What Every Organization Gets Wrong About Collaboration

Forget top-down. Change starts with small teams: a conversation with Bud Caddell

This week I caught up with Bud Caddell, the founder of management consultancy NOBL, which helps large companies define the future of work. Previously, Caddell was a partner at the management and strategic consultancy, Undercurrent, and before that was SVP of Digital Strategy and Innovation at Deutsch LA. He was named the most creative person, under 30, by Business Insider. Bud is also a fellow at MIT’s Future of Entertainment Conference, and he’s a delight on twitter.


Rosie Yakob: Ok so. You and your team at NOBL call yourselves “Organizational Designers”?

Bud Caddell: Organizational design is the art and science of aligning the ambitions of an organization with its operations. We ensure an organization has a purpose; a reason for being in the larger world. And then we help executive teams unpack that purpose into strategy, structures, and systems that influence the behavior of their teams. However, the bulk of our day to day work is coaching those teams to adopt new behaviors and provide candid feedback in response to those changes.

NOBL recently hosted a Team Design bootcamp. What are some of the problems with the current way we work that led us to need re-think organizational and team design?

We’re transitioning from an industrial work model to a knowledge-based model, but companies haven’t made the switch: they’re still using command-and-control, top-down methods when culture (and their customers’ needs) are moving faster than ever. In an attempt to keep up, they’re overworking their people and burning them out.

Unfortunately, we see a lot of inertia — people assume that work has always been hectic, work will always be hectic, and there’s just no way to improve it.

Our first challenge is always getting people out of that mindset, so they realize that making simple changes on a structural and procedural level can have a huge impact on their workload.

Speaking about countering the top down management methods, I can’t help but think of one of the biggest buzz words in this future of work space: Holacracy. Is it something you recommend for all companies, or is it only one piece of the puzzle?

If you’re starting a brand new company today, and hiring only 35 year-old white, male software engineers, then yes, holacracy is a decent fit.

Look, they deserve credit for taking a bold first step at a holistic new way of working, but it’s seriously flawed — people end up spending more time on organizing the work than doing it, and aren’t allowed to do adopt “non-Holacratic” methods.

Instead, we encourage companies to experiment with a variety of methods, iterate on them, and ultimately, design a handbook for how their team works.

I love that. What are some of the other trends within the future of work space that companies should be paying attention to?

Everyone is worrying that automation and AI are coming to take their jobs, and the fact is that yes, repetitive tasks will be done by machines. But this will give people more time to focus on what they do best — being creative, collaborating with others.

On the flip side of this, companies — especially HR professionals — will drown in data about team performance, but won’t know what to make of it. In response, you’re going to see the rise of “People Ops,” in which people use data to create better employee experiences, much like we’ve seen design thinking reinvent customer experiences.

“If you’re starting a brand new company today, and hiring only 35 year-old white, male software engineers, then yes, holacracy is a decent fit.”

We’ve heard more people asking about the physical office itself — the open office is due for a backlash, as more people need areas for quiet thinking as well as collaboration. This could even result in more remote working opportunities.

Lastly, expect diversity to evolve into inclusion. Companies are going to start forcing their vendors and suppliers to demonstrate a real commitment to an equal workplace so that it reflects the diversity of their customers.

Are there elements of holacracy (or other trends) that individuals can implement on their own? Or does it have to be a planned company-wide shift?

We actually encourage clients to test new ways of working on their own team first.

Maybe it’s a better way to provide feedback, or a more efficient method for running meetings — whatever it is, other teams will start to notice the improvement, and will ask for help of their own accord. That’s what you really want: for teams to willingly seek out and adopt changes.

Yes, the leadership team has to be onboard with the process, but if you don’t get buy-in from the rank-and-file, you’ll never make real progress. At Zappos, for instance, Tony Hsieh mandated the shift to holacracy, and 30% of their workforce left.

We’d also caution that what works great for one team may be ineffective for another, so discover the working rhythm that fits your team, then figure out how to work with others’ systems. Clearly defining your organization’s purpose upfront and establishing regular communication will keep teams aligned, regardless of their internal processes.

Bud talks about biases, but also the super powers of the best workers of the 21st Century.

You’ve spoken about the employees of the future. Who are the companies that are leading the charge on what you think will be the future of work?

No one company has mastered the future of work. Leading organizations have got bits and pieces of it, but even the most forward-thinking are still experimenting. That said, some of the organizations making a real effort include:

  • Spotify. They share lots of information on how they structure teams, conduct retrospectives, and encourage career development.
  • Etsy. They see individual mistakes as an opportunity for the whole organization to learn, have a team dedicated to “hacking” the office, and are committed to improving diversity and inclusion in their workforce.
  • Buffer. They’re very transparent about their business. They’ve released a tool that calculates how much you would make if you worked there, and when they had to let 10 people go, the CEO wrote a very humble letter identifying his mistakes and his plan for moving forward.

We’ve found that many companies are still very nervous about “opening the kimono” — they’re hesitant to share an internal process, especially if it hasn’t been perfected. But the truth is, this is a great opportunity for internal branding. The best employees are actively looking for companies that are addressing these issues, and by sharing, you’ll attract the right kind of people to your company.

Thanks so much, Bud. For anyone looking for further reading, any sources or sites that you would recommend?

Slack channels are hosting lively conversations about this topic all the time: aside from our own, we highly recommend Culture Amp’s People Geeks. Quartz has a section dedicated to companies adopting new practice, and of course, we feature guides and case studies on Future of Work.

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