Tuesday, November 13, 2018

An interview with founder, author, and Lean Startup Conference 2018 speaker Aaron Dignan

Aaron Dignan--who has described himself as "obsessed with organizational adaptivity"--is one of the speakers at this year’s Lean Startup Conference in Las Vegas, where he’ll be talking about How to Reinvent Your Organization.
I recently spoke with Aaron about everything from his work to his forthcoming book, Brave New Work, his personal theory about why best practices aren't usually the best, and how he uses lean startup at the drugstore.


What is work in the 21st century? And how does the company you founded, The Ready, support it?

For me, work is all human endeavor—the things we choose to make real in the world. But overall, work has increasingly become focused on solving complex problems or creating complex solutions. The mechanical things that are simple, or even complicated, are automated or getting automated, and getting farmed away in different ways. What's left are these complex problem and creation spaces. What we do is try to help make sure that the way of working—the operating system, the culture, the organization's design—is well-matched to that challenge. Because right now we mostly operate on a factory model from a hundred years ago, which is all about the linear. What we do at The Ready about adapting to the non-linear.
What are the differences between The Ready and responsive.org.? How do they complement each other?

Responsive.org was a side project that started when I was running another company. I co-founded it with a bunch of like-minded people. The idea was: could we get an informal network of people together that believed the way we work is broken and had to change, and could that be a gathering place and galvanizing brand? And to a certain extent it was and it is. It's been interesting to see the conference and meetups around the world happen. At the same time, I felt like weak ties meant that people didn't actually collaborate all that much. They popped in and out. But there weren't a variety of meaningful collaborations happening. I was much more interested in creating a network with more sharing and a faster learning cycle. 

So, I created The Ready. The Ready is about strong ties.  It’s for people who are doing this work day in and day out, and who want to be part of an organization that's trying to do that globally and accelerate the pattern of change.

There’s section in the responsive.org manifesto that I want to ask you about. It’s focused on the relationship between profit and purpose and how it’s evolving. The growing consent is that profit is not the be all and end all, and a lot of that is coming from customers. More people are saying, “If your company does things that we think are bad, or if we don't support your mission, we’re not going to go with you.”

There are plenty of shitty things about advanced capitalism. But one of the good things about it is that customers move from simply meeting their needs to thinking about the relationship they have with what they buy, own, and consume. So not only do I want local bread because I need to eat, but now I have the privilege, as someone who operates in a mature economy, to say, "I would like the bread company to serve the community, to be organic, and to be connected to values that are meaningful to me." Because we're so consumerist as a culture, we increasingly build our identity around the meaning behind the things we buy—not just the thing itself, but the story it tells about us. I think that has been driving and accelerating what you're talking about. I also think there's been this recognition that, looking at the last 100 years, we’ve played out the very simple economic logic of, "If everyone just pursues profit, the world's going to turn out great." The environment would beg to differ. The political system would beg to differ. And so would legions of employees. So there's a lot of data that something is off. I’m fond of the Peter Drucker quote, "Profit for a company is like oxygen for a person. If you don't have enough of it you're out of the game. But if you think your life is about breathing you're really missing something." Breathing's great, but it's not the whole game. I think both of those realizations have manifested at the same time and people want more.
What’s an area you think could use innovation transformation that no one has tried yet? Go as far as you want.

I have a silly regressive answer and I have a serious answer. My silly answer is I think that all the American auto manufacturers should just bring back their designs from the '30s, '40s, '50s, and '60s, but with all electric drive. Wouldn't you want to drive a '66 Lincoln Continental?? I’d love to see the innovation of returning to the source, returning to the inspiration for things. It's the same reason that people like Mexican Coke—back to sugar, back to what’s pure.

My serious answer is that nobody has built an organization at Fortune 500 scale that isn't just completely beholden to shareholders and analysts. I would love to see a truly cooperative, truly participatory organization at a global scale that exists expressly for the purpose of making the world a better place. The shareholders, most of whom would be employees and customers, would buy into that from day one. Platform co-ops are really interesting to me. A platform co-op version of Uber, or Lyft, or DoorDash would be very, very interesting. What if we could all just say, "You know what? Facebook isn't really serving us all that well as a society. Why don't we create a platform co-op version with the skills and deep pockets that don’t usually show up for public service? Everybody pays their fair share, and we’ll do our best to save ourselves from ourselves. The venture fund would be called “Better Angels” (of our nature)."

What’s your go-to stress relief method? 
I have a very unsophisticated answer, which is that I watch Netflix. I watch a movie or immersive TV series to get out of my head. And then I can relax my body and mind a little bit. I'm equal opportunity in this sphere. I love it all. My favorite recent show is probably Succession on HBO. That one is just so good, so dramatic, and so related to all the nonsense that goes on in the world of business.

What’s the best practice that you've seen completely fail at a company?  

I like to say that “best practices” are, by definition, average practices. If everybody thinks it's a good idea, then it's average, and everybody's doing it. So, a best practice leads you to have neutral, normal, expected results. I'm generally skeptical of that. Then, if you start to talk about complexity and the nature of the world we work in now, best practices don’t really apply. There's only emerging practice. You can't say, "This is it, and it's guaranteed to work next time and the time after that.”

So, I think the best practices that go wrong most often are the ones that are extremely specific and detailed and dogmatic. If you see a checklist for something that you know intuitively is complex and dynamic, run. For example, I think most best practices around performance management right now suck. Talent development, training, all of it. We spend billions and billions of dollars on training every year and it's all wrong. It's all sages on stages and regurgitation, when we actually learn best by doing--and failing--in the real world.

Is there something unconventional that you’ve been surprised to see work?

Actually, what I continue to be surprised by is the power of transparency to drive appropriate behavior. So, for example, you hear, "Oh, we're spending too much on travel and we really want to lock it down." The normal move is to put a travel freeze in place and install a review and approval process, get strategic partners, and set up a platform that everybody has to go through. But several times I’ve seen cases where an unconventional leader just says, "What if we simply publish what everybody spends on travel every week in a place where everyone can see it?"

And what happens is, people spend money a lot more intelligently because they don't want to look like an idiot or an ass in front of their peers. People notice that their colleagues have tips, and tricks, and hacks, and places they go to book travel, and they get smarter as a system. So, sometimes I think just shining a light is the solution to 95% of our problems. Make it transparent and let things emerge.

Is there a common factor that connects all types of organizations that have the desire to transform? What’s the difference between companies that still have their heads in the sand and say, "What do you mean we're not doing assembly line production system anymore?" and the ones who say, "Okay, we’ve got to get with the program here."? Where does that drive come from, no matter how poorly executed.

I don't run into companies that don't want to transform anymore. Literally every company I talk to is like, "Help us, we're too bureaucratic," or, "We're stuck," or, "Something needs to change." What I think separates the companies that actually succeed is that they make time for it. They kill projects, take meetings off the schedule, and make it okay to slip on some of their goals in order to make time for change. It's the same as going to the gym when you hire a personal trainer. You can be so excited about it, but if you never go, you don't get six-pack abs. And if you fail for lack of showing up, you definitely don’t yell at the trainer, right? In that scenario, you know you're to blame. For some reason, in corporate transformation people always ask, "Why aren't we changing?" Well, if you can't make an hour a week for a retrospective, if you can't make an hour a week to check in with your peers, if you can't make an hour a week to learn new practices, you're going to fail. I think the common success factor is that winning teams sweat the change they seek, and they make it a priority that’s held sacred.

Let’s discuss innovation transformation techniques applied to the everyday life of Aaron Dignan.

I feel like I do Lean Startup when I'm picking toothpaste. Standing in the aisle, I’m thinking: Okay, so what do I value? What are my assumptions? How long is this experiment going last? Thirty minutes later--in the midst of my sprint plan--my wife demands that I pick something and leave. That test-and-learn ethos is deeply ingrained in my family. It’s about maintaining a fitness landscape of different bets and different approaches, seeing what works, and then tweaking it. I do a weekly meeting with my family where we talk about what's working, what's not, and what do we want to try? We recently got a  piece of advice from my son’s school about the role of diet in behavior. Your gut biome influences your neurotransmitters and mental health in innumerable ways, and we really underestimate this in Western society. So, my wife and I decided to try an experiment. We decided to treat our child like a diabetic for a weekend. From Friday to Monday we did no sugar and no refined carbs—substituting fruit, protein, whole grains, all the stuff you think kids won’t eat. His blood sugar was our steering metric and his behavior was our feedback loop. And guess what? He was an angel. It was bonkers. My wife and I kept looking at each other with saucer eyes like, "Are you seeing what I’m seeing right now?" And then sure enough there was a birthday party a couple days later. Out came the candy and everything flipped like a switch. The data told a story.

So no pivot?

Yeah, exactly! Well I think the question becomes how do you make that sustainable, right? So, you have a pattern that's positive. Can it last for a week? What are the disruptors that are going to pull that train off the tracks, and what are your counter-measures?

Your upcoming book, Brave New Work, is all about how and why we need to change the way we work. You’ve clearly spent a lot of time thinking about that, but is there something surprising you discovered doing your research for it? Something that turned out to be really different from what you thought the trajectory of your research was going to show?

Brave New Work has three parts. The first one explains the history of how we got here—tracing the line from Frederick Winslow Taylor's 1911 book The Principles of Scientific Management to the present bureaucratic nightmare. The second part of the book looks at the organizational operating system and the practices and principles that make up how we work. The third part is about how to change that system. If you buy into the story I’m telling in the beginning and you want do it, what does that journey look like when change management as usual won’t work?

The fact is, that between agile, lean, open-source, teal, and dozens of other philosophies of work out there, there are a lot of principles floating around--a lot of wisdom and aphorisms and ways of thinking and mindsets. I thought I was going to have to explore fourteen different ways to think just to set the stage for the book.

What blew me away as I started to really build a mental map of all that stuff, was that it all stemmed from just two mindsets. When you put them together, they explain all the thinking and new development that I've been seeing for years.
The first is what I call being people positive, which is basically self-determination theory with a dose of humanism. People are inherently good, inherently capable of taking responsibility, and naturally wired to develop and grow. We seek out learning opportunities and ways to self-actualize. And, people are chameleons, so if you put us in an environment that treats us like criminals we will act like criminals (for the most part). And if you put us in an environment that treats us like scholars we will act like scholars (for the most part). On the whole, you get what you expect to get—what you hold space for.

The second mindset is complexity conscious, which simply means the world is not one dimensional anymore. It's a changing, dynamic system—interconnected and super scaled. So you need to be conscious of the context you're operating in. When you look at a problem space, is it complex? Is it complicated? Is it chaotic? Is it disordered? Is it simple? We need to be aware of our context and then bring the right tools to the job. That's where the whole movement surrounding Agile and Lean fits into this. How do you make sense of a world where things are changing rapidly? You test and learn, and you start sensing a lot more often.

The analogy I like to use is a chest of gold in the middle of the room. If the lights are on and you simply need to get it out, you just create a little assembly line, and work like lemmings to get it from point A to point B. It’ll work like a charm. But if I turn the lights off and start moving the gold around silently, then how might you operate? That's the context we live and work in now. What you would do is make small, careful, measured movements. You would over-communicate—sounding out to other people in the room, "I'm feeling this, I'm seeing this, Did you hear that?" And then when you got a little bit of action you'd seize it. A complexity conscious mindset is about evaluating the room and choosing the right approach.

The truly complexity conscious person might be a little unfeeling in their desire to do experiments and find out what wins and what works. But the people positive person would be concerned with the human-centricity of our approach. We have to honor the sanctity of what it is to be a human being, to be part of a community, and to be in membership with each other. Hold both these mindsets in your head and they tug on each other, saying “Learn as fast as you can without compromising your humanity and the impact of your actions.” It’s critical that we hear both voices because we face enormous challenges and opportunities that call us to be our best—to create a future of work (and of culture) that we can thrive in.
Lean Startup Conference 2018 is sold out, but you can still register for the livestream. I hope you’ll join us that way.

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