How you scale an organization

I just returned from Black Rock City, NV, better known as Burning Man. Burning Man is an annual event where 70,000 artists, engineers, performers, and makers descend on the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. In one week, they build and inhabit a city made of interactive art. Then they dismantle it and “leave no trace.” They take every bit of refuse home with them, leaving the desert the way they found it.

You know what’s even more amazing? It’s all done by volunteers. Think about that: 70,000 people, paying to attend the event, cooperatively pitching in to build and run a city. (Yes, it’s the size of a city. I once thought it was just called that. Nope. It’s a city.)

Burning Man started as a party with a dozen people on Baker Beach in 1986. As someone who loves growing organizations, it fascinates me. So many organizations struggle with growth. How did Burning Man scale from a beach party to an actual city?

Scale requires different people.

The people you need to run a small organization are different from the people you need to scale. In a small organization, everyone knows everything that’s happening. People can pitch in as needed. They may still have different jobs, but if the situation warrants, you might ask the accounts receivable person to handle a customer service from someone they know. You need generalists.

As the organization grows, jobs shrink. The original crowd at Burning Man handled all aspects of what was, then, basically a camping trip. Each person would be part of choosing where tents would go and how things would run. Generalists make the small event run. 

With a city-sized event, just laying out the street grid requires dozens of people. Each person will spend every day, all day planting flags at the corners of streets that will later guide the city construction. The best people for the job are those who enjoy focusing on this one task, and doing it superbly.

Scale requires uniform processes.

When you’re small, you can get away with everything being ad hoc. If Ozzie Obstacle (the most annoying of your 12-person party) is pitching their tent in the wrong place, you can yell over, “Hey, Oz! Move your tent ten feet to the right!” 

When tens of thousands of people are pitching their tents, you can’t just do everything by the seat of your pants. If you yell “To the right!” while someone yells “To the left!”, poor Oz’s head will explode. And at Burning Man, that could mean literally.

Getting large requires that people be able to coordinate at a distance. Doing the same things, the same way lets people coordinate when the ad hoc approach no longer works.

Scale requires explicit process.

It’s not enough for processes to be uniform. People have to know them, which means they need to be documented and communicated. Sometimes this is done informally, through mentorships or apprenticeships. But often, it’s done via classes, checklists, and explicit instruction. 

With 70,000 people constructing a city, the behind-the-scenes organizations (the Rangers, the Department of Public Works, camp Placement) not only have uniform processes, but they have extensive training and reference resources to teach those processes. They have classes, certifications of skill levels, Wikis, and gatherings to explore and deepen the shared understanding of what gets done and how.

When your organization is successful, you’ll reinvest for growth. But pay attention carefully to the changes that scale requires. You’ll need to change who you hire, how they do their jobs, and how they get trained. It changes the nature of the work, but if done right, you’ll be laying the foundation for great success.

Skype is better, but still problematic

My article on Skype exposing address books to the world has gone mini-viral. Written in 2017, it’s gotten dozens of citations in early 2019. A reporter approached me, asking if the problem still exists. After doing some research, here’s what I’ve found.

Microsoft’s article is incorrect (probably by accident)

Microsoft explains how People You May Know suggestions are generated in this article. At the time of this writing (February 14, 2019), the article is incomplete. The article claims you or the contact must both take action to be visible to each other through People You May Know. For example, you must add each other in your address books. Or you must exchange an invite and acceptance.

Microsoft doesn’t mention the problem case: mutual connections

The problem case exists, but is not listed here: if you have a mutual connection, then you’ll show up in each other’s People You May Know list. The mutual connection is someone who fits the you-both-take-action criteria.

So if Sam is connected to Ash, and Ash is connected to Stacy, then Sam and Stacy will show up in each others’ People You May Know list even though they’ve never taken any action with respect to each other.

Sam and Stacy will see each other without a direct connection

Deleting Still Doesn’t Solve The Problem

I deleted all my contacts. Skype is still suggesting dozens of people. I don’t know any of them. As mentioned on Microsoft’s list above, Skype remembered my past connections and is still suggesting their people to me. I don’t know any of these suggested people, but now I know one of my prior contacts knows them.

This no longer works for strangers, thank goodness

When I first found this issue (Dec 2017), I created a new test account. Browsing a stranger’s profile was enough to get suggestions of people with the same last name who looked the same (presumably family members). As of today (Feb 2019), it seems like Microsoft has reined this in a bit … from my very brief testing, it seems you need a common contact to start the suggestion engine.

I still consider this a security problem, though not as bad as it was before.

You can only figure out the contacts of someone you are or have been connected with. You can’t do it to a complete stranger, you need to have one contact—invite, connection, or chat—with them first. This isn’t as big a hurdle as you might think.

Journalists still shouldn’t use Skype

Journalists beware! If you’re a journalist, using Skype can compromise your sources. JournalistChris interviews source LittleSnitch on Skype. If JournalistChris later interviews source MafiaDon, MafiaDon will have LittleSnitch suggested as a contact. After all, they both have you as a mutual contact. If MafiaDon knows about this bug, then MafiaDon may agree to Skype with you precisely to see if LittleSnitch then shows up on MafiaDon’s People You May Know list. You really don’t want MafiaDon knowing you’ve been talking with LittleSnitch.

Even with strangers, you can get some information. When you browse random profiles, Skype will tell you how many mutual contacts you have. If you only have a few contacts in Skype, you can guess with some certainty who the mutual contact is.

if MafiaDon did your interview and then immediately looked up LittleSnitch‘s profile, MafiaDon would see that they have one mutual connection—you. That might be enough to tip off MafiaDon that LittleSnitch has been talking to the press.

Lawyers and Consultants, you beware too

The problem I outline for consultants and lawyers in my article remains. If you’re BankruptcyLawyer and you chat with MicrosoftCEO, then later chat with LogitechCEO, LogitechCEO will start seeing MicrosoftCEO as a suggested contact. LogitechCEO might even Skype with you deliberately to see who else gets suggested after the chat.

Indeed, you can imagine someone doing this very deliberately. If EvilBoy seriously wants to do research they could do this:

  1. EvilBoy creates a new skype account, live:innocent_journalist2
  2. EvilBoy approaches BankruptcyLawyer and says “I’m a journalist. I wish to interview you for an article. Connect to me on Skype as live:innocent_journalist2
  3. EvilBoy interviews BankruptcyLawyer
  4. Because BankruptcyLawyer is now the only contact in the live:innocent_journalist2 account, the People You May Know will suggest BankruptcyLawyer’s contacts to EvilBoy
  5. Furthermore, EvilBoy can now look up anyone’s profile on Skype and see if they have a mutual contact. If so, they know that person is in BankruptcyLawyer’s addressbook

This requires a concerted effort on the part of EvilBoy, and it also requires that BankruptcyLawyer add EvilBoy as a contact, accept a connection request from EvilBoy, or chat with EvilBoy at least once.

This Can Still Be Awkward Personally

This is still a problem. Let’s say Ashley uses Skype to meet people for online dating. Ashley might answer personal ads and chat with Syd and Alex. Ashley probably doesn’t want Syd and Alex to start showing up in each other’s contact lists. That could be awkward, especially if one (or both) of the relationships goes farther than a Skype chat. It seems like the privacy problems here are pretty evident.

In summary: the hurdle has risen since I wrote that article. Instead of being able to reverse engineer a stranger’s address book, you can only reverse engineer someone you’re connected to or have chatted with. Once. EvilBoy can still use Skype to work mischief, but now it takes a bit more work. For some people, this may still be too much of a privacy breach from a product that was founded on the premise of confidentiality.


Want effective communication? Drive with their agenda!

Persuasion, influence, or even simple education about a topic is central to most of the communication we send out. But readers today have too much to read and very little attention to spare. If you want to be heard, you need to hook them immediately with something they care about.

This arrived in my LinkedIn inbox today:

Hi! I don’t know you. We’ve never met. But I have a product or service I’d really like you to buy it. So let’s schedule a meeting in your busy schedule where I can convince you to buy my thing. Signed, your new LinkedIn contact.

Wow. Really? I’m impressed. I’m just falling all over myself to cancel the coaching meeting I have scheduled with the CEO of a Fortune 500 company so we can chat about the product you want to sell me. … NOT!

Drive a cold contact from their perspective

If you have a real area of expertise, and you’re attempting to foist it on, er, I mean, share it with someone, temper your sales eagerness by approaching the sale from your customers’ vantage point.

Make an impression on a sales prospect by learning a little about them: Take 2 minutes: visit their website so you know what they do. Read their LinkedIn profile and check out their interests and expertise, so you know where they put their time and attention. Then imagine what problem they might have. If you see someone is interested in “high performing organizations” and has expertise in “leading others,” the problem they might have is in influencing people in parts of the organization where they don’t work.

When you want to pitch them, start from their point of view: from the problem you believe they have. “Hi! You don’t know me, but you may be having trouble leading people beyond your immediate sphere. I’ve helped a lot of people lead from a distance using a variety of technological and in-person solutions. If you’d like a free consultation, let’s talk. Otherwise may I check back in six months?”

If you are selling a high-ticket item, you might even want ask them what problems they’re dealing with. “Hi! You don’t know me, but I work with leaders who are building high-performing organizations and need to lead people at a distance. If you have problems with that, would you mind taking 15 minutes to tell me about it, and I’ll offer any insight into solutions that might work for you?”

This approach is absolutely, utterly, completely not guaranteed to work. But it’s a lot better than reaching out one-on-one to someone with a message that’s all about your needs, rather than theirs.

 

Compromise is the Doorway to Opportunity

My coaching client Cyd wanted to change jobs. Cyd’s work was OK, but not really inspiring. The pay was OK, but not really inspiring. The people? Ok, but not really inspiring. The big benefit of the job, however, is that it was a ten-minute drive from home. Cyd has children and feels very strongly about being close to home.

Cyd crafted a resume, created a LinkedIn profile, and started looking for jobs in nearby neighborhoods. Soon, discreet job inquiries also began flowing in through friends and past colleagues. One especially attractive one offered a 20% higher salary and flex time to work from home. It was also 30 minutes away.

But for Cyd, the tradeoff was worth it. Right before signing on the dotted line, I cried “Stop!” Stop? Why? Because Cyd had compromised, and compromise opens up new opportunities.

Compromise Highlights Flexibility

When starting the job hunt, “10 minutes or closer” seemed like an absolute limit. But when the offers started coming in, Cyd discovered that mountains of cash and work-from-home flex time made the 10-minute drive less important.

This often happens when making decisions. We seek out options that fit what we think we want. Then we get an option that we find acceptable, even though it violates one or more of our guidelines. In that moment, the compromise we’re willing to make opens up new possibilities. Rather than just accept the compromise, scan the landscape using the new criteria. Look for other options that might have initially been overlooked.

Cyd now knows that a higher salary and the ability to work from home can make commute time less important. It’s time for another trip to the job boards and listings, this time to search for opportunities more than 10 minutes away. The caveat is that those jobs must pay a lot more, or have much more flexible work arrangements. Cyd settled on a job 20 minutes away, with 2 days a week of working from home, and a 10%-higher base salary.

Let Compromise Widen Your World

When you’re making a decision, train yourself to pause before you finalize your decision. Review the compromises you’ve made along the way. Then pretend you’d made those compromises from the very beginning, and find out if that changes your approach.

If you end up willing to pay a particular vendor a 30% premium for on-time deliver, stop. Ask yourself which other vendors you could hire for 30% more than you originally expected to spend. You might discover there are vendors who have higher base costs, but a lower premium for on-time deliver, resulting in lower overall costs.

Compromise may be necessary to get a deal done, but it should never be the final step. Compromise tells you where you’re flexible in your criteria, and you can then use that flexibility to uncover new options you would never otherwise consider.

Firing Up Organizations in Tough Times


 
QuestionThings are very tight right now. Our outlook is uncertain and people are afraid for their jobs. Under these circumstances I’d expect people to get more done, but somehow, we aren’t more productive than before. Any hints?


 
Answer
It’s funny, being a human being. You would think that when the pressure is on, we would flip into resourceful, productive mindsets and valiantly overcome whatever obstacles block the path to our goals. Alas, it doesn’t happen that way. When we feel scared and uncertain, our forebrain shuts down and our hindbrain screams, “Run!” That worked great when spotting the saber-tooth tiger grinning at us through the grass. But in the modern world, that’s often the opposite of what we need to do to survive.

Fear motivates immediacy


Creating urgency is a first step in mobilizing organizations. But an important truth about humans is that urgency easily slips into fear. Fear mobilizes, and it mobilizes away from the perceived danger. Which way is “away from?” Whichever direction someone is pointed when that hindbrain screams “Run!” Everyone around will also move quickly—in whatever direction they happen to be facing. Fear gets people moving now, but it won’t move them in the same direction.

Fear does more harm than just scatter effort; it produces stress. Under stress, creativity vanishes, problem-solving abilities diminish, and people stop learning. They react from impulse, they don’t think through consequences of their actions, and they become less able to spot patterns and interconnections. This is fine for a five-minute burst of jungle adrenaline, but it won’t lead to a workforce that can navigate a tricky economy.

Any workforce living in stress will have problems over the long term. When morale is bad for months at a time, people disengage. They stop thinking about taking the company to new heights and start groaning when the alarm clock goes off—and groans rarely bring out peak performance.

Leadership motivates coordinated action


Fear’s companion is, oddly, leadership. Fear motivates people strongly, but in random directions. Leadership aligns them in the same direction. Call it what you will: inspiration, vision, mission—setting direction gives people something to move towards. By sharing a vision, everyone in an organization can orient themselves around the same set of high-level goals.

Working towards a larger purpose also mobilizes people, but it mobilizes them in a way that unlocks their creativity, problem-solving, and resourceful mental states. When working towards a large goal they perceive as achievable but challenging, people create eustress, a positive stress that gives them the energy and resources to make progress on the goal.

It’s a big improvement when everyone is moving in the same direction, but one more piece is needed: coordination. The balance between good stress and bad stress is delicate. Once people agree on a goal and are psyched to go there, coordination becomes ever more important. If two groups become blocked by a lack of coordination, bad stress can re-emerge and begin shutting down morale again. So once people are mobilized, the ongoing challenge is making sure they’re supporting each other, and not getting in each other’s way.

Reconnect leadership at the top


The first step to getting the work force back into a powerful, productive mental state is to start with yourself. You’ve probably got the “Run!” response down cold. Now it’s time to reconnect with your “towards” vision. People take emotional cues from their leaders, and if you’ve been stressed about the economy, you’ll be radiating it throughout your organization, so get yourself and your leadership team into a powerful, positive place.

Leave the daily triggers that pull you back into stress. Turn on the voicemail, turn off the e-mail, smash the cell phone, and head off for a weekend in a mountain cabin. Get enough sleep, enough food, and enough physical relaxation so your brain starts working again. Reconnect to your vision. Write, daydream, and brainstorm where you want your group in five years, a year, six months, and three months. Factor in your personal goals as well so you really tap your own intrinsic motivation.

You’ll know you’ve done enough when you feel a strong pull towards your goals. Uncertainty about the economy may still be in the background, but once you’ve regained your equilibrium, you will also feel a strong sense of where you’re going.

Spread that feeling to the rest of your leadership team. Invite them for an off-site, and together, clarify the vision of where you’re headed until it’s at least as clear as perceptions about current problems. Take the time to make sure everyone understands the direction. Bring in their goals, wishes, and aspirations for the organization. While you work, watch their faces. Notice the energy level. When they start getting excited, you’ve tapped their motivation and gotten them back on a powerful path.

Back to the business, decrease stress


Once you return to daily business, you’ll have to decrease stress as you align people. Stress from specific causes (“My kids are sick.”) can be addressed on an ad hoc basis. Stress from vague sources like “the economy” is general anxiety. Often, you can help people by just letting people talk. Listen empathetically and don’t rush into solving or analyzing problems (for most of us type-As, this is much, much harder than it sounds). Feeling listened to can be enough to help someone regain equilibrium.

If the anxiety is about Things We Don’t Really Like to Talk About—like the fear of layoffs—talking can help defuse them. There’s no better way to nurture a fear than to let it remain the stuff of speculation. When left to their imaginations, people deal with uncertainty by imagining the worst and then reacting as if it had already happened. Truth is a great antidote for uncertainty. It is, after all, a form of certainty. Discuss what’s happening, even if all you can say is, “No one knows what will happen, but we’ll keep forging ahead toward our goals.”

Oh, yes. Keeping people healthy is also essential to soothing their nerves. Make sure people are sleeping enough. Sixteen-hour days are probably as productive as ten-hour days with enough sleep and an after-work life. Unless you run an assembly line, productivity is probably tied only loosely—if at all—to hours worked (but that’s another column).

Connect people to forward motivation


As you decrease stress, have the leadership team bring the sense of direction into all interactions. Remind people about the direction. Rally them. Excite them. But don’t overdo it; this isn’t about creating a huge one-time pep rally high. You’re setting a direction for the organization that you want to pervade decision making and keep people steady over the long term.

You build the strongest connections when decisions are made. Have your teams ask continually, “Will this decision move us further in the direction we wish to go?” Once everyone unifies around this question, coordination becomes possible and it will be much easier for people to move forward, which is what productivity is all about.

Your job becomes keeping your leadership team tied to the company vision, and helping them propagate the vision to their teams in turn. People are more productive when they know where they’re going and feel like they stand a chance of getting there. By reducing their stress and fear, addressing their uncertainty, and linking everyday activities to a future direction, people will be able to concentrate on producing results, rather than just running in circles from their anxiety’s imaginary monsters.

Stever Robbins is President of Leadership Decisionworks, a leadership consulting, speaking, and facilitation firm. His work is featured on LeadershipDecisionworks.com and VentureCoach.com.

Organizational Learning is No Accident


 
QuestionWhy do companies fail to learn from their mistakes?


 
Answer

With so much riding on success, you would think that companies would be better at learning. Amazingly, it seems as if they fight tooth and nail against learning, often with disastrous results. The reasons, however, make a lot of sense. And once you understand the reasons, you just might be able to make a difference. If not, at least you can feel self-righteous when the insanity starts.

Few of us think much about learning when not in school or in a training environment. But learning doesn’t just happen; it takes reflection and thought. Reflection time used to be built into the world. It took three weeks for a head-office communication to arrive via Pony Express, allowing ample time to ponder and rethink decisions. Now we have overnight letters, junk mail, e-mail, voice mail, fax, cell phones, 30-second-delayed stock quotes, and the expectation that responding immediately is far more important than responding thoughtfully.

Organizations rarely build in time to do thoughtful learning, and when they do, that time is the first to go when emergencies beckon. When we built the original Quicken VISA card, we scheduled a learning debrief and documentation time. But long before the project’s end, other demands squeezed all the slack out of the schedule. The learning review was the first to go. If you don’t do it deliberately, learning won’t happen.

Implementing insights from a learning review is tough. Learning means behavior change. Organizationally, behavior change is daunting.

Think about what organizational change is: It’s changing structure and processes. At the very least, a lot of people must change how they work. Responsibilities, roles, and reporting relationships change. And that’s just in the easy case; learning that your phone system is the bottleneck in your customer service department may demand reworking physical plant and equipment in several locations. Getting the affected people together to coordinate can take weeks. Then new systems must be designed, built, and documented, and everyone must be taught how their jobs have changed. Then there’s still a learning curve for the new procedures. People get up to speed at the new ways of doing things, and only then has the business “learned.” And, oh yes, this all happens in spare time, because the normal workload is still present and has to be carried for the business to survive.

Part of changing the systems and structure is changing the people. A reorg can be done on paper in an afternoon. But changing just one person is hard, even when he or she understands the need for change (Yes, my doctor said to lower my intake of saturated fats, but those cookies at lunch yesterday were so good I just had to eat … six … of them). Ultimately, organizational learning is doomed to failure unless people can learn.

For starters, a lot of learning breaks down because it’s never communicated. Telling someone “Now you report to Sally and your department is no longer sales, it’s account relationships.” still leaves them to figure out how their day-to-day job has changed. They weren’t necessarily privy to the learning discussions, and can’t do anything meaningful without more information about the changes and the context.

Context answers the question “Why is this happening?” It’s especially important when motivating people. People like things to stay the same. But when we find out why the request was made, it suddenly makes sense. Without knowing the “Why?” most change just makes life difficult with no obvious payoff … thus, resistance.

Even if people understand the changes, they may not have the skills for the new job. When Microsoft learned that security matters to customers, Bill Gates proclaimed that all programmers would spend two months just fixing security problems. A great goal, to be sure, but the programmers had spent their careers building systems without regard to security. How can we expect them to suddenly develop the expertise to find—much less fix—any but the simplest security flaws?

And as with any change effort, Microsoft is starting with workers who uniformly lack the skills being developed. Over time, organizational priorities shape the work force. Security-conscious engineers never had a chance to develop their skills at Microsoft, so if they really cared they left years ago for companies more aligned with their style. Those who stayed are the ones who thrive in the “get it out the door and capture the market” mentality. So the change is starting with the employees least likely to intuit how the changes should happen.

Money can come to the rescue by training people. For a simple skill, it can be quick and easy. But training for large skills must be developed, delivered, and practiced. No matter how much we “thrive on chaos” and jump “into the vortex,” new habits take time to develop. Humans only change at a certain rate and we’ve never figured out how to speed that up. The world may change faster than ever, but people just don’t.

The ones who most need to change, however, are the managers. As the organization reshapes itself, resources will shift. That means money and people. Budgets will get slashed. Empires will topple. Even if everyone else is willing, one recalcitrant manager with the right budget authority can halt a learning effort in its tracks. Managers must let go and support the learning for it to happen. Being human, they can have as much difficulty changing their behavior as everyone else.

By now, I’ve probably convinced you that organizational learning is hopeless. But take heart: now that you know why learning is hard, you can deliberately make it easier.

Organizational learning isn’t easy. There’s no perfect solution. Despite the many reasons why learning is hard for individuals and even harder for organizations, it’s just a behavior that can become a habit. Develop the learning habit. Practice moving learning into individual action. Help people change and grow. Over time, the very forces that make change hard will come to your aid: those who don’t like learning will gradually leave, and you’ll attract a culture of people committed to learning. Even when an organization fights it, strong, dedicated action can at least produce pockets of smart business savvy.