Curiosity Killed the HIPPO

One of the hardest things for leaders to do as they find success in their careers is knowing when to shut up. The more senior a leader becomes, the more the people in their organisation scrutinise their every word and action. Suggestions become commands that quickly cascade throughout the company. A view stated too early in a conversation will close down any contrary views reducing the quality of decisions and ideas. Well intentioned leaders wanting to add improvements to ideas presented to them can destroy the commitment of the person delivering the idea by appearing to make the suggestion their own.

In their defence leaders are expected, by all around them (including themselves) to be the expert in the room. The Highest Paid Person’s Opinion or HIPPO tends to win the day. In our fast changing, complex world where no one person can be the expert in anything, this is increasingly a problem. Mental models that have served us well are no longer relevant. Leaders need to ensure they take advantage of the collective intelligence in the room and fill missing information with data and experimentation. The first step is to listen to others and seek out data before speaking out.  

In his book Rebel Ideas, Matthew Syed talked about the value of having diverse teams so that more is known about problems before deciding on a course of action. The more diverse the team the more diverse the opinions and thought processes are and the better the decision making.  However to allow this diverse collective intelligence to operate, there needs to be an environment where people feel they can air a contrary view without fear of negative consequence.  It is a leader’s role to create such a climate. For many leaders this does not come naturally. Some I speak to who have, shall we say, an “assertive manner” tell me that people need to “just grow a backbone” or “get thicker skin”. This is obviously an attempt to put the blame for the problem that they have created on others.  Leaders should go into decision making processes with intellectual humility and genuine curiosity. Curiosity is the antidote to fear. As a guide there are 3 steps that leaders should take when embarking on a decision making journey.

  1. Assess the dimensions of the problem. Problems and decisions come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some require urgent action where there is no time for discussion. Some have critical implications where delegation is not appropriate but a  good proportion are suitable for discussion and are an opportunity for everyone to learn.
  2. Ensure the knowledge in the room is aired. All too often a leader (Boss Bob in the picture above) does not extract the collective intelligence in the room. Not only does Bob think that he understands pretty much everything about the issue in hand, he airs his opinion too early closes down others who have have alternate views and suggestions on how to improve the decision. It is often the quietest person in the room (Introverted Irene) who has the most valuable thing to add but is drowned out by the loudest (Loud Larry) who has an inflated view of their expertise. Like all companies, at DBS we had our share of Bobs, Larrys and Irenes. So we introduced a meeting ritual called Wreckoon. Wreckoon was an idea borrowed from the software developers at Netflix. In order to encourage their developers to write stable code, they introduced software into their data centres to deliberately cause problems, for example intentionly shutting down a server. Netflix named this software chaos monkeys and formed a new discipline called chaos engineering. At DBS our developers did something similar in our data centres but named the software Wreckoon. In order to improve our decision making processes, we had the idea of applying chaos engineering to our meetings to ensure we were maximising collective intelligence and encouraging alternate viewpoints that would be the equivalent of shutting down a server. We mandated that in meetings, there needed to be a “Wreckoon” slide inserted at the most critical point in the associated slide deck. This slide apart from having a cartoon image of Wreckoon would ask questions such as: What have we missed?  What is the contrary view?  When the slide was shown, the chair of the meeting encouraged everyone to answer the questions especially those that had not yet spoken. The results were very positive. In my experience, 90% of the time when we used Wreckoon we got valuable information from the group that we would have not otherwise.  More importantly, Wreckoon became part of the vocabulary.  People would say “I am going to be a Wreckoon here”. This was a signal that someone was going to air a contrary view but with the safety of knowing that the behaviour was to be encouraged.  
  3. Extract the knowledge that does not exist in the room. Not everything can be known before a decision is made but there should be explicit consideration for what is not known and whether there is data or experiments that can fill the gap in the timeframe.  The leader’s role is to encourage the team to experiment and analyse any data. The leader needs to ensure that he/she does blindly overrule the data based on their own potentially outdated mental models. This behaviour is the subject of my next post.

“Intellectual Humility” is the second of the 6 habits required to lead transformation.  My last post covered the first – “Insistence on Improvement”.

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The Fight Against Corporate Inertia

People do not resist change, companies do.

Companies are designed for inertia. They are made up from standard processes to drive productivity and policies to ensure people do not cross lines. We hire people who are like us and place them in an organisational structures where they sit with people with the same skills. We set higher performance targets each year but the default mechanism to achieving them is to work harder rather than change the way we work. To drive improvement in this environment is to push against the very fabric of the organisation and any brute force attempt to do so is destined for failure. Only by systematically addressing each of these components will a climate for change emerge where people can embrace change and sustained transformation becomes possible. In parallel, leaders need to be the enemy of the status quo and create the expectation that improvement across the company is the norm. There are 3 essential areas for leaders to focus on.

Create the expectation to improve

Over a decade ago, when I was studying lean principles, I travelled to Japan on a study trip to tour to and learn from respected manufacturing plants. I was guided round one of the factories by a sensei (quality guru). At one of the stations he stopped, glanced at some documentation displayed and proceeded to scream at the section supervisor in Japanese. Once he had finished he explained to me very calmly that the supervisor had not updated his standard work for 6 weeks meaning that he had not found any improvements on how the job should get done. He added that the role of leaders is to solve problems and drive improvement. Otherwise why did we need leaders? He expected that each supervisor should update their standard work at least weekly. Whilst I did not support his fear-inducing leadership style, his drive of continuous improvement was a light bulb moment for me. The sensei had created an expectation for improvement. He went on to tell me that the 2 most important questions for a leader to ask were firstly “How are you performing to standard?” in other words: given the current resources and processes are you hitting the expected levels of productivity, quality etc. And secondly “What experiments have you run to move to your target state?” You will only be able to improve if you change the way you work – it is not about working harder and this is best achieved through experimentation.

These two questions may seem very operational in nature but they can and should be adapted to all parts of an organisation. People across the company should be rewarded for improving how the job is done not just performing the job.

Create the bandwidth to change and then move to BAU

Back in 2009, shortly after I joined DBS my team ran a programme aimed at taking customer waiting time out of our processes. DBS was known as Damn Bloody Slow since we were famous for long queues at our branches, ATMs and call centres. My team set up a program of process improvement events (PIEs) which were week-long workshops attended by employees who between them knew the target end-to-end process. They physically walked the process identifying issues and then back in the room ideated improvement ideas and implemented as many as possible in the week. In the first year we ran close to 50 PIEs and we dramatically reduced the customer waiting times, taking an estimated 250 million waiting hours out of our processes. We went from the bottom to the top of the customer satisfaction scores in 12 months. The PIE program could only have happened had there been a dedicated transformation team driving it from the centre. The team designed the approach, scheduled the workshops, provided the training, facilitated the sessions and reported on the progress to the CEO. We were highly successful for a couple of years but as focus moved onto the next transformation and since the people participating in the PIEs had day jobs, the focus began to wane. The improvement workshops were seen as one-off exercises. The expectation for improvement was episodic and not continuous.

We realised that we had to embed the need for improvement into BAU. We pivoted the program after a couple of years to replace the workshops with DMS (DBS Management System). Business reviews were no longer conducted in meeting rooms but on the operations floor at visual management boards. Leaders asked a version of the 2 questions from the Japanese sensei – “What are the issues that are preventing you performing to standard levels of quality, productivity and risk?” and “What experiments are you planning to get to the target improved state?”

With this approach the onus was on the leader to walk the floor, to ask the right questions and create the expectation that driving improvement was part of the day job, not a one-off project.

Create a safe environment to challenge

There are points where even the most empowered team feel that they have hit a brick wall. This typically happens when they run into an ingrained corporate habit or out of date policy? Common comments include “We cannot change, it is against the policy” or “our compliance team will never agree”. For people to be able to overcome such situations, it is important to put in place mechanisms to allow anything to be challenged safely. In the PIE program we ensured that there was a compliance person in the PIE team to address concerns early and be part of the solution. Later we set up a Kiasu committee (Kiasu is a Singapore dialect term meaning fear of missing out or to be overly conservative). Anyone could bring a policy to a Kiasu Committee to be reviewed. The committee was chaired by the Compliance head (who dressed up a like a judge and had an over-sized gavel) and made up of a “jury” comprising senior and junior employees who deliberated whether the policy was “guilty” of being Kiasu. If found guilty the process would be amended. The environment was fun and good-natured. In the first year, around 100 policies were challenged with over half being found “guilty” and amended. Quite often the owners of the policies that were deemed to be “not Kiasu” felt that they could improve and amended their policies anyway.

“Insistence on Improvement” is the first of the 6 essential habits of leading transformation. I will be covering the other 5 in coming weeks.

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