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Ideas in the Wild: How Christopher Creel is Helping to Revolutionize How Organizations Operate

At the center of almost every company is a technology that hasn’t changed since 1854: the organization chart. Competition creatively destroyed every other aspect of how businesses work, yet this one thing has remained unchanged — and it is no longer working. New technology is about to change that, and in Christopher Creel’s new book Adaptive: Scaling […]

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At the center of almost every company is a technology that hasn’t changed since 1854: the organization chart. Competition creatively destroyed every other aspect of how businesses work, yet this one thing has remained unchanged — and it is no longer working.

New technology is about to change that, and in Christopher Creel’s new book Adaptive: Scaling Empathy and Trust to Create Workplace Nirvana, he outlines how collaboration technologies and smart chatbots will revolutionize organizations. Say goodbye to the org chart and hello to new organizational models that eliminate hierarchical obstacles, synchronize workforce skills with strategy execution, leverage the power of diversity, and deliver the most effective tribal elements of successful startups into larger, more established companies.

Based on fourteen years of in-the-trenches R&D, Creel presents a dynamic crowdsourcing model that promotes speed and agility while putting the skills and experience of each individual team member to best use. Each day, your business’s greatest resources come to work and go home. With the lessons in Adaptive, you’ll ensure they want to come back every day!

Why led Christopher to write Adaptive, what are his favorite ideas in the book, and how does he apply them to his life and business? I caught up with him to get answers to those questions.

1) What happened that made you decide to write the book? What was the exact moment when you realized these ideas needed to get out there?

Honestly, the work I did that led to this book was a survival tactic. My boss at that time told me he wanted me to shoot for a 10X productivity improvement for a company historically used to high single-digit or low double-digit annual growth. The company he wanted me to do this for was making around $300 million annually at the time with around 1,000 employees.

I knew it would require more than new technologies and process improvements. I would have to rethink the very fabric of how the company operated. At that time, the company had engagement scores in the 60s. To achieve the changes I felt were necessary, I needed a workforce with engagement scores in the high 80s.

At that time (and even now) I knew of no way to consistently do this. At most companies, including the one I worked for, engagement scores are all over the place and typically average out to around 60%. There was one constant: teams with servant leaders and teams with high degrees of empathy and trust scored high. Teams with authoritarian managers with low degrees of empathy and trust scored low. Google also realized this same thing around that time. Interestingly, in my experience, servant leaders are terrible at paperwork while authoritarian managers were excellent at it (a discovery about which I am personally familiar).

Around this same time, collaboration platforms started coming out that enabled bots to work with humans as though they were just another part of the team. So I decided to see if I could use chatbots to reliably reproduce servant leader teams with high degrees of empathy and trust in a way that offloaded the paperwork to the chatbot. Could I use chatbots to orchestrate the behaviors needed to create the dynamics that would lead to highly engaged teams?

The answer was “yes.” The Adaptive teams scored in the high 80s low 90s on engagement.

2) What’s your favorite specific, actionable idea in the book?

I don’t have a favorite actionable idea, but I do have two starting places, both of which are in a tight orbit around one another. The first is rolling out a collaboration platform, like Slack or MS Teams, in a planned out, productive way. Far too often I watch companies launch a collaboration platform and tell the workforce “good luck, godspeed, make good decisions.”

The platform companies do themselves no favors by telling prospective customers that they need no training because the platform is so easy to use. The platform companies are right insofar as their technology might be easy to use, but then so is a hand grenade. With collaboration platforms and hand grenades, that you can use it is not the issue — it is how you are using it that’s the issue. When rolled out effectively, the capabilities of the entire company can be unleashed. When rolled out in the way in which I’ve seen with most companies, it becomes a distraction to those that use it and a forgotten tool for everyone else.

The second starting point is a cultural narrative. Many companies come up with their “values” or maybe a mission statement. They often become targets of ridicule printed on a mouse pad. The problem is that individual managers often control the micro-environments of their team and the values are so ambiguous that they can circumvent them entirely or bend them to their agenda.

The most effective technique I’ve seen is creating a cultural narrative where employees can see themselves as the hero and employees are expected, even required, to defend that narrative. I saw this for the first time at Valve, then again at Netflix. Because it is a narrative, there is far less room for reinterpretation. When I tried it the results were remarkable. I watched team members check each other’s behavior, including mine, when we ran afoul of the narrative.

The reason I believe that these two things are so important and should go together is that when you effectively roll out a collaboration platform, you give your employees a degree of autonomy they did not have before. Cultural narratives can inform individual employees on how to behave when nobody is looking, like when they are chatting with someone on a collaboration platform. Done right, the platform becomes an expression of the cultural narrative.

3) What’s a story of how you’ve applied this lesson in your own life? What has this lesson done for you?

With the cultural narrative, the difference between companies that have one and companies that don’t is like the difference between a constitutional Democracy like America, and a personality cult like North Korea. The US Constitution is a cultural narrative that all Americans abide by and defend. This enables Americans to operate autonomously to do amazing things because we are all operating off of the same playbook. The US has enjoyed 45 peaceful transitions of power in the executive branch. Throughout each transition, we have incrementally inched closer to a more perfect union. This has remained true for 243 years, regardless of your political leanings. If Kim Jung Un were to be removed, voluntarily or involuntarily, it would be utter chaos.

The same is true for companies. Think about what happened to Apple when Steve Jobs died — the stock crashed. What if Larry Ellison stepped down from Oracle? Can you imagine the impact it would have if Elon Musk left Tesla and SpaceX?

Coaches with a well-defined culture and clear strategic direction can help level up all employees, not just direct reports. The end result is autonomous employees who can do amazing things because they are all operating from the same playbook.

The result is what I refer to as “legacy value,” meaning value that outlasts the coming and going of individuals. Yes, a company may suffer because they lose a legendary coach. The difference is that all of the employees that the coach helped remain with the company.

When I introduced the bots to help me scale up the coaching model, I was suddenly embarrassingly bored. I was no longer in a command-and-control model like most managers. Instead, I had a bunch of autonomous employees capable of doing amazing things on their own without having to play “mother may I” with me all the time. In fact, I had so much time on my hands that I spent most of it continuing to work on the bots.

I finally decided to do one final experiment. What would happen if I just stepped away? Over the course of six months, I incrementally separated myself in preparation for starting a new company around Adaptive. By that time, the team had fully embraced the Adaptive way and I was “just another coach.” I had created legacy value that would outlive my tenure.

For more advice on scaling empathy and trust in the workplace, check out Adaptive: Scaling Empathy and Trust to Create Workplace Nirvana on Amazon.

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