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To change your culture, listen, inquire, take a next step
The Overlap #22
Welcome to The Overlap, a biweekly newsletter somewhere between product development & organizational development. It comes out every other Wednesday morning.
In this edition, we’ll keep it simple. To change a company: listen, inquire, act.
Most change efforts fail.
People try to solve multiple problems with a silver bullet solution. This creates more problems than solutions.
Using “Daily Active Users” as the guiding metric for your business. However, you’re not building a social media app. But now your whole org believes that the goal is to increase DAU. Nice.
Introducing a performance management software because many leaders aren’t competent. And because individual contributors crave more feedback. But then everyone hates the software. And now people are more confused about how getting a raise works.
Booking a sensitivity training. You hear critique of your the company’s lack of diversity. So you look up what to do. Boom! Sensitivity training is the first result. But now people have to carve out 2 full workdays to watch videos. And no actual space is made for folks to share their experiences.
Expecting a consulting firm to help your org “move more quickly.” But then, you find that the real issue is that the org doesn’t have a shared, coherent strategy.
Silver bullet solutions create more problems. This happens, because the folks intending the change don’t do one of three things: listen, inquire, or take the next step.
Shorten and close feedback loops
We often don’t know the answer to the organizational problems we’re trying to solve. We have assumptions based on our intuition and past experiences. But assumptions are just assumptions: beliefs to put to the test.
We don’t know the answer because every organization is a complex system. Complex systems don’t have best practices. One strategy that worked for your B2B SaaS company may not work for your B2C company.
Organizations are complex systems. And complex systems don’t have clear answers. Therefore, we must focus on shortening and closing feedback loops rather than assuming our solutions are going to solve the problem.
Short feedback loops work best in complex systems. Your nervous system transmits signals to different parts of your body in milliseconds. Yet, feedback loops in companies are done in months (and in some cases, years). Planning is done once a year. Decisions that require executive input take a while to go up and down the org chart. Processes that slow teams down feel impossible to edit or delete.
Shorter feedback loops enable teams and organizations to learn more quickly. If a feature request wasn’t a good idea, a short feedback loop helps us realize that in days rather than months.
Listen, inquire, take a next step
Gayle was in the process of becoming a monk before she became the Chief Talent and Culture Officer of the Wikimedia Foundation (Wikipedia and other free-knowledge projects) in 2011. When she was two, she immigrated from the Philippines to the States. She now runs her own practice, enjoys poetry, and lives in Salt Lake City.
I love what she shares here: When she’s expected to bring about change in a company, she listens, inquires, and takes a next step.
Listen. Inquire. Take a next step.
I’m struck by how simple this is.
Listen. Inquire. Take a next step. This shortens feedback loops. This is agile.
Putting it into practice
Say you’re a product leader, starting a new job. You’re expected to help the company shift from working towards outputs to outcomes. So you decide to listen, inquire, and take a next step.
You listen to not just what people are saying, but what the system is saying.
You pay attention to visible and invisible issues.
What’s being said?
What’s written down?
What problems are talked about internally?
What does the company talk about publicly?
To spot out visible issues, you observe:
How meetings are run
Who makes the decisions on what to build
What happens when engineers disagree with the C-suite on what needs to be built
Whether the roadmap changes or stays the same
How big decisions get made (unilaterally, advice process, consensus, consent)
Which processes tend to get a lot of pushback
What’s not being said?
What are the typical elephants in the room?
What does the company not talk about publicly?
To spot out invisible issues, you observe:
How you feel throughout the workday
How your coworkers feel throughout their workdays
People’s perceptions of your role
People’s perceptions of “other” teams
How people give feedback
How people receive feedback
How people grow their careers
Inquiring is just taking a gentle step forward from listening.
Your goal here isn’t to influence or convince. Your goal is to discover. And see the problem before solving it.
You want new information. You want to disprove your own judgments and come up with better ones.
You are kind as you inquire. Yet you are uncompromising in finding out more.
Taking a next step
Now, take a next step. Make it so small and tangible that you can accomplish it tomorrow.
Is there a conversation you need to have with a specific person?
Is there more information you need to find? Where can you find that information?
Is there a meeting or communication practice you can kindly introduce?
Is there a strategy workshop to be had with a certain set of stakeholders?
Don’t make a 3-6 month plan. By the time you write it, you’ll find out new info. This new info will change your plan and now you have to write it from scratch. When was the last time your 3 month plan became reality? (The last time my 3 month plan worked was in college. What a time.)
After you take the next step, what next?
You guessed it: listen.
And the cycle continues.
We can’t control organizations. But we can bring it tenderly into being.
...self-organizing, nonlinear, feedback systems are inherently unpredictable. They are not controllable.
–Donella Meadows in Dancing With Systems
Organizations are complex systems. Products are complex systems. And people are… complex!
We can’t control complexity. We can’t predict it either.
The most we can do? Listen, inquire, and take a next step.
We can’t control how a tree grows. But we can envision it, care for it, and bring it into being.
What I’m Reading
Engineers, you are going on a quest. (Rands)
Blast from the past
Don’t bias towards action. Sense, then act. (Tim Casasola)
What I’m Sending
I’ve spent the last two weekends in Bishop, CA. So fun. Recently sent (finished) The Weekender:
See you in two weeks,