Responsive – First Chapter and a Taste of Things to Come

How To Use This Book

My career path has never followed a traditional route. My first job out of college was as a management consultant, with a gig as a circus performer nights and weekends. Of course, I couldn’t tell the consulting company that I was in the circus, but I also couldn’t admit to my fellow circus artists that I wore a suit to work. I am not content to live in such a binary world. I want to live in a world that encourages the full expression of every individual, and I am dedicated to building it. Improving the ways we work seems like a great place to start.

Responsive is a compilation of tactics and accompanying short stories about innovators on the front lines of the future of work. It is designed to be a choose-your-own-adventure exploration into how we work in the modern era, the approaches and perspectives employed by high performing organizations, and what makes those methods so effective.

While this book can be read cover to cover, I have designed it so that you can jump to those sections most interesting or relevant to you right now. Ultimately Responsive is intended as a reference guide as much as a road map—a resource you can return to again and again as you dive deeper into Responsive and the future of work.

Some operating principles for the Responsive organization

…as the pace of change accelerates, the challenges we face are becoming less and less predictable. Those practices that were so successful in the past are counter-productive in less predictable environments. In contrast, Responsive Organizations are designed to thrive in less predictable environments…

— Responsive Org Manifesto

The world is changing more rapidly than we have ever seen before in human history. According to 2012 estimates, members of the S&P 500 were expected on average to remain in the index for only eighteen years, compared to the sixty-one years they might have expected in 1958. The anticipated lifespan of companies has dropped dramatically over the last few decades.

We also see this in the rise of the ridesharing industry—Lyft and Uber, among others—which was enabled by the proliferation of smartphones. This new industry seized a large part of the taxi market, which previously had been considered stable, if not untouchable. Similarly, the rise of home sharing—and most notably, AirBNB—was made possible by the hyper-connectivity of the Internet Age, and disrupted the traditional hotel industry.

Another example of the changing nature of the business landscape is the 2017 acquisition of Whole Foods by The day the acquisition was announced, Whole Foods stock rocketed almost 30%, while the value of competitors in the grocery business dropped precipitously. The presumption, it seems, is that disruption of the grocery industry is now inevitable.

There’s a broad lesson in the emergence of ride sharing, home sharing, and the Whole Foods acquisition—which is that any organization or industry is liable to be shaken up at any moment. The goal of every company in the 21st century should be to become resilient, flexible, and have the capacity to respond to inevitable change. Industries, today, can change with unprecedented speed.

The Will to Change

Desire is the first, and probably most important, element needed for organizations and individuals to change. An organizational leader interested in changing their company will face a myriad of questions and decisions about how to initiate that change, but without first establishing the willingness to change across the organization, any future implementation will hit roadblocks.

Each organization will differ in how pervasively they want to introduce Responsive principles—and that’s okay! It may not make sense to implement every facet of Responsive into your organization. As we’ll discuss in the pages to come, incremental changes can lead to big impacts, while still keeping employees and customers on board. Adapting your Responsive approach to fit the needs of your organization is essential. To quote former president Barack Obama, “Change is never easy, but always possible.”

Adapt to the Needs of Your Organization

One of the most exciting and intriguing challenges presented by work in the 21st century is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The key is to focus on the specific needs and the ecosystem within and around your organization.

What environment does your company operate within?
What factors are changing that have the most significant impact?
What aspects of your organization are most ripe for disruption?

We’ll explore all of these questions and many more as we make our way through a variety of stories and examples of organizations implementing new and different ways of working.

Rethink Technology

While technology isn’t the specific focus of this book, it is woven throughout. The ability to communicate near-instantaneously across the globe enables collaboration and remote work in unprecedented ways. As we consider how we organize and work together in the modern world, we can’t overlook the influence of technology.

Change Structures as Needed—Even When it’s Hard

We’ll hear more about General Stanley McChrystal and his aide de camp Chris Fussell (Chapter 4, How We Organize), who together implemented what has come to be called a “team of teams” approach to military strategy during the Iraq War. This approach was counter-cultural to the command and control operations of the U.S. military at the time. But as Chris describes in his book One Mission: How Leaders Build a Team of Teams, they were trying to defeat a 21st-century threat with a 20th-century playbook. Al Qaeda terrorists were spreading propaganda using YouTube and formulating plans via Internet forums, which translated into quick action. Meanwhile, the U.S. military was hobbled by its traditional command and control decision-making processes.

It took a complete rethinking of how the Navy SEALs structured their decision-making to devise a new hybrid hierarchy/network model. This model empowered the people closest to the action to make the moment-by-moment decisions necessary to meet the challenges of a new and agile enemy.

Responsive doesn’t argue that change is easy, only that it can offer benefits while addressing the limitations of previous systems.

Tackle the Gaps of Legacy Practices

We’ll also get to know Adam Pisoni (Chapter 4, How We Organize, and Chapter 9, Inclusion and Diversity), who co-founded Yammer, the Responsive Org movement, and is now founder and CEO of the education company Abl Schools. Abl Schools is changing how principals and administrators relate to their teachers and allocate resources. The idea is to help schools better manage their day-to-day operations to be able to achieve their educational goals.

The education system in North America is still reliant on an assembly-model way of teaching and thinking. Consider the structure of most schools: there are grades, segregated by age; there are alarm bells which tell students when to move from one classroom to the next, and the most common form of learning is to sit passively and absorb lectured lessons.

More subtly, subjects get taught according to a linear progression. Math education in the United States, for example, moves from algebra to geometry, to advanced algebra, to precalculus, to calculus. This sequence trains students to think about math in a way that only entrenches a hierarchical, linear view of how the world works. Simply put, schools in the 21st century are still designed to produce people to work in factories.

Exciting possibilities emerge when we reinvent behemoth institutions like the U.S. education system by experimenting with new approaches that leverage technology and use innovative models of collaborating. What is necessary is the willingness to experiment.

Plan for Incremental Change

It is more efficient to navigate organizational change by utilizing small, systematic adjustments than by making large, dramatic changes. Consider a ship plotting its course. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to navigate by charting a path and then checking for accuracy several days, or even months, later. Most likely the ship will end up far off course. It is more effective to estimate the desired direction and then make incremental adjustments along the way.

As Steve Hopkins, co-founder of Responsive Org and VP of Customer Success at Culture Amp, notes, organizational design “happens in the millions of micro-decisions that people make.” Several stories in this book highlight how navigating by incremental changes can be highly effective. Small actions may feel ineffectual, but those steps can add up to a marked change in culture and operations.

Focus on People

One of the most exciting developments in forward-thinking companies is an emphasis on people—that is, the human experience of work. Humans are no longer seen as cogs in the machine of business. Some of this is due to shifts in bargaining leverage: it is easier than ever for employees to change jobs or create enterprises of their own. Younger generations just now entering the workforce expect positive work environments and purpose-driven companies. Organizations themselves recognize that their success increasingly calls for creating cultures and environments where their employees love to work.

As I’ll describe in later chapters, Adam Pisoni is emphasizing an inclusive company culture through his efforts to build a diverse team at Abl Schools. At Culture Amp, Didier Elzinga is relinquishing traditional assumptions about compensation to improve his company Culture Amp. And the founders of Buffer are embracing salary transparency to ensure equal treatment of its employees.

I can’t wait for you to read Responsivewhich comes out on Monday.

I hope you’ll join us for the launch party and a Responsive Salon with Adam Pisoni, 7pm on November 20th at Robin’s Cafe in San Francisco.

I have lots of exciting things planned in the months and weeks ahead, so stay tuned.

Most of all, though, thank you! I would never have published this book without the support of you – my readers and listeners.