We Can’t Plan Our Way Out Of Complexity

A conversation with Rodney Evans, Org Designer & Leadership Coach at Rodney Evans Consulting and Podcast Host of The Ready.

This article was originally published on voltagecontrol.com

“And to your earlier point about complexity, most of those kinds of models and titles and bands and blah, blah, blah, are complicated solutions that don’t serve well in complexity. And so my job as an org designer is to say, what is the lightest most elegant, most intuitive solution that equips us to navigate complexity rather than what is a complicated and over-engineered solution that doesn’t actually do anything to cut through complexity, it’s just an exercise that we have to go through.” –Rodney Evans

In this episode of Control the Room, I had the pleasure of speaking with Rodney Evans about her 20+ years as an adaptive organization designer and future of work consultant. She shares how rebellion first led to her interest in helping teams explore new ways of working together and self-managing systems. Later, Rodney asks some great questions like: “what does it take to help teams thrive? What are some good foundational agreements for teams? And what does participatory change look like?” We then discuss the criteria for filtering out bad clients to work with. Listen in for inspiration on how to build the shared responsibility to help teams execute their own change.

Show Highlights

[1:35] How Rodney Got Her Start Working As An Organizational Consultant

[15:30] A Look Into Adaptive Systems

[25:20] How To Blend Experiential Learning And Organizational Change

[38:30] The Power Of Debriefing

Links | Resources

Rodney on LinkedIn

About the Guest

Rodney Evans is a pioneer in adaptive organization design and the future of work. With 20 years of experience in all things transformation, she has researched, developed, and taught new ways of working in dozens of complex environments including Airbnb, Cooper Hewitt Museum, Macy’s, Intuit, and Johnson & Johnson.

About Voltage Control

Voltage Control is a change agency that helps enterprises sustain innovation and teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings.

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Full Transcript

Douglas: Welcome to the Control The Room Podcast. A series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures for the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control and others are loose. To control the room means achieving outcomes while striking a balance between imposing and removing structure, asserting and distributing power, leaning in and leaning out. All in the service of having a truly magical meeting. Thanks for listening. If you’d like to join us live for a session sometime, you can join our weekly Control The Room facilitation lab. It’s a free event to meet fellow facilitators and explore new techniques so you can apply the things you learn in the podcast in real time with other facilitators. Sign up today at voltagecontrol.com/facilitation-lab.

If you’d like to learn more about my new book, Magical Meetings, you can download the Magical Meetings quick start guide, a free PDF reference with some of the most important pieces of device from the book. Download a copy today at voltagecontrol.com/magical-meetings-quick-guide. Today, I’m with Rodney Evans at The Ready, where she is pioneering the discovery of new ways to approach the future of work. She’s also the co-host of the podcast, Brave New Work. Welcome to the show, Rodney.

Rodney: Thanks so much for having me. I’m really glad to be here.

Douglas: So great to have you. So let’s start off by hearing a little bit about how you started, how did you get into the work of the future of the work?

Rodney: Yeah. Backwards and by falling. Yeah. I feel like a lot of the choices that I’ve made in my life and certainly the ones that led to this were in a rebellion against something I didn’t like rather than a conscious choice about something I did like. And so, I worked in really traditional organizations for the first 10 years of my career and I was deeply unhappy and also the worst version of myself as a person, just walking rage-filled, ego all day, every day. And I got pretty burnt out by the time I was in my thirties and had no real conception at all, that there were people trying to reinvent what work really looked like, but in my sort of rage quitting of my job in New York City and to travel and then subsequent travel around the world and a lot of self-discovery and getting married and doing a bunch of other things and leaving New York city, I found my way very randomly into this sort of Corpus of workaround. I’ll loosely call it self-management.

And what that looked like really, was that I had a very good friend who was working at the McChrystal Group. This was before Team of Teams and asked me if I would do some consulting work with them when they were teeny, teeny tiny. And that led to a few years of really swimming around in the pond of future of work theory and looking at the greatest hits, like organizing for complexity and reinventing orgs and things like that. And then a lot of lesser-known and adjacent disciplines like social science, behavioral economics, I spent a lot of time reading about the morality of tribes and things like that. I just sort of swam around in all of this stuff while I helped try to grow this business and create a synthesis of research that ultimately ended up in the book Team of Teams. And then from there, I had the bug and there was really no going back to something that didn’t look like it was discovering or a part of the unfolding of the future of work.

Douglas: Well, having that experience, it would be hard to unlearn that. Right?

Rodney: Yes.

Douglas: You could go back to the way things were.

Rodney: Exactly. It’s impossible. It’s impossible for me. And I suppose it’s privileged to be able to say that, but I truly… There are a lot of things that I would have done post-McChrystal Group before I would’ve gone back to a traditional hierarchical organization.

Douglas: Hmm. So many questions. I want to get into what is the power of even experiencing that and how much impact that could have on organizations, just being able to witness it firsthand, because I think so many people are starved of that.

Rodney: And when you say witness it, tell me a little bit more.

Douglas: The self-managing. The power of what it means to be part of an organization that’s behaving in these ways.

Rodney: Yeah. It’s interesting. It’s an interesting question because I think that in some ways, self-management feels like, “Oh, it’s just work.” And we’re working in teams and we have a lot of autonomy and how different is it really? And then in other ways, it’s radically different to work in a self-managing company that it is… It completely upends your view of systems generally. And I don’t totally know how to… I wish that more people could have the experience even while they’re working in their more traditional jobs so that they sort of understood that there was another way of being and organizing and collaborating and deciding that works in fact better than all of the ways that they’ve been taught and socialized to and rewarded for their whole lives. But that’s not how the vast, vast majority of the world’s experiences work. So, it’s a strange thing to feel like you’re sort of on the other side of something and hoping that more and more people are able to cross over that chasm.

Douglas: Yeah. It’s fascinating because it’s hard to run experiments because there’s no control. Right? You go to work every day and you experience work the way you’re going to experience it, but then how do you see what the alternative could be without actually going to the alternative? And that’s risky for folks. It can be very scary to think, “Wait, I’m expected to go change all this stuff, but this is kind of somewhat working.”

Rodney: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And I think, there’s a thing once you’re in a fully self-managed system and sort of The Ready certainly, I consider to be an organization that is experimenting a lot with new ways of working and thinking. And we do stuff in our company that most of our clients would never try doing. And I’m happy to talk about that stuff. But because the irony or the reality of being at the edge of the future of work, is that you don’t have tons and tons and tons of examples to look to. And so certainly, we draw tons of inspiration from the five years, the [inaudible 00:06:50] orgs, the hires, the case studies that everybody knows about. And at the same time, when you think about the operating them of a company, there’s tons of stuff that isn’t figured out. I want to have 10 versions of beyond budgeting to choose from.

Not one. I want to have 10 versions of holacratic meetings, not one. We’re just making it up as we go along and trying to figure out how to expand and extend the prat so that it can become more accessible, more attainable for people to be trying stuff inside of their context, even if they don’t work in a self-managing system.

Douglas: The fascinating thing about all of this is that it’s all rooted in complexity theory.

Rodney: Yes.

Douglas: Which tells you that you don’t take a simple solution because we’re dealing with a complex system, yet everyone wants to import best practices from other companies.

Rodney: Right.

Douglas: That is what they want. They just yearn for it. They want to pick up the business book and get the anecdote, listen to the podcast, get the thing, and go and just say, “We’re going to put this in and it’s going to fix everything.” And so to your point, there can’t be one way to do the thing. It’s got to be 10, it’s got to be hundreds.

Rodney: Exactly.

Douglas: So that we can kind of pick and choose little pieces and then experiment.

Rodney: Yeah, exactly. And it’s like, I want there to be so much inspiration for experimentation out there so that people can use it as spot or not as a prescription.

Douglas: That’s so good. So, what are some of these things that you all are experimenting with that your clients would never do?

Rodney: Well, the thing that’s on my mind right now, there’s a lot of stuff we could talk about. The thing that’s on my mind right now because I have a big role in helping shape it, is compensation. So, The Ready has always had transparent compensation. We have for the last bunch of years had self-set pay, which means every member determines what the pay is for the role each of the roles that they’re holding. And they go through an advice process, but ultimately the final authority is theirs to determine what their compensation is. And like a lot of things at The Ready, we’ve sort of I would say, diverge and had some looseness and some lack of constraint around that over a couple of years. And now it feels like we know enough for some convergence.

And what I mean by that isn’t constraining or controlling or regulating or saying you can’t or do it this way, but it’s more like now that we have a bunch of reps and we have 30 humans who have just lived in this soup for a while, what is the scaffolding that would make it easier, more inclusive, lighter lift, et cetera. And so what I’m playing with the right is creating a model based on the Shu-Ha-Ri mastery model is a Japanese martial arts model of mastery. And sort of saying, okay, this is roughly how you can think about your own mastery in a three leveled way, not in a performance managing way, not in like a competency model way, let’s not be gross, but in a loose way and trying to get to a fixed rate for each of those levels of mastery so that you eliminate variety where it doesn’t really serve a purpose or where it’s not necessary. Because what we’ve realized from all of us having this much agency over this for this long, is now what people are seeking is not more freedom, it’s more clarity.

And so there’s more of a system now that’s like, we don’t necessarily understand why there are differences between these rates. We’re not sure that there’s a good reason. So now we’re actually hungry for a little bit more constraint and consistency, but that only comes because it was wide open for a long time. So, that’s one example.

Douglas: Yeah. That’s fascinating. It even makes me start thinking about like when you talked about the clarity, it’s like even companies struggle with banding when it comes to… You look at the language used in a design organization versus language used in an engineering organization, principle means different things. Right?

Rodney: Right.

Douglas: And so sometimes the titles have to do with are we managing people or are we going toward a different kind of track? And so, so many of these layers get so complicated that I don’t even think everyone truly understands what’s happening.

Rodney: Exactly. And to your earlier point about complexity, most of those kinds of models and titles and bands and blah, blah, blah, are complicated solutions that don’t serve well in complexity. And so my job as an org designer is to say, what is the lightest most elegant, most intuitive solution that equips us to navigate complexity rather than what is a complicated and over-engineered solution that doesn’t actually do anything to cut through complexity, it’s just an exercise that we have to go through, which is what I think a lot of spans and layers and compensation analysis ends up looking like. Is the more complicated thing.

Douglas: Yeah. So, for our listeners that aren’t as seeped in complexity, help them understand the difference between complicated and complex, because that’s always fascinating, like dipping your toe into the water of complexity. Understanding that is like I think a first fun step.

Rodney: Okay, cool. And yeah, just feel free to pile on here. So the difference between complication and complexity, complicated systems are closed systems that have interdependent parts, but can be understood and easy mental model for that is like a watch, an engine, something that an expert could fix. So, when we talk about complicated, it doesn’t matter how many parts it has that are interacting with each other, the truth is you’re not going to open the hood of your car and have a clown pop out. That’s complexity. So complex systems are not closed systems. Think about the weather, think about traffic, think about a bunch of human beings in a crowd. We can understand dispositionally what might be happening. There might be more traffic on the highway at five o’clock on a Friday afternoon. But what we can’t predict is if you add four more cars and two accidents and two-speed traps, how much or little will it slow down.

So in complexity, rather than trying to predict and control, we have to do more simple moves like if it’s a Friday afternoon, maybe I’ll leave myself an extra 20 minutes, versus I’m going to be able to somehow model or best practice or command and control role or plan my way through this. We can plan our way through complicated systems. We cannot plan our way through complexity.

Douglas: I think that a great example is let’s just add another lane to this highway. It’s going to solve this traffic problem.

Right. Right. So, have you ever heard the jumbo jet is complicated and mayonnaise is complex?

Rodney: No. Tell me.

Douglas: That’s a fun one. So, jumbo jet, you can put it in a hanger and come back a year later and it’ll be just like you left it. You could hire an expert, they could take it completely apart and put it back together. It might be a very arduous task, but they could do it. Mayonnaise is not going to be the in a week if you leave it sitting on your counter. Also, you can’t unmake mayonnaise.

Rodney: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. Yeah. It’s the not predicted interaction of the environment and the components.

Douglas: Yes. Yes. It’s such-

Rodney: That totally makes sense.

Douglas: … a fun one.

Rodney: That’s cool.

Douglas: And because it’s… I think it gets people’s attention too, because they’re like, “Wait a second. Mayonnaise seems way more simple than a jumbo jet.”

Rodney: Right. Right. But when will it spoil? How much oxygen does it need? Does light impact it? What about the seal on the jar? It’s like, you can’t know with high fidelity exactly what’s going to happen.

Douglas: That’s right.

Rodney: You have an idea that year-old mayonnaise is not going to be amazing. But…

Douglas: That’s right. So, I guess I’m really curious about some of this formative stuff at Team of Teams and the McChrystal Group. It’s really fascinating to me. Can you recount any moments that were kind of key just like that have always stuck with you as far as learning some of this stuff or just being exposed to the inner workings of these systems?

Rodney: Yeah. Gosh, there were so many. I was incredibly fortunate to have a team of people who were ba… Our mission was basically, to figure out what adaptive systems and of humans really means and what was better and more interesting to me, remit to have for a couple of years to just go spelunking into the world and try to figure something out that at the time, not so, so many people were writing about in the popular consciousness. So there were a lot of moments. I think probably the body of work that I was most inspired by and taken with, which at the time was not very well known at all, was Sandy Pentland’s work, which is a social science that talks about performance as being about a number of interactions, things like shared air to time.

A lot of that work ultimately became part of Google’s project Aristotle, but this was way before then. And when I got turned onto that work and started really understanding more about social science and more about how it correlates to team performance and that it wasn’t any of the things that I thought it was, that like kind of broke my brain.

Douglas: Yeah, it’s amazing. It’s funny to me that it always comes back to this kind of advice that just kind of gets recirculated, whether it’s bring an agenda or whether it’s like, this or that. And people still aren’t tapping into just what it takes to make people thrive.

Rodney: Right. Right.

Douglas: And some are so simple.

Rodney: I mean, it’s so simple. Exactly. Exactly. It’s like when I read… The first study I read of his basically was that conversational turn-taking is more important than anything else. I was just like, “What! That cannot possibly be.” And then of course, because he’s a primary researcher, there was real data there to bear that out. And it just likes how simple is that? It’s just like for a leader, just like shut up and let someone else have a go. That’s the magic wand? What! That’s amazing.

Douglas: Yeah. No doubt. It’s as simple as… There’re so many simple tools as facilitators that I think if more leaders were to pick up some of these things, it would just make for a much better world.

Rodney: Absolutely. I want to hear what some of your top, top tools are in the facilitation toolkit.

Douglas: Well, how about this one? You just mentioned the turn taking. So, just think about the word wait when you’re holding a meeting. And it stands for, why am I talking?

Rodney: It’s so good.

Douglas: And just keep that with you. Just hold it close because oftentimes we just need to give space. And this is especially important when we’re talking about cross-cultural stuff because different cultures have different amounts of time that they need to respect other spaces. Or some folks more quick to jump in versus others. And that will vary drastically by culture. And so, really making sure that people just have the time to process and then be ready to share.

Rodney: I love that. Why am I… I’ve never heard that before. It’s so good.

Douglas: It’s a powerful one. Now, I want to come back to something we were talking out in the pre-show chat, which is like, I’m really excited to hear about this. You were talking about, you’re just done with meeting people where they’re at. And you’ve kind of come to these terms, which is probably hyperbole because I’m sure that there’s plenty of stuff that you’re like, it’s important to be there for people. But the point is there’s some negotiable things that are kind of table stakes to do this work. And so, I’m curious, what have you found that if companies aren’t doing these things or if leaders aren’t tuned in, then it’s going to be doomed out of the gate?

Rodney: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. So there are a few things that we’re just becoming more insistent about in terms of foundational agreements. And when we think about foundational agreements, think about… It’s like a company hires you and they’re like, “Okay, we’re going to play a game together.” And it’s like, “We want you to change the game for us, but do it playing by our rules.” That just doesn’t work very well. And so, when I talk about foundational agreements, it’s like things like if you’re not going to let me have an ability to facilitate or change the way you meet, I’m not interested. If you are not going to change the way you change. If you don’t believe in participatory change and you’re not going to embrace a structure for doing that, not interested. If you are so wedded to the tools that you have already, I’m thinking particularly about tools that silo information and sort of promote secrecy.

I’m not really interested. And it’s like, I’m not… I don’t have… I’m not sponsored by Atlassian. I’m not particularly particular about the tool, but I am about the principles under the tool. And so if you’re going to say to me we’re just going to pass Word documents back and forth till we get to V73 in email and save it on my desktop, I’m like, “That’s a problem for me in 2022 and that’s not a rule of the game that I’m trying to play with you.” Now, there are other things like, “Am I going to go through your nonsense procurement process with are lawyers who want to redline the MSA for their 30th time?” Of course, I am. Because there are certain things that we have to do to even get the board game laid out on the table and the pieces set up, but those foundational things around meetings, around tooling, around decision making, have become pretty non-negotiable to me. And the great thing about working the way that we work at The Ready, is that it’s a talent marketplace at The Ready.

And so what that looks like, is if you are a client who comes in the door and is like, I’m going to give you this tiny, tiny slice of domain to play in, and there’s someone at The Ready who’s very interested in that because mission of that org or a personal connection or a bigger play that I don’t see, they are welcome to pursue that work if that makes a lot of sense to them strategically. My boundaries are from my own experience and that I am at a point in my career where I would rather not do work, than do work that I don’t think is amazing.

Douglas: But what you’re describing there, just even in that final little moment point that you made, is I think a great example of living the values of what you all preach. Right? The fact that you can approach the work in a certain way and this other individual can approach the work in a certain way, and projects can come in different sizes and you can support different shapes and configurations because people can bring themselves and they do have the autonomy to manage those decisions, that speaks to the principles that you’re living, I think.

Rodney: Thanks. That’s how it feels to me. It feels like there’s a lot of choice baked into our operating system. And I think that’s how it should be. We’ve all been in and around large consultancies where it’s like, “Here’s where you’re deploying.” And if your utilization isn’t what it should be, there are consequences. And I truly cannot imagine being in a consultancy that runs that way. And the clients getting the best outcomes. That seems nuts to me.

Douglas: Yeah. The other thing that strikes me too, is that I sympathize with the companies that have been around longer and are more entrenched because I feel that if to be mission driven, to be values-based and to support this very open and very kind of self-managed approach, recruiting intentionally towards that goal is a powerful strategy.

Rodney: Hmm.

Douglas: Because if you’re kind of recruiting with the old mentality in mind, you might be putting people in boxes and they might be very well suited to be in a box. And then in the new model and you’re asking them to now behave in a totally different way. The new system might not be the best environment for them. Not that system wouldn’t be good for them under a different mission or a different industry or a different company, or even… I’ve seen that in some of the candidates we interview for and it’s one of the reasons why we do very participatory interview style. So, I think of a way to simulate the kind of stuff we would be doing together and get in there and do it. Because even if they lack the experience, I want to know what their intuition’s like.

Rodney: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Douglas: We’re actually simulating that conversation, what are you bringing to the table and how are we jamming and reacting to each other on the fly? And so, I don’t know. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on how much the recruiting process and even the people that have already been recruited impact the line of sight on how easy it is to make these shifts, especially for companies that are more entrenched in the old way.

Rodney: Yeah. It’s a really interesting question. So just to sort of work backward, I think that when you describe how you all do your interviewing process, it’s probably quite similar to how we do it at The Ready. And what we’re trying to do is give people a lived experience of what working with us is going to be you like. So we deploy in duos. So interviews are in duos. We do certain kinds of practices. So interviews are those kinds of practices. We work with clients. So there’s a client simulation. So it’s like, we are trying to just put people in the experience that is as close to the experiences they’ll have so that they know if they like it, because it’s not for everyone. So, I think that’s totally a feature and really solid design unless that is being created in an aspirational way.

So, we’re trying to simulate something that we’re hoping happens. We’re trying to simulate the future organization that we wish we would have, because then you’re just lying to the candidate and you’re giving them an experience that is not going to be fulfilled once they get there. So, I think this is an Arianism, but I’m a big fan of start the way you mean to go. So, have the interview process be reflective of the culture that someone is going to be onboarde.d into in terms though, of just how does new blood sort of nest with making a shift? I think it can be incredibly beneficial if there is a protected domain where those new people with fresh ideas can experiment without retribution or immediately being squashed. Because how many times have you seen the play in a traditional organization where they’re like, “We’re going to hire Jeff and he’s a real revolutionary thinker and he’s going to come shake things up and we’re going to make him the head of innovation and we’re going to give him three million dollars to build an innovation lab.”

And is Jeff ever or 18 months later? No, he is not there because on his third day they’re like, “Jeff, could we see a Gantt chart from you that outlines when you’ll have amazing ideas that revolutionize our category? And also those need to be intro quarter because we have a stock price to uphold.” It’s like you got to have enough domain where the person that you’re bringing in who’s different than the culture can actually do something and have enough time and runway to make a bit of a dent that then can be a model or can spread beyond a small domain.

Douglas: There’s also a big risk of even just telling that story. How antipathetic to self-managing is it to bring in someone and hang all our hopes and dreams, glorify and idolize them as to solve all the problems. Like, there no one else… Or everyone’s like, “Well, they’ll figure it out. What do I need to do?”

Rodney: Exactly. I always say heroic leadership and that being necessary, is the surest sign of crap org design. If you need that person to your exact point, if you’re hanging all your hopes on Jeff, you already have a deeply screwed up OS.

Douglas: Jeff is the worst.

Rodney: Poor Jeff. I mean, that guy is… He’s not going to make it.

Douglas: And the other thing that’s funny about innovation programs like that, is that there’s generally a superficial investment. And I call it the hipster barista. So, you’ve got… And the classic example, one of our clients, the inner offices feel like former sort of block, it’s like [inaudible 00:28:45] training or I don’t know… It’s like bad and no windows and you’re kind of going up through this more of like staircases and stuff. And then you get to the sixth floor and opens up and it’s like, “Oh, there’s bananas in a basket. And there’s there’s cappuccinos.” And it looks like a WeWork or something. And then… But every other floor is just gross and bad. And I’m like, “Wow, actually, they gave the… They painted this floor up and made it all nice and put nice snacks, but only for the folks on this innovation floor.”

And so it sends this weird signal that only for them. And then also they’re not really investing in innovation. It was just some kind of like lipstick on a pig kind of thing. And so it’s all around as bad, bad, bad, because it’s bad design and sends a really bad signal that we’re actually investing, but then we’re not. It’s crazy broken.

Rodney: It’s such a poignant example. And I think you see the same thing with DEI programs, you see the same thing with learning and development programs where it’s like, we’re going to do this thing that is really core to our work and our identity, but we’re not going to do it inside of our real work and identity. We’re going to do it over there. We’re going to do it in this other place where we send people away to learn, or we put them on the fancy floor where there’s kombucha and then we’re going to hope that by osmosis or God knows what, that somehow permeates and changes the rest of our culture. And I’m just like, anytime you’re talking about the committee forming or the tiger team or the separate floor or the field. You’ve already lost the plot because it’s not going to feel integrated into people’s experience of work.

Douglas: Yeah, that’s the thing that L&D programs suffer from a ton. Right? Let’s go off and learn a thing and then no one can ever integrate it in to what they’re doing. It’s like, “How do I even apply it to my work? I’ve even forgotten whatever it was that they said. It was cool, but I’ve forgotten it.”

Rodney: Exactly. Exactly. And if I were to come home from my learning retreat and try to do something based on what I’d learned, how quickly would the system on me squash that?

Douglas: That’s right.

Rodney: The likelihood is high that it would if it was something that was going to materially impact ways of working.

Douglas: The road is adorned with these failures. Right? And so what have you found… Of course, I would say the anecdote to that is bringing internal to the work. So folks are actually hands-on applying these things. Are there any tactics or first steps that you could recommend for listeners to start thinking in those ways or even what is the first step towards that?

Rodney: Yeah. A thing I hear a lot from perspective clients is we have this big thing we need to do. And once we’ve done that, we’ll learn new ways of working and for anybody out there who meditates, I’m not a great meditator, but I like this as a metaphor. There are schools of meditation where you use distraction as the object on which you meditate. So, like the sound of the bird becomes the object rather than something you’re trying to push away. And that’s kind of how I think about doing transformation work. So, I’m talking to an organization right now that’s sort of a Federation of a bunch of smaller organizations. And each one sort of has its own thing that it’s up to. So, one got a grant that they need to spend. One has a new strategy that they want to implement. One is trying to pick a new leader, one… All different kinds of… They’re not even problems. They’re just things that need to be done.

And this organization, I think quite wisely is like, “Can you teach us new ways of working while we do this thing that we have to do anyway?” And I’m like, “Yes.” So for this group who feels like there’s something missing in terms of strategic clarity, we will facilitate them and teach them a way of developing strategy that becomes theirs. I don’t care at all what the strategy is. I just want them to learn a new way of creating a strategy that’s participatory, that can be steered continuously, that makes hard trade offs. That’s very clear and explicit, et cetera. Same with hiring. Rather than waiting for the new leader who’s going to solve the problem, I’m like, “Can we teach you ways of designing a hiring process that will serve you forever?” So it’s like, give me the thing and learn the new way of working around the thing rather than learning new ways of working somewhere else and hoping that these things that are actually really core and critical to the business somehow get done well.

Douglas: That’s 100%. I love it. And it’s like, how do they immediately apply it? It’s like… I remember years ago I was at a conference back when I was writing software and it was some sort of some software conference. And this guy was talking about training engineers. And he was doing an eval at the end of the sessions and was asked to come do a talk on how he did the eval. And it was basically like a time horizon on how immediate that they could apply the learnings. And it was like, “I can immediately apply this now.” Whatever I learned today, I can literally go insert it into some software that I’m working on right now. Or it’s like next week or next month, or I don’t know, maybe next quarter. I don’t even know when. It’s kind of a liker scale that was based on how far out into the future.

So, the thing that struck me was, well, why didn’t we assess from the get go if this is going to be applicable for folks right now? And why didn’t we talk about something that was relevant right now? And why didn’t we talk about the concerns about how it’s going to be applied and then maybe even create a mastermind around what we’re struggling with, and support each other through this change, because otherwise everyone’s kind of left on their own to kind of figure it out with very loose, I don’t know. Loose support.

Rodney: Yeah, totally. And it’s also just like not how I think human beings always think. And the example that’s coming to mind for me. So I’m working right now with a cross-functional group in a big organization that is about the future of work. They’re supposed to figure out the future of work for this company. Very cool group of people, very smart, very cool culture at this company. And so, I’m facilitating them in new meeting structures, we’re using new tools, we’re using new ways of making decisions of chartering, of clarifying, et cetera. And we got to a point a couple weeks ago where there was not even grumbling, but they were just like, this has been really cool, but what are we actually going to do? And I’m like, all the things that we’ve been doing, you can just do, and those are real moves.

Just go do them and you’ll be doing it. It’s just the moment of being like this is it, we’re doing it right now. And it was really like a switch flipped and all of a sudden there was a lot of pull for, “Oh, can I have an asset to help me with?” Or here’s a group that I think could use this process or I’m going to go facilitate this or I’m going to offer this or I’m going to suggest we do a retro. Whatever the things were. But sometimes I think it takes… If you’re not an org designer or you’re or a coach or someone who sweats this stuff naturally, I think it’s really easy to go back to your QBR meeting and just be like, “Oh, okie-dokie, let’s project the spreadsheet and listen to someone talk for 75 minutes. And it’s like, “No, no, you guys do the thing we just did an hour ago to understand and integrate feedback to something. Just, just do it over there.” So it’s like, that’s just… It’s a tricky shift to make. And then once people make it, they’re on fire.

Douglas: Yeah. They just it’s like trying it once. And building that muscle memory of just being like, “Oh, I can do this.”

Rodney: Exactly. Exactly. And I should. I should do this.

Douglas: Yes,

Rodney: For all the people who I have experiences with who are like, “That was amazing. That was the best hour I’ve spent this week.” I’m like, “Cool, just go replicate this in the next thing you have to do. You don’t need me to do it.” That’s the whole idea.

Douglas: That’s the thing. I feel like habits are so hard to break. Even though people feel like meetings are the worst and they complain and complain, but the reminder and outlook goes off and they go in there and they just default to… I mean, default’s a good word, right? They just default to that behavior and it takes some energy to knock folks out of that default. And I think what you’re talking about, the coach can go a long way towards nudging and encouraging folks to just make that first step. The other thing I’ve noticed too, I don’t know if you’ve tried this, but we do a lot of what my friend Keith McCanns refers to as thinking out loud.

Rodney: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Douglas: And so we might be running a thing, but then it’s like that metacognition moment where you’re like, “So what just happened was…” Or, “What I’m doing right here is…” So it’s like not only are we modeling a thing, but then we’re also being like, “Hey, by the way, you can do this in your weekly…”

Rodney: Yeah. I love that. I’ve started at sort of the half daybreak and the end-of-day break of workshops, just recapping the practices that we used. And people are like, “Wow, we did… We tried so many things.” But I have… To your end Keith’s point, when you don’t do that, people just go like, “Wow, that was a dope workshop.” Not like, “Here are 10 things we did that you could just go do.

Douglas: Here’s the thing. If you’ve designed a really amazing experience where there’s a great arc, people get lost in it because it’s engaging. There’s a through-line.

Rodney: Exactly.

Douglas: It’s like being on a roller coaster, no one ends a roller coaster and thinks, “Okay, there were three ups, four downs, two loops.” Maybe they remember vague feelings, the high and low points, the power of memory moments. But… So yeah, giving them that manual, I think is important.

Rodney: Totally. Totally.

Douglas: What about commitments? I think ending with encouraging them to think about when they might it and then share that commitment. So, it’s like they’re making it to themselves and maybe to someone else also can serve as that little nudge too.

Rodney: Yeah. Yeah. We do a lot of… We love the closing round of a meeting or a session that’s like a personal flip and we especially love to do it in writing in a board because just sort of seeing everyone’s own personal commitment. I think it totally does what you’re saying in terms of nudging. And I also think it reinforces the shared ownership of making change, because you’re not saying, what will we commit to? Or what should we do differently next time? It’s from the experience that we just have, here’s what I am signing up for. And those little pebbles in the pond can make a really big tidal wave over time.

Douglas: Oh 100%. If everyone’s doing their little piece. Wow! That’s how mountains get moved.

Rodney: Exactly.

Douglas: It makes me think of a beehive. They’re all doing their little pieces and amazing things happen.

Rodney: Yeah. I mean, I’m curious. Do you all look to… We look to nature a lot because complexity for inspiration around systems thinking, do you find that you do the same? I think beehive is such a good example.

Douglas: Yeah. I think that one of my favorite examples actually comes from Team of Teams if I’m remembering correctly. Sometimes I get lost in the stories and I forget where they even come from, but I’m pretty sure it came from Team of Teams where he was comparing leadership to being a gardener.

Rodney: Yeah.

Douglas: Yeah. And you can’t force the plants to grow. You can create the conditions. And that’s complexity theory 101, right? What are our initial conditions we need to establish so that things can spring forth. And I think that’s… My wife’s an avi gardener and whenever I watch her gardening, I’ll often think about, “Yeah, that’s kind of what it’s all about.” It’s like, “Let’s remove some impediments, we don’t want these weeds in the way.” And the beautiful thing about that, is if we’re really thinking about leadership from that perspective, anybody can be a leader.

Rodney: Absolutely.

Douglas: It’s not about some role or position. If I see a weed, I can remove it. If I see something in Rachel’s way I can get that out out of the way.

Rodney: Absolutely. Yeah. I think it’s a really beautiful metaphor and that’s how we should be looking not just at leadership, but at systems. I often think about sort of the governing of the commons and Ostrom’s work and to… I think about The Ready for example, like a garden. And it’s like, is it only one or two people’s role to make sure that the plants don’t die? It’s not, it is a community garden and if nobody tends to it, it’ll die. And so, I think it’s the right more collective, more powerful and ultimately less fragile way of look at leadership, than the old model of the brilliant strategist who could see eight moves ahead and then just tell all the ponds where to go.

Douglas: I love that. Especially the community garden piece. I hadn’t thought about that. Specifically comparing it to like everyone in the community has a vested interest in making it as awesome as it can be. And you could… I think a dystopian view would be that, oh, people will just litter and take advantage or just harvest from it or whatever, but you see them thrive quite magnanimously and it’s really nice.

Rodney: Yeah, you do. And it… Having worked in a lot of traditional systems, there’s often a tenor of competition. And how that shows up is, is my part more valuable than your part? If I’m the sales person, is that more valuable than the product person? Or if I’m the finance person, is that more valuable than the marketing person? And in a garden, nobody cares which plant is the most important. It’s like I think about this at The Ready, I think one of the things I’m really proud of in terms of our own maturation over the last couple of years, is that there is an appreciation that it takes a lot of different kinds of effort and different kinds of ingredients to have a garden emerge that is vibrant and healthy. And so, there’s no debate or discussion of is finance more important than growth? Or should hiring get more than the… It’s like we need it all. We need all of it in order to have a really thriving community that feeds us.

Douglas: Yeah. I think ecological models are really fascinating. We actually… And we have a weekly facilitation lab where we invite facilitators to come and just experiment with stuff that they haven’t tried before so that we can learn. And we’re not necessarily doing it in front of a client or we’re not doing it in front of the big boss or whatever. So, we had an ecologist come and she was experimenting with some ecology models as a form of facilitating the groups. And I was like, this is kind of new and interesting, but it feels very familiar and similar. So, it was almost just like new language over a time of the song that was already very familiar. It’s fascinating.

Rodney: I love that. That’s really cool.

Douglas: So, I think we could clearly geek out and talk about this stuff for a long time, but we’re going to have to come to a close. So, I guess we’d like to wrap with a couple things. First, as you think about the potential as more and more companies lean into these things and in the pre-show chat, we mentioned Web3, we didn’t get to it in this conversation, but certainly, that’s a place that this stuff could go or even that might unlock more potential. When companies embrace this stuff more, whether it’s through Web3 or other mechanisms, what do you think becomes possible? What does the world look like once we see more of this?

Rodney: What’s not possible? I feel like the more I see systems really leading into self-management, whether that is DAOs and Web3, or whether it’s cities that want to become self-managed in terms of local government or whether that is community organizing that takes a very self-managed approach. I’m just like, participation from the invested who are also impacted by the outcomes will save us from broken systems. And I look around in the US at least, at the systems that we pay into and work in and uphold that don’t serve the people inside of them, whether you’re talking about education or healthcare or aspects of the government and what that falls to harken back to our earlier conversation is we expect heroism from healthcare workers, from teachers, from politicians to overcome a broken system and serve us. And to me, that is not reasonable. It’s not sustainable. And my hope for the future is that we can build different kinds of systems so that we don’t have to live in the ones that suck and try incrementally to reform them from within.

Douglas: Well said, well said. Well, I want to give you an opportunity to leave our listeners with a final thought. So, what should they keep in mind as we kind of close out the episode here?

Rodney: Oh, gosh! This has been really fun. I guess because this is on my mind right now. A thing that I would leave people with is, as you are inspired to go and make a change and make haste in the world, do your own work. I’m in a coaching process right now with the Conscious Leadership Group which I think a lot of, and I am a coach, I’ve had coaches, I’m very bought into self-work. And what I’m being reminded of being re-engaged in that process is, if you want to be someone who is a catalyst in the world for making change, get your own shop in order first and know how you are, how you’re seen, what you’re about, what your aim is, et cetera, et cetera. And not as a precursor, but at least in parallel to trying to shift other things, shift yourself.

Douglas: All right. Thank you, Rodney. It’s so great to chat with you today and I hope we can talk again soon.

Rodney: Thanks so much for having me. This was really fun.

Douglas: Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control The Room. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates when new episodes are released. And if you want more, head over to our blog, where I post weekly articles and resources about working better together at voltagecontrol.com.

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Voltage Control is a change agency that helps enterprises sustain innovation and teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops.

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Voltage Control

Voltage Control

Voltage Control is a change agency that helps enterprises sustain innovation and teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops.

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