The key principle that Bill Gore built his company around was this: no single person should have the authority to kill a good idea or keep a bad idea alive.
Welcome to our interview with Rod Collins. Rod is an Author, Keynote Speaker, and Innovation Sherpa at Salt Flats.
Over the last 30+ years, Rod Collins has been a catalyst for positive change and in building highly collaborative organizations in challenging and legacy environments from the ground up. Under his leadership as the Chief Operating Executive of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Federal Employee Program, one of the nation’s largest and most successful business alliances, the company experienced its greatest five-year growth period in its 50-plus year history, setting new records for operational and financial performance.
Welcome Rod, and thank you for contributing to the questions that are at the heart of Forward Thinking Workplaces.
How can we create workplaces where more voices matter, people thrive and find meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
Rod Collins: We’ve got to change the fundamental context of the workplace around a single organizing principle that was discovered back in 1958 by Bill Gore when he built the company W. L. Gore and Associates, which is known more popularly for its product Gore-Tex. The key principle that Bill built his company around was this: that no single person should have the authority to kill a good idea or keep a bad idea alive. There’s probably no more harm done than when that principle is not employed.
When that principle is not employed, all kinds of people have the authority to kill good ideas and keep bad ideas alive. People don’t thrive, they feel their voices don’t matter and find it very hard to find meaning, so voice is very important.
What a workplace looks like based on the principle that no one should have the authority to kill a good idea or keep a bad idea is people are not going to be working in cubicles. They are going to be working more in open space. They are going to have processes where they are going to have to tap into their collective intelligence in order to move things forward because if a single person can kill a good idea that one decision maker can stop everything. That’s dangerous in a rapidly changing world because if that single leader is wrong, he could take down the whole company.
I think when all voices matter and you build processes like W. L. Gore & Associates have done to tap into the collective intelligence of their people, it leads to long term success. It also leads to an environment that naturally enables innovation. Nothing kills innovation faster than a legion of supervisors all of whom have the ability to kill a good idea or keep a bad idea alive.
Again, it comes back to this single principle, design your organization so that no single person can kill a good idea or keep a bad idea alive.
What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
Rod: Full attention and best performance, which means being a part of a highly effective team. When employees feel those two dimensions of attention and performance, that’s what you’ve got. I recently came across an article that summarized Google’s exploration of this basic question.
Google likes to measure things and they are focused on excellent performance. They asked a couple of people to research, “What is it that characterizes high performing teams?” They looked at all the usual attributes. They looked at teams that had highly ordered agendas. They looked at teams that did agenda on the spot. They looked at teams that were quiet and respectful listening to everybody. Then they looked at other teams that were noisy where people talked over everybody. They didn’t find that any of these attributes distinguished a high performance team. But they kept digging deeper and deeper, and they finally came across the two common elements that all effective teams have.
The first element was equality of voices and the second was safety. It didn’t matter if you had a messy meeting or a structured meeting if you have a facilitative leader or a directive leader. As long as the voices equally contributed, and no single person dominated or hijacked the discussion, and as long as people felt safe to express their ideas especially when they were contrary to the majority of the group when those two attributes were present, you had a high performing team. I think creating a safe environment where there’s an equal distribution of voices is probably the key to getting an employee’s full attention and best performance.
What do people really lack and long for at work?
Rod: I think they lack and long for meaning. Ever since Victor Frankl wrote the book Man’s Search for Meaning several decades ago, I think there’s great insight there. For those who aren’t familiar with Victor Frankl, he was a German concentration camp survivor who described the way he survived the concentration camp was he knew the one thing that his captors could not take away from him was how he chose to hold his circumstances, and the meaning that he infused even in those direst of circumstances.
Meaning is a fundamentally important human dimension that is probably the difference between a high-quality life and a not so high-quality life. As much time as we spend in the workplace, and as much of a dimension about personalities as work is, it’s an important source for meaning. Companies that are overly hierarchical and overly task focused can be environments where people lose their connections to customers. I think, if you are working in a meaningful workplace, everyone understands how they are contributing value to customers in a way that gives them a sense of meaning. The more we can design organizations so that the work that people do connects to the value that the organization delivers to customers in a way that is clearly evident, I think that’s an important thing that people lack for and long for at work.
What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?
Rod: Very simple, “What do you think?” Employees are also customers. Every one of your employees is a customer of a lot of other different companies. As customers, they are probably more in touch with the rapidly changing world than they are in their role as employees. So this is a tremendous resource that management has in getting insight into the mind of customers. In this rapidly changing digital world in which we suddenly find ourselves in—because we are in a hyper-connected world thanks to the digital revolution—the customer’s voice is far stronger in terms of influencing the market than it was two or three decades ago. So by tapping into this rich resource within the organization and asking employees to share their customer view of the world, we could give tremendous insight to management on how they need to adapt to remain successful in these rapidly changing markets.
What’s the most important question employees should ask leaders?
Rod: This is a good question. Employees should be asking managers how they see the future. Anything employees can do to get managers more future oriented is going to be a large contribution to the business because the future is likely going to be very different from the past. If the managers are wrapped up in crisis management just responding to the immediate change in front of them, they are never going to outrun this pace of change.
If managers can look further into the future, anticipate what’s happening, going into the minds of the employees to get a sense of where their customers are at, then management can shape the direction of the company in a very different way that will be more aligned with the future that’s going to happen rather than the future that management would like to happen. I think if employees can raise questions and get managers thinking about the future that can be an important contribution.
What is the most important question we should ask ourselves?
Rod: I think the most important question we should be asking ourselves is, “What is my feeling about Monday morning?” We spend a large part of our lives at work. I’ve always had the philosophy that Monday morning should be just as good as Friday afternoon. If you’re not looking forward to Monday morning, then you’re just working for a paycheck. You are not working to make a contribution to the world. You are slowly chipping away at your own health, probably physically as well as psychologically. But as long as Monday morning is as happy a time as Friday evening, then you are living a full life because you are enjoying both your work time and your free time. They are probably both contributing to each other. We should never take for granted the importance of how we feel about Monday morning.
What do you see are the biggest changes that are going to be happening in the world over the next several years?
Rod: We are on the precipice of a huge transformational change. We are at the point today that’s at the end of the first wave of the digital revolution. Now we on are the verge of the second wave of the digital revolution.
The second wave will be far more transformative and far faster than the first wave has been. That may surprise some people because the first wave has brought a tremendous amount of change. The first wave, which really came about less that 20 years ago, had a single engine, which was the Internet. The Internet transformed the world into a hyper-connected world. But as the science fiction writer William Gibson once wisely observed, “The future has already arrived but it hasn’t been evenly distributed.” That’s the story of the first wave. It wasn’t evenly distributed.
If you were in media, entertainment, retail, communications, your world was turned upside down. Digital transformation meant that all your old business models went by the wayside and new ways came about. But if you were in core industries like healthcare, financial services, insurance, energy, food processing, and digital transformation, for you it meant you got a website, but your fundamental basic business models remained essentially unchanged. All of that is about to change now.
The second wave is going to be driven by twin engines. The twin engines are the Internet of Things and Blockchain technology. These two engines are sophisticated collective intelligence systems. As these two systems take hold, we will appreciate much more the single defining transformational phenomena of the digital age is collective intelligence.
What’s going to happen is the Internet of Things is going to take this hyper-connected world and put it in overdrive. Blockchain technology is going to be a new architecture for building IT systems that doesn’t depend on control mechanisms. Control mechanisms have kept us safe for the last 50 or 60 years but are now obsolete because too many bad agents can get into computer systems and rapidly take over control and view information in centralized files.
To explain how all of this is going to happen, let me use an analogy. Five years ago if we asked people, “What do you think of driverless cars?” they would have said, “ Well that sounds like either science fiction or a long way off.” Very few people today would deny the reality of driverless cars. They are being tested on the road. You’ve got automakers such as Mercedes-Benz, Nissan and Audi, who now have driverless cars as part of their business strategy. Before the decade it out, driverless cars will clearly be a reality.
Most of us think driverless cars will drive just like we do. Only a computer rather than a human being will be at the controls. The picture of the driverless car is that it will navigate traffic just like they do. No, not at all. The driverless car is going to be part of the system of the Internet of Things. All the cars are going to be connected. The driverless car will not be a single car driving itself. It’s going to be a collection of all the driverless cars driving themselves all with the knowledge of what the other cars are doing. The computer won’t be estimating what the other car will do, the computer will know what the other car is doing because it’s all part of the same Internet of Things. This is what a collective intelligence system looks like, and it will greatly reduce the number of accidents because accidents happen when people make assumptions about other drivers that turn out to be false. Those assumptions will go away in a driverless car system that is built on the foundation of the Internet of Things.
Blockchain technology will become important because the Internet of Things also will be humanity’s first experience with an omniscient system. We will know everything about everyone. People are going to step back and think, “My God, that could be Orwellian.” Well, Blockchain technology will come to the rescue. Blockchain technology is the platform behind Bitcoin, which is easily transferable to other industries, and we will see rapid movement towards this technology over the next several years. It doesn’t use control mechanisms like traditional IT systems to get things done. It relies upon collective intelligence dynamics. Nothing can be entered into this system unless the collective intelligence of either digital or human agents agree. This is going to make it hard for singular bad agents to hack into computer systems.
The other thing Blockchain does it doesn’t store information in centralized files. It distributes information throughout the ledger and the keys are kept outside the system. When a hacker gets in all they’re going to see is essentially garbage. Blockchain will be important because it will be both transparent as well as preserving privacy, and it does that because it uses avatars. For example, once this technology comes into place, all of your health, financial, all kinds of buying information will be known, but it will be in the context of your avatar. But they won’t know who you are. Only you control the key to to allow your provider to see your health records. When your health provider views those records, because they’re not stored in centralized files, as soon as they’re done with them they become redistributed out again. This is very important. It’s another form of collective intelligence system using collective intelligence to decide how to process information rather than the usual control mechanisms that we used ever since modern day IT technology began.
The Internet of Things and Blockchain technology are going to accelerate what has begun with the Internet. We are really going to transform the world from hierarchical structures to network structures. This is why it is important, getting back to the first question, companies need to build networks by making sure no single person has the authority to kill a good idea or keep a bad idea alive. That really is the fundamental thinking behind Blockchain. No single bad agent is going to be able to do their work without the agreement of the collective intelligence of either digital or human agents within the system. This is going to be a very significant change coming down the pike that is going to produce incredible capacity for the human experience.
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