Welcome to our interview with Bob Schatz. Bob is a leader in Agile Product Development, Process Improvement, Organizational Fitness, Scrum Training, and Lean Management at Agile Infusion, LLC.
Bob specializes in training, consulting, and coaching in the practice of successfully using agile project management techniques to transform organizations and improve the performance of their software development project teams. He is a long-time Certified Scrum Trainer (CST) with the Scrum Alliance. He began his practice as a result of leading the first large agile transition at Primavera Systems in 2002. Since then he has helped many other companies do the same.
Welcome Bob, and thank you for contributing to the questions that are at the heart of Container13.
Q1: How can we create a workplace where every voice matters, everyone thrives & finds meaning, and change & innovation happen naturally?
This is a great question. I’ve always been someone that really wants to create a workplace described in those words. I know in my career as a leader, I’ve tried to create that type of environment for people. Now, as a consultant, I go from company to company and see what they’re doing, and I try to help them get to a better place where continuous improvement is the daily goal. In my heart, I want to believe something like you’re describing here can happen, but then I think about it and see what the reality is.
I don’t think this type of workplace will emerge in most organizations. It takes a lot of work, excellent leadership, and a special culture all being in alignment at the same time. What we can do as leaders is put people that want that type of workplace into an environment that fosters that kind of culture. But I also think there are some people that might not want that—or it may not fit every situation. Some people just want to show up. They want to do good work. They want to know that the work has some meaning to it, but they may not feel the need to own the process. There are some types of work that fit well with these people. I don’t think everybody needs to be a hard charging change agent and an innovator, and if there are too many, is that a good thing?
I also think that some people at different levels of the organization—all the way from the top to the bottom—might not have that gear. They just don’t have that gear to get to where they can do this. It doesn’t really match every type of situation. I’m thinking in highly structured operational environments where the work is more standardized and procedures must be followed. It’s just about getting things done.
In John Kotter’s latest book, XLR8 he writes about organizations developing a type of dual operating system. One operating system is for “keep the lights on” type of work and execute the steady state business while the other operating system is for innovating new products and services, which requires a whole different culture. A lot of companies are trying to build in these dual operating systems that have a connection—one feeds the other, but it’s a very hard thing to do with companies having the pressures they have today. It’s becoming more and more a need but trying to figure out how to make it happen is something fully different.
Q2: What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
I think if you give people purpose and meaning in their work, so they’re not just doing it to do it. It’s especially important in work that’s more operationally focused where meaning sometimes gets lost. However, people do want to know that their work has purpose, and it does have meaning—certainly to the people who benefit from their efforts.
Getting people immersed in a problem to solve is also important. This is especially true for people who do knowledge work. Give people the tools to do their work and basically get out of their way. If you’re a manager or a leader, you can’t be on top of these people. They need autonomy to be able to do their work.
I think some of the great ideas and products we come up with often come out of environments where there’s scarcity and desperation. Look at where many good products have come from, e.g., startups, crises, and post-war type conditions where countries, individuals, and companies must reinvent themselves to build back up. You can’t just give everybody everything they need. There’s going to be some basic tools you want to provide and then let people sweat it out a little bit. There’s some of that natural energy and open thinking that comes from scarcity. When everything has been destroyed, we are forced to rethink of what to do next instead of having to fit a change into some predefined pattern or model that’s in our head that might be holding us back.
Getting people into an interesting problem solving situation where they are challenged with some type of scarcity, and they have to work as a team is what brings out the full capacity of people. I know for myself, when I’ve been in those situations where you don’t have anything and you want to solve a problem that you have passion for, that’s where I did my best work. We all have much more to give and it really comes out in a crisis. That’s where people really shine, using their brain power to get themselves out of that situation.
Q3: What do people really lack and long for at work?
I feel that people are missing a sense of family. It used to be if you went to work for a company there was an informal agreement that you were going to take care of each other. You take care of the company, and the company will take care of you. Today, there’s more career mobility, so people are moving around a lot more—a lot of job changes. Because of this mobility, companies are not as loyal as they used to be to employees. And in return, the employees are not really loyal to the companies.
I was thinking back to when I worked for GE Aerospace and GE was known as a highly collegial company where they would take care of you. We had t-shirts that said, “GE Is Me.” You felt like when you wore that t-shirt, you were part of the GE family. They took care of me. They trained me. They gave me opportunities to work on complex problems. And in return, I gave them my best. Every time I did something I said to myself, “I owe this back to the company.” I felt like there was an informal contract between us, and I was part of something very special. Of course, that all changed when we got kicked out of the family by Neutron Jack Welch! But this was part of the deal. It was his informal contract that every GE business had had to be number one or number two in their industry sector, or that business unit would be shut down, moved or sold—and that’s what happened.
First, we became Martin Marietta then eventually merging with Lockheed to create Lockheed-Martin. But it was interesting just to go through that transition from GE Aerospace to Martin Marietta. As soon as it happened, it felt like I just got kicked out of the family. There was a different feel to it, the sense of family was GE. I think that’s missing in many companies today. Companies really rely on people to get into their work, solve problems, and make customers happy. They want that full commitment, but with all that mobility, how much of yourself do you want to give to a company that’s not necessarily taking care of you and treating you just like a number? You know that it’s going to end, so you have to build and manage your own career.
And, if somebody does want to change something in a company, can they find a way to really get that out and be heard? If they do, is it welcomed? Is the company open to hearing these people? Is the narrative, “Well, it’s a great idea, but you’re going to be leaving in three months, so why should we do that?” Maybe someone has a great improvement idea but doesn’t want to say anything because of the fear of how others will react. Any good change idea will be challenged. How am I going to be treated since everyone is a short-timer? Is it going to be accepted or am I going to be ousted? I think that sense of belonging, that sense of family. I think that’s what people are missing.
Q4: What is the most important question management should be asking employees?
What I’ve always done is just walk around and talk to people and ask, “How are you doing?” Not how’s that project coming or how’s your task coming but really to ask how are you doing as a person? Is there anything you need to do your best work? Is there something you’re missing to do the job the way you need to do it? Do you have any ideas about something we could improve?
As a manager and a leader, that’s what I need to know. I want to find out from people which areas need to improve so that we can serve our customers better? Get their ideas and involve them in moving to action, “How can we do it? What do you see that we need to do?”. I’ve seen too many companies where it’s survey after survey after survey, but then fails to move to action.
I like to use this little acronym GSD—Get Shit Done! You already know 90% of what these people need to do their job. Just get it done. Stop asking. Sometimes you get tied up in the analytics of organizations. For example, we want to know what does employee engagement translate to in terms of revenue. Well, that’s great, but if somebody is sitting there in a job and they don’t have a tool they need, or they don’t have access to a customer to get information or knowledge, that’s not a question to we should find out about from a survey. Managers should continuously work on getting people the things they need to do their job and remove any obstacles in their path.
Overall, managers must find out what their employees state of being is, and asking if they have the right people, processes, procedures, techniques, and tools to do it well. Then make sure you provide that environment where people can do their best work and get out of their way.
Q5: What is the most important question employees should be asking management?
I think people are missing insight into how their organization is measured. Not so much in terms of operational metrics but more of the throughput. What is our organization’s throughput measure? What do we do to track ourselves and our ability to satisfy the customer?
And at a lower level, if you dive into that and look at a specific group or a team, employees should be asking, “How does what we do contribute to that?” Employees need to know how their piece fits into the value that is delivered to the customer. It would also be a good idea for employees to ask their management, “What do you see as our biggest obstacle to our growth?”
Employees should be talking to their management and asking, “What do you see?” Sometimes as an employee I know what I’m thinking about how things are going, but what does the manager think about the obstacles? Then ask them, “What’s your plan to address it?” Many of the obstacles that people face are under the control of management, so ask them, “What are we going to do about this issue?” This is all to get management thinking about how we grow, and how do we measure that growth of what we’re doing to produce value for the end user or customers?
It’s tough at the middle-management level. There are requests and obstacles coming up from employees, and there’s pressure to execute coming from the top. Most middle managers are just trying to survive and not rock the boat too much. But they know there are problems, and they do have the power to improve. They must have the courage to be better. If they’re not willing to give their total effort there, the organization loses its capacity to serve the customer.
Q6: What is the most important question we can ask ourselves?
This is a question that I constantly ask myself, “Am I doing everything I can as a professional to improve my skills and contribute to the goals of the organization?” I’m putting it on myself to say, “Am I doing everything?” Am I complaining about things or proposing solutions?
Complaining is a regular practice for most people. It’s a natural human response to a problem. But at some point, the complaining must stop. It doesn’t solve the problem. It sometimes makes it worse. Maybe this is a better way to handle a problem at work, “Ok, let’s complain about the problem for a little bit and get it off our chest, but then let’s figure out what we can do.” I think it would be good for employees to ask themselves that question.
I also think on a regular basis it’s good to check-in on yourself by asking, “What have I learned and applied in the last month?” Give yourself an iterative way of growing to check yourself by first asking, “Am I learning things?” And secondly, “Am I learning just theory or am I learning by applying it?” That can help the organization get better, which should help me get better.
I think just constantly asking ourselves these questions transcends a particular job or a role you might have. It’s just my value system that no matter who I’m working for or what I’m doing, I’m going to be the best that I can be when I’m there by continuing to learn and grow and give them what I’ve got.
Q7: Before we started the interview, you shared with me that you are enrolled in a doctorate program that I thought was very interesting. Can you share more information on your area of focus?
I’m always curious about the role that fear plays in organizations. What led me into my doctoral program is this constant question that keeps surfacing for me about why leaders fear changing things. Part of it is just basic human psychology. We’re just so pattern based. We follow a pattern, we get paid (rewarded). It takes the stress off us. Changing how we do something, and usually if it’s not going well that means major changes, can be a big risk. It takes courage to drive this. You can’t be in a constant state of change either because it’s too stressful, so there’s something in between those two poles. In today’s work environments, we need to be changing in numerous ways, constantly, to meet the needs of the market.
I do think where we get into these times where we need to change radically—whether it’s a personal or professional—how do we activate the part of us that is the change agent? We all have this change agent capability because in different situations people will exhibit that and suppress the fear of what’s going to happen. That’s my area of interest I’m looking at. Not just the dynamics of it, but if a company really did want to have change agents and needed that to fuel an innovative practice or product development initiative, how do you free people up so they’re not living in a sense of fear and start making decisions based on what’s right vs. what’s not going to get them fired? That’s always an interesting discussion to have with people.
The program I’m taking is in the domain of Strategic Leadership. There’s a lot of writing on change models and the different types of personalities that are required to lead change. But if you think about it, who is the person that’s really going to put their neck on the line to drive a radical change? It’s not just about their personality, it’s about whether that person willing to give up everything? Because ultimately in a radical change, you’re most likely going to be out of that organization. It’s going to happen because you choose that or the organization does.
In other words, people who are not comfortable with change might put up with it for a while but then as soon as it reaches a new plateau (pattern), even though you want to push more, they don’t want you to push more. When that happens, you’re done. If you really think you want to do more, you might get frustrated and say, “I can’t take it here anymore, and I have to go.” I think this topic is interesting, and there’s not a lot of writing that “Go” moment when you decide I’m going to sacrifice myself for everybody else.
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