns?” When I’m looking at the way this situation is set up, what are the concerns that I have? Am I set up for success? Am I concerned that I don’t have the knowledge I need to achieve success? It involves putting a lot of attention on things where we might fall short or go wrong.
Which leads us to the next question, “What are my boundaries?” What are the things I’m sure I’m not going to do? Being a middle-aged man, I’m a family man now. I don’t run myself as hard as I used to when I was much younger, and so one of my boundaries is when I go home for dinner at 5 o’clock, I’m with my family in the evening. I’ll do anything during the day; I’ll do what it takes to get this job done, but at 5 o’clock I go home because that’s my family time, so that’s my firm boundary. But boundaries can also be used to address concerns.
For example, one of the concerns we have on projects is scope creep. Sometimes a customer is going to continue to ask for more and more and more. We had a great learning on this last month where the team I’m working with now experienced scope creep. We said, ok what we’re going to do now with this next engagement we’re on is nobody says yes until everybody says yes. Now a customer can’t corner you and say, “Hey, can you do this?” And you’ll go under pressure say, “Yes.” Now you can say, “Let me check with my team and let me get back to you.” Then that pause can give us a more measured response. This practice puts little fail safe boundaries in place.
Those first three questions then open us up for the most interesting question, which is “What are your dreams for this particular thing?” If this were to go amazingly well, what would be true? What would happen? What would happen for you? What would happen to the world? What would happen for the team? What would happen for the customer? One of the things I frequently say is, “I want a TED Talk worthy engagement.” I want an engagement that sounds really good from the TED stage. Or maybe it’s the customer ends up liking us so much they end up recommending us to other people inside their organization and we expand our scope of work, and we have to hire two more teams to keep up with that work. It allows us to end this conversation in a more expansive way. It let us imagine a more possible future!”
Now we’ve gotten out of the way our intentions, our concerns, and our boundaries. It’s a great question for people to ask themselves. I ask it of myself this question all the time when I’m walking into any situation. But it’s a kind of a killer app if you bring a team together at the inception of a project and get everyone to share. It builds a level of empathy and understanding that’s very valuable.
Your responses to our questions seem to reflect that you’ve given a lot of thought to the types of questions we ask in this forum. Can you tell us a little bit more about the questions you think about?
Bob: I’ve shared a lot about my consulting work. I’d like to share the larger circle that sits inside of. Maybe this is a question for you that you can answer for me as well which is, “What do we mean when we say something is a good company?”
When we say an organization is good, we can look at it through one frame, and I could say, Jim Collins, Good to Great—great at innovation, revenue, efficiency, typical MBA sort of stuff. I have a friend who is a diversity and inclusion consultant, so we’ll look at it through the lens of is it allowing people of various ethnicities, gender expressions, religions all to collaborate and is there a diversity of thought? Or I have an MBA in Sustainable Business, so we could look at it through the environment and what’s the environmental footprint of this business or what’s the impact on the social system that it operates inside of? We can also look at it from a cult psychology perspective. Is this enhancing the people inside the organization or is it sucking them dry for the benefit of the organization? I want to look at organizations from all sorts of facets, so I’m curious what perspectives you have from your work. You’re obviously looking at good from a certain angle. This series of questions is driving at that. What are the characteristics you’re looking for when it comes to good? Have you spoken to all of those or is there anything else we could speak to?
Editor’s response: Regarding how we look at good, it’s largely framed by the questions we ask in this forum as you alluded to. But everything you just mentioned above is part of the package and ought to be considered too. Your question is reminding me of something one of our partners is fond of saying about the ideal workplace. She often says, “I want to work in a place where every time I talk or think about it I get carried away!”
Yeah, I love that. I think more and more I just want to fall in love with the work that I do. As I mentioned, I’m working with this industrial team right now. They recycle train engines. They find old derelict trains, and they recycle them and give them new life. But they put modern data centers inside of them. It’s amazing what they do. I love their mission. They give old trains new life, which is very exciting. Just having that sense of inspiration as you said, “Every time I talk or think about it, I get carried away!”
- Bob’s website
- Getting to Hell Yes: The conversation that will change your business (and the rest of your life) on Amazon
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