Responsive Org Conference Recap

As a person who has been a participant in the Responsive Org movement from its inception, it was incredibly energizing to see how this community has grown and the momentum that it has built. I think many of us enjoyed having an opportunity to be at the Responsive Org Conference and be around people who share the same sensibilities related to changing the way people work.

After an inspiring few days in the picturesque hills of Berkeley, California, I wanted to take a moment to capture a few of of the things I learned and what I hope to do next.

Adam Pisoni kicked things off and one of his themes was “Bridges and Islands”. Often times we find ourselves on an island shouting back to the mainland about how great things can be, but will either neglect to, or lack the ability to, build bridges back to the mainland. We need to be sure we’re properly using what power and leverage we have to be “Bridge Builders”.

One of the themes I heard throughout several of the sessions was the importance of experimentation. In Gayle Karen Young’s session she said:

She talked about setting up “safe to fail” experiments in order to learn quickly and gain buy in.

During the morning keynote on day 2, Rachel Mendelowitz offered a similar sentiment to Gayle’s. She talked about how the only acceptable way to navigate a complex environment is to accept failure. We don’t have the luxury of knowing what the outcomes will be. We must experiment.

In Jay Goldman’s session, he described an experiment run at UPS. He described at UPS the roll out of their ORION system, an algorithm based navigation system meant to help drivers better plan out their routes. In order to test the system, they split drivers into three groups. Group 1: Do what you always did. Group 2: Do what ORION says if you think it will be helpful. Group 3: Do everything ORION says. The outcome? Group 2 performed the best because it combined instinct with data. Imagine if UPS had believed that they should just ship ORION and told drivers that everything it says is gospel and it will help you do your jobs better. Some simple experimentation helped them better introduce this change into the drivers’ workflow.

As a community we should come up with a list of “safe to fail” experiments we’re running or plan to run. Then report out the results so that we can learn from one another. Perhaps contribute to the #safetofailexperiments channel in the Responsive Org Slack.

Also in Jay’s session, he mentioned a study that showed that the more social connections a person has in the workplace, the more likely they are to stay. This reminded me of something an executive said to me once. He said, “I’ve been at [company] for 30 years and have had the luxury of building my network over that time. But people don’t stay at companies that long anymore. We no longer have 20–30 years to build our network inside a company. We need to have ways that accelerate a person’s ability to create their internal network.”

Aaron Dignan’s keynote at the end of day one left me with a lasting image of an org chart. When he asked the audience to guess what year the org chart came from, he mentioned that he’s gotten answers ranging from yesterday to 100 years ago. The answer was 1920. He went on to say that he could show any relic from the Depression Era, a dress, a car, an airplane, and you could likely guess its age. But an org chart has remained largely unchanged in over 100 years and continues to be an anchor on the way our organizations operate. The ways in which business gets done has changed dramatically in the past 100 years. But the way we represent how that work gets done has not.

Does this mean we need to scrap the org chart altogether? Chris Fussell and Rachel Mendelowitz picked up on this during their day two keynote. Chris talked about how the “traditional” org chart was very much needed in order to navigate some necessary bureaucracy, but a complimentary networked model could act as an overlay. Those networked “team of teams” would form, go solve problems, and then “come back to the mothership”. Chris described this as leading through the black lines (the org chart) but fought through the red lines (the network). MUST. READ. TEAM OF TEAMS.

Overall, it was a wonderful to make connections with people whom I only knew through Yammer, Facebook, or Twitter avatars, making new connections, and even running into an old boss. I hope other participants leave the first annual Responsive Org conference as energized as I am to spread the word even further. What did you learn and what will you do with it?

A huge thank you to Robin Zander, Kate Ladenheim, Krista Schnell, Cecila Lynn-Jacobs, and the team that pulled this event together.

Random links, books, and resources I picked up along the way:

Simple Habits for Complex Times
How willpower works: How to avoid bad decisions
The Responsive Organization — Aaron Dignan