My Foray Into Changing How The World Works

One Year on

Photo credit: Idriss Fettaouli

Eight weeks after my last day at Google, I got a job offer with a small team that wants to change how the world works.

Today marks one year since I boarded that flight to New York City.

One year since I joined The Ready, a nascent org design firm that rose from the ashes of Undercurrent.

Here’s my take on what I got wrong, what I’ve learned in that year, and what’s next.

Joining The Ready wasn’t a given. In my experience as a corporate employee, I constantly came up against hurdles in the workplace — meaningless meetings, long email chains, burdensome red tape, and outdated policies. Once I made the decision to leave “the best place to work in”, I knew that a drastic shift needed to happen with my career. The answer wasn’t another job, but a whole new craft — one that is focused on absorbing a new mindset and becoming adept at skills that are in line with the tumultuous and volatile reality of today’s world.

What I got wrong

Starting a new chapter is refreshing, but it comes with its own set of hurdles. I initially underestimated the amount of time required to assimilate into a new culture, a new city, a new language, and a new way of thinking, which affected my performance at work. Here are the top three things I got wrong:

Projecting Expertise. There aren’t many organizations actively changing the way they work, let alone, organizations selling that type of work. As a newcomer, I learned that one shouldn’t project expertise too soon as it takes a while to develop real mastery of a domain. The nature of the work in org design means that even after decades of service, one remains an apprentice. You have to become comfortable with uncertainty and volatility where the norm consists of steep learning curves that require you to learn, unlearn, and re-learn different skill sets. Org design is a craft where you rarely “arrive”, you just keep becoming.

LESSON: Stick to being an exceptional learner and over time the expertise will come.

Teamwork. At any nascent organization, your reach a sweet spot when all members have a high level of shared consciousness (not conformity). During that period, the level of execution is high enough that any individual can be relied on to handle a piece of the work whilst upholding a certain standard. From the very beginning, we actively decided to hire people with a wide range of experiences and cognitive biases. This meant that the integration and synthesis required to sync up the organization lengthened and took more time. I learned that the faster a team or organization can codify a shared pattern, a shared design, and a shared language, the better they can get up to speed with the work.

LESSON: Identify early on in the year, quarter, or trimester the products and services that you want to codify.

Active Listening. This client skill is a fundamental pillar for building trust and better communication in any knowledge-based industry. A true master is a client whisperer that can provide counsel and put clients at ease by seeing through their eyes, speaking in their voice, and crafting strategies they’ve been struggling to articulate. I learned that active listening requires a whole new level of attentiveness that can be practiced with intent. This skill is paramount to achieve the right level of fidelity between you and the client.

LESSON: “If you talk to someone in a language they understand, you speak to their head. If you talk to them in their language, that goes to their heart.” N. Mandela

What I’ve learned

Scale. Building an organization is hard. Building an organization that can survive in the 21st century is harder. Building an organization that helps other organizations evolve in the 21st century is the hardest. A lot of different people are talking about the need to change the way they work, but very few are actually in the trenches doing it. That’s because what we’re driving towards is much more complex than what Agile did to how you write software. It’s the whole operating model that needs to change, which makes for a much bigger challenge.

Transparency. In the past, I was under the impression that hoarding information was key to making individual progress in an organization. At The Ready, I completely got rid of that bias after seeing how proactively transparent we are with each other. We prioritize sharing anything that can add value and communicate a clearer sense of who we are. We do 360 degree feedback every four months that is visible for all to see. We’re almost done developing a transparent salary formula that will better help members chart their growth trajectory/trajectories.

Authority and Power. We heavily distribute authority. This was an unusual way for me to operate. I was surprised by the amount of agency an employee is granted to make decisions, organize, and manage their workflow. Specially at such an early stage. We don’t rely on job titles but roles that outline what you’re accountable for. Each member can opt in and “energize” a role according to how they think it befits The Ready’s mission. That level of agency and ownership comes with the assumption that everything in the organization is open to all by default till a policy or domain restricts that.

Practice What You Read. We’ve developed an exhaustive catalogue of 15 books to get one started with org design. Together these books make up The Ready’s canon. Over the past year, I’ve read 17 books within and outside of the canon that have provided me with new models for thinking and reasoning. But that’s not enough. I frequently tried to put into practice what I had read by either testing an idea or mental model with my colleagues and the client, or by productizing it into tools and kits that could be used across different engagements. This was a robust way to test the depth and breadth of what I had learned.

Tools. Over the past year, I’ve become better versed with a host of new digital tools — Zapier, Trello, Slack (bots included), Drive, Squarespace, Twitter Ads, Mailchimp, Medium, Expensify, and Glassfrog, improved my workflow and uncovered new ways of working. FYI, this is coming from someone who 18 months ago was a Google Drive rookie and thought “slack” was a pejorative synonym for sloppiness.

Writing. In the span of 12 months, I went from zero to 14 published articles on Medium. The regular publishing cadence forced me to articulate my thoughts and ideas into coherent sentences. It was also a good way to chart my progress with different principles and their implication on org design each month.

What’s Next?

In my experience, there are two major ways that you can develop your skills to enhance the value of your team and organization:

  1. Identify critical skills that you’re sub-par in. Reach parity as fast as possible.
  2. Identify skills where you’re well above 90% of the population. Figure out what it takes to become better than 99% of the population over time.

Besides improving on the activities in the What I got wrong section at the start of this piece, there are two other skills that I plan to strengthen and explore in 2017:

Alt thinking. Growing up in eight different cities across six countries changes one’s worldview. I’ve managed to use my background and experience in accounting, physics, political economy, tech, and public policy to find fringes and create new relationships. I enjoy bringing nuances that can identify new ways of solving a problem and I’ve gradually developed an ability to synthesize disparate perspectives, data sets and insights by making connections across multiple areas. I plan to continue cultivating that over the next year using org design as a lens to find new patterns.

Visualization. Information is beautiful — as someone with a photographic memory, I’m better able to remember visual information than written information. I plan to start breaking down different ideas and concepts in org design using tools like Paper53 and getting inspiration from the data visualization work that is being done at Polyvore. Watch this space.

I want to end with this note; I’m thankful for being surrounded by such a high talent density that stretches me in different directions everyday I go to work. Kudos to stellar colleagues like Aaron Dignan, Sam Spurlin, Kathryn Maloney, Tim Casasola, Alison Randel, Lisa Lewin, Rodney Evans, and Bob Gower that have made this wild ride well worth it.

As for me dear reader, it is adieu and thank you for what has been a very fulfilling year on all fronts. Here’s to a 2017 with ample more.