“It takes a lot of intention to create a great system.”
Before we start, the key reason we pursued an interview with Rey was that he inspired us during a talk he gave. His premise was that you can identify what you need to change in a business to make improvements. However, if the team doesn’t believe that the changes will help or that individuals don’t believe they can change, then generally nothing will improve.
When we get down to individual employees, they must first have the belief that they can do their job and execute well. How do you get that down at the micro-level?
“The first part is that conversation. So when I’m telling an organization the story about themselves, one thing I hope that the people down at the line, the people who are actually doing the work — the one thing I hope they see is the acknowledgment that we are working within a broken system. No system is perfect.
Where the individual brokenness really gets bad is when you think that its “people brokenness” that’s causing your problem. Then you get the blame, and you think, “I’m never going to change my boss. My boss is an A-hole”, and taking on that personal load is really hard to resolve. So part of it is seeing that.
In the system, the reason why things are operating the way they are isn’t that someone is choosing to harm you personally; for the most part, can you be open to the possibility that the system you’re in, the machine you’re in, is just broken in some way. It’s not anybody’s fault. It just that it takes a lot of intention to create a great system. And for the most part, people are just committed to making sure you guys get paid, and that the business is running. And that’s hard enough, let alone saying, “Is my system really working optimally? Are my people happy?”
That first step is: are you open to the possibility that the system is just broken and it’s not somebody intentionally trying to harm you? When we start to look at that, when we look at when the vision is unclear, when strategy is unclear, and not aligned with the vision, and when the chain of communication, from your strategy down to what you do today — when that’s broken, that doesn’t really set someone up to do a good job.
When you think about it, for the people who are doing the work, it’s so simple for someone to be in a high performing environment:
- Knowing that they need to actually do something, some concrete task. You have no idea how many organizations fail at that first step.
- What does a good job look like? If you can get to that point, that’s pretty good.
- How do you instill trust in someone? To trust them to do this. (Are you training them?)
- What do we do when things go wrong? What are your fallback plans?
- What do you bring to the table?
It’s very simple when you have a functioning, high performing team. Someone on the line just needs to know those five things, and when to get it done.
When you look at that and you think about the vision and the strategy — how clearly can you get all the way down to somebody to tell them those five simple things, that this is what you do this week, this is what a good job looks like, this is when you need to get it done, this is why we trust you to do it, this is how we create a safe space so that you feel empowered to do that, and what do we do if these things go wrong.
Then it’s somebody taking that on and accepting that. Understanding that the system works a certain way. I’m a part of a system. Someone’s not my master and I’m not someone’s slave. Where there’s magic is: when you take all of that, and people understand what it is that they do, and you start subtracting the extra stuff that’s creating problems and friction — it’s awesome what happens when people know what they need to do and all that other stuff was just excess.
Say you’re consulting an organization, and you want to work on their belief system, where do you attack first with this concept? Do you start at the top? Do you get the execs believing first, and then work your way down?
“It starts with talking about some core principles: circumstances, beliefs, what your thoughts and feelings are, your actions, and your results. Another core principle is integrity.
These are truths. These are not strategies. This isn’t A or B. These underlie any strategy or course of action you take. These are factors that are always at work.
Now, let’s say we have a failure in our system..
There are failures because you’re not implementing a system correctly, but there are also failures because the underlying principles aren’t there to begin with.
For example, say you implement a change management system based on agreement. It’s based on saying “yes, we agree to adopt that change”. Your team agrees to do the work to make that happen.
But if the underlying principle of integrity isn’t at work in the organization, then none of those agreements really make sense, because then the way that people will actually operate is “yes, I’ll agree to that, but I’m hedging my bets and there’s a chance that I won’t commit to that.”
And so that’s where I sometimes see people say, “our change management system isn’t working, why isn’t that we’re not seeing the changes that were agreed to?” Sometimes it rolls back all the way to that idea of integrity. And it’s as simple as that. It’s so hard to fix the surface issues when you know there’s a hole at the bottom of your ship.”
When you go into an organization and they say, “Rey, we got this problem, you gotta come in here and help us out”, and you start poking around and you notice there are a lot of problems at the top, what do you do?
“Depending on the scope of the issues that they’re talking about. The first week, two weeks, sometimes a month is only assessment. It’s just having conversations with people. I never try to approach a situation feeling or thinking that I know anything. I know nothing. I go into every situation with that sense, wanting to take in what everyone’s experiences are.
Once I understand that enough, it’s about telling them the story of what their experiences are: ‘This is what I’ve seen.’ Then I can deconstruct. ‘These are things I’ve seen elsewhere that have led to the same problems.’
In high blame situations, it can get very intense, like when people are blaming one leader. I introduce soft skills here. One of the presuppositions is that people make the best decisions that they can, with the information they have. It’s not that anyone is intentionally trying to do something bad, it’s just that with the information they had, they made the best decision they could make.
Part of it is approaching it that way. Take away the blame. Let’s look at it systematically and see where we have system failures, not personal failures. Let’s address the system.
What happens when the client your working with has a subject matter that’s boring, like a paper company or a match company. You hear something like, “We’re going to get in there, get everyone in line, and turn everyone into believers!” But how would you do it? Do you just not take those cases?
For me, the equivalent would probably be in medical billing or something like that. But I think for me, it isn’t domain-specific as much as it is just the environment of the team. I think that the main factor immediately for me is when I can identify that it’s not a good fit.”
If the expectations of that owner or CEO are that you will come in and be a hard-ass and tell everyone what they’re doing wrong, then that’s just not a good fit for me right off the bat.
“If the expectations of that owner or CEO are that you will come in and be a hard-ass and tell everyone what they’re doing wrong, then that’s just not a good fit for me right off the bat.”
I’m willing to have a conversation with them, to challenge their beliefs and have them consider a different way of looking at things, but if their stance naturally is, “I know what’s wrong with everything but no one is doing what I say, and I want you to go in and have people do what I say” then it’s not a good fit.
As long as the people have a reason to be there and if that, whatever the company does, if it’s someone’s livelihood – they care about it. They care that their company is succeeding.”
Because they need it to be there tomorrow?
“Exactly. As long as they care about it, the domain isn’t a specific exclusionary factor.”
What about beliefs? Do you ever get a push back by people saying ‘this is hocus-pocus, this is just feel-good stuff’. Is it hard to sell it, or is it pretty much easy buy-in?
“You get people in the rooms that are kind of arms folded, and things like that. My job isn’t to argue them into submission, it’s to understand what’s coming after them. So, at the very least, it’s being challenged that reveals what the beliefs are, and that’s an important thing. If going in and talking about principles and ideas brings up strong feelings of disagreement, then those are opportunities to find out what is it that you actually believe. So, for me, it’s a great opportunity.
It’s the worst when you get people who are nodding their heads, but they are secretly disagreeing with you. That is the worst.
“Belief.” The word itself is.. interesting. It’s the right word to use, but there’s so much religious overtone with it – are people instinctively thinking ‘what is this, like some cult thing? What is going on here?’ Sometimes, language will trigger peoples’ thinking in certain ways. I’m conscious of the words I use sometimes, but I can’t think of a better word, really.
“It’s true, that’s a good point really. The word itself does carry some negative connotation.
I try to bring it back to those concrete examples, like specifically when we’re talking about how the person who’s doing the work… when they know what a good job looks like, and they’re trusted to do a good job — two of the conditions required to be in a high-performing environment — when you examine why those aren’t there, why is it that they don’t know what a good job looks like, why is it that that the trust is narrow, why do people feel mistrusted, it brings up what the leaders believe about their people.
A good example of this is that in our field, we work with systems that you can access from anywhere, but still, to this very day, the vast majority of tech companies don’t believe in remote work, or telecommuting. And it’s not about telecommuting as much as it’s about… if you can’t see your person, how do you know they are doing a good job?”
Yeah, that fear factor; they’re screwing around all day…
“Exactly! And that’s the belief.
But in reality, when you establish a space for someone to do a good job, and you can trust them to do it, and you believe that they will do it — then people want to do a good job.
Then it brings about those kinds of beliefs. It’s not about telecommuting, flex schedule, it’s not about any of that. It’s about what you believe about your people. If they are armed with those five things, and you believe that they will do a good job; you believe that they want to do a good job.
“But in reality, when you establish a space for someone to do a good job, and you can trust them to do it, and you believe that they will do it — then people want to do a good job.”
So it’s really just about the results. This is where one of the principles about what really matters comes into play. A concrete example of this is when you think about time-off requests and sick leave. A lot of managers want to know why someone is taking time off.
In reality, do you really want to be in the business of knowing those personal details? For example, I’ve worked in teams where there are people who have young children, and managers tend to be very forgiving if they can relate to a parental situation. Go work remotely, take some time off, if you have kids. But what if someone is single, has a dog, and wants to go surfing? Do you want your managers to be in the business of deciding what’s a worthy reason to work remotely or not?”
No, not at all.
“Generally not, so it comes down to: How do you define what a good job looks like, what are the primers, how can you tell, and then how do you evaluate that?
One system that I like is how Google does OKR. It originated with Larry Page. I think it was even earlier than that, from an Intel guy, I forget who it was. But it was the idea of an objective you can break down to what the results are, that would demonstrate you are meeting an objective.
And when you have a system where people self-evaluate, it actually becomes pretty obvious when people are sandbagging vs. the one where they are actually producing results. And the high performers, when they self-evaluate, they actually do a better job at being evaluators than a manager does, because then you start to see how they look at their own work.
You start to see if they are throwing out more excuses until you see that pattern of behavior. The recourse then is ‘we need these, let’s revise the results, let’s see what we need to provide for you so you can get those results’, and if you see that pattern of change, then it’s not you the manager judging them for their results. You just didn’t need the results that you’ve committed to!
“And when you have a system where people self-evaluate, it actually becomes pretty obvious when people are sandbagging vs the one where they are actually producing results. And the high performers, when they self-evaluate, they actually do a better job at being evaluators than a manager does, because then you start to see how they look at their own work.”
It’s managers who go into that business of judging your personal life that are one of the reasons why things are challenging. Because everybody has something! But it’s still about knowing what a good job looks like and being able to communicate that.”
Compensation. What happens when you consult and organization where no one is getting paid even remotely fairly, so there’s no motivation?
It comes up. It’s hard not to address dissatisfaction when there’s clear pay inequity. I generally don’t touch it directly, it’s working with human resources; talent management folks in an organization, and looking at what are the courses of action that they can take in that situation — what if something does come up and let’s say that’s a big part of why your employees are demotivated because you clearly have some guys who are getting paid a lot but not demonstrating results. And if we can say that this is what a good job looks like, and that person isn’t doing a good job. I generally don’t touch that directly. It’s really working with them to say how do you want to address this because this is what they are experiencing.
Ok, so you have to believe the system’s working in an organization, and then what? Set goals and look at strategy, or do you look at strategy first?
“We go back to the top, even to the company’s vision or mission statement, and we look at that and we make it really concrete — what is the business’ core purpose? And then what we pull off of that is: what are the core beliefs we’ve identified and the beliefs we want to change? Things we’re not talking about that are really resulting in some of the gaps in our processes, and the way we tell people what a good job looks like.
Then we roll back to the vision and we say ‘let’s revise the vision, what the vision mission, what are the core principles of the company, and what does that look like from the strategy standpoint. What does the job look like, what do the people need? How do people know that that’s their job, and things like that. And then, realigning things all the way from there: who’s responsible for what, all the way to what people are expected to do on a daily basis.”
Beliefs vs confidence. Some of this stuff actually comes down to individuals, I think you talked about this, they have the confidence ‘oh I can do this, I’m good at this.’ Or, they are always anxious and are like ‘I’m barely hanging in here, I’m not sure if I’m good enough.’ Do you ever address that stuff?
“Not together. There’s a saying that competence results in confidence. So part of it is what your training process looks like, and out of those five things in setting expectations in people doing the work… how do they know what a good job looks like, and then it’s the feedback loop of I hear what a good job looks like but I don’t think I can do it.
And then it’s addressing the question of whether that’s a training thing, or a coaching thing, and part of that is then how do we convey the trust, and if something goes wrong, this is what we do about it. So it’s that safety, establishing a safe space. Google had a study where the set was psychological safety and establishing it is a huge factor in high-performance teams. And it’s just that… do something you’re afraid of.
“And so, a part of this is addressing growth in that you put objectives that are just outside of your comfort zone if you really want your company to grow.”
So part of it is once you have those 5 things, the confidence doesn’t necessarily have to be there, that they are certain that they can do their job. And there’s even a case we’re seeing that you want some objectives right outside of the zone of confidence sometimes for actual organizational growth.
I think Google tries to do this: out of five objectives, have two that are just outside of what you think you can actually do, and go for it. So, that’s part of it too: addressing confidence not so much that you have to be fully confident in everything that you’re doing, but how confidence plays into this because when you choose your objectives, you aim for 70%.
Aim for some objectives that if you’re confident you can get 70%, then if you can get to a 100% that would be awesome.”
A part of this is addressing growth in that you put objectives that are just outside of your comfort zone if you really want your company to grow.
That could build confidence too.
Do you ever have companies saying, “Rey you can’t leave us you have to stay with us forever!”?
“Usually the ones that end up with us 2 to 2.5 years contracts start out as just 6 months and they are just taking on new work, which isn’t a bad thing. But the ideal is that for the types of engagements that I want to get in, ideally it wouldn’t happen that way. I want to instill a level of change that is at the core of the business, and that the leaders who come out of the process can continue to change, can continue that work.”
Oh, that’s interesting because if people move on, then what happens? Because that knowledge could disappear.
“This is where there’s this principle about having a coaching culture within an organization. So a part of doing this, and making people understand clearly what a good job looks like, and things like that — is still a coaching culture, where the leaders are coaching the people below them to take on a level of responsibility where they are making decisions that could be at the job level above them.
And so it’s continuously coaching people to take on larger roles, and coaching new leaders. It’s a principle in that if people know what a good job looks like, and you’re removing the incentives to hoard information and / or talent, then you have a system where it can be resilient.
Then you are actually encouraging people to continue to grow. So, part of the principles that we address isn’t — this is a little less neutral but it is a principle that you don’t — the person within an organization exists outside of work, and if you’re truly caring for your people it’s you caring that they are growing even beyond the organization.
So, as an organization, a business, it’s not your job to be someone’s parent, coach, mentor, for the rest of their lives, as much as you want someone to be loyal, to be invested in your company. The way to do that isn’t to cut their legs off. If you invest and pour into someone, and they love your company, the belief is that then they will want to grow with your company.
And hopefully, your company is growing and providing them with opportunities to grow with the company. But the reality is, if someone outgrows your company, there aren’t a whole lot of methods of recourse to keep them there happily.
You don’t want the problem of someone who’s staying for reasons that are incongruent with their own motivations, because then you just get into that realm of trying to solve problems that you’re creating. Then you get into that space where you’re paying an exorbitant amount of money for what they are worth and they start resenting it for being there. Then those are the problems where now we’re getting into things that are not upper mantle.