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Welcome to our interview with Jeff Dalton. Jeff is a Process Innovator, Chief Evangelist at AgileCxO, Author and CEO at Broadsword Solutions. Jeff”s latest book is Great Big Agile, An OS for Agile Leaders. You can learn more about Jeff and Broadsword at his company website.
Welcome to this forum Jeff, and thank you for contributing to the questions that are at the heart of the Exploring Forward Thinking Workplaces 2.0 conversation.
Bill Fox: How can we create workplaces where more voices matter, people thrive and find meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
Jeff Dalton: We’ve been struggling with this question for 10 years at Broadsword, the company I founded eleven years ago. We started out as a traditional consulting firm with a leveraged model and different levels of performers—senior consultants, directors, and managers. We were a little bit like a traditional Big 4 consulting model, which is where some of us came from.
Last year we had a joint epiphany. We were out there in the world talking with our clients about agile, self-organization and collaboration when we realized we weren’t doing a good job at it ourselves! We really wanted to ensure that all of the smart people who worked at our company had a voice, but more importantly, felt like they were contributing and thriving in their own lives. We wanted them to feel like they were empowered to do the things they needed to do to be delighted. So I started what I call the “no victims” policy. There are no victims in our company – everyone is empowered to do what they need to do to be successful. They’re empowered to resolve issues and be equals. No managers.
Of course, you can’t be successful without some level of organization, so in order to facilitate this policy, we’ve started to adopt a model called “Holacracy.” I was literally Googling “self-organizing companies” when I ran across the Holacracy website. I’m not sure how much you’ve been following Brian Robertson and his journey, but Brian created this model a number of years ago and has helped many companies find great success with self-organization. It’s a constitution-based model where your organization is self-governing. In some ways it’s a super-charged version of what we’ve been doing with our clients—crisply defined processes where people have very clear defined roles in the constitution. They have a lot of input into each role, and their role is designed to give them the meaning they are searching for.
Obviously, we have some roles that have to be performed, but there are also elective roles so that people are focusing on the things that make them most empowered and most successful in their careers. One of the key concepts in Holacracy is “learning to separate role from soul.” An individual at our company might have 20 roles. For example, I have a role such as “writer of proposals,” and another like “reviewer of financials.” I also have “teacher of classes” (a role others also have) and “planner of retreats. We’re codifying all of the roles in our constitution and are starting to become proficient in this self-organization model where every employee is responsible for their own meaning and their own innovation. It’s really starting to change the face of our company.
For a while, we had a couple of dedicated managers – people whose job it was to direct the other people. We realized early on we were uncomfortable with this because everyone in our company is a high performer. People needed coaching more than management, and I became concerned that too much oversight was stifling innovation (another thing we always tell our clients!). We haven’t fully implemented Holacracy yet, but we are on the path. The results have been overwhelmingly positive.
Bill: What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
Jeff: This is a complicated question, with many inputs and qualifiers. I’ve struggled with this idea my whole career. But if I’m proud of anything in my career, it’s that I’ve done a decent job bringing great performance out of people. I think the way to do that is to encourage and motivate them to want to do it and to be excited about what they’re doing.
I’m always reminded of the mantras of the Armed Services. The Navy says, “People, People, People” is their focus. The Army says, “Process, Process, Process.” And the Air Force says, “Mission, Mission, Mission.” These are the things that you hear military professionals talk about as being what really drives them in their particular branch. What I’ve learned in my company is that people want to be excited about all three of those things, the mission is the most important one. It isn’t enough just to give them a mission and a goal. You also need to focus on the people, making it easier for them to focus on the mission.
Finally, process is important too. Process is nothing more than a definition of expected behavior, and I find that the right amount of process guidance can be very liberating and a powerful force in growing your culture. So, it’s a three-legged stool – and architecture of sorts. Laying out a very clear mission that’s exciting to them, laying out a clear vision for a culture that helps people be successful, and laying out the process in a way that makes their job easier and more successful. All three things together have to be intertwined and work together.
Bill: What do people really lack and long for at work?
Jeff: It’s interesting because it’s really evolved over the last decade. When I was a young programmer and then consultant, what was most important was a solid career track, making more money, and moving up to be a partner, senior manager, or vice president. People were really focused on that. I’ve been excited this past couple of years because it seems like the workforce is evolving. People are more interested in the work environment with time and challenge being the most important things.
People want to have time to do the things that are important in their life. A career, making money and moving up are the things that people do, but it’s not the reason we work. We don’t work to move up and get a new title. We don’t work to make an additional $50,000 per year. Those things are nice and good things (and wholly necessary), but what we really work for is to spend time with our family, relax, read, and do other pursuits outside of our careers.
And be challenged every day. As part of our own Holacracy journey, we have implemented a couple of new policies. One of them is we have an unlimited Personal Time Off (PTO) policy. We have no designated vacation days by role. We used to say if you were a senior consultant you got three weeks. If you were a manager, you got four weeks. Now we say, “ok, you take the PTO that you need to take to make yourself successful.” That way people get ample vacation time, but more importantly, they get ample time to take off to do things that are important to them. All they need to do is collaborate with their peers to ensure nothing falls on the floor.
What we were finding with the traditional model of time management was that someone would use up their vacation, and then they would have to miss important family events or have to come to us asking special permission to get that time off. Who likes doing that? With the model we have now, it’s much more about supporting the team and being collaborative. The person brings it to the team and says, “I need to take four days off to go to a wedding.” And the team will say, “Ok that’s fine with us, we can pick up some slack and succeed without you being there.” If someone on the team were to abuse the policy – which has not happened in the two years we’ve been doing it – the team would most certainly let them know that they’re not being a team player!
We do, however, have guidelines. For example, our clients have to be taken care of, and important internal tasks must be accounted for. Team members know that if they have your back, you’ll have theirs. Allowing people to use their time in a way that satisfies their life, as well as their career, has been a game changer in the business. It frees up the organization to be a lot nimbler and a lot more focused on what is important. It’s created a very strong and dedicated group of professionals.
Bill: What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?
Jeff: “How can I help?” This is a really important question that we don’t hear often enough. I try to remember to ask this question every day to at least one person. How can I help you succeed in what you’re doing? How can I help you reach your goal? If you look at the model we’ve developed where people have autonomy to grow their in own area of interest, the most important thing is to help them do that.
But I also sometimes get more specific with it, “Specifically, what can I do right now to help make you more successful?” I think this notion of servant leadership is over-hyped in our market, but I really believe in the principle. Teams want you to make decisions and be a strong leader, but they also want you to serve them and help make them successful. In the book “We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young” the protagonist (legendary Calvary Lt. Colonel Hal Moor famously promised his young troopers that “then we go into battle, I will be the first to set foot on the field, and I will be the last to step off.” That’s been my model since I’ve first read those words.
Bill: What’s the most important question employees should ask leaders?
Jeff: I’m writing a book for young technology professionals about how they can take steps early on to be more successful in their career. As part of that book, I’ve been interviewing CEOs of technology companies to get their perspective. One of the things I’m hearing from them is that, especially with the younger team members, they are not focused on making the company successful. They are not asking, “What can I personally do to make you and your company more successful?”
I think the most important question an employee should be asking management is, “How can I make this organization rock?” “How can I help us win?” When I was coming up in the technology business I used to ask my immediate manager “how can I make you successful in your mission?”
I think sometimes people, especially in large companies, don’t really see the traceability between their actions and the success of the company. They have a bit of a disconnect between sales and engineering. If you go to a big engineering company like Lockheed Martin, L3 or SAIC, the engineers have very little visibility into what the sales team is doing. There tends to be some friction between the two groups. I tell them, “Look, this is a team. Nothing happens unless your salespeople sell something.” And the salespeople don’t continue to be rewarded if you don’t deliver. We all need each other! If the accounts receivable manager can’t get her invoices out, none of us can pay our rent – help make everyone successful! I think people need to do a better job of saying, “What can I do to help this company be more successful?” Then get really specific on it and focus on those things. If they start asking those questions then everyone is going to be communicating and be on the same page, which should be “let’s make this organization rock, so we have great careers, build great products, and have a great time doing it!” Anything else is a waste of talent.
Bill: What’s the most important question we should be asking ourselves?
Jeff: Ha! Ask me an easy one! But I think one of the most important questions that we can ask ourselves is, “Why not?” As human beings, we are so acclimated to conformance. Even in the US, which is probably the least conforming nation in the world, a place where engineers are known for extreme innovation through winging it, thinking outside the box, and for challenging authority, we don’t often ask, “Why not?” Too many companies run their teams by saying “because I said so.” Screw that.
I’ve been encouraging my children to ask this question because they’ll come home from college and say, “You know, the teacher said I can’t do that.” I said, “Well, why not?” They’ll say, “there’s nothing I can do.” And I’ll say, “Why not?” (laughter). Sometimes I’ll be in a contract negotiation with a really large manufacturing client and they’ll say, “Well, we can’t go with you unless you have this manufacturing liability insurance” even though it has nothing to do with what we do. And I’ll say, “Why not?” Lawyers are called, managers are consulted, and procurement is befuddled. But they eventually come around. Good times! I think the “Why not?” question is probably the most important thing because we need to get people to explain and verbalize why they take the positions they do. So many times they’re just repeating what they think is an unbreakable rule. Instead of saying, “I won’t do that” or “We can’t do that”, let’s say, “Why not, why can’t we do that?” Let’s start the conversation, let’s collaborate on the answer and let’s figure out how everybody can win here and that starts with those two simple words, “Why not?”
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