Giving People Voice the Natural Way

Giving People Voice the Natural Way

Bob Gower: Bob is the Principal at Bob Gower Consulting and the Author of Agile Business: A Leader’s Guide to Harnessing Complexity.

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How can we create workplaces where more voices matter, people thrive & find meaning, and change & innovation happen naturally?

Bob: I think it's the million-dollar question, and it's what most organizations are asking these days. The frame we work from in the organizational business agility community 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 with a mission, ideally tightly related and synchronized, and coordinated with adjacent teams and a grouping of teams. But that team will have autonomy and the ability to make decisions on the ground without checking with anybody else first.

The team of teams concept is really 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 actually 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 could beat the US car companies in the late 80s and early 90s. This principle of distributed authority essentially says we will give individuals in small teams the authority to manage their own work within certain guardrails that keep it from creating too much risk. At the same time, we’re giving them a mission tightly coordinated with the other teams they're working with. A team of teams is really the natural way to go to give people a voice.

Regarding the second part of your question, autonomy seems to be a core human need. It certainly seems to be something people want, so we hope that while we are giving them this ability to have a voice, we're also allowing them to create an environment where they can thrive. There are many caveats, 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 it separately because I think those are separate issues. It's not enough to continuously improve to have a small team, but that team must work on a cadence that allows it time to reflect regularly. This comes straight out of Toyota's production system and the Agile Manifesto, where we're going to pause and reflect regularly and figure out how to improve. Whether 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 sometimes, can be enough.

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 really lively event. I really like it, 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 good? What can we do better next time? That's actually allowed us to reinvent this event regularly, so you have to pause regularly, and you have to reflect to improve.

You also mentioned innovation. Innovation is a slightly tougher problem, as many 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 and 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. If you give people autonomy and a mission, they will likely innovate. But they will only innovate within the guardrails 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 to grow or 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?

Hope. Let me explain my response. I've done a lot of work in the technology sector, and now I work in more heavy industry. What I have seen is that there are a lot of bad teams and bad environments out there. Organizations are mostly made up of pretty good people, but I believe they're responding to many forces. Many people rise in management simply through inertia. They start out of college in a cubicle and then slowly graduate to the corner office. 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 really great teams inside these organizations. But I see a lot of really bad teams. I see many people just putting in their time, waiting for the day to end, and then waiting for the pension to kick in.

So when I say "hope, " I mean that I have to demonstrate to an organization that there's a different way to do things. There's one game I play with almost every team 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 that we can work differently, 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. They don't follow me if I show up meek and unsure of myself. But if I show up very sure of myself, it's like I can answer almost any objection over the years because I've heard so many now.

But early on, I'd get stumped and tongue-tied, and sometimes that would blow an entire engagement in one moment. Then they have to be able to take 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 alongside me who will take over the 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?

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 been relaxed over the last 20 years, and the emphasis on bringing dogs to work.

A friend runs a shop up in Ann Arbor, MI, where people always bring babies to work. 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 by 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. 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 be asking employees?

I’ll refer back 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 is, "Hey, what can I do to make your day go better?" I think if more managers walked around and authentically asked 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 the people on the ground know what they need. Asking employees is probably the most important thing they can ask.

What’s the most important question employees should be asking leaders?

That's a good one. I have to tell you my joke. There's a film called Buck about a horse trainer. The horse trainer says in the movie that people hire him to help them with horse problems, but he’s really helping horses with people's problems. I always say that managers hire me to help them with team problems, but I'm really 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 really 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. At one point, I'm sure it was 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 common for employees 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 various ways when working with a middle manager. I frequently have a sponsor who's not at the organization's top but a project sponsor. I want to get this person promoted. I want to get inside their head about what they care about is 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?

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 about them, I gain a great deal of clarity about why I'm doing what I'm doing.

The first question is, "What are my intentions?" If I have a job, I want to know my intentions. 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 on our career. We have these values and long-term goals, so whenever we engage in something, we probably operate from a hypothesis that this will help us achieve one of our 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 take long to answer that question, but what are my intentions?

The second question is, "What are my concerns?" When I'm looking at how this situation is set up, what are my concerns? 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 and 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, scope creep is one of our concerns on projects. Sometimes a customer is going to continue to ask for more and more and more. We had great learning 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. A customer can't corner you and say, "Hey, can you do this?" And you'll go under pressure to say, "Yes." Now you can say, "Let me check with my team and 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: "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 to you? What would happen to the world? What would happen to the team? What would happen to 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 who ends up liking us so much that they end up recommending us to other people inside their organization, and we expand our scope of work and have to hire two more teams to keep up with that work. It allows us to end this conversation more expansively. It lets us imagine a possible future!"

Now we've gotten out of the way of our intentions, our concerns, and our boundaries. It's a great question for people to ask themselves. I always ask myself this question when I'm walking into any situation. But it's a kind of a killer app if you bring a team together at the project's inception and get everyone to share. It really builds a level of empathy and understanding that's very valuable.

Your responses to our questions seem to reflect that you’ve given much thought to the questions we ask in this forum. Can you tell me more about the questions you think about?

I've shared a lot about my consulting work. I want to share the larger circle that sits inside. Maybe this is a question for you that you can answer for me as well: "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 whether it is allowing people of various ethnicities, gender expressions, and religions all to collaborate together and there is a diversity of thought.

Or I have an MBA in Sustainable Business so that we could look at it through the environment and what's the environmental footprint of this business or the impact on the social system that it operates inside.

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 really want to look at organizations from all sorts of facets, so I'm curious about what perspectives you have from your work. You're looking at good from a certain angle. This series of questions is driving 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: In terms of how we look at good, it's largely framed by the questions we ask in this forum, as you alluded to. But everything you mentioned above is part of the package and should 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 love that. I increasingly think I want to fall in love with my work. As I mentioned, I'm working with this industrial team right now. They recycle train engines. They find old derelict trains, 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!