Rodney Evans on Brave Ways to Reinvent Organizations
September 23, 2021
Rodney Evans is a partner at The Ready, the podcast host of Brave New Work, a pioneer in adaptive organization design and has 20 years of experience in all things transformation.

She has researched, developed and taught new ways of working in dozens of complex environments for companies of every shape and size, including Airbnb, GE, Macy's, Intuit and J&J. In this interview, Rodney talks about brave new work that can help you reinvent your organization.

When people aren't happy, and companies aren't performing the way they used to, or maybe want to - what is typically the problem?

We assert that bureaucracy is primarily getting in the way. Bureaucracy is a fun buzzword to talk about but it has a lot of legacy in terms of how we operate. One of the most pernicious aspects of bureaucracy that we get into is what we call organizational debt. Effectively, organizational debt consists of the policies, the practices, the roles, the ways of working and doing that no longer serve us but that we continue to operate within.

We tend to think about organizational debt in terms of very big and antiquated systems, but it can also live in startup culture. Why is that?

Think about basic human needs at work, which are the same as basic human needs anywhere else. If you understand a little bit about motivational theory, you know that human beings need autonomy, connection or community and, psychological and physical safety. These are very basic needs. And when we don't have one of those needs met at work, we tend to start behaving in ways that don't serve anyone.

So on one side of the organization cycle, we have more bureaucratic outcomes. Imagine I'm a leader and there's not a lot of trust or connection between my team and me. I am likely to get a little demanding and controlling. Maybe I put a process in place where I do more approval and checking. This leads to a permission culture where my team can't do anything without me. So they sit there and wait for instructions or wait to ask for permission to do things. Over time, that creates apathy and stuckness at scale. The trappings of traditional systems cost us a ton of money and doesn't serve us well.

On the other side, we see something that is more often seen in startups but can also exist inside bureaucracies, in pockets. Say Sam is a leader who founded something because she didn't want to work in a big, structured hierarchical place anymore. In her new place, everyone will have autonomy, and everyone will fulfill their purpose etc etc. Then maybe she finds out that as a founder, she has some unmet need for her own autonomy. The team is asking her to write things down, make processes and be consistent. She starts to avoid those constraints so her team tries to influence her towards their agenda. That's also really inefficient and it creates a big dependency on Sam as a leader.

Think about basic human needs at work, which are the same as basic human needs anywhere else. If you understand a little bit about motivational theory, you know that human beings need autonomy, connection or community, psychological and physical safety.

How do we define our principle around purpose?

Purpose lives. It is intended to influence the decisions we make day-to-day. Maybe we have a practice where we ask ourselves a climate review question about our purpose every week. Maybe we have a practice where we retrospect against our purpose once a quarter, and either the purpose or the priorities to ensure they're in a feedback loop with each other. Maybe once a year, we throw it out, and generate a new one. One of my favorite things to do in a group is to generate 20 new purpose statements and then narrow them down to get to a good version. These are all ideas to help us keep our purpose central in our decision-making.

Talk to us a bit about authority.

What I hear a lot from leaders is ‘I've hired all these brilliant people and I pay them a ton of money. I want them to make decisions. I want to empower them.’

If authority were perfect, people would be able to make decisions that impact their work, decisions close to where the customer is. But when we ask the leader about their practices around decision-making, they usually lack clarity on which decisions are suitable for each role. If I'm your direct report, do I know how much I can spend, when I can hire, what my budget is? Often, there is ambiguity when you don't know if you can make the final call. If the boss didn't come to work, could the team member still do the thing?

Taking the time to do some ‘decision rights work’ related to roles helps with that. An exhaustive inventory of every possible decision is unnecessary, but being able to have answers around which decisions teams can make, even in your absence is an outstanding practice that really empowers.

Taking authority, responsibility, and agency can feel a bit scary, especially in systems where we're socialized to think in a hierarchy. How can organizations overcome this?

When we start working on transformation of this kind, we often hear in big companies that they've tried self-management, a flat structure, holacracy, and it didn't work. I'm always listening for that and respond with, let's be thoughtful about not governing from one bad experience. But it is a tricky thing. And that's the human condition. We want to design organizations that are people positive and complexity conscious.

So when you're thinking about your principles and practices in that operating system, are you assuming that basically, people can adapt, people can change and that people are generally inclined to contribute and derive meaning from their work? If you're not, this is probably not the right talk for you. Are you complexity conscious? Or are you creating a complicated solution for a complex problem?

How do you create a consistent and clear environment around authority when people have different business maturity, and therefore a lack of trust exists?

I often say the goal over time is for people to have a lot of agency over their work. The shorthand to that is, the person doing the work should be close to the person impacted by the work and make related decisions.

That's where we're headed. We don't have to get there all at once. So when we have guardrails around decision rights or decision making, it is okay if those guardrails are tighter earlier on and get expanded over time. I have been in a leadership role where I was hiring people who were right out of school and very inexperienced. I trusted their hearts and minds, but they didn't have the experience to make sense of the broad context. So we kept the guardrails a little tighter around what they could spend and who they could hire. But the idea is that we are continuing to push ourselves to give more authority to the people who need it over time.

It doesn't have to be one size fits all. It doesn't have to be everybody decides everything day one. Just like anything else, it can be a living, breathing process.

I often say the goal over time is for people to have a lot of agency over their work. The shorthand to that is, the person doing the work should be close to the person impacted by the work and make related decisions.

Is servant leadership not compatible with self-organizing and self-managing?

Servant leadership becomes something that is meant to overcome our bad ways of working. What I mean by that is, I see toxic hierarchies. And then there will be this one great leader who listens to their people and cares about human beings. Everybody wants to go and work for, say his name is Bob, and that's fine, in terms of Bob's orientation around serving the people that work for him. However, if Bob doesn't address things like compensation, authority, meetings, membership and tooling, then Bob is just creating a reliance on him as the heroic overcomer of a broken system. So I think servant leadership as a mentality is beautiful. The limitation is when people use that as their only tool, and they don't think systemically.

How do you approach business resolution when people have different communication styles or work functions, particularly for someone who might be less responsive? And how do you work on that under a tight timeline?

My simplest answer is, what are the working agreements that we have as a group? One person making a rule and then just enforcing it with everyone else is not the move.

There are many times when I feel interpersonal tension with the working agreement because maybe it's that I prefer doing things in writing, and they prefer doing things in meetings live. So perhaps there's a working agreement where we say we're going to meet on Wednesdays to talk it through. But we both commit that by Tuesday night, we will have written down our thoughts and share them. The idea here isn't to be overly prescriptive. It's just to be respectful of the fact that not everybody works the same way. And not everybody can be effective the same way. Usually, there's a third way, something that both of us can live with.

What are some good levers to strengthen innovation?

I'm really glad you asked this because I just had this conversation with someone who runs a VC. One of the things that I think companies fall into is the idea that we're going to hire this talent, and they're going to come and fix our innovation problems. When we have an innovation crisis, let's be wary of a talent solution to fix it.

Here are a couple of ideas that I like to start with on innovation. One is to assume that the people who have been on the inside have unheard ideas because that's almost always true. What structures can we create from a meeting perspective or an information perspective, where anyone can add ideas? Companies make the mistake of going external to buy ideas and innovation before they even tap the wealth of ideas and innovation they have internally.

When gathering ideas, be aware that people often don't start off amazing from an innovation perspective because no one has ever asked them for an idea in their job. So even if the first go at it doesn't blow you out of the water, keep at it. Because the more we ask people to think critically about their work, product and service offering, the more they do and the more great ideas they'll have. That's the internal landscape.

The external landscape comes from reading and researching things related to our fields as well as reading about the world in general. Go on a field trip to a place that you think is doing something interesting, maybe not even in your industry. Then have a meeting about what you learned. Interestingly, that sparked ideas for us and allowed us to tap into the previously untapped wealth we have inside.



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