April 17, 2019
NOTE: We launched our Innovation Book Club last year to spotlight one of the priority issues identified at our first-ever Curate event, and since then have interviewed the authors of 10 new books about innovation — See Think Solve, When, The New Science of Radical Innovation, ON Innovation, Wisdom @ Work, Boom!, Imagine It Forward, The Future Is Asian, Plan D, and, this month, Brave New Work. Now we’re broadening our scope by renaming this column the Curate Book Club. The mission remains the same: talking to authors of interesting, insightful new books that might speak to hospitality sales, marketing, and revenue-optimization professionals. But rather than focusing simply on innovation, we’ll look for books on our other priority issues — analytics, talent, distribution, technology — as well as anything else we think might help you fuel sales, inspire marketing, and optimize revenue. — Christopher Durso, Vice President of Content Development, HSMAI
Everything about work — demands, expectations, employees, technology — has changed except how we do it. That’s the conundrum that Aaron Dignan addresses in Brave New Work: Are You Ready to Reinvent Your Organization? “We are being asked to invent the future,” writes Dignan, founder of The Ready, an organization design and coaching firm, “but to do so inside a culture of work that is deeply broken.
“We don’t have enough time to do our work, but we pack our days with endless meetings,” Dignan continues. “We don’t have the information we need, but we are buried in emails, documents, and data. We want speed and innovation, but we run from risk and inhibit our best people. We claim to work in teams, but we don’t really trust one another. We know the way we’re working isn’t working, but we can’t imagine an alternative. We long for change, but we don’t know how to get it.”
Brave New Work is Dignan’s answer. In a recent interview with HSMAI, he talked about the difference between complicated and complex systems, the power of evolutionary organizations, and his three go-to hotel amenities.
You write that “Our organizational operating system — the practices, policies, processes, procedures, rituals, and norms that shape our day-to-day reality — is so prevalent we almost take it for granted.” Why is that a problem?
When I talk about the organizational operating system, I’m talking about assumptions and principles and practices that make up our everyday experience. Those assumptions really matter, and we have a lot of them at work — assumptions like everybody needs a boss, and job roles and titles should be very specific and everybody can only hold one at a time, and we should organize in a hierarchy of functional silos or a matrix of functions and P&Ls, and we should have conference rooms with tables and chairs in them, and people will generally avoid responsibility and hard work unless they have a characteristic to support or enable that. Those sorts of assumptions make up the everyday reality for a lot of people, especially in industries where people are paid by the hour or in lower-level work that is out at the edge with the customer.
We treat things with a remarkable lack of understanding about the nature of human systems. One of the things I get into in the book is the difference between a complicated system and a complex system. A complicated system is something like a watch or an engine that is causal — cause and effect. It’s linear, it’s predictable, it’s knowable by an expert. When there’s a problem, you can solve it. And a complex system is something like traffic or weather or a six-year-old or a garden. It’s more unpredictable. It has a way it’s trending, but we can’t be sure what will happen next. And the only way to understand a system like that is to interact with it, to nurture it, to probe it.
What’s funny to me is that when we’re trying to solve problems in our organizations like how do we create an approach that makes guests feel welcome or that makes people feel like they’re getting good hospitality, we try to turn it into a checklist. We try to treat it like a watch. Of course, that doesn’t work and it’s very disappointing and frustrating when it doesn’t, because we misunderstand the nature of the system. The premise of the book is that if we understand the system as what it is and we bring a different set of tools and approaches to the challenge, then we’ll actually get the results that we seek.
What are some indicators in a company that the traditional system isn’t working?
One of the questions I talk about with every team is, what’s stopping you from doing the best work of your life? And every team I’ve ever met in the world — in 15 countries — has a really good answer to that that’s at the ready. It’s not like someone’s like, “Huh, I don’t know. Everything’s great.” Even top leaders, even people that are making tons of money and having great accolades, they’re always like, “Oh, you know, the thing that’s driving me crazy is X, Y, or Z.” Usually what we hear are frustrations about either too much policy and process and structure that inhibits our ability to use judgment and act, or difficult personalities and egos in the people that are our managers, our bosses, our leaders that undermine our autonomy and undermine our development.
The goal that you’ve set out in the book is to become an “evolutionary organization.” What does that mean?
One of the things I noticed both in my own organization and in the eight or so I looked at in the research for the book is that there’s a pattern of accepting the fact that because we work in a world that is complex and because organizations are complex and dynamic, the work of change is never done. Instead of thinking about change as this sort of from-to thing, where we define a future state and then achieve it and then look ahead again, or this thing that happens intermittently every three years and we get so fed up that we make a new org chart — what I noticed was more of a pattern of continuous improvement and a kaizen, not just on the manufacturing floor, but a kaizen culturally. This idea that we’re never done, we’re always learning, we’re always morphing and changing, and that that is what it takes to be sufficiently adaptive and responsive in a world that looks like our world in 2019.
What does an evolutionary organization look like in practice?
The book puts two different ideas or values in tension with each other, and that creates a really healthy view of the future. People positivity is one part of it. To me, that’s a big piece of the future of work that needs conscious attention and deliberate action right now, because we’re trending toward a world where work really serves a small percentage of the people that do it. I mean, one in two people is disengaged at work, is looking for their next job, and one in five is actively disengaged — just hates work. That’s a staggering statistic. Just imagine that every restaurant you ever go to, every hotel you ever go to, one in two people you meet doesn’t want to be there. That's not the world that I want to my kids to grow up. So that’s the first kind of vision for a future: As human beings, can we design organizations to be humanist?
The second one is what I call complexity conscious, which is this idea that because the world is very interconnected now, very large, very dynamic, we do need those kinds of agile, lean, test and learn, adaptive traits in our businesses, because otherwise they will become outmoded, outdated, inefficient, ineffective. Just a sense of, does the business have the wherewithal to be a real learning machine, a learning organism?
You can point to organizations like Amazon or Facebook, where they’ve got the learning part down. They’re really strong on complexity consciousness and they navigate the way the world actually works and its uncertainty quite well, and yet maybe have dropped the ball on the humanist agenda along the way. Then there are other organizations — many nonprofits — that are really high-index on the human side of things, they’re very people-positive, but they can’t get out of their own way and actually invent anything interesting or change the world in any meaningful way, because they don’t understand complexity. And so, we really need both.
Do you have a favorite example of a successful evolutionary organization?
There are older ones like W.L. Gore, which is the company that invented Gore-Tex, that has been known for self-management and organizing more like a network for decades. I like that case just because they have really good thinking tools for how to be in a system where you’re trusted. [Company founder] Bill Gore used to talk about the waterline. If you get a hole in a boat below the waterline, the boat sinks. If you get a hole above the waterline, it’s fine — patch it when you get back to shore. And so, they really have created a culture of teams and individuals where everyone’s always asking themselves, “Is the decision I’m about to make above or below the waterline for the company?” And if it’s below the waterline, they’re required to seek advice.
Everyone’s trusted to make big decisions, but there’s a constraint around how they make those big decisions, and that includes getting advice from people that have been there before or people that will be affected. If you can mentor and teach people as they work in a system like that — how do I evaluate where the waterline is? what does that mean if we’re having a bad quarter and cash is light? how do we modulate our understanding of where the waterline is? — it just becomes a really powerful way to unlock the power of everyone’s judgment without being completely in a free for all. One of the things that a lot of people misunderstand about this kind of movement is they think that the choices are bureaucracy or chaos. It’s actually the in-between where we have just the right constraints to prevent disaster but enough open flexibility and possibility for people to bring judgment and creativity to the table.
How would a hotel company scale that type of model, so it goes from the boardroom at headquarters down to the front desk at an individual property?
In our desire for alignment and consistency, we often choose to solve that problem in the most blunt way possible: “Oh, every Marriott needs to feel the same, so the way we’ll solve that is we’ll exact total control over every hotel in the chain.” It’ll basically just be a completely top-down management system where the person cleaning the room has no ability to make any decisions at all. That’s one way to do it and it certainly will create consistency, but it usually creates consistency at the expense of other things, and those other things might be subtlety or service or joy or cultural context and relevancy or any number of things. The wild alternative would be to have no consistency at all and have complete customization at every local level, and there you would have the costs of probably a lot of waste and a lot of inconsistency, and it would be a very, very expensive.
So the idea would be, how do you cede some power back out into the system to allow for a little bit more customization, a little bit more localization, a little bit more human dignity in the work, and at the same time create the right information flow and information ecology, collaboration ecology, so that there’s a high likelihood that when things work or when things benefit from scale, the system will do them anyway? There's a reality that if we can agree on something, if we can make agreements together, then we can still have the benefits of scale.
What do you look for from a hotel experience?
What I’m usually looking for is a certain level of experiential and visual design, so that it feels calming, peaceful, comforting, safe, creative, inspirational, etc. I’m also looking for authenticity. I love staying in hotels that are in buildings that have been converted or buildings that have history — things that tell a story — even if that’s with the chain. The Liberty Hotel in Boston [part of Marriott’s Luxury Collection] is one of my favorite hotels because it used to be a prison, and how creative and interesting is that?
And then I just look for certain amenities. I have this game that I used to play with people that I worked with: If you could only pick three variables that would determine the hotels that you stay at for the rest of your life but you don’t actually get to see the list of possible hotels, what are the three variables? One of my favorite variables was, does the hotel have a body wash? Because most hotels that are on the lower end don’t. They have a bar of soap, maybe shampoo, maybe conditioner. If it has a body wash, now we’re cooking with grease. Now we’re a four-star hotel. A lot of people talked about, does it have a robe, or what’s the plushness of the towels, or is there 24-hour room service or those sorts of things.
And then, frankly, like we’ve been talking about, the service and the attitude of the people that work there is profoundly important. It really changes how you feel. When you pick up the phone and call room service, what’s the attitude? When you ask for something unusual, what’s the attitude? I love staying at places where they enjoy being creative problem solvers — when you call and you’re like, “Do you have an iPhone charger?,” they’re like, “We don’t, but let me work on that.” That kind of stuff blows my mind. I really appreciate that.