New Rules for Work Labs

Overcoming Overwhelm at Work with Bob Sutton & Rebecca Hinds

November 26, 2023 David Mastronardi
New Rules for Work Labs
Overcoming Overwhelm at Work with Bob Sutton & Rebecca Hinds
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers
We're joined by Bob Sutton, an organizational psychologist and best-selling author, and Rebecca Hinds, the head of the work innovation lab at Asana.

Bob and Rebecca highlight the need to shift from an addition mindset to a subtraction mindset to combat workplace overwhelm. They delve into the effectiveness of combining bottom-down and top-up strategies in creating changes in the workplace. Lastly, they emphasize the importance of continuously evaluating your work practices, especially with the rapidly changing tech landscape.

02:55 Understanding Corporate Overwhelm
04:10 The Exhaustion of Leadership Positions
06:14 The Role of Technology in Overwhelm
06:24 The Impact of the Pandemic on Tech Investments
08:44 The Importance of a People-First Strategy
11:38 The Balance Between Bottom-Up and Top-Down Strategies
11:53 The Role of Meetings and Collaboration Tools
21:18 The Importance of Team Resets and Refreshes
27:00 The Mythical Man Month and the Problem of Overstaffing
27:29 Apple's Unique Approach to Team Management
27:48 The Consequences of Overhiring in Tech
28:09 The Pitfalls of Spending Money as a Substitute for Action
28:37 The Human Tendency Towards Addition and Its Impact on Organizations
30:05 The Problem of Rewarding Addition Over Subtraction
31:02 Maintaining a Successful Subtraction Mindset
40:16 The Power of Constraints in Organizational Change
42:39 The Importance of Continuously Evaluating Work Practices

Episode Resources

To learn more about our guests and their work:

The original HBR articles: 


Producer: Podrick Sonicson

To learn more about New Rules for Work:
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Event: 2024 Intent to Impact in Austin, TX

David:

Welcome to the new Rules for Work labs, where we're rewriting the rules of work. In our lab, we glean insights from the world's foremost minds, exploring leadership, team dynamics, creativity, artificial intelligence, and more. Join us as we dissect, analyze, and incubate ideas shaping the future workplace. Stick around to learn how we turn these insights into practical activities. Get ready for a journey into the future of work. This is the new Rules for Work Labs, where insights meet action. Today in the lab, Elyse and I talked to Bob Sutton, an organizational psychologist and bestselling author, and Rebecca Hines, head of the work innovation lab at Asana. One of the topics we're covering with the new rules for work is overwhelm. And Rebecca and Bob authored a piece in Harvard Business Review on overwhelm. And in the piece, it specifically refers to tech overwhelm, about how there are so many tools and applications at work it's becoming hard to know which one to use. The conversation is great because we move beyond just tech and get into overwhelm in general. And we start hearing examples, case studies, Rebecca and Bob work with really interesting clients, definitely names you've heard of products you've used. That have come from some of their recommendations to these clients and how to deal with their tech overwhelm. Listen if you're here specifically for what to do if you have too many tools at work. But also if you're feeling overwhelmed from too many meetings. Maybe your team is too overworked for the amount of bandwidth that they have. You're going to find something in this conversation that That resonates with you, but also there's going to be a solution that you can begin to use to help reduce the overwhelm at work. Something that they talk about, it's a cornerstone for dealing with any overwhelm related issue. Is to move from an addition mindset, to a subtraction mindset. That's the secret for dealing with overwhelm. What can you take away? So here we go. This is Bob and Rebecca on overwhelm. In your words, what is the, what's the business or the corporate experience with overwhelm as it stands right now?

Bob:

I tend to reject the word right now because I think that organizations are pretty constant and everybody's wants something new and fresh and shiny. And to me, AI is just like total quality management was 25 years ago, but everything always has to be snowflake special to folks. But but I would argue that despite my cynicism or skepticism That that we really have gone through a very difficult period in organizations just because of the speed at which things that are just overwhelming have been happening. And we all know what the list it's it's the social justice movement. It's, of course, the pandemic it's A. I. It's the banks were collapsing one weekend. You just got a Rebecca works in tech. Every tech firm we know grew really fast and they all did 12 to 15 percent layoffs. And it's really now this week, it's the Palestine versus Israeli thing. And there's always something and and I and people who are in leadership positions. And this is going beyond the stuff that Rebecca and I do, but people who are in leadership positions are just exhausted. I would especially point to my friends who are head of HR. They're dropping like flies. They're exhausted. They get blamed for everything. And very often they don't get any credit and very often they don't have the power to fix things. So I don't mean to, and I think Rebecca and I are both optimists and we work on things that actually people can actually fix. But I still have a lot of sympathy for the pain that people have gone through in organizations, which reflect the pain in society and the world, of course. But that's, but it's a difficult time, both in terms of velocity and just emotional overwhelm.

David:

That's interesting that you framed up the rejection of right now, but also like it's always something these temporal frames. Hasn't it always? Ben, it's always something. Is there something different about, is there less, is there more happening or do we just get inundated with it more? I

Bob:

don't know the answer to that. And maybe we should have Rebecca get it. My my late mother and father used to remind me that that one day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and all the men were gone. It. In about six months, they, they, they were all in training camp and all the women took the jobs and, all the jobs that men had done and there was rationing, blah, blah, blah, blah. The whole economy zoomed up and then they all came back and they went back to the fifties again. But so there, there have been times when there has also been very rapidly, but I do think that, that social media and the internet does make. Things happen faster. You can get more hysterical more quickly on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, whatever you want than you ever could before. So technology may play a role. I'd be curious what Rebecca thinks about this because because she's younger and smarter.

Elise:

Rebecca in your role at Asana, I would love to hear a story about what this experience has been like and how it may have shifted for,

Rebecca:

You and your organization. Sure. And I think when I think of over overwhelm, a big part of that is the technologies we use and how we're overloaded, overwhelmed with too many different technologies. And I do think it's a reflection right now of the juxtaposition of different temporal shifts during the pandemic, especially there was this almost knee jerk reaction to invest in more technologies because we lost. The in person interactions and because of that, and because of rosier economic climates at the beginning, we saw companies over invest in tools that were often really specialized for local functional groups. And once organizations have had a chance to really step back, audit what's going on in their organization also under new. Economic pressures. They're starting to realize just how detrimental that strategy of more addition has been and their workers are overloaded. And so I think it's that juxtaposition of using technologies almost as a crutch for that in person interaction and now recognizing that's incredibly expensive financially, but also in terms of the switching costs, the cost to it. Focus and distractions and organizations today. So we see it in our customer base all the time. This recognition that we have five different tools to do one thing. And the result is that our workers don't know. Where to do which types of work, and it's creating duplicative work. It's creating dysfunctional work, and it's creating a toll not only on productivity, but also on the employee experience. And increasingly, the employee experience is a digital employee experience. And employees are voting with their feet more and more that they want to work at companies where there is a technology strategy around these tools that we now use as core part of our work, especially for knowledge workers.

Elise:

On that front you collaborated on two articles together, one on fixing the meeting overwhelm problem and then one on collaboration tools and something that we see in our practice is people picking up technology, not only to substitute for the in person thing, but to substitute for the lack of a process. Or the lack of know how. Is that also something that you found to be the true in the clients you work with or

Rebecca:

in the work you were doing? Especially for technology. And we know from a long history of technology that technology fails so much more often due to the human piece than the technology piece. And so if you don't have that human strategy, the technology, even when we think of AI, so much promise, so much potential, the organizations that aren't thinking about the strategy, they're not thinking about their policies and their mission. Values and principles around AI, they're going to get very little benefit or even detriment from using the technologies. And so it always needs to be led by the people first strategy. Oftentimes it isn't. And I think, especially when you're under pressure and a CIO or CTO in particular, they're under pressure to streamline their tech stack. It's very easy to invest in tools because they have certain features and functionality, but if those. Features and functionality are divorce from the overall strategy. It's going to do more harm than good in most cases.

Bob:

So I want to follow on what Rebecca said, because one of the things that it's a conversation that Rebecca and I've been working on elements of this friction project for a decade or more. And, uh, and one of the things that, Is important, I think, to distinguish because you talk about the word strategy is also a code word for it's like almost like a dirty word that people don't want to say that senior executives take charge. And I'm sorry, tell people what to do and strategy. But that's what strategy very often means. And and so 1 of the things that we learned accidentally in the collaboration cleanse. Thing which we knew before, but it reminded us and we had our co-author, Paul Leonardi, who really knows a lot about this. Is that there's a difference between caring about people and giving the, free them the freedom to do what they want. And one of the big problems, which is the tragedy of the comments problem was and Paul called it the credit card problem. And this is even a pricing strategy for software firms to have it below a price that you don't have to get approval from the CTO. So this caused it. Just a plethora of tools in it. And so to us, that's by giving people too much power or delegating things down or not stopping them that it actually leads to a situation where everybody imposes a lot. You call a tech stack, right? Rebecca. She's like a real technologist, a bigger and bigger tech stack and everybody else. And the only way we can figure out how to do it it's top down authority. And there is a case of somebody who who actually dealt with the problem by whenever somebody ordered a bit of new software, it had to go all the way to him for approval and they got rid of something like 30 tools or something. And and so that writing that little paper and that little collaboration cleanse reminded me of things about organizations. That I sometimes wish weren't true, but I think are true that if if the adults don't create a direction, then it turns into kind of a a mess.

Rebecca:

And I think we're seeing that all across the board. This tension between the bottoms up strategy and the top down strategy. And I think what we see across the board is you need both. But depending on the particular topic and what you're trying to achieve, I think you need a different mix. And one of the interesting differences we saw between the meeting research and the tech reset research was that for meetings. You could get a lot of benefit by grounding in that more bottom up approach because your meetings are largely driven by your specific team. Sure, there's a little bit of cross functionality, but you can do a lot of good on your own by revising and resetting your meeting norms with technology because it's so much more interdependent on your cross functional partners, your customers, your different stakeholders. It's much Harder to do that bottom up change effectively, and you do need that top down strategy to really drive effective change in the organization. And so I think that mix and determining what that mix is for your organization as you're tackling different problems is really important.

Bob:

So I really want to reinforce this top down and bottom up perspective, because to me the bottom up doesn't mean everybody can do whatever they want in a lot of cases. What bottom up a lot of times means is, and this gets to another project Rebecca worked on, the book Scaling Up Excellence that Huggy and I worked on. One of the things that, that we learned from that perspective is that when everybody has the same mindset and the same agreements about what's good and bad behavior, the boss doesn't tell you what to do. Everybody tells everybody else what to do. And just yesterday, I. We'll not name the company since I signed a nondisclosure. I was talking to 300 vice presidents, my large technology company. And I was asking them what they needed to subtract. And they said they needed to have fewer Slack channels, fewer Slack messages and Thorder slack messages. And my response to them is that there's vice, these are vice presidents. These, they have at least 30 to 50 people reporting to them. And I and so when they were complaining, and then I said so you're like pretty senior whose responsibilities that I don't think you should point fingers at other people. You should look in the mirror. And then call other people out at your same level. It is. It isn't just the CEO of this giant tech company. It's their responsibility to hold themselves accountable and to hold others accountable. And to me, that's bottom up. But it's not. Gee, I can do whatever I want. Bottom up.

Rebecca:

Another big component of bottom up, which was very much in scaling up excellence is the importance of spreading a mindset and encouraging that. Why do we need to do this change? Having everyone feel that sense of ownership that they play a key role in driving the change. And then I think Bob often talks about the IKEA effect where getting people involved as part of the solution is really powerful in terms of you value something more when you played an active role in building it. And so whether it's meetings or revising your technology, giving employees a voice. To say, this is my ideal state. This is what's not working. This is what is working and being a key driver of the changes is essential.

David:

These executives, why are they worrying about Slack? Is this at the right level for these executives to be worrying about? Now, I didn't know, I didn't know if that's where you're going with that. Now, that's what's stuck in my head. It's like, why isn't somebody else

Bob:

be worrying about this? thEy're the ones who are the master and victims of that behavior.

David:

So they send the long messages and then everybody thinks it's

Bob:

their job, right? And that's, to tell us that's friction fixing. That's like the friction project, which which Rebecca has been working on for, I don't know, whenever it started seven or eight, 10 years ago, I get confused about the exact date. Is our perspective is everybody does what they can from where they are to fix friction problems to make the, if you will, the right things easier and the wrong things harder. And one of the examples that Huggy Rao and I use in the book is one of my favorite friction fixers, which bowled me over, was a DMV employee, Department of Motor Vehicles. vehicles in California, which used to be horrible. And this, there's 75 of us waiting in line. And I thought I'd be in line for three hours since I've been to the DMV before. And he just walked down the line, gave us the forms we need, told people to leave who like somebody who's gonna passport you can't do the DMV office. And told us what line to get into it. And I was out of there by 815. I got there at 745 with 75 people in line. I couldn't believe it. And what that guy did is he took it upon himself to make things easier for other people. And if he can do it well, the vice president of a fortune 50 company can do it too. So that's

David:

funny that you say, cause I had a fantastic DMV experience not long ago here in. In Manhattan, which I thought would only make it worse, but there's, there must be something going on. And I was asking them about that because the reviews on Google, I deliberately chose that one because the surrounding offices got much worse reviews. And they said they were very proud of their reviews and how efficient they are at getting people through. The

Bob:

state of California is trying to fix it and does have a task force that, that is actually doing time and motion studies of people going through the DMV. So they are working on it, but I've lived. What is it? I got my driver's license. 53 years ago in the state of California, it was terrible then, but it's actually gotten better

David:

back when it was de facto horrible for everybody. The deal, it's right. But so this particular person in the idea is with the VPs in Slack is you have to be the change you want to see. And, but it sounds like up to a, in certain areas, like maybe the the solution isn't for somebody to go out and get another a tech platform that only allows I don't know, in shorter messages or less frequent posting. So there's a wall there, what you're saying, like when it comes to tech and proliferation, that's gotta be more top down.

Bob:

The top down and then there's, I don't know, Rebecca knows the term, but there's like architecture which is that when we see organizations that fight friction, yes, they do subtraction. And we can talk about why subtraction is hard but simply requiring people to pause and think, one of the. One of the examples, one of the organizations that we worked with, they just defaulted from automatically when you set up a meeting in Outlook, it was a 15 minute meeting. You had to stop and change it to a longer meeting. And Rebecca, you did some stuff like that, too, didn't you? Some default meeting stuff? Do I remember that?

Rebecca:

Yeah, I've studied and in particular, fully remote companies because they tend to do this really well because they rely so heavily on collaboration technologies. And one of the key factors that I find drives successful strategies around these more ephemeral technologies, especially is. Being very clear of what the technology is for. And in the case of slack, it shouldn't be a platform where you're recording decisions or having lengthy debates. It should be for those rapid conversations where you need an urgent response. And so I think Having that strategy and you should have a list of all the tools that are part of your core tech stack. What is the purpose? Why do I use this technology? Why do I not use this technology and be really clear? And I think that sets expectations. The reason why I think Slack is, can be a particularly acute problem is because there's no. It's not a gatekeeper potential. Really. It's unlike email where you can forward it to an admin or decision makings where you can funnel it in different ways. It really does come directly to you, which is why you need that strategy to be clear. This is for real time, rapid response interactions and everything else there is dedicated channels for if it's decision making, it should be in this channel. If it's goal setting, it should be in this channel and being really clear about the technologies and their core purposes.

David:

I used to work at a place that had systems of record and then systems of communication. I don't know if those are still in vogue terms, but they were clear about separating where we talk about stuff. And then what I think you're saying is this is where we document decisions. This is where the strategy lives in a fixed state.

Rebecca:

And then I think being clear also at how they all come together. So ideally, there's some sort of connective tissue, whether that's integrations or at least a strategy where you're able to collect all the communication data and have it stored in a centralized place or speaking to one another, but having those clear purposes for each one.

Elise:

So creating those kinds of things, finding those working team agreements, about how we're going to use our tech, how we're going to communicate, what kind of response times you can expect from me so that I can focus for a while and not, you won't get mad because I'm not going to reply on Slack for an hour. All of those kinds of things is, are one set of strategies people can use if they're feeling overwhelmed at work. But let's imagine the people who Know that this topic resonates with them like my clients who are like, we're just trying to stay alive is what they'll say, right? Where do they start and how do you help them find a place to start that doesn't like just pile on yet another overwhelming task on their list

Bob:

of things to do? Let's focus at the team level. And so my, one of my main mentors is a guy named J. Richard Hackman. He spent 50 years studying the effectiveness of teams. And one thing that Richard used to always say is that you've always got to be thinking about. The team design, not just the things that the leader says, the actual design of the team, the rewards the norms, the hierarchy, the roles, all that sort of stuff. And Richard had all sorts of evidence that that the key to organization or team success is yes, the way you design it in the beginning, but but when things are messed up. You've just got to pause and he called him team reset team refresh. There's different terms but to have a conversation about those things and to figure out what needs to be fixed and, going back to all of us live through the movement to remote teams. But whenever teams go through a period of people are confused confusion, they need to stop and just pause. To slow down and fix things. So people say move fast and fix things. I believe in slow down and fix things and then hit the gas later. And I'll finish my example of this. There was a top team in a large educational institution that I know very well. And I talked to them in the middle of pandemic and they were completely just a mess. Honestly, if we know all of this, they were tired. They were arguing with each other. They were confused. And so I said to them, okay, You need to pause and I gave him this is almost like the page on this is the Alneely's book about how they had to do their team refresh or reset and they said, we're so busy. We don't have time to do it. And I wrote. So what do you think, Sadal? She said they're going a hundred miles an hour driving through the desert, there's one gas station the gas gauges and empty, and they don't have time to stop. ANd especially in Silicon Valley, people are insane about speed. They're just nuts sometimes.

Rebecca:

And I think, you reset at the team level. What we saw with the meeting doomsday and with the collaboration cleanse is you can also pick a certain problem and do a complete refresh, refresh your meetings, refresh your collaboration tools. And I think you get a lot of benefit, even more so than the time savings, having that mental model of I'm going to cleanse my calendar. I'm going to cleanse my technology stack. I'm going to learn in the case of the it. Collaboration cleanse. One of the key findings was participants started to realize just how exhausting the technologies they use every day are, and that recognition can be even more powerful than the direct change that comes out of it.

Elise:

I'm curious as you stop to do one of these pauses what is the Prompt or the question that you put out that helps people connect both with the friction that you're looking to address and their autonomy in it.

Rebecca:

Specificity, making sure people know exactly what they're getting into is key, knowing how long it's going to take, how much time is going to be expected of them, laying out the timeline. If not, you'll get all these excuses for why They can't make it work. And I think the more you lay out that you've thought it through and you're really invested in making this a seamless process that's going to benefit them is important. I also think one of the biggest keys we've seen throughout these different interventions is sharing the data. So for the meeting research in particular, at the onset, we shared just how broken meetings were for it. The team members, how many hours each week they were spending in unproductive meetings. And then at the end, we shared very concretely the data in terms of the time savings. And I think having that data, what we're seeing with remote work, especially as we're seeing this. Blame game happening where if something isn't working, there's a tendency to blame it on something new, whether that's AI or remote work. And the more you can have data in terms of this specific thing worked or didn't work for these reasons, the more you can drive effective change. I think if you don't have that data, it's easy to For one story, Bob talks about, bad is stronger than good. And it's easy for those, not everyone is going to have a positive experience and it's easy for a one negative experience to outweigh all the benefit. And so having that data to ground it and understanding across the board, this has been a valuable exercise I think is powerful.

David:

What are some of the traps? Once you get started, which I imagine is hard enough to slow down in the desert to hit that gas station. There's a certain impulse control to take your foot off the gas and realize you have to refill or get a checkup. So let's say they start it. What common traps might come up as leaders going through this with their team that they

Bob:

should to avoid? I'll do one. The list is one thing just to acknowledge for, for your audience is that is that I always like to be really careful with leaders to. Stop and acknowledge that their jobs are really hard. Those jobs are really hard. They're really stressful. They're really overwhelming So I don't want to point fingers at them. It's blessed. I don't even want to do those jobs married to a retired CEO. I know how hard those jobs are there you can have them but one if I was going to start out just with a trap and this is And as I say, nothing's new. And I'm seeing many organizations in AI making this mistake right now. There's something called the mythical man month, a famous book by a guy named Frederick Brooks. You probably. I was written like 1980 or something and what Fred Bricks was famous for was leading two of the largest technology projects in history. The mainframe, the IBM 360 and then the software huge projects and the mythical man month is when a project is late. If you add more people to it, it gets even later because of the coordination and onboarding costs. And in AI. They're just hiring like mad. They're just throwing people out of absolutely like crazy. And and in the one company, I know that actually has a discipline that tends to avoid this is Apple. Apple for all, how weird it is. They have this thing that you have, that it's almost like the later something is the smaller the team is. And you always know who the directly responsible individual is. And it is interesting. And maybe they're hiding it from us. Rebecca may know since she's in tech, but Apple seems to be the only large tech firm I know that didn't do 10 to 15 percent layoffs because they overhired in the is that true, Rebecca? Cause you're in the industry, actually. They're

Rebecca:

definitely the outlier for sure.

Bob:

So anyway but that's just one that that I would start with it. And sometimes we later said my late co, not late, my last co, co author, Jeff Pfeffer from years ago we wrote a book on the knowing, doing gap on talk as a substitute for action. He wanted to write a book that was called on spending money as a substitute for action or for thinking. And I think Elon Musk buying Twitter might be an example of spending money as a substitute for thinking to, to make an editorial comment. So what

David:

is it about that? Cause it seems like there's some consistency between that, throwing people at the problem, adding to the tech stack, what it, what is it something that is. Personal like just this bias to your Apple point, they have really good impulse control, What is it with our inability to control these impulses?

Bob:

This is like Rebecca and I have been working on this for years and it's a chapter in in in our, forthcoming book, the friction project. But I would point to, I got his book. Right here, Lighty Klotz, our friend, author of Subtract, he and his, a bunch of his colleagues from the University of Virginia did this study, actually a set of about 20 studies, and what they found is that human beings default to addition, whether it's a Lego model, fixing a university, doing a recipe, like we, unless you stop us, we default to addition, and then to make things worse, and then I'll get Rebecca on this, she knows a lot about this, to make things worse, many organizations do this. What they do is they reward people who do addition, not people who do subtraction. And and the classic thing, and this applies to my own university, but it applies to many other organizations. In many organizations, the more people who report to you, the more you get paid. Which is a beautiful way to get people to build fiefdoms and may partly explain why Stanford now has about the same number of administrators as students. So you've got the bias and you got the rewards and Rebecca knows a lot about this.

Rebecca:

Yeah, I think that the fact that organizations do reward and incentivize for addition is a key part of the problem. And even when we think about meetings, often, the more meetings you have on your calendar, the more important you seem, the more productive you seem. And it couldn't be more wrong, that sort of mentality. Annual planning is going on right now for almost every meeting. Company at least in some respect and you see it's all about more. It's all about what can we do more next year? There's very few items on those lists of company plans where it's you know Let's subtract something that didn't work this year and really bake that into the overall strategy for next year. It's a Perverse incentive system in organizations where it's more output, more things on your calendar, more process, more people, more procedure, and it's detrimental, especially in this world of overwhelm. So

Elise:

given that, and given your, all your experience in these books you've read and studies you've done What have you found that actually works for once you've developed a successful subtraction mindset and approach for maintaining it on a personal level? Is there a ritual? Like a, what can I kill today a ritual or, and on an organizational level is there anything you've found where you can, where groups are successfully rewarding and celebrating effective maintenance and problem prevention, for

Bob:

example, we have a lot of well, the collaboration plans that especially the meeting reset that Rebecca lead actually worked, especially the meeting reset. We have lots of examples of that. One example, a case study that Huggy Rao and I did that it was for AstraZeneca and they had something they called the million hours camp. Pain where they had a little group in New Jersey who led basically a subtraction and simplification campaign throughout this huge multinational and everything from, and I already mentioned one thing they did, which is a default meeting went from 30 to 15 minutes. They did things like when people were on board and 1 thing that caused a lot of confusion and friction is very often would take more than a week to have the laptop set up and to be in the network. They just had a constraint that really that had to happen. So that was in the and then they did bottom up stuff. They had simplification champions all throughout the world who made decentralized changes and they married them together. So it is possible to, from that perspective, I think, to have a movement. And by the way no layoffs were part of that simplification. Sometimes layoffs are so so that's possible. But but it does retain take discipline. And in some ways, I go back to the lively clots finding, which is that When you get people to start thinking about it. A lot of times they actually start doing it. So that's the first step.

Rebecca:

The only thing I would add is sharing those best practices. What I find, especially in some of these large global organizations is there are teams that are highly effective and doing great work and developing practices that are outside of the norm. And there's not that sharing of best practices across the organization. Even, I was talking Customer not too long ago where they have local marketing teams in each region, and they had one specific marketing team in one region that was highly productive, highly efficient, doing really innovative work and not spreading those learnings to the rest of the organization, and especially to those other marketing teams in the other regions. And I think having a culture where you're Celebrating those innovative work practices also some sort of repository where you're able to tell the organization what's not working often and organizations will have some sort of repository where people can voice concerns and voice. Parts of the organization that aren't working broken work practices, and I think surfacing that and really taking a hard look at what's not working and what is working is really important.

Bob:

If only we knew what we knew. We would be great. This is not a new problem, but what we found in scaling up excellence was that a lot of times when excellence fail to spread it was it would be a general command from on high. It would be an hour of training that everybody had everything from AI to design thinking. Pick your disease. But when it actually spread and I'll take the advantage. The case of design thinking at Procter and Gamble. led by amazing woman named Claudia Koch, because she didn't do the thin training. What she did was she'd get one group, it actually was the Mr. Clean group she started with, and got them really going in, in innovation practices. And then she really had that group help train and get another board. So we call it Connect and Cascade. It's a Deep network spread. It's not just the thin coat of excellence. It's, it goes through network effects and spreading people with real expertise and spending real serious amounts of time with them.

David:

Was there some, was there something deliberate or by design of picking the Mr. Clean group?

Bob:

Oh, I know what, the reason was, Claudia, she got hired by A. G. Lafley to lead an innovation movement. This was before anybody used the term design thinking, and she picked the group that was most desperate. They were screwed. Oh, interesting. So they were, and then she really helped, and it was, if they, if she can help Mr. Clean, she can help anybody.

David:

Okay. But that, that also makes them the most open to Hey, we'll try anything at this. There's a lesson there. instead of the, yeah, the mandatory one hour training, it's, I'm going to go and incubate this practice and really show that. Change can happen and there's good outcomes from it. And then people will look to that as an example. It's less direct and in some ways it's more effective if it's less direct, you're just doing it instead of I don't know, design. Design thinking, washing,

Bob:

Yeah. You're doing it. And Right. And and they, they changed what they do. They didn't talk about it. Just they did it. Yeah.

Elise:

But I've seen similar things. When we do meeting, meeting overhauls or, decision making overhauls who can you find who's in extreme pain? And therefore you don't have to convince to participate in the process. And who will tell the story just by default of walking into the room because. tHeir lives have been radically changed. It's like when you get like the perfect home appliance and it just, your coffee's better than it ever has been or whatever, yes, I'm going to tell everybody.

David:

So going from like the getting into a subtraction mindset and going through some of these cleanses. And I think we're maybe getting a little bit more into the friction area to maintain People go on a diet, then they gain weight back. Like we got rid of all these meetings, but then meeting creeps slowly. We just put more, we just put 15 minute meetings back to back where we just went over the deadline. Are there elements? Of friction by design that can help keep the weight off

Bob:

Two points in the one, which Rebecca and I learned together. So where we first got involved in this meeting stuff was, is this 2012, 2013? When did we write that ink piece? It doesn't, I can't remember. 2015. But. But this was something happened in 20. So they had this thing called where Rebecca was working at the time meeting our meeting. Get in. Is that what he called it? Describe our meeting. Get in because it was crazy.

Rebecca:

So this was a drop box and the I. T. Team essentially one night at midnight said. We're going to delete all recurring meetings from employees calendars. There were a few exceptions, customer meetings were spared, but in general, all recurring meetings were, uh, eliminated from people's calendars. And for two weeks each night at midnight, any meetings that had been added back were also deleted. And so it was this for and when we think about top down bottoms up change, this was predominantly almost exclusively top down. And so I think the difference. What we did at a sauna is it was more bottoms up still that top down motion, but much more buy in from the employees we, as we think about laying out the steps that's critical, but our meeting gun and was effective because it. It encouraged that subtraction mindset. It did jolt people out of inertia and the status quo. And so I think it's an interesting juxtaposition of an exclusively top down change, which I think can drive some change, but more enduring change. I think you need to have that. Bottoms up motion. But even as Bob and I studied our meeting, get in, there was for sure a recognition after a few years that we need another, our meeting, get in. And this needs to be a practice we do every six months or every year. And having that constant drumbeat of the cleanse nothing is going to stick forever. And it

David:

normalizes the culture. Yeah, we don't want these extra meetings.

Rebecca:

Yes. And also, meetings, they stick on your calendar without constant reevaluation. And I think your business changes isn't even as especially as we think about AI and some of the practices that we're putting in place or policies around AI today. The AI world and landscape is going to look very different six months in the future. And we just need to be constantly revisiting our work practices in light of new developments of technology, in light of new customers and partners, all the different changes that we experienced in the workplace. Our business practices aren't meant to be, six months stable. They're meant to be constantly reevaluated.

Bob:

We kept trying and trying to get permission from the PR people. They kept saying no. And finally, we just wrote Drew Houston, who was the CEO. He said, sure. So they couldn't stop it. So we got, we go and we talked to him and this right before it came out. And say, Drew, how's it going? He said, it's worse than ever. It's like mowing the lawn. You can't just do it once. You got to keep doing it over and over again. So that's the discipline but there's the discipline. Also constraints. One thing that we know when it comes to organizational design and process design, when you give people simple constraints, they're so powerful. And I remember when electronic health records were implemented in Kaiser, they came up with a really simple constraint. And this is adding friction and some folks, which is it. If a patient asked a doctor a question, the doctor throughout 24 hours. I think that's a pretty good constraint. Some health care and my favorite constraint for friction Is using good friction to get rid of bad friction. This is my and I, we talk about this everywhere. This is Slo Bach. He was head of whatever they called hr at at Google for about eight or nine years. He wrote a book called Work Rules. There was a problem and it was an old cultural artifact at Google that they did at the beginning. That they had a tradition where they would hire or they would interview new employees. five, six, 10, 12, even once. Lazo said 25 times before making a decision to hire them or not, which was great for the first 50 or so people to get the exact right people to build the company. But they were, it was wasting time. They were losing candidates. They were pissing off candidates before they give them job offers. And so what Lazo did was he put in a really simple rule when he was an executive vice president. If you're going to do more than four interviews, You have to give me you have to write me and you have to get written permission from me. And that was the whole intervention. And he said it, it almost, most of it stopped overnight, the excessive interviewing. And to me, that's just that's just like a guardrail or a constraint in a simple rule. It, and by the way, I almost don't like that example, even though I love that example, because it sounds too easy and it worked too well. Cause a lot of organizational change is harder than that. buT but that's an example of a constraint versus that didn't require that much discipline as long as they kept that rule.

Elise:

You don't have to pick up the ant nest and shake the heck out of them like you do. Wake up. No more meetings. You could actually design some constraints in instead. Yeah. So we've explored a lot here. If you were to pull one thing right out of all of this, and I know that there, there are no magic bullets but a place to start from all of the things that we've explored across all of the ways in which people can be overwhelmed. What would you highlight?

Rebecca:

I love the subtraction mindset. I love this idea of the importance of bottoms up top down change. I think what we've really highlighted is we're talking about meetings, we're talking about leadership, we're talking about technologies. These are aspects of work that have been broken for years and sometimes decades and I think the importance of Continuously evaluating how we do work each day and challenging the status quo, not being comfortable in the status quo and really taking a critical look using data of how we can improve work practices starting small. Sometimes it can be a weird intervention, but getting people in that mindset of let's embrace change and let's figure out those small wins that can really drive benefit and impact in our organization.

Bob:

I really like Rebecca's last point. I think I'm gonna double down on that 1. Which is that when large scale organizational change happens, and it actually works and sticks. Yes, there is a North star of the direction we're going. I'm seeing this Microsoft now. 1 Microsoft would be an example to get rid of dysfunctional internal competition and create collaboration and cooperation, but but when organizational large scale, organizational change, Whether it's in a team or a massive organization like Microsoft, when it happens through a series of small steps where people are marching roughly in the same direction. It's, and people are always looking for magic bullets and and ironically, when people are impatient in the short term, they sometimes just add a mess that makes things even harder. In the longterm. So this really weird combination of impatience and patience that great leaders have always intrigues me because what they're impatient about is making, to me, a great leader, making little bits of progress every day, not, riding it on their white horse and killing all the enemy and leaving you or something like that.

David:

So that place to start, if your instinct is we're going to do a design thinking training for everybody in the organization. Probably not the right way to be thinking about. Yeah, I

Bob:

can show you the cases. And so can Rebecca design thinking in particular, when organization we work with change, trained about 20, 000 people. And I, we work with them for years and I always ask them the same question. Can you show me a single product or service that has been improved by design thinking? The answer was no from compare that with Claudia who started and and she actually there was this thing called the magic eraser. You may see what great product she helped them with a process that led to the magic eraser.

Rebecca:

Yeah, I think it needs to be grounded in the problem and the more you can get people have that visceral reaction to, Oh, I sit in 60 percent of my time is spent in inefficient meetings, ineffective meetings, or I'm switching between thousands of different apps and pings each day. I think it needs to be rooted in the problem.

David:

For those people who are just starting out or wanting to continue adding to their subtraction mindset. Where, how do they follow you? Where do they go? What resources should they have? LinkedIn profiles, websites, tools.

Bob:

REbecca's got a whole operation there. The sound of work innovation lab, right? Yeah.

Rebecca:

So we have all our research we publish on work, innovation lab. com. And then Bob and I write a lot of pieces together. I'm on LinkedIn as well. And love collaboration. I think a core. Thread through all of Bob's work with us at the lab is just the power of collaboration and bringing together different groups and different mindsets and different perspectives is really healthy in terms of encouraging organizational change and bringing about positive change.

Bob:

For me, probably bobsutton. net. I'm also on LinkedIn. Who knows how much longer I'll be on Twitter slash X. And then the main thing that I'm focusing on these days with Huggy Rao and Rebecca too is the Friction Project, which comes out in January I'm quite interested in leading at scale. So how to grow organizations, how to spread. We talked a lot about spread for any good thing in organizations and then how to deal with organizations as they get larger and more complex. And that's, I think the sandbox that that I've been playing in for years. And the friction book is part of that, but that I tend to think of leading at scale is my focus in my, at this current stage of my career. I'm going to add

David:

that the podcast. Cause I've gone back and I've started to listen to episodes of the friction

Bob:

podcast. Yeah, it's

David:

pretty good. And I think it holds up. I think the last season was 2018. Yeah. I think that's if you can't wait for the book to come out. You can go

Bob:

So if you're gonna listen to the podcast, I'll give you the sneaks that listen to Kim Scott and Patty McCord.

David:

I'll go back and listen to those two. Rebecca and Bob, thank you so much. Thank

Bob:

you.

David:

Thank you for joining us in the lab. We appreciate our guests for contributing to the thoughtful discussions on the future of work. A quick nod to Padraic, our behind the scenes maestro, for making each episode possible. If you've enjoyed the ideas we've explored today and want to put them into action, check out our companion newsletter at labs. newrulesforwork. com for the practical activities and additional resources. Don't forget to subscribe, rate, and leave a review on your favorite podcast platform. Your feedback is the catalyst for our ongoing journey into the future of work. Thank you once again for joining us. We'll see you next time in the lab.

Understanding Corporate Overwhelm
The Exhaustion of Leadership Positions
The Role of Technology in Overwhelm
The Impact of the Pandemic on Tech Investments
The Importance of a People-First Strategy
The Balance Between Bottom-Up and Top-Down Strategies
The Role of Meetings and Collaboration Tools
The Importance of Team Resets and Refreshes
The Mythical Man Month and the Problem of Overstaffing
Apple's Unique Approach to Team Management
The Human Tendency Towards Addition and Its Impact on Organizations
Maintaining a Successful Subtraction Mindset
The Power of Constraints in Organizational Change
The Importance of Continuously Evaluating Work Practices

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