Responsive Organization Practices

Lessons from Pepisco, AirBNB, and Charity: Water

Deb Seidman
Jan 19, 2018 · 9 min read

Various organizations are experimenting with Responsive organizational practices — from mature, global, complex organizations like Pepsico, to new platforms like AirBnB, to nonprofits like Charity: Water.

The Responsive Conference facilitated an exchange of experiences and ideas between these organizations and conference participants.


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Pepsico at Responsive Conference

A panel of leaders from Pepsico’s snacks division shared their experience with efforts they were making to implement responsive organization practices. They noted that leadership support is key. If leaders start to act on their words, people will see they are serious.

They measured people on the new organizational dimensions through the performance review process and leveraged setting annual goals, since these are what people are incentivized to do. They are hearing, now, of groups within Pepsico who learned responsive practices and are making it happen without a manager setting it up.

Some questions they advise us to consider when implementing new organizational practices:

  • How to inspire leadership at all levels?
  • How to align incentives around it?
  • How to amplify stories of those taking ownership of leading change?

Change efforts can experience cultural inertia. Pepsico brought responsive practices to forums outside of specific organizational units and projects (e.g., the internal women’s network) to energize and amplify the change.

A big issue in the organization is when people don’t know what they are responsible for. This leads to circular discussions. For example, there was a major project at Pepsico where 49 people attended the first conference call. They set up rules to address this:

  • Rule 1: 7 +/- 2. If there are more than 7 or 8 people on the task, it brings too much uncertainty. Smaller teams were assigned specific tasks.
  • Rule 2: Just make progress. They valued progress over perfection.
  • Rule 3: If you give someone the responsibility to do something — let them do it.

It takes practice to get comfortable with new practices. You must be patient and continually encourage the new practices (e.g., being on video for meetings so participants can see each other). The panel recommended creating a series of “safe to try” spaces so that people can practice before taking it back to their teams. These spaces provide a place to build skill sets and confidence.

When implementing new technology (e.g., Google Docs, Slack, Zoom), they advise to get people sunk into it as soon as possible so they can experience it as helpful. Remember the “shadow of the leader”. Leaders need to practice what they preach. Introduce technology as an enabler. If you partner new technology with responsive practices, it can be overwhelming. Consider how to treat technology as an asset to help with the responsive practices.

The panel turned to the audience to crowd-source ideas for embedding responsive practices at Pepsico. Ideas included:

  • Values in action — define the behaviors
  • Create a few, critical rules
  • Share stories of failure to make it “OK” — especially in a perfectionistic culture
  • Use video for story-telling
  • Reward the use of responsive practices with a new, sexy assignment/a passion project Listening — asking people what they care about, what is important to them
  • Team awards aligned to principle of working with the people you need to work with (to move away from a “hero” culture)
  • Build in chances to get together without a purpose — “serendipitous calls” to get people to talk together. Can use this to experiment with the technology and explore vulnerability

It takes practice to get comfortable with new practices. You must be patient

AirBNB — Cultural Transformation Journey

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AirBNB Workshop

The heads of Learning and Talent at AirBNB presented the journey they have been on to create the desired culture within the organization and then crowd-sourced ideas from participants for what more they could do.

They want to create the culture within the company that is consistent with their brand and their brand is about creating a sense of belonging. They asked: “What would it mean to create belonging inside AirBNB?”

Participants were asked to think of a time in their lives when they most felt like a stranger and describe what that was like. Then participants were asked to think about a time in their lives when they felt most belonged. Participants were challenged to come up with three words to describe each situation and a drawing that symbolized how they felt.

Using a similar exercise, AirBNB developed language that is used by managers and teams to talk about the continuum from stranger to “at home”.

Belong Here Transformation Journey

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From Being a Stranger to Being at Home

They noted that moving through these stages is not linear. On a daily basis, someone may stay in one position along the spectrum more than others or one can move back and forth across the spectrum.

What’s the role of culture? What are the structures, behaviors, mechanisms that create one state vs. another? How can people move through the continuum as they take on a new challenge? People at AirBNB report that they do their best work when exploring — when they have the feeling that they have the freedom to explore.

Participants were asked to identify the behaviors present in a “belonging” culture and what conditions needed to be in place to elicit those behaviors. Conditions are the mechanisms that are present, such as policies, etc., that make it easy for belonging to take place or that can interrupt it. Examples of conditions identified included:

  • Rituals
  • On-boarding mechanisms
  • Transparent communications
  • Shared language and norms
  • Physical space
  • Articulation of the culture
  • Adoption and expression of boundaries
  • Accountability (i.e., what happens when norms are not followed.)

AirBNB has embedded culture in various organization practices. A people leadership program includes a section on belonging. Leaders are encouraged to invest in understanding who their people are and getting to know them, making sure that team members get to know each other very well, and being on the look out for instances where “out groups” may be forming so the larger group can come up with tactics for bringing them in.

“Check in” (on-boarding) and “check out” (exiting) processes focus on having people join and leave AirBNB in a way that honors who the person is. When new hires come in, they share a story of who they are. The company wants to know how to better understand them and asks: “what’s one part of your life that you want to protect?” New hires are encouraged to share that answer with their managers immediately. Because AirBNB is in hyper growth, they want to be sure that people can protect the time they need for themselves/their families.

In “check out”, they have formalized an alumni group. By creating a community of former employees when people leave, former employees are still part of the information flow.

Charity: Water — Responsive Practices within a Non-Profit Organization

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Lauren Letta (COO of Charity: Water) in conversation with Chris Murchison

Charity: Water’s mission is to provide clean water to people who do not have access to it. They have been in existence 11 years and are now the country’s biggest water charity.

Their vision is to reinvent charity. This is their “why” (à la Simon Sinek). The founder started with a concept of disruption — to disrupt the philanthropic model. Therefore, Charity: Water is grounded in concepts that set it apart from the outset. They wanted potential donors to think that Charity: Water is cool and to care about the brand — to change how people think about giving and generosity.

They started with the idea that people don’t trust charity, so they knew they needed to provide transparency and proof. They have a 100% model — all money donated goes directly to the field. Also, they can prove where the money went because donors will see the project they funded (e.g., showing where a well was put in). They have a separate set of donors (private funding) who fund operations.

To inspire people to give, their first hires were storytellers and designers. They have an in-house creative team and an engineering team for their website. Typical non-profit administrators were hired later.

Charity: Water leaders held conversations and learning sessions with non-profits to build their knowledge. They work with implementing partners on the ground (for community engagement, well-drilling, etc.) They know what they are good at and what they are not good at (i.e., what to include in their employee base and what to source from outside the organization). They focus on inspiring generosity.

Charity: Water isn’t competing with other non-profits. They want to elicit generosity, so they compare themselves with companies like Apple to learn from them. It’s about getting people to engage with giving.

Charity: Water needed to be able to track the dollars donated and report back to the donors. They wanted the charity to work for the individual donor. They had to convince their partners on the ground to help them achieve this goal (e.g., using GPS to show where wells were built). They needed to get their partners to understand why proof and reporting back were important.

They began changing organizational practices about seven years ago. They needed to break down silos to help people work together. This included creating ownership for the work and clarifying who was doing what. They described the organizational changes as “trying to fly the plane while fixing it”. At first, they tried to fix one part at a time. They found that everyone would spend all their time on one challenge, fix one thing and then something else wouldn’t keep up.

They realized that they were operating in an ecosystem that was constantly evolving. It was a living and breathing system. Now they can solve for a more agile and fast-paced environment. Beforehand, every time there was a problem, they tried to hire someone to lead a function. They learned that it’s not about hiring the person to solve the problem. Don’t create a figurehead as the first solution (e.g., if there is a demand management issue, don’t just hire a marketing head). They broke down titles into roles. They asked: “What are the functions that need to happen and who is best able to do it?” In doing so, they can quickly reorganize and change titles and roles when the ones in place no longer make sense.

They established different types of meeting structures. They used to meet all the time, but that wasn’t effective. Standing, weekly meetings didn’t enable them to address immediate issues. They were using a specific agenda and meetings were very structured, but maybe not focused on the right stuff. They now have tactical meetings — where the agenda is created on the fly, and governance meetings.

Their mindset and language went from “we are making a change” to “we will always be changing”. They are open about trial and error.

They realized that if everyone was trying to get to the same point, and there are many ways to get there, they can switch the vehicle and still get to the destination. Rather than fill a position, they will look at what’s needed. The decision is opportunity- and agile-based. For example, the CTO left and three leaders emerged. Work was assigned one way and then some new needs emerged so they looked at who was best able to address those needs and that led them to reorganize the roles. It’s about recognizing people’s skills/capabilities and putting work where it can best be done. People were involved in the discussions/decisions and saw the changes coming. There was a lot of conversation and collaboration before changes were implemented. The reorganization didn’t come top down.

Not all teams at Charity: Water operate with this kind of fluidity. Some are more structured (e.g., fundraising). The structure fits the work of the team. Creative, Product, Marketing and Engineering have flatter organizations.

Culturally, they try to hire people who are comfortable with change (and not someone looking to understand a defined career trajectory). Promotions are skill-based. Someone can move from manager to senior manager or engineering manager to site architect.

They value excellence in everything they do — in storytelling and design. They want to make people feel good and then give. They tell stories about the people who benefit from the clean water — not just their struggles. Everything is designed internally (presentations, employee forms, etc.) and they create the same experience internally as they do for donors.

They conduct a variety of communications. Monday is bagel breakfast where each team gives an update (this is not a top down communication). Friday is beer and pizza and sometimes there are no formal communications. There are bi-annual town halls. The “side bar” is where the executive team sits and answers questions from employees.

All three organizations Pepsico, AirBNB, and Charity: Water, are experimenting and learning as they go. They adapt their practices as needed to meet the overall organizational objectives. Now THAT’s agile.

Learn more about the annual Responsive Conference via their website or monthly newsletter.

Learn more about the author, Deb Seidman, at Green Silk Associates.

Responsive Org

The Responsive Org movement is creating a fundamental shift…

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