Aaron Dignan, founder of global organisational transformation and coaching practice The Ready, talks about his new book “Brave New Work”. We explore how organisations can reinvent themselves and upgrade their “OS”, not through top-down change, but through principles-based experiments from the edges in.
How to follow Aaron:
- Twitter: @aarondignan
Lisa Gill: So Aaron, first of all, congratulations on the publication of Brave New Work. I've already had the chance to read it, and I thought it was great. What is your greatest hope for the book? What do you want people to think, feel and do as a result of it? And what is the kind of core concept of the book - for those who aren't familiar.
Aaron Dignan: I think the core concept is really just that the way we work is fairly broken for both us as individuals and us collectively. And that bureaucracy has become something that's a little bit out of control, and really quite dehumanising, and quite immobilising. And it doesn't have to be that way. There are many organisations all around the world that are doing things differently - that have flipped the table over and started with a blank sheet of paper and created or modified some really incredible ways to work. And we are sort of called to do that - as leaders, founders, managers, team members. We're called to change the way we work. So that's the core concept of it.
It obviously, gets into the nitty gritty and the 'how to' quite a bit. And I mean, what's interesting about the book is there's very little in it that's completely original. A lot of it was learned from other organisations, from other thinkers from trial and error. The challenge is not that the right things haven't been said, it's that they haven't been heard. And so my hope was to sort of package something that was, you know, a pill that would go down easy, but also do some real deep change while it does. And to create a kind of packaging of these ideas that would motivate and accelerate this pattern of change. Because right now, it's, you know, less than 1% of organisations think you can work in new ways the way we would define it. And I think that we need to get to a tipping point. I mean, we need to see 10% or 20% of organisations thinking and acting this way in order for culture to really change. And so to me, this was like - can I accelerate that? Can I put some, some oomph behind that?
Lisa Gill: Yeah. What do you think is stopping organisations then? Because as you say, a lot of this stuff isn't new or groundbreaking. But why is there such a big gap between the theory and practice?
Aaron Dignan: I think there's a lot of barriers, actually. I mean, the first one is that one of the byproducts of working in a fairly, you know, hierarchical, top-down bureaucratic way, in a market that prizes never ending growth, is that you're very busy and you don't even have time to think. And so most people are going from meeting to meeting from email to email from project to project with very little time for reflection. And so even if we did have an intuitive sense that something was wrong, there's no time to fix it. So I think that's one thing that helps us kind of keep our heads down. We're just pushing through to the next thing.
Another part of this, of course, is that there's a big ego component to this and leaders and founders and managers have a lot of their identity wrapped up in being the hero or being the micromanager being the detail-oriented one or being the one that kind of sees the big picture that is controlling the marionette, if you will. I think that becomes a part of our identity. And that's not a pleasant thing to part with, unless we really have a chance to think deeply about it and do some of that personal work to identify, 'oh, I'm not giving up control, I'm trading it for a different kind of control. I'm not giving up who I am, I'm actually, you know, deepening who I am and how I can really contribute to the actual work, not in the theatre of work'. So I think that those things are creating resistance.
And then the fact that it's so fringe, I think also matters. I mean, people routinely asked me who else looks exactly like me in my category in my country is doing this? And often the answer is that there's no answer to that, right. There's nobody and so then it feels like well, am I the first and how scary must this be? So I mean, it's one of the reasons I call the book Brave New Work is it's not just new work, it's actually requiring a kind of a courage. And I think that is in short supply.
Lisa Gill: Two of the little phrases that I really liked in the book were complexity conscious and people positive. What do those terms mean to you? Can you say something about what those phrases represent?
Aaron Dignan: Yeah, so when I started working on the book, I had this pipe dream that I was going to create, like an integrated theory of all these different alternative ways to work. So you look at agile practice, and lean practice, and teal, and, you know, open organisation, and all these different kinds of grand theories about how we work. And they each have their own lexicon and their own principles, and mindsets. And I felt like it's too much to bear, when I made a list of them. I mean, you can easily write down 48 or 50 principles that suddenly become overwhelming, and how can anyone be sure that they're in alignment with that on a day-to-day basis? So the thought was how do we boil that down to its essence?
And so I had a little bit of a madman's weekend - connecting the thread between a bunch of different things. I built a mind-map of what they all were, and how they interconnected. And what it basically boiled down to was that one side of the story was about, you know, what do we believe about human nature. And one side of the story was about what do we believe about the world at large and how it works. And if you connected all the dots, you ended up with these two kind of fundamental mindsets from which everything else can spring.
And so people positive was the first. It's sort of aligned with self- determination theory and a lot of other psychology. It tells us the story of people being generally trustworthy and good and motivated and wanting to learn and grow, wanting to take responsibility, seeking out opportunities to learn, feeling like mastery, autonomy and purpose are really at the centre of what moves us - as opposed to the kind of other theory which is the determinist behaviourist, we're all rats in a box that are waiting for a pallet. We need carrots and sticks, we need to be told what to do. We're lazy, we're untrustworthy, etc. So there's sort of two worldviews there. The people positive one is obviously the positive one, in my view.
And it also acknowledges that people are chameleons. So if you put someone for whom that is their nature in an environment that rewards individual performance, and privacy and secrecy and politicking, and planning and doing everything by the book, and risk avoidance in 30 years, they will look like someone whose true nature is different than it actually is. They will appear to be not getting it and not being of this world and of this way of work. But what I found through actual experiences is when, even for three or six months, you put that person in a different environment and a different aquarium - suddenly, they start to change. And a true nature starts to reveal itself again - if there's enough psychological safety, if there's enough space, if there's enough reinforcement - so I think that's the people positive side. That's sort of at the root of all the humanistic thinking about work.
And then the complexity conscious was really more about the systemic understanding. So, you know, in systems theory, there are lots of different kinds of systems - simple systems, complicated, complex, chaotic, disordered, etc. We really, as a culture, think about everything as complicated. So, you know, a watch is complicated, an engine is complicated. They can be fixed, they can be predicted, they can be controlled. An expert knows what's going on with them. If there's a problem in a system like that, you can fix it.
But the reality is that organisations and different problems that we solve within organisations are across the spectrum of different types of systems. And one of the most common now that we see in a world of rapid change and dynamics and, you know, thousands of people bumping up against each other is the complex system.
The complex system is like traffic or weather or raising a six year old or gardening. And that is, you know, more unpredictable - it has the potential to surprise us. It has a disposition, it has a way of trending. But we can't be exactly sure about what will happen if we do this versus do that. And so the only way to understand a system like that is to interact with, it is to nurture it. Nobody ever comes in from the garden and says, 'honey, I fixed the garden', I like to say - right? That's just not a rational thing to say. But we do talk about organisations that way - mechanistically, right. We're going to put in this person, we're going to do this new org chart, we're going to introduce this new policy and everything will be perfect.
And so complexity conscious is the mindset that says - the world is dynamic, it's unpredictable, we're moving fast. And in fact, we're also, you know, people in a system inside that world. And so we need to be conscious of the fact that that complexity requires a different approach. And that's where, you know, things like test and learn and emergence, and waiting and seeing, and, you know, continuous steering and all the idea, you know - companies, startups that push code every 10 seconds. Those are all the ways to try to deal with that complexity. And try to make sense of it.
So I think that those were really the two foundational mindsets. And if you look at them, they can actually be in tension with each other. Which is really cool. So the complexity conscious mindset might lead us to do experiments that have real costs - experiments where people fail, where people have to be fired, or where people lose their jobs or we do whatever it takes to succeed in the market by doing all this testing and learning.
I mean, look at something like Facebook or Amazon right now, right? It can be taken to an extreme. And by the same token, the people positive one can too. We can have these incredibly humanist organisations that are not profitable - they can't survive, they don't have an interesting product and have kind of a very banal offering. And so what's really interesting is when they're in dynamic tension with each other, and most of the organisations that we cover in the book do a pretty good job of that. And they kind of, you know, they hold each other in this in this balance in this harmony. So that was a that was really an exciting point when I was writing the book - where I was like, okay, okay, two mindsets. We can do that - like people can remember that they can understand that.
Lisa Gill: Yes, I think they're very catchy. It helps that it's alliterated - they are catchy little phrases.
Aaron Dignan: I'm such a sucker for alliteration.
Lisa Gill: Aren't we all? I think the human brain just likes it. I think the first time I came across your work, and The Ready in general was reading about the OS Canvas. And that was when I first heard about this model of of organisations and their operating system. And I think a lot of people I talk to in this field are familiar now with that terminology. I think it's a really helpful way of looking at it. Can you say something about the operating system of an organisation and what the OS Canvas is designed to do?
Aaron Dignan: In theory, the goal was for people that start to engage in this work to think about - how am I going to change the way I work. How overwhelming is that? Right? So you sort of are like, where do I start? And where do I end? And where are the edges of this space. And so what I wanted to do was create a thinking tool to help people focus a little bit and, you know, understand both where they could start, but also what are the connections between places that they might play. Because the reality is it is a complex system. And so if you pull on this, you're going to accidentally tug on that.
At the same time, I wanted to acknowledge that there's not going to be any perfect framework. There's not going to be any kind of, you know, clean lines around this stuff. So it was a bit of a challenging project. But what we ended up doing is just going and looking at, and talking to all these organisations that do work differently, that have sort of given up on bureaucracy, and tried alternative approaches - and just ask them, what's different about them and how they work. And when they tell us the answers, the practices, the principles, the policies, etc - we just pinned them to the wall, both virtually and physically. And as they begin to coalesce around different groups, we realised that those were kind of spaces to play.
So for example, if you talk to almost anyone in our field, they'll talk about autonomy or distributed authority or empowerment or agency or they'll have a word for it. They'll have an idea of like, how do you give teams at the edge more power? How do you share power? And so that becomes the authority space, right? And it's not to say that there's a right answer or a wrong answer in the frame. The OS Canvas is just a box that stares at you and says - what do you believe? What do you do? And so when it comes to authority, what do you do and is it serving you? And then, what else does that connect to? If you have a certain practice about authority or an opinion about how we make decisions, how does that influence the way you share information? How does that influence the way you structure teams? How does that influence the way you think about mastery and growth?
So the goal of the OS Canvas was basically to identify these spaces and now - at least for the edition that we created for the book - we have 12 spaces, which I think is plenty. It could be 50, right? So it's saying - these are good places to start, these are big buckets. And they're presented in such a way where we can kind of see, okay, these are all the spaces where I have to check in with myself and my team and make decisions. And these are all the places where I have to think about how they relate to each other. How they reinforce each other.
It's not uncommon to hear people that work in the change field talking about antibodies, or reactions in the system that kind of resist. And often, it's just because we don't understand the connections between these spaces. So, you know, we give a lot of empowerment out without sharing information, people make bad decisions, and we turn around and say - oh, they can't be trusted to make decisions. When the truth is, we just didn't share the information they needed to make good decisions. So that's the gist of it. And I think this version is sort of the simplest and the cleanest. I mean, these are all single concepts - things that we actually do inside the organisation, that, you know, the organisations that we look up to are, are changing quite rapidly.
Lisa Gill: I know you did a lot of research of organisations. And obviously, you have a lot of experience yourself - like working with organisations and using the iOS Canvas and various other tools with them. What are some inspiring examples of organisations that are doing things differently, or really kind of putting into practice some of these ideas around people positive and complexity conscious?
Aaron Dignan: There are quite a few. We ended up collecting close to 68 cases for the book. The more famous ones are quite interesting - somewhere like a W.L. Gore, or a Buurtzorg, or Haier. They all have a lot in common. You know, W.L. Gore - they talk about the waterline, which I know you're familiar with. Things that happen that might be below the waterline would be things where a hole in the boat would sink the boat. Above the waterline, you can patch it up when you get back to shore.
And so, in a place like W.L. Gore - which is, you know, the makers of gore tex, for listeners that haven't heard that name before - they make decisions all the time. And if they think that the decision is above the waterline, it's not a problem. There's a lot of empowerment, a lot of autonomy. If they suspect it might be below the waterline, then they engage in an advice process.
And we see that actually, throughout a lot of the cases that we looked at, this idea of a decision stack - things we're all allowed to do, things we're allowed to do with advice, and things that require an integrated decision where multiple perspectives consent to the decision. So you focus on the decisions themselves, rather than a hierarchy of people. In a traditional system, the hierarchy of people says all decisions are made at the top, and progressively fewer and fewer decisions at the bottom. And in a model like this, it's more like, actually, there's a hierarchy of the types of decisions. So most of them, you can make yourself and then some of them you need advice and a very few, you need a more integrated take on it, or you need a very particular role to weigh in. And I think that's quite profound.
And then there are other little things. I'm a big fan of Jason Fried and DHH, and the people at Basecamp. And they have this take on policy, which is don't scar on the first cut. So if you have a mistake, or a problem, or something that happens that you don't want to have happen again, don't overreact and create red tape that affects everyone. So say one person steals a computer. Don't put a $15,000 security system in place and make everybody badge in and badge out and lock the computers to the desks. The cost and bureaucracy will be far greater than the cost savings that you incur.
And there's an example in the book from Favi, in France, where the CEO came in to find that people were waiting, you know, to get permission slips for up to 30 minutes for new work gloves. And you know, the cost of the downtime of the machines was in the thousands of Euros. And the work gloves cost five euros. So that's a scar on the first cut. Somebody stole a pair of gloves, the company freaked out, they put all the equipment under lock and key. So I think that, you know, those are the kinds of stories that really compelled me. Because they speak to the fact that out of our good nature and our desire to try to make things work better, we create these systems of control that actually ended up backfiring on us. So it's not as if anybody woke up one day and was like, I want to - in a Machiavellian way - put everybody under my boot. It's actually more like, I want to ensure that we're successful. And to do that, I'm going to make some choices that ultimately bite us. So that's the kind of stuff that gets me excited.
Lisa Gill: And what are your thoughts about how organisational change needs to change. Those top down, 'plan everything out' strategies of change just don't work anymore. So what is the alternative? Organizational change is hard. But what are some things that we can do to avoid some of the pain when we change?
Aaron Dignan: We feel like there are a few things. One is that we misunderstand the system when we look at most change frameworks. So back to the complicated and the complex, you see a lot of frameworks that go through five steps, or eight steps, or whatever. And the idea is somehow in theory, that we, as a group of 10,000, people are in the same moment at the same time. Which to me is just completely crazy. I mean, go to a football stadium and ask if everybody's in the exact same state of mind, or in the same stage of life - that's crazy. So to do that, and say we're in the burning platform stage, or we're in the experiment stage - you know, some of us are. Some of us are way ahead, some of us are behind, some of us are left some of us are right. The context is different for some of us. I mean, most of the companies I work with are in, you know, 20, 40, 100 countries. So then to say that the cultural identity and context of each team is the same - I mean, it's just so far fetched, I have a really hard time with it.
The downside, of course, with that approach is that when you do believe that you're in a difficult phase, and things aren't going as planned, and you're trying to figure out why you're so frustrated. So I think the reality is that we first have to accept that systems are complex, and that we can't treat them as monolithic things that are in a single stage of reality. The second thing is the narrative about change itself is pretty messed up. So most of the change narratives I've seen and heard look like stages of mourning. I mean, they're effectively like, some really bad stuff is coming. So we're going to change, you hate it, you resist it, you know, you trip and fall within this context of the change. And then eventually, you pull yourself back up again. And if you're lucky, you end up on the other side of the valley. And now we've made the change. And so that's the metaphor. And of course, we then are not surprised when people resist and don't like it. It sort of plays into that narrative of like, of course, people are resisting, of course, the laggards don't get it. Of course, everybody needs to be told what to do and how to change.
But the reality is, my experience has been that people resist change done badly. People don't actually resist all change - they just resist change, that doesn't make sense to them. That's not because they have no agency. And, I mean, if I went into any company in the world and said, I'd like to buy a new car for everyone, that's a change, everyone would be totally fine with. It would be you know, a widely approved change. So it's not that change itself is the problem. It's in the way it's being done, in the way it's being characterised. And when people don't have agency in change, that’s when it feels like it's happening to them rather than through them. And I think that's really at the essence of what's wrong.
We tend to go in with the perspective of, 'we want to create continuous change so that we're not doing this once every four years'. Org chart stuff that tries to treat it monolithically. It's happening everywhere, right - it's distributed. And we want to create participatory change. So people are actually driving their own adaptation, their own needs are being met, their own sensing of what's going on at the edge of their work and with their customers. And so what we look at is - how do we just ask the question that starts a pattern where everybody's changing in the right direction? And the question that we've come to is, 'what's stopping you from doing the best work of your life?'
So if we just can ask that question, and listen to every team, whether it's at the top of the house or the edge, the answers will tell us where to go. And so then we just follow the curiosity, we follow the tension. And we invite teams to start to address that stuff. And what's so surprising is they've so rarely been consulted, much less invited, to drive the change, that when they have small wins of little changes that can really make their lives better. And their work better. People get quite animated, and quite optimistic about what's possible. And suddenly, the change narrative is not one of a valley, but it's actually one of like, we can just walk to that better place together. So that, to me - that's some of what's broken. Obviously, there's a lot of nuance there that you've seen in your own work. But those are the things that are most broken, I think, about our thinking on change.
Lisa Gill: I know you've heard me talk about this before (in the reading community and in various other places), but I have this interest in human skills and how we relate to each other and mindsets. How do all of these things need to shift and what do we need to learn and unlearn in order for these new kinds of principles and practices to really take hold? What are your thoughts on that?
Aaron Dignan: I mean, it's an age old debate in our world, and it certainly comes up at The Ready from time to time. Which is, you know, do you work on changing the individual or changing the system. And in my view first of all, they're really hard to pull apart - they both happen all the time. And secondly, there are some challenges, I think, with focusing just on the individual - both in scale and in nature. So, the the challenge of course, is that, you know, it's very difficult to coach 300,000 people. So, that's quite an ambitious undertaking to say that you're going to actively intervene and change the mindsets of 300,000 people on a one-to-one basis. That's hard.
On top of that, there have been some arguments put forward that I think might carry some weight. And these say that it might be like colonialism, right? Like, it might actually be dangerous for us to say, 'we know better than you what your mindset should be'. So we're going to come in, and we're going to actually change your mindset - we're going to change the way you think and what you value and how you show up. And obviously, you know, good coaches don't do that - they participate in a dance. But like everything in the world of consulting and change and advice, things get weaponized.
And so, you know, I worry about individual change moving in the direction of, 'let me change you in the way I think I need to change you', or let management hire me to do that, which is even worse. So there's a challenge there. What I do think is true is that if you change the environment, if you change the context and the container - then personal change is bound to happen. And the invitation for it is bound to happen. And the pressures that creates are bound to create growth.
I often joke on stage by saying it's not the fish, it's the aquarium. And I think that this chameleon nature that we talked about earlier is part of this. So yeah, if I want you to be a more inclusive leader, I could talk your ear off about it. And we could do a lot of coaching or even therapy, and we could get really deep, I could do unconscious bias training and all this. Or I could design meeting structures and hiring structures that have inclusivity at their core. And then, whether you believe it or not, you're doing it. So then the question is, does that actually start to change you through experience and through the lived reality of an environment that rewards and values a certain set of practices. And this is the debate. We have it all the time, and I don't think you can have one without the other. I think it is a chicken and egg problem.
In many cases, you can't start the work until a leader has had some awakening and realise they want to share power. And that often comes from personal work from a walkabout or some personal crisis. So that's there. But I think from our perspective, if we can change things in the system that affect everyone at scale - that start new patterns, that reinforce the kinds of mindsets and identities that we want as a collective, that we all believe are going to serve us better, then they can pave the way for that personal development, which then happens and then invites more practice and better practice.
And I think we see this happening even in our own company. I mean, you start with a bar where there is bad bureaucracy, and work in an environment that's filled with misogyny and bullshit. But then, even when you elevate to a completely different level, the new consciousness now thinks of all the things that are still wrong. And that could still be better. And so you then you continually raise the bar. So I think there's a dance between system change and individual consciousness, and then further systems change that goes on. I'm only advocating that the first moves which can really make things go faster are often systemic. So that's the way I think about it. But we still debate it, and we still play with it. And we still nurture different sides of it in different projects. And it's messy. So - a complex topic, I think.
Lisa Gill: Yes, for sure. And what about your own personal perspective? Because, you know, you're a founder and a leader yourself, and The Ready is growing. What have been some of the challenges for you? And what have you learned personally about leadership and working in this way with others?
Aaron Dignan: This has been an interesting one for me. Because The Ready is the first time I've done this from scratch. So with my former firm, we kind of transitioned to this way of working from an older way. And that had its own challenges, obviously. But we sort of, you know, navigated them. With this one, I think it's been a different set of challenges. Because the identity of the firm, and the community and the boundaries and all that stuff that gets formed over time, was fluid and was actually co-owned from a very early stage.
What I've learned is that you can share a commons, and have self organisation and self management, if the initial kind of intent and boundaries and simple rules are in place to protect and preserve the membership. If you don't have that stuff completely baked in - so if you don't have the rules of the community garden on the wall before you walk in - there can be too little structure, right? And so there's always this inhale exhale of how much structure? What's the minimum viable structure, and intent and clarity and identity as a community that's needed for something to kind of hold and to be a real thing rather than just a collection of people doing work.
So with The Ready, what I've struggled with is when to step back and when to step forward to define that minimum clarity and define that minimum structure, and that minimum kind of boundary space around what it is and what it isn't. And I think, if anything, I've erred on the side of being back too much. So in my zeal for openness, participation, and equity, there's also been a little bit of not being present in the shaping or not being as clear as possible about what it is and what it isn't. And I think that has sort of done people a disservice. Because without a little bit of that, we can then get lost in a debate about what it could and should be, rather than being part of something with an intent, and then going out and manifesting that intent together through self management.
So that's one thing I've struggled with - when to be heavy-handed, and when not to. And what is the work of a founder or a creator, in making the initial conditions for success in a self managing system, versus the steady state that comes later? And I think I have misread that in the past. So I've sort of been like, 'Oh, we're there, but we're not quite there'. And, you know, now we're there. Well, we're not quite there in this other area. And so I think I keep waiting for the moment when I can say, like, I'm done, you know, I don't have to be the leader anymore. And now it'll just work. But the reality is that does take some time and some care and some nurturing.
And then, just in general - this idea of leadership. Understanding, in what context someone is a leader, and what it means to have leadership in the system that is emerging all the time. I think that there's still a lot of bias and narratives that we tell ourselves about leadership being a permanent state. And so everybody's like, is this person a leader? Is that person a leader? As opposed to saying, is this person a leader in this situation? And what about in another situation when they're not?
So we've started playing with ideas of thinking about different skill domains, or, you know, spaces of work or even badges. Not as a framework to constrain everybody, but more to just say, here's someone that you could go to on design, here's someone that you could go to on coaching, here's someone that you could reach out to because they have this practice and they have mastery in that space. And so it creates leaderships, rather than this, like, well, this person's been here for five years. So they're the leader so I'll ask them about everything.
There are definitely people who are very 'senior' at The Ready that you should not ask about certain things. And people that are very junior that you should definitely ask about others. So it's also about where they are in their career, senior and junior based on their experience and their journey. So I think that's a hard one to sort of break the habit on.
Beyond that, it's really just about getting what you give. I mean, we have a remote culture. And we've learned a lot that if you don't care for the garden - if everybody just goes back and cooks dishes with vegetables - then you lose something. So there has to be investment. And the investment is easier in person - it's hard to do it remotely. And it's harder to ask for investment when everybody has autonomy and freedom to do what they will, and they have different relationships with the firm. And so I think I've also learned that there are times we need to ask for that - there are times we need to expect to make agreements around it. But we do need to care for this thing, in order for it to stay vibrant.
Lisa Gill: Can you share some examples of practices or ways of caring for the garden that you think might be helpful for listeners facing the same challenge?
Aaron Dignan: Yeah, so one of them is just showing up. So if we have a monthly meeting that we all come to share, and half the people don't come, that has a cost. It's not that anybody's wrong, but we're all punished. Essentially, we all miss something. And if there's a meeting that's not serving us, and we don't redesign it, you know, that has a cost. But redesigning that meeting is not what we're getting paid for, right. We're getting paid to do client work. So it's sort of the shoemaker's kids problem of the work on the organisation and in the organisation has meaning. So, there's that.
There's also mentorship. I mean, in a system where you don't have formal line managers, how do people get counsel? How do they apprentice to different skills and different stories? How do they get feedback? So having a generous feedback culture is an investment that matters. Creating products and services and productizing things is an investment. So, you know, we created these tension and practice cards. But this was the work of like, half a dozen people over two years. I mean, it was incredible lift of effort to make it happen. Now everybody can leverage it. So it's this great commons.
But you know, there are 100 products like that inside The Ready in different stages of development. And if they're not fed, they don't go anywhere. And if you do an incredible workshop, and you never share the agenda with your colleagues - if you never package it, or share the lessons from the conference you went to, then we all miss out. And so I think we're always in this judgement space of - is what I'm doing worth sharing? Is that thing that is in need worth my investment?
There's a little bit of a phenomenon that happens in self managing cultures of waiting for someone else to get to it, right? Because if it isn't a role that we've defined, if it isn't an agreement we've made, but it's needed, you know - if not me, then who? And instead, people are kind of like - oh, I'm sure someone will get to. Or wouldn't it be nice if we hear this a lot? Wouldn't it be great if somebody created a thing that did this? Or did a case study on that? It would be great. But just saying that doesn't make it happen. And because we don't have those traditional structures to force it to happen, there has to be a kind of a conscientiousness.
Lisa Gill: Just for the benefit of the listeners, can you say something about the tensions cards and what those are designed to do?
Aaron Dignan: Yeah, so I have them right here. Actually, these are the mini cards, and they're 78 cards that each contain a tension. So these are the most common tensions that we've seen and heard about in organisations around the world. And there are 78 of them. So it's about the same thickness as a tarot deck - not that it's going to predict your future anything. But it has that feeling in your hand. And then there is another deck of practice cards, which are, you know, things that we can do differently. So, you know, the one that we featured today online was 'stop hiring for culture fit, and start hiring for what's missing from the culture', which is actually something that Adam Grant talks a lot about.
So the idea with the cards was people struggle for both the safety and just the awareness of how to name everything that's going on. And then they also struggle to invent what could be next when they've been inside a traditional system for so long. So you say, what are your tensions? They're like, I'm not really sure how to put my finger on it, maybe because I haven't thought about it that long. Or maybe I don't want to say it. I want to say that gender diversity is not valued - but if I say that out loud, and it's my idea, maybe I'll be punished for that, or there'll be some consequence.
So what the cards do is that we put the tension cards in front of a team at any level, and the cards say it for you. So all you have to do is say, is this true, and it's already there - we have to confront it. So that's been helpful in giving permission and giving language to what's going on. And then the practice side is sort of the same. We don't know what we don't know. And so it's fun - instead of trying to invent work from scratch - to look at 78 practices from firms around the world that have really wrestled with this stuff, and figure out like, what matches with our tensions? What are the things we're willing to try, that have already been somewhat proven? Maybe they won't work for us, we'll find out. But it has been somewhat proven that we can pair with those tensions. And that's the basis of your first experiment.
So a lot of teams that we'll work with - here's a tension, here's a few practices we're willing to consider - now you have everything you need to go do an experiment. Who is will try that? How long will they try it for? How will you know if it worked? And so then the wheels have been put on the bus and we can move. So the cards were one way to get at that. And we have a bunch of other things that we've tried and developed that scratch those same niches. But the cards are great, because they're so portable. And anyone can use them. And they sort of give you enough structure as a team to find your own way. So I'm excited about that. And we've been giving them out and then the large format ones will be selling soon, which will be our first for sale physical product.
Lisa Gill: I really like the tension cards, because I find that people in organisations also sometimes have this sense of something on the tip of their tongue. There's like something that isn't quite right. And it's not until you see the tension card that we're like, oh - that's what it is. It's like, something about the reason our meetings feel so rubbish, or it's something about the dynamic that I couldn't name until they've seen it written down now.
Aaron Dignan: It's also cool to see multiple people pick cards that are very similar but with different languages - which shows our diversity of thought and perspectives. So like, five different people picked something about meetings being bad, but had slightly different takes on it from the deck. And now we can see that we are on the same page - even though maybe we wouldn't have talked about it that way before.
Or sometimes we'll have a large enough group of like, you know, a top 40 leader group or something. We'll have three different subsets of that group, each with their own deck, who do the work and then compare. And the comparison can be so interesting. Because you're like, 'wow, they're seeing the company completely differently than we are'. And what does that tell us about exactly my point about change management, right?
My least favourite thing in the world is we do the analysis and the diagnosis of the company through some big assessment over three months. And then we say, you know, the five biggest challenges are lack of trust, and lack of this lack of that, because those were the average winners. But I love the old joke - Jeff Bezos walks into a bar and the average income is $100 million a year. But that's not true, right? That's not what's really going on in the wild.
So when we choose these average tensions, these average outcomes as our goals for change, we're just whittling off all the rich complexity that's going on. Whereas the cards will show us - this set of leaders thinks it's this, this set of leaders thinks it's that. It's not a competition, they're both right. And so then, how do we deal with that? How do we address the system in its richness? Which I think is fun. The cards just show that for people in a way that - maybe when I'm talking about it just sounds like heavy theory bullshit - but then when they just see it with the cards, they're like, oh, wow, we're living in two different worlds.
Lisa Gill: Yes, totally. What advice, then would you give to people listening who are in an organisation that maybe curious about becoming self managing? Or they are wanting to do things differently in the organisation at whatever level they are in their company? What advice would you give them in terms of starting points, and what sort of pitfalls could they avoid?
Aaron Dignan: There's no way to avoid all the pitfalls. But I think a few things. So one is, don't think about it as binary. So there's a there's a habit in this industry to think about it like you're either teal, or you're not, you're doing holacracy, or you're not, you're in or you're out, we're going to flip it, don't do that. I think you can. There can be moments where you make big changes, right? There's no problem with that at all. I'm a big fan of, you know, open space technology and open space beta and thinking about, like, how much can we do how fast. But this idea that somehow we're going to wake up tomorrow, and it's different, it's just not true. It's going to be and you're actually buying into a pattern of continuous improvement that never ends. And whatever you do first is whatever you do first. So the question would be, what's present for you right now that you can step into and what's the adjacent possible that is just one adjustment away? If we can align on those mindsets, if we can align on a belief in people positivity and complexity consciousness, if we can have a principled take on what work should be, then it's really just about arrangement. At that point, it's really just about, how do we untangle what we've tangled? And how do we find our way to new things, and that's going to be a journey that goes on forever.
So, to me, I would spend time on mindset, I would spend time on theory and discussion of the nature of work and the nature of people, I would try things, start small and learn by doing. So try a new meeting type, try a new way to make a decision, borrow a practice from one of these firms that you're seeing in a very small way and try it in the most tightly constrained place you can. Because you'll learn so much from doing it that you can't learn from discussing. And then when you find things that serve you, of course, scale them - bring them to life.
Start by starting - just do something, start that looping process of going from tension to practice to experiment to learning to what's next. And then look for what's next after that, and keep following the thread. And if you find that you and your team or you and the community is ready to do something big, do something big. But don't do it until the readiness is there, until the understanding is there.
The other trick, which is the opposite advice that I love are these, you know, binary dynamic things. Start by stopping. So instead of starting by adding some new practice or some newfangled policy, or some new people or whatever, what can you take away? Most of bureaucracy is actually things that are in the way, structures, roles, rules that are in the way.
There are things that are holding you back that you could get rid of and not replace. What a powerful experiment that is. So let's not do this stupid meeting, let's not have this policy that doesn't trust people. And then see what fills the space. And if we treat people with trust and respect, and we have transparency, often what fills the space is a fine solution that we didn't have to create. And so I think that that's another place to start, is just start by stopping. It's a great thing to do when you're beginning because you already have all this organisational debt built up. And you can make some space for thinking. And once there is some room for thinking, people will come up with incredible things to do next. But they often can't do that when they're bogged down in, you know, the day-to-day shenanigans. So those are some thoughts, pitfall wise. My biggest problem has been always doing things that are too big too fast without enough testing. So whenever I try to roll something out that is too big, too bold, and untested - I regret it. I'm like, I wish I would have thought harder or done a smaller version of it or tested it or gotten advice or, you know, something else. So I think, make decisions when you have to, and start experiments all the time.