The People Factor – #GOTOAMS 2018

Technology-wise we have solutions for a lot of problems in our ever more collaborating speed hungry work environment. However, the fact that we need to deal with complexity, ambiguity and continuity under ever increasing speed demands lead to people problems. This pesky thing, the other human next to us, has not been solved yet. It is no wonder then, that the GOTO Amsterdam 2018 conference had an entire track dedicated to the ‘people factor’. And don’t think that all the nerds were at the technology sessions, these ‘soft’ people sessions were very well attended.

This blog post is an accumulation of some of the insights I got from the sessions from the people track I have attended. Also I went to a 1-day workshop with Katherine Kirk on ‘Effective Leadership in Challenging Collaborative Environments’.

People clashes

In the last three decades we went from a formal hierarchical organization to one that consists of autonomous collaborating teams. Although this brings many opportunities and solves the problem of working effectively under ever increasing speed demands, we also never saw so many clashes among people.

Many people – people clashes can be contributed to fatigue. There are several kinds of fatigue, among which collaboration fatigue and stress fatigue seem to be the most common source of problems. When fatigued, the primal nature of humans will emerge. These primal drives are three-fold, according to Buddhism: Craving, Clinging and Ignorance. When two people are in one of those states (both craving, one ignorant and one clinging, etc.) clashes will arise.

There are ways to counterbalance these states.

Craving can be counterbalanced by providing some perspective. Perspective will calibrate the value of that what we are craving for with respect of the broader context.

Clinging can be counterbalanced by relaxing the situation. When we cling to something, we need some assurance that when we hold it less tightly, we will not lose out.

Ignorance can be counterbalanced by co-discovery. When we are (actively) shutting out awareness of something, we need to be taken by the hand and discover why something might be worth to be involved in.

This is a very simple model, that if you apply it to a clashing situation you experienced or witnessed recently, you will easily discover some ways in which the situation might have been counterbalanced.

These were some of the main points from Katherine Kirk’s workshop.

Scaling the mountain

The results that we can achieve are directly linked to the effort we put into it. Nobody is born as a talent or an expert. It takes dedication and attitude to get there. As Randy Shoup explained, attitude takes three forms:

Growth Mindset: We need to be aware that we all have the ability to grow as an individual in any area. This is called a Growth Mindset, in contrast to a Fixed Mindset (see the book by Dr. Carol S. Dweck). You also want to avoid the feeling that you are never good enough.

Trust: People are not lazy. This age calls for new leadership that supports the people to do their job as best as they can.

Confidence: 70% of people suffer from the Imposter Syndrome during at least one period in their working career. We need to be honest and confident in what we are. Although we also need to be aware that we become not arrogant.

The toxic business case as a result of the people Factor

Two main dimensions attribute to the difference between a pathological, bureaucratic and generative organizations. This is a typology of organization culture, according to R. Westrum. The Power Distance Index and Uncertainty Avoidance contribute to decisions being made by the HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion). There are several other dimensions according to Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory. In most cases, since uncertainty is to be avoided, a business case is needed to actually enforce a decision.

Money is a very bad indicator. It takes too long before it comes in, and therefore cannot be used as a feedback mechanism. Also it is very hard to attribute amounts of money earned or lost to specific efforts as there are many first, second, third, etc. order effects which play a role in the money flow.

Doing experiments and looking at specific metrics, like conversions on a registration form, can lead to relevant conversations. Like, do we need more customers in another country, or more revenue in our home country? This is a matter for the C-suite to decide, but clear metrics will facilitate the discussion.

These were some of the insights I gained from Chris Matts talk.

How to send people to their deaths

The final keynote at #GOTOAMS by Stephen Carver was about NASA. How the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle accidents were no accidents. In both cases engineers knew that the shuttle was going to explode. The combination of a culture of fear, politics, no shared vision and personality problems made sure that nobody would listen to the engineers who predicted the failures.

Active ignorance (by hiding behind: “Can you PROVE that the shuttle will blow?”) caused that people closed their eyes under all kinds of pressure.

Luckily not everything we do will immediately terminates someones live, but this story makes me at least very aware of the damage that the ‘people factor’ can introduce.

It is more about the people than anything else

As the above (extremely short) summaries show, there are a lot of today’s problems that can be classified as ‘people challenges’. Let’s all take a close look at ourselves and others to see where we can improve. As Chris Matts would say, it is not only important that you are aware of incompetence, you need to value the need to acquire the competence.

NOTE: later on I will update this post with some links to the talks I referenced.