Author Aaron Dignan on Transforming Your Middle Market Company
Author Aaron Dignan is founder of The Ready, an advisory firm that’s helped organizations like Microsoft, Citibank, and Airbnb change the way they work. His new book, Brave New Work (Portfolio/PRH), offers a proven, highly-effective approach to transforming over-complicated bureaucracy, meeting (and email) overload, and worn-out processes into more adaptive ways for organizations to get work done.

 The NCMM recently spoke with Dignan about how his ideas apply to middle market companies. What follows is an edited transcript of our discussion.

What’s wrong with the way middle market companies “typically” approach change?
Dignan: What all companies get wrong about change boils down to the difference between a complicated system, a linear, predictable system that an expert can fix, where problems can be solved, and a complex system where, at best, problems can be managed and we have to interact with the system in order to understand it. Most change management is still extremely linear, step-by-step, and happens to everybody at the same time. It's top down, and it's trying to control something that doesn't want to be controlled. So organizations are misunderstanding what they’re addressing (a complex system, and not a complicated one), which leads to bad choices and bad outcomes.

How do people and complexity form any company’s “operating system” (OS)?
Dignan: We’ve seen different mindsets emerging within organizations. Some mindsets are about agility and testing and learning. Some are about human needs, equity, diversity and inclusion, and participation. I did a big mind map and figured out how everything was connected. First, people are inherently capable of autonomy and trust. Second, the context in which we're working matters, with complexity increasingly being the norm.

Organizations need a way of working that's about learning and interacting with the world, making sense of things as they happen rather than planning and predicting, as well as thinking about the people in the organization as fully capable and worthy of trust. There are some businesses that are really good on the complexity side, like Amazon or Facebook, where they learn and steer faster than anybody else.  And yet sometimes they miss the human side. Then there are organizations that are really human centric, but they don't know how to learn and win the market very well. Both sides are important for an organization’s operating system.

Why aren’t more organizations reinventing themselves to become more adaptive?
Dignan: There are all these attractive illusions around control. You have the power to make everybody give you a plan, then you approve it, you have budgets, and you have all these trappings of control. It can feel good having rules in place, for instance, to prevent accidents. But we’re not in control just because we have a plan and processes. The other problem is that many leaders feel stuck. If the process stinks, they just keep their heads down and keep shoveling: they give up on even trying to change things for the better.

What does it mean to be complexity conscious about information sharing inside an organization
Dignan: Organizations need to accept that some things are inherently unpredictable. So if change is happening fast, the information that people need at any given time and the person who needs that information might be unknown. The idea of “need to know only” gets undermined, because we're just not sure who needs to know what and when.

You have to adopt a posture of “let's make it all available” and let people discover what's valuable to them, where they can find anything they're looking for. And if they have insights, they’re encouraged to share them. But in the few places where you need information locked down, you can be deliberate and conscious.

 How might this relate to driving innovation at a middle market company?
Dignan: It’s about openness. We typically think about innovation as a single department like R&D or a specific job title. So there are people who “do” innovation and people who don't. It’s much more valuable to think about innovation as non-binary, a healthy part of all processes, of all departments, of all roles, of all functions. Innovation actually comes from randomness, collision, serendipity, freedom, trying lots of different things. Providing open access to information helps create a culture where everybody can innovate.

So how can middle market companies change the way they approach change?
Dignan: We can't approach change as linear, like a wristwatch that we're fixing with new cogs and sprockets. We have to approach it as a garden, something we need to constantly nurture and interact with. There has to be real participation. Organizations often change in a very top down way, led by the few. It's much more interesting to turn that on its head and say, what if we changed in every team at every level at the same time and invited people to answer one question: “What's stopping you from doing the best work of your life?” Then let each team design how to get people there.

It's a big shift for leaders. They’re trading one kind of power for another. It's power “with” rather than power over. You have to put ego aside and say, "what am I here to do?" You're clarifying and holding a space around a problem or challenge, and saying to people, "this is what we're doing and this why we're doing it." Eventually that space becomes communally-owned and that's good. Keep the space open for feedback and questions, listen to all the voices. That’s a big part of any leader’s role.

What are some of the principles for practicing this change management approach?
Dignan: Start with the tension, what’s holding people back. We can then say, "what could we try that would make things different?” It’s just building that muscle of awareness. How are we working now, how's it serving us or not serving us? What can we try? How would we design an experiment to test something new? Then focus on starting small, learning by doing and getting more data from trying something. Once teams learn how to navigate that loop from tension to practice to experiment and back again, the sky's the limit.

Does the size of the organization impact your ideas?
Dignan: Size is used as an excuse to do or not do something: oh, maybe that works for small companies or big companies but not middle market companies. The ideas in the book scale, for organizations as big as 80,000 employees down to as small as ten.

But what works at different scales is different. Whether it’s structural changes, whether it’s how you move information around, it's going to be different solutions at different scales. I love working with middle market companies in particular because they’ll get somewhere in a shorter time span, driving that impact. It makes a huge difference because everybody at a middle market company can feel the energy around change.

Listen to the full interview with Aaron Dignan on Spreaker.