Person Experience: To build a culture that meets human needs, we need to deconstruct the organizational system into its elemental components — to the individual(s). To enable individuals to reach their fullest potential so they, in turn, help each other and our firm to reach its highest potential, we must design our firm to meet the diverse range of individual’s purpose and needs, rather than viewing employees as a homogeneous and collective resource to be utilized for the organization’s purpose. We call this Person Experience, or PX.
As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Stefanie Hill.
Stefanie Hill is the Managing Vice President for Pariveda Solutions’ San Francisco Bay Area market and leads Pariveda’s Futurist team, formed to sense, learn, and adapt to a complex emerging future. Stefanie understands that at the heart of our organizations are individual people and that successful transformation starts and ends, succeeds or fails, with individual people — those who lead it and those who bring it to life. Stefanie advises clients to envision, design, and deliver solutions to enable individuals to reach their highest potentials as human beings, enabled and augmented by technology solutions.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a degree in Systems Science and Engineering, which “prepares students to view an entire system of components as an entity rather than an assembly of individual parts.” Early in my career, it was clear to me the applicability to the design of software systems. Over time, as I worked with teams and clients to solve complex business problems, I began to understand our organizations themselves as complex systems. I realized I could apply knowledge of systems, components, parts, and wholes to our human systems, and I embraced opportunities to bring to life the concept of the “whole being greater than the sum of the parts.” In my career journey, I’ve had the privilege to build multidisciplinary teams of teams from the perspective of not only developing each part or person to their fullest potential but forming and developing teams of diverse but complementary experiences and perspectives to transcend their capabilities and deliver amazing results as a collective.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
In early January 2020, I was in a working session with a group of leaders from our firm. I had been reading extensively the news that was beginning to come out of China regarding the coronavirus, and I had a sense of foreboding we were on the cusp of a global pandemic. I’d been at Pariveda Solutions for four years, so I understood intellectually the deep commitment of the leadership to fostering dialogue, embracing critical thinking, and encouraging a systems view of the world. However, it still felt fraught to say, “What are we thinking about doing in response to this emerging pandemic?” I waited until the end of the meeting and felt some fear but ultimately decided to trust our system. As it turned out, our leadership had already begun the process of quietly initiating a task force to plan for what we hoped would not come to bear but knew was likely inevitable. At that moment, I knew that while we’d certainly have missteps along the way, we were equipped with the mindsets, tools, and conviction to navigate this crisis in a way that was true to who we are and come out the other side to thrive.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
The first is what we are calling Person Experience, or PX, which recognizes at the root of our complex reality lies the fundamental nature of humans and human-to-human connection, trust-building, and needs. With our PX Platform, we are redefining how to rearchitect business architectures with this principle at the core to enable engaged and motivated people, form cohesive and high-performing teams, and unlock the creativity and knowledge sharing required for innovation.
The second project builds on PX and intends to provide the tools for leaders to embrace complexity and build organizational systems that can adapt through repeated cycles of change over long horizons. What can feel like chaos (like the events of this past year) is more often a state change in the system emerging from natural cycles of growth, consolidation, uncertainty, and breakdown, followed by reestablishing stability. Without an understanding of these adaptive cycles, we miss the opportunity to see beyond what is known today to what is possible and to position ourselves and our organizations for long-term growth and sustainability.
OK, let’s jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?
Organizations are significantly underestimating the complexity of the human work system that we must address to achieve higher levels of sustainable change over long time horizons. Whether due to silos or the perceived risk of making systemwide change, leaders often take what seems like a less risky approach to address the various interrelated enterprisewide components. These components include people, process, structure, products, and technology as independent efforts to glue together. As a result, the promise of true transformation continues to elude us, and most engagement and transformation efforts fall far short of their promise. I offer two thoughts:
1. Employee experience (EX) is not simply about well-being and culture. MIT’s Center for Information Systems Research defines EX by two things: work complexity (how hard it is to get work done); and the behavioral norms that exist around collaboration, creativity, and empowerment. Both have been challenged for a long time and are amplified in an after-COVID world.
2. Most employee engagement initiatives view people as a collection of objects. This mindset and approach abstract away the complexity in the individual person and therefore falls short of the potential opportunity.
Genuine transformation is about strategic enterprise architecture-wide change improving the organization’s capability to learn and adapt to remain resilient within its ecosystem. It must be deliberately architected and designed in such a way as to “infect” and spread from the inside out, not from the outside in or top-down.
Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and well-being?
These three elements are interconnected and manifest in a vicious cycle. When companies don’t meet employees’ needs, it drives down health and well-being leading to a lack of willingness to expend discretionary effort and creativity, stunting company strategic change efforts, limiting innovation, and contributing to a failure to look beyond current product and service offerings for ways to add value to customers and differentiate in the market. As the organization stagnates, growth and profitability slow, so employees look elsewhere, and it becomes difficult to attract and retain talent. In today’s transparent world, it is easy to see “inside your walls” and prospective employees and customers to validate whether you align your external messaging with your employee value proposition.
Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?
At Pariveda, we consider five interconnected and integrated design principles:
1. Person Experience: To build a culture that meets human needs, we need to deconstruct the organizational system into its elemental components — to the individual(s). To enable individuals to reach their fullest potential so they, in turn, help each other and our firm to reach its highest potential, we must design our firm to meet the diverse range of individual’s purpose and needs, rather than viewing employees as a homogeneous and collective resource to be utilized for the organization’s purpose. We call this Person Experience, or PX.
2. Shared Purpose: For a whole system to be viable, it must have a purpose. For individuals to be motivated, they must see themselves as contributing to something greater than themselves. We must be deliberate about creating cohesion by aligning individuals and teams to a shared purpose.
3. Brave Spaces: Realizing purpose requires going on a journey, one that may not be linear and may be filled with challenges along the way. To inspire individuals and teams to step over the threshold into the unknown continually, we must foster brave spaces that encourage learning, dialogue, exploration, experimentation, failure, and accountability rather than fostering comfort and the status quo.
4. Connectedness: At the root of our complex reality lies the fundamental nature of humans and human-to-human connection, trust-building, and bonding. Co-creation, connections, interdependence, and networks are necessary for complex systems to emerge and diffusion of new ideas. Sharing of knowledge depends heavily on trust, and we develop trust through person-to-person connections. Novel ways to connect and build trust will need to emerge through experimentation as we adapt to an after-COVID world.
5. Continuous Learning: To thrive in an uncertain and complex future, an organization must become what Peter Senge calls “a learning organization,” which facilitates the learning of its members in service of continuously transforming itself. Becoming a learning organization requires us to continuously challenge prevailing mindsets through triple loop learning to examine underlying beliefs and assumptions.
It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture.” What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?
If there is a silver lining in the events of the past year, it is that organizations are starting to appreciate that the experience of their people and the experience of their customers are inextricably linked — two sides of the same coin. People will only give their best to their customers if organizations help them meet their own fundamental human needs.
Concepts of mass personalization have existed for a long time when marketing and serving external customers. It’s time we start to apply the same kind of thinking to how we serve our people. Many will say this can’t possibly scale. First, whether it scales isn’t really the question, as it’s imperative. The fact is, people will not give you their discretionary effort or creativity unless we help them meet their individual needs. This was true before COVID-19 and is even more relevant now as those needs are being materially disrupted with no clear path to resolving. Second, we need to study how change and innovation diffuse through social systems to gain confidence that transformational change can start small and localized and ultimately grow to pervade the system.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
There is no one-size-fits-all approach: Leadership styles can require adaptation depending on the situational context. For example, as it became clear that we were on the cusp of a global pandemic, I felt strongly we were headed into chaos, and I needed to decide to close our offices. It felt premature to many, as the data did not yet indicate a clear need and most companies were not yet doing the same. It was a situation none of us had experienced before, and I needed to shift into a more directive leadership style, make decisions from positional authority, and bring us to a model where we could calmly consider a path forward.
In general, I strive to model the behaviors of inspirational leadership — less about pushing the business toward goals and more about inspiring people toward their fullest potential. I try to do so by modeling vulnerability, offering transparency to build trust, and getting to know people personally, welcoming them to embrace who they are and bring their whole selves to their work environments. I try to distribute decision rights, encourage experimentation, celebrate failures, and create brave spaces to allow employees at all levels to demonstrate courageous followership. I aspire to establish a clear purpose for any initiative. Instead of avoiding discomfort, I create forums where people can process the loss and disappointment we have all experienced over the last year, recognizing that letting go is a critical step in our ability to envision possible futures. All of that said, I’m human, imperfect, and grateful that I have a team around me that is willing to accept me as such and forgive the “messier” side of me that can emerge in stress: impatient for change and sometimes critical of ideas in our journey to our potential.
None of us is able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful toward who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My grandfather was a source of inspiration for me as I navigated my journey. He was born, grew up, and raised his extended family in Montana. And even as my generation began to make our way out into the world, he kept us grounded in a strong sense of what is important: our connections with each other and the value of experiences, not material things.
Papa embodied the characteristics I recognize in myself as having been key in my success to date — grit, curiosity, bravery, an entrepreneurial mindset, care for the collective, and the confidence I could do anything. He was a self-made hard rock miner, rolled up his sleeves alongside his teams, and raised daughters and granddaughters to know they could hold their own. Papa was a lifetime learner and saw the complexity and uncertainty many can’t or don’t want to see in the world. Despite a sense of realism about the challenges, he remained optimistic we have a choice in terms of how the future unfolds.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I used to believe a successful career trajectory where I could have the greatest impact involved increasing levels of achievement, broader scope of responsibility, and larger scale and span of control. I’ve come to realize sustaining impact happens on a smaller scale, one person at a time. It starts with small, slow beginnings and the patience and commitment to sustain efforts over longer time horizons. Five years ago, I stepped away from the more typical growth trajectory and joined Pariveda, embracing the opportunity to be part of an organization that was deliberately architected with this understanding.
My role and accountabilities may, on the surface, appear to be smaller in scale but are much more significant in the potential to have a true impact on people. Whether with colleagues or clients, I embrace the opportunity to teach and help others reach this understanding and carry the learnings into their efforts to help others grow. I hope these slow, small beginnings eventually flourish into a trajectory of growth and diffusion beyond the walls of our organization, into our clients, communities, and broader ecosystems, and in a small way, help to change the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “life lesson quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
As it became clear we were facing a global pandemic and entering a period of turmoil and uncertainty, my coach introduced me to the work of Joanna Macy, who is an environmental activist and author. She said, “It is good to realize that falling apart is not such a bad thing. Indeed, it is as essential to evolutionary and psychological transformation as the cracking of outgrown shells.”
This perspective led me on my learning journey — about how evolution occurs in natural systems, how the emergence of new properties happens at the confluence of interconnected parts, and how much agency is present in complex systems, even though we may feel we have lost control.
This new knowledge and deeper understanding enabled me to make a mindset shift around what it means to transform. We usually think about transformation as a move from one static state to another, designing the assumption that we can predict change with some degree of confidence, like a butterfly transforming from a caterpillar. Better yet, we can recognize we are in a dynamic environment and design to be continuously adaptive, continually learning — ready to respond to an unpredictable future. Like a nautilus, continually moving forward, evolving, stretching, growing, and rebuilding — cracking our outgrown shells.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would inspire a worldwide movement of collective learning. Our world is becoming more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA). The pace of change and the increase in connections and complexity challenge our individual and collective ability to respond and adapt. Human beings are becoming increasingly polarized and more entrenched and anchored in our worldviews, fueling our collective inability to navigate through the seemingly intractable problems ahead. In my view, the way forward is through learning together: finding common ground, recognizing what we don’t know, being willing to challenge our assumptions, embracing discomfort, having true dialogue, being curious, and having enough bravery to step across the threshold of what we know and believe today into the unknown. The potential of such a movement toward collective learning is significant — much like the virus itself, knowledge can spread from person to person through relationships grounded in trust, slow at first but ultimately unlocking the network effect. The challenge is the very conditions we are facing — accelerating pace of change and complexity — are leaving many individuals with the belief there is no time to learn, despite our collective imperative to do so.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!