Notes from @adaslist @undercurrent evening with @lucyblair @clayparkerjones @merici @ideo

Clay, Lucy and Merici at the Ada's List-Undercurrent discussion on responsive organisations
Clay, Lucy and Merici at the Ada’s List-Undercurrent discussion on responsive organisations

This evening Ada’s List got together with Undercurrent, visiting from New York, to stage a conversation about future-facing organisations. I will probably sound biased but whether or not I was part of the organizing team, it was one of the most inspiring evenings I have been to in a while. I have long paid attention to Undercurrent’s work in re-defining what businesses are and should be paying attention to in the digital age. But beyond this, I am also fascinated by how they have been using Holacracy and other tools to create an organization that is truly of the 21st century in the way precious few are today, as one of the attendees said.

On the responsive OS

Clay Parker Jones began by speaking about the responsive organization (well worth subscribing to their blog on the subject). Businesses today in any industry have more or less similar concerns and problems as their competitors, so it is important to think about how they can distinguish themselves in a fairly uniform scenario. All supermarkets have similar challenges for example, whether it’s Walmart,  Wegman’s, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose or Reliance Fresh. OK, so different market factors in each part of the world will push and pull those in the same market in slightly different ways, but by and large, supermarkets all struggle with standard things like selling more product, proving they care for the environment, making sure they take care of their employees and customers and so on.  So how do they equip themselves with competitive advantage? By thinking unlike a supermarket, and paying attention to market shifting opportunities the way Uber or Airbnb did.

On inclusion health

The second thing, mentioned by Lucy Chung, also a Partner at Undercurrent, was how they pay attention to ‘inclusion health’ or how their work environment values diverse individuals and gives them an opportunity to thrive. Not only does this just make sense from a culture perspective, it makes them more valuable to clients by walking the talk of a responsive, open company themselves. This attention to the company’s culture is greatly aided by Holacracy, a platform which, for those not familiar with it, is about distributed teams that are given complete autonomy within each small group. Individuals from different business disciplines come together to work on issues concerning the business, such as, for example, talent acquisition, clients, reputation and so on. Make no mistake – this isn’t something that is easy for just anyone to do – it is extremely unlikely, as Clay said, that an organization bigger than 500 employees will be able to practice this right off the bat in a meaningful way. This is because in traditional companies, managers have been trained to think and act a certain way over many years, a mindset that is extremely difficult to get rid of in favour of a fairly new and very flexible way of work.

On recruitment and ‘fit vs. add’

This led to a discussion on recruitment and how to hire the right kind of people. Lucy mentioned how they follow a 7-day hiring policy: they meet a candidate on Day 1, and progress them through meetings with other team members, at the end of which on Day 7 a definitive decision has to be made. A match in values is a key part of this. The host for the evening, Sue Siddall from Ideo, mentioned how they’ve moved from talking about ‘cultural fit’ to asking what ‘cultural add’ a potential employee would bring to the team. Audience members piped up with a viewpoint from the other side; that HR people in today’s big corporates have no idea what a good candidate is because they go purely by job spec and box-ticking, that’s what they are trained to do. Someone mentioned how long interview processes would result in getting ‘privileged candidates’ who could afford the luxury of multiple meetings for free, and how one approach was potentially paying people to be interviewed. Lucy said that that was exactly what they did by bringing in freelancers for paid work to assess fit for a permanent role.

Back to the responsive OS

The discussion then moved back to how Undercurrent works in a responsive way, paying attention to 6 key tenets:

–       decentralizing activity, rather than concentrating decisions in the hands of a few (autonomous teams do not need to wait for management approval to do something as long as the whole team is in)

–       simplifying work, as opposed to making it complex

–       pushing for transparency, by allowing anyone to sit in on team meetings

–       generating variety, to avoid stagnation and uniformity of thinking

–       encouraging divergent thinking, rather than convergent

–       replicating what works

The acronym they used, which they admitted was a work in progress, was ‘SLAM’: Self-organising, Lean, Autonomous, Multi-disciplinary.

On salary negotiation

Negotiation of salary was something a lot of people were naturally interested in. It’s been mentioned time and time again that women are bad negotiators and in general men are paid more for doing the same level of work. Undercurrent are working to eliminate this imbalance through a quarterly salary review process that involves each team member working through objectives and key results that they set with their mentor (who they pick) and getting some form of a salary increase commensurate with what they’ve achieved every single time. I loved what Lucy and Clay said: “we assume that the more you stay at UC, the better you’re getting – or else why are you still here?”. Pretty enlightened way of thinking I wish more companies took on board. This also helps to make sure that it isn’t only men who get the raises, just because they’re more likely to ask as a rule.

Women and diversity

The group also discussed how businesses needed to hire more women, especially at senior levels. An Ada’s Lister who said that her company had achieved the rare goal of having more women than men even at a senior level asked how they could move the discussion on from there. In response was another nice viewpoint: that all of us owe it to each other to look at how other types of diversity can be addressed so that at some point it becomes normal for everyone. Sue (Ideo) added another point of view: when they talked about maternity policies, they realized that they needed to also think of people who had other pressing life issues, such as having to care for elderly family.

Work-life blend

‘Blend’ is the term UC prefer using to ‘balance’, but as Ada’s Lister Suki Fuller said, it’s all just life, there is no such thing as ‘work-life balance’, something I’ve heard pop up in a few places over the last couple of months. Another question was about how to encourage employees to pursue projects outside of work such that they stayed engaged with the company. Lucy mentioned some ways they do it at Undercurrent: investing in such side projects for one, or even, where it’s requested, allowing people to take a sabbatical to work on their project and then return.

Network reach vs. size

The reach of the network as opposed to just the size of the organization was something else Clay mentioned that stayed with me. Undercurrent have alumni, friends, partners and collaborators all over the world who they tap into for thoughts and ideas, which allows them to scale and be much more responsive than if they kept their ideas just to themselves; the point being that being a large organization isn’t much use today if you limit what you do with the resources you have.

There was a lot more food for thought over the span of close to two hours. It’s clear that this way of operating a business isn’t going to be common soon, but I really really hope it does. Also, it’s worth re-reading Undercurrent’s Responsive OS thinking and actions from the recent past: this post by Lucy, this one from Clay, and this one from Mike Arauz, as well as going through these short presentations:

A huge thanks to Clay and Lucy for opening up the UC world to us on this side of the pond. At Ada’s List we’re pretty sure there’ll be more to come out of it, so we’ll stay tuned.

Here’s a Storify of the event too.


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