Prioritize what works over what doesn’t

The Overlap #10

Welcome to The Overlap, a biweekly newsletter that explores the relationship between product & organization design.

When fostering change in an organization, build off of what’s already working well instead of fixing what isn’t.

If you’re a change agent, you love solving problems. You enjoy doing it. Your colleagues value it. Your org encourages everyone to be vocal. It’s what you do!

So you’re always on the lookout for the next solvable problem. 

This leads you to a few traps:

  • You miss out on bright spots and aspects of the org that’s already working. You only prioritize flaws, issues, bottlenecks, blinding you from the opportunity to amplify and build off of what’s working well.

  • You prevent others from learning. You’ve learned so much by solving problems yourself, so you’re eager to apply these lessons. But for others to learn, they need opportunities to solve problems on their own. Take a step back.

  • You rob others of the joy of figuring it out. “That’s an easy fix. Do this” is not always welcome because they now have to implement your solution. That’s no fun. People intrinsically enjoy solving problems. Leverage that.

Say you just started at a new company. This company is a 1500-person org, way larger than previous companies you’ve worked at. They use Microsoft Teams to communicate internally, Microsoft Word for shared documentation, and Sharepoint for document storage. 

You observe that others always complain about issues related to the Microsoft suite. 

“Where’s that document from last week’s meeting? Who has it!?”

“I’ve been back and forth with Angela from accounting, and she doesn’t know where our most recent budgeting spreadsheet is for Q4. She’s asking around to find the person who has it, but it’s been three weeks.”

“Is the doc titled ‘2020_OKRs_final_final_final’ the most up-to-date doc on our OKRs?”

“Sharepoint still confuses me.”

As a change agent, you are salivating when you hear these complaints. These problems are solvable. Your solution: User-friendly cloud-based collaboration tools. Swap Microsoft Teams for Slack, and swap Microsoft Word and Sharepoint with Notion. Piece of cake.

You put together a presentation that makes the case for Slack and Notion. You present it to your manager. Your manager laughs—this isn’t the first time someone wants to throw Office 365 out the window.

“We know these tools are much better. Many people have proposed switching out of Office 365. It’s just that keeping our users' data as secure is a huge priority for us. And our CTO is skeptical of the security of freemium tools. Advocating for more modern tools is a losing battle here.”

Resistance. Your first obstacle. What do you do?

Focusing on weakness prevents learning

People have a negativity bias: negative events have a greater effect on our psychological state than positive events. This negativity bias partly explains why we spend most of our energy, time, and attention on problems, tensions, and bottlenecks.

We also focus on the negative on the individual level, in addition to the organizational level. When we ask for feedback, we expect negative feedback because we assume negative feedback will improve us more. 

However, the research shows that negative feedback prevents our learning while positive feedback accelerates it. In Harvard Business Review’s The Feedback Fallacy, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall share that the way we give feedback is based on three false assumptions:

  1. Other people are more aware of our own weaknesses than we are. If a colleague tells us “you’re too stoic in presentations” or “your thinking isn’t that original”, we interpret this as truth and ignore our own beliefs. We fail to understand that our colleague’s perspective is a perspective rather than the truth.

  2. We lack certain skills that are needed to perform the job, so our colleagues should teach us. You hired a UX designer, but you realize that you need someone who can balance the needs between the business, engineering, and user. You realize that you should’ve hired a product manager and assume that the UX designer lacks “PM skills.” So you tell them to develop “PM skills.” The UX designer responds with “Uh, I’ve held PM roles in the past… something I told you in our interview.” Your feedback was assumptive, the UX designer was defensive, and now they trust you less.

  3. Explaining = transferring knowledge. Upskilling a junior developer is as easy as having a senior developer talk to them about how they got better. However, listening to an explanation isn't an effective way for us to learn. We underestimate how hard it is to develop tacit knowledge.

These assumptions drive us to both seek and offer feedback that’s focused on fixing weaknesses. The irony? Amplifying strengths accelerates our learning more than fixing weaknesses.

Here’s a personal example. I wouldn’t self-identify as a writer if others didn’t encourage me to keep writing. From elementary to high school, I’ve never thought of myself as a writer. I never read classic literature. I put the bare minimum effort in writing essays. I identified as a math person—acing my trigonometry and differential equations classes. My parents were both electrical engineers and always praised my math abilities.

When I started college, I started reading more blogs. These blogs had a positive impact on how I saw the world. I reasoned that if they had a positive impact on me, they’d have a positive impact on others too. So I started writing blog posts. I received positive feedback from friends on Facebook and acquaintances on Twitter. It led me to two opportunities to write for org design consultancies I admired. People told me I should keep writing. I started to solidify my identity as a writer. It sounds trite, but without that positive feedback, I don’t think I’d be as into writing as I am today. 

Learning is less a function of adding something that isn’t there than it is of recognizing, reinforcing, and refining what already is.

–Buckingham & Goodall

Seeking out the positive deviances

Traditional change management also focuses on fixing what’s broken. It’s about fixing the root cause and implementing “best practices” that others have found success with.

This approach seldom creates lasting change. What we thought was the root cause turned out to be a symptom. And people are skeptical of best practices because, again, they don’t have the opportunity to figure it out on their own. They interpret best practices as “Why aren’t we as good as our competitor who does X?” or “Why couldn’t we think of this?”

A better approach is to seek evidence of what’s already working.

Going back to our example of getting your 1500-person company to ditch Office 365 for Slack and Notion. Again, you’ve identified these problems:

  • It’s difficult to find notes from previous meetings.

  • It requires tons of back and forth emails to find the person who has a certain spreadsheet you need.

  • People don’t know which document is the most recent version.

  • Sharepoint’s user experience isn’t great.

Instead of immediately jumping into “fixer” mode, try to find evidence of ways that this specific company has already solved these problems. 

This might mean:

  • Meeting teams that invented conventions so that it’s easy to find the most recent doc.

  • Finding people who have already made the case for cloud-based collaboration. Ask them what they wish they knew before advocating for those tools. Learn from them.

  • Discovering teams that went rogue and ditched Office 365 for more modern collaboration tools. Learn about how it’s going for them, and ask for their advice on introducing these tools to your part of the org.

  • Find the leader who is in charge of purchasing collaboration tools for the company. See if they already purchased tools that enable a more transparent way of working. Who knows, you might have access to tools like Box or Confluence.

  • Speaking with non-leadership folks who have facilitated change in the company before. Learn about how they did it.

By deliberately uncovering evidence of what has worked, not only are you equipping yourself with the knowledge that can empower you to formulate a better solution, you are also encouraging people to shape the change. Teams that already use Slack and Notion will be more than willing to help you make the case to your manager and team. Teams that no longer have trouble finding documents will be eager to share how they solved this problem. The CTO who purchased Office 365 will happily make you an admin on Box or Confluence. 

People rarely want others to change them. They want to be the ones stewarding the change. Again, leverage this.

From a 2005 HBR paper called Your Company’s Secret Change Agents [1]: 

In the positive deviance model, problem identification, ownership, and action begin in and remain with the community. Because the innovators are members of the community who are “just like us,” disbelief and resistance are easier to overcome.

Discovering evidence of what’s already working is a win-win: you get a better understanding of how to positively change your company while others feel joy from being able to contribute.

Shifting from a deficit mindset to an abundance mindset

Amplifying what works requires a shift in how we think about people. 

Fixing what’s broken comes from a deficit mindset. A deficit mindset assumes:

  • People are broken and need fixing

  • People don’t have their own answers. It’s up to us to give it to them

  • People aren’t ambitious, don’t want to be responsible, and want to be told what to do

A deficit mindset prevents change agents from facilitating the change they hope for. We give unsolicited advice, which annoys our colleagues. We’re quick to point out our colleague’s flaws. We micromanage others because we don’t believe that people won’t get anything done unless they are told to.

Shed the deficit mindset and embrace an abundance mindset. An abundance mindset assumes:

  • People are self-directed and have their own answers.

  • People are whole and complete. 

  • People are heroes on their own journey.

  • People always have something valuable to offer. If we don’t know yet what they have to offer, we need to understand them more deeply.

  • Everyone has something to teach.

Embracing an abundance mindset is hard. Society trains us to assume a deficit mindset, so it is a tough shift. But without an abundance mindset, it will be difficult for you to consistently amplify what’s working. With an abundance mindset, you will always be able to find positive deviance in any situation, no matter how dire it is.

Positive deviance as a practice

When the urge to fix comes up for you, reflect on whether it’s getting in the way of learning about what’s already working. Ask if it gets in the way of others’ learning. Practice viewing others from a place of abundance, and notice when you’re coming from a deficit place. You’ll unlock the change you want to see by building off of what’s already working.


What I’m Reading

 1. 10 Tips for Sustainable Change Agency

Here were the two that stood out to me. 

On projecting our own problems onto the org:

Sometimes our own needs are not being met. Maybe we’re bored. Maybe we’re looking to work to fill a void. Instead of looking inwards, we channel that energy into a convenient crusade at work. Try to be aware of when this is happening. Get clear with yourself first.

And on being part of the problem:

You are probably part of the problem (maybe a small part, but still a part). This is a hard one to admit, especially when we self-identify as the fixer of a problem. But there's likely something you're doing that contributes. Take a good look inwards.

2. Blocking & Unblocking Clients

Getting new capacities off the ground from scratch requires a herculean effort and while this is good for the ego complex of the consultant - as they imagine themselves moving mountains and molding the organization like clay - the truth is that our job is not to change the organization but to help the organization change themselves…

3. Can I Borrow Your Reference Point?

A lot of political persuasion is currently taking the form of bashing opponents. We can make more progress by stepping into their shoes and learning what life experiences are shaping voting behavior.

End Notes

[1] Your Company’s Secret Change Agents is unfortunately behind an academic paywall. Message me and I’ll send you the PDF.

Illustration from Evan Cohen.