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Great Leaders Ask Great Questions

May 20, 2016 by lsmit@wemanity.com in  Blog

For the last few years, I’ve been working with and studying some of the best teams in the world; Red Arrows teams, SAS and US Navy SEAL units, Racing yacht crews, a Formula One pit crew, etc. I set out to study teamwork. In particular, I wanted to know how these teams have become world class. In the course of my studies, I identified six common characteristics, which differentiated these incredible teams.

Interestingly, I didn’t set out to study world class leadership. However, when I found world class teams, I also found world class leadership (I know, I probably should have expected that!). So, as well as studying teamwork, I also began to look at the characteristics that differentiated world class leadership. One of the most powerful insights that I discovered is this…

Great Leaders Ask Great Questions.

In fact, the great leaders that I encountered often didn’t provide any answers! Instead, they realise that the group has the potential to generate a better answer than they could on their own. It’s a principle that James Surowiecki outlines in his book, Wisdom of Crowds. When I shared this idea at an educational conference last year, a Head Teacher responded by saying, “That’s rubbish. Are your trying to tell me that Einstein should ask his class for the answer, and that the class will have a better answer than Einstein?”. “No”, I said, “Einstein is part of the class. So by engaging the class you get Einstein plus the class, not instead”.

Knowing that great leaders ask questions is one thing. Knowing what constitutes a ‘Great Question’, is another. So, what makes a question ‘Great’?

Here are some of my thoughts and reflections…

To me, ‘Great Questions’ are simply the right question, asked at the right time. To ask great questions, we need to understand the problem we’re trying to solve and where we are in the process. Do we need to ask a strategic question, or a tactical question, or one that’s related to implementing and executing a plan?

Strategic Question – Why?

Tactical Questions – What? …. How?

Action & Implementation Questions – Where? …. Who? …. When?

Very simply, it makes sense to understand why we are doing something (and whether we should be doing it), before deciding what we’re doing or how we will do it? Equally, it makes sense to know what we’re going to do, before deciding who will do it, when and where.

To me, ‘Great Questions’ are also well defined and simple. Sometimes it takes time and thought to frame a question well. The world class leaders that I saw at work often ask simple questions, which engage their team to collectively solve a problem. Some of the most powerful questions I’ve heard simply begin with the words, “How could we…?”.

To find out more, read Stronger Together; How Great Teams Work and hear from world class leaders sharing their wisdom on Be World Class TV.

By: Simon Hartley, Founder of Be World Class.


Company culture: an open and shut model

May 20, 2016

There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
And every single one of them is right!

Rudyard Kipling, In the Neolithic Age

How many ways can you categorise the ways that different startups organise themselves, the different flavours and colours of organisational culture adopted by companies through their life (and death). Far more than nine and sixty, I assure you. And, yes, each of them is right. Models of the world are usually helpful in making sense of the continuous chaos of reality.

I’d like to propose a very simple and useful model for startup (and, more widely, company) cultures, that I feel is relevant at this point in history: open and closed.


Closed cultures

There are a number of ways to run a closed culture, but the presence of any of the following features is usually a clear sign of an at least partially closed culture:

– Secrecy by default: Business information is closed by default, on a need-to-know basis. Typically, only the senior management team has access to all the information (e.g. salaries and bonuses, detailed financials of the organisation, etc). These multi-layered secrets often form part and parcel of the power structure: the higher you are, the more information you have access to.

– Top-down, hierarchical management: This can be implemented with varying degrees of flexibility, but the common element is the idea that you have a boss and you should do what they tell you. All closed cultures enable some elements of push-back from those savvy enough to know how to make their points from below, but the general mode of functioning is from the top to the bottom.

– The Pyramid/Career Ladder: Closed organisations are without fail mapped out as pyramid-shaped: there is one CEO at the top, with a senior executive team below, and progressively wider layers as you go down. This Pyramid also provides the Career Ladder – the ever-receding MacGuffin that motivates people to work hard so they can one day get on top of the Pyramid and finally achieve true Success.

– Focus on profit: The more advanced closed organisations tend to focus on profit above all. This is measured as a number and is the primary driver of decision-making. If an action results in more profit, it’s worth doing. If the company makes more profit, it is more successful. Profit is the essential driver of all decisions. “How will it affect the bottom line?” is the main (or perhaps even only) question being asked.

– Motivational measurements and individual incentives: Closed organisations, as they mature, learn to apply measurements as a method of ensuring performance. They will measure everything that can be measure and make up targets and projections (with varying degrees of involvement from those being measured), then hold people accountable to those estimates. Those who meet their targets are rewarded, and those who fail are punished.

– Fixed roles and masks: In closed cultures, you are hired for a specific role. You can progress towards more managerial responsibilities through promotion, but typically, doing things outside of your role is discouraged (if only because it will step on the toes of the person who currently owns that role). In closed organisations you are your role. It’s no surprise, then, that most people put on a mask to go to work: while they are at the office, they are no longer a full person with a variety of wants and activities and aspirations, but a “Web Developer” or a “Marketing Manager”. Professional behaviour is all that’s accepted, and it’s all that’s given.

– Distrust and control: A fundamental assumption of closed cultures is that people are lazy and cannot be trusted, so they need to be controlled, otherwise they will not do any work. This gives even more justification to adding more measurements and narrowly defining roles and performance criteria. When they don’t treat them like mindless cogs in a machine, closed cultures tend to treat employees like irresponsible children.

There are countless examples of closed cultures: most of the companies and organisations in the world are run on the closed model. In fact, in many countries it is illegal to run a public company in an open way .  You’ve most likely worked for a closed company at some point in your life. In fact, chances are you’re working in one right now.

Whilst closed cultures (which form the majority of business cultures today) are clearly capable of delivering great results, they have a number of deadly flaws, which I’ll cover in more detail in a later article. For now, let’s look at open cultures.

Open cultures

If there are many ways to run a closed culture, there are even more ways to run an open one. Each open company tends to have its own way of expressing its culture. However, these are some typical commonalities by which to recognise an open culture:

– Transparency by default: In open cultures, business information is publicly available to all employees. This includes salaries, but also bad news, strategic plans, problems, decisions, ideas, etc. People are trusted to be able to handle that information.

– Flat hierarchy and/or self-management: If everyone knows everything and you’ve hired smart people in the right kinds of jobs, it is very difficult to maintain an arbitrary hierarchy, since everyone can contribute to any decision. When you trust people, it is also unnecessary to set up managers whose job it is to check after them.

– Personal development through work: When there is no career ladder, how do people achieve career progression? The obvious solution is that they take on more responsibilities without having to go “up” an arbitrary ladder. As a natural consequence of that, it is possible for people to fully express themselves in their work, by getting involved in their full range of interests, so they can achieve more personal development than they would in a narrow role with a career ladder.

– Multiple stakeholders, values, and purpose: In open organisations, the idea of valuing profit above all others becomes obviously absurd. It’s not only shareholders, but also employees, suppliers, customers, society, and the environment, which matter. The company does not exist in a vacuum. Values become a way to express what the company cares about, rather just a motivational slogan. Along with the higher purpose of the company, they become the way that decisions get made in open cultures.

– Team or company incentives: There is a progression from the closed culture approach of individual incentives, via team incentives, towards the eventual ideal, which is a system where base pay is determined by a combination of what the person is contributing, what the person needs, and what the company can afford, along with company-wide bonuses. Individual incentives are shunned.

– Self-determined pay: One of the surefire signs of an open culture is when people determine their own pay. In most companies, this is unthinkable. In open cultures, it becomes a natural consequence of all the other stuff. After all, if you trust people to make all sorts of important decisions about the company, why not trust them to make this decision too?

– Separation of role and person: The idea that a person and their role are intrinsically bound becomes visibly stupid as the culture opens up. Eventually, it is clear that people are not their roles, but are capable of engaging in several roles simultaneously, contributing more fully to the organisation’s needs. This further enables people to accomplish themselves and to be fully themselves at work instead of wearing masks. One of the ways this is accomplished is through Open Allocation.

– Trust: Perhaps most important is the fact that open cultures treat employees like adults, trusting them to do the right thing even in complex or ambiguous situations. There are of course processes to help people make better decisions, but the key point is that all these processes start from a perspective of trust and responsibility.

The benefits of running companies this way ought to be obvious, but in case they need to be spelled out:

– People in open cultures are more engaged, happier, more creative, they contribute more, etc. This makes them much more fun to work in, both as a founder and as an employee, but also much more productive – people work much more effectively when they care.

– Having a better environment makes it easier to hire great people.

– Open cultures are way more adaptable to change. Change management is an oxymoron in an open culture: change happens constantly and continually, not through expensive, long-winded, and often failure-prone change processes.

– Because they motivate people so much better, open cultures are, ironically, also better at achieving sustainable, long-term financial results.

There are some examples of open cultures out there, too, to varying degrees.GrantTreeBuffer, Valve and Github, in the startup space, are known examples of open cultures. Others include Semco, Burtzorg, Happy Startup, MorningStar, and many others in all sorts of different contexts and sizes. All companies could adopt an open culture, but most don’t. Why is that?

Reinventing Organisations, by Frederic Laloux, studies a dozen or so open cultures and comes to the conclusion that two things are absolutely prerequisite for an open culture to exist for any length of time: both the CEO/Leader and the owners must be fully supportive of this (currently) unconventional way of operating. Otherwise, eventually the company hits a hard time, and either the CEO or the owners pressure it into returning to a more traditional (i.e. closed) mode of functioning. So the obvious reason why more companies are not currently open is because most CEOs are not prepared to let go of their control mindset, and when they are, the owners (whether private owners or VCs with board seats and a traditional, closed mindset, or simply public markets) frequently won’t let them.

If you’re a founder of a startup, this poses an interesting challenge: are you up to the challenge of creating an open culture in your business? Even when that involves giving up the trappings of power? Even when that involves passing on an investment round from an investor whom you know will force the company to change its ways when it hits a rough patch?

If so, welcome to the club. Follow this blog, and I’ll do my best to share what I’ve learned in transforming GrantTree to be an open company. This is still a new field so we can all learn from each other.

By: Daniel Tenner from GrantTree

Company culture: an open and shut model

Free the office slaves

Mar 29, 2016

Free the office slaves: No more working day.

The 9-5 working day has come to signify office slavery.

In actual fact though, most knowledge workers work longer than 8 hours a day. A 2011 survey (ASHE) suggests that the average manager in the UK works over 9 hours per day, while extreme hours among certain groups (bankers and lawyers in particular) regularly involved sustained periods of working up to 120 hours a week.

What do set working hours signify?

Extreme hours hurt us. A study by Alexandra Michael, published in 2012, followed investment bankers over a 9 year period. The report concluded that people suffered physical, mental and emotional problems, including depression, a greater number of sick days and relationship breakdown.

Even normal hours often hurt us though. Studies suggest that those in the office spend a large proportion of their time unproductively. They might be checking personal emails or social media sites, or simply carrying out their basic work in a very un-productive fashion. Anyone spent ages staring at a spreadsheet unable to make head or tail of it? Ever fallen asleep in a meeting when supposed to be coming up with ground-breaking new ideas?

The energy cycle

Energy, creativity and brilliance rarely arrive on demand. Instead, human beings work in cycles. We can focus for limited amounts of time. After that we need rest in order to recover.


The ‘ultradian’ pattern, as it is known, normally depends on working in cycles of 90 minutes, with energy troughs in between – normally of about 20-30 minutes. The working day takes no notice of this, however.

Sometimes of course, we enter that wonderful state that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi referred to as ‘flow’ – where we are hardly aware of the passing of time because we are so absorbed by what we are doing. When we manage to achieve this, the idea of cutting it off with a commute home or a lunch hour seems crazy.

Manage energy, not time

Radical companies understand the need to manage energy, not time. Sometimes that means that workers can work far in excess of the normal working day – developer stories of being so absorbed in a problem they didn’t leave the office until 3am are common. At other times it means workers do far less than the traditional 8 hours and in a different way – starting late, for example, leaving early to pick up children; taking a walk.

No working day means that life and work are more closely blended. It’s not unusual for radical managers to answer emails late at night or to come up with ideas as they sit on a beach with their family. They are not oppressed by this (“oh no! the phone is beeping again!”), partly because they are just as capable of taking a nap when they feel like it or running errands in the middle of what others would call the ‘working day’.

Being Radical

Leo Widrich is a co-founder of Buffer, a company which allows people to manage multiple social media accounts more easily. He manages his own day by splitting it into 90-minute windows and then achieving a certain number of tasks – one per window. A side benefit is that this helps increase focus on just one task at a time, eliminating much of the cost of task-switching. He then tries to plan his rest periods. Instead of allowing these to be filled up with emails or meetings, he goes out for a snack or reads a book. This ensures genuine downtime that allows the brain to recharge and creative ideas to swim up from the subconscious.

So what should we do?

It’s simple really – set people free to work as much as they want, when they want.

There’s no need to say ‘do you mind if I leave early today because blah blah blah’. Just go. It can help to share with others what you’re doing and how to get hold of you so they can co-ordinate with you, but there’s no need to ask permission.

Nor is there any need for that irritating parade of being the last to leave the office, or the first to get there. If someone is emailing late at night it’s because she had a thought and wanted to communicate it, not to demonstrate how dedicated she is.

Some managers might start sweating in light anxiety. How do you know the person won’t bunk off, won’t take advantage, won’t drop their productivity etc.? The answer is that regardless of hours put in people know if someone isn’t pulling their weight or isn’t performing. You can still ask poorly performing people to buck up or get out. But most people want to do well and want the company to do well so they work hard, but you’ve created an environment that helps them work effectively.

You can just trust them.

And just that one piece of advice – trust – frees up a lot of your own time in or out of the working day.

By: Helen Walton from Gamevy

How the Future of Tech Impacts Work Habits

Apr 29, 2016

During the DevExperience conference on the 25th of March, we sat down with one of the key speakers, Lisette Sutherland, to discuss the ways in which technology advancements, and VR in particular, will impact people’s lives and working habits.

Beaglecat: Could you please tell us something about yourself and the company you run?

Lisette Sutherland: I am the director of my own company, Collaboration Superpowers. Myself and other licensed Facilitators give online and in-person workshops to help companies work better together remotely. I am also the remote team manager at a company called Happy Melly – a global network of businesses that are focused on making people happier at work (included are Management 3.0, my company, LeanChange.org, Improv Agility, and others).

BC: Do you think in 5-10 years we will have offices like we have today or do you think everyone will work remotely?

L.S.: Technology is making the traditional ”9 to 5” schedule unnecessary and less attractive for more and more people, especially the younger generation. The most important thing is working from where you are the most productive. Some people work better on the road, some at the beach, some from the office, some from the comfort of their own home – everyone should choose what works best for them.

BC: Do you think that we will be able to work using Virtual Reality in the near future?

L.S.: They’re already doing it. Virtual worlds have existed for more than 20 years now. People are going to school and earning degrees in VR. People are going to conferences in VR. The military uses VR for simulations.

The only issue is that navigating in VR is very difficult, it’s like learning to play the piano. That’s why it’s not so popular. It’s worth trying it out to see what it’s like to be in a virtual world. For example, you can create an account in SecondLife. When you log in, you are placed on a “newbie beach”, literally a beach for new people. Then you have to learn how to move your character and interact with the world and find your way to the place you want to go (like a conference).

BC: I am guessing that 10 years from now this is going to grow. How do you think this is going to impact us?

L.S.: One thing to be careful of is getting enough real life social activity. Technology has an addictive, unhealthy side to it. Each person needs to create healthy boundaries for themselves. The exciting thing is that with technology people can get together from anywhere in the world and solve interesting and challenging problems. I used to work for a company that was developing an online project management tool. The CEO was building it because he wanted to solve the problem of aging. He was frustrated that longevity scientists all over the world couldn’t properly collaborate together and easily share data. So he set out to build a tool they could use to collaborate at a distance. For me it was an ‘aha’ moment. I realized that if we could get the right people together, we could do great things like curing cancer or stopping global warming, or aging.

BC: What do you think the world will look like in 20 years?

L.S.: It is hard to say because if you asked someone 20 years ago what the future would look like today, they would have probably envisioned it completely different.

I recently held a workshop in Lebanon from the Netherlands using a robot – so I beamed into Lebanon, talked to the people as if I were there in the room. Drivable robots are also available now. For example, my friend from Canada beamed into one of these robots in Las Vegas, I beamed into another one from the Netherlands, and we both attended a conference as if we were in Las Vegas together. We visited booths, saw a presentation, had tea together, all from the comfort of our own living rooms. If you had told me I’d be doing that 20 years ago, I wouldn’t have believed you.

When borders dissolve, the possibilities really start to open up. For example, someone in Romania can work with a team in San Francisco, or a team in Vietnam. Sometimes you need that one guy or girl with that unique skill that nobody has – and what if that girl is not from the city you are working in?

There are also many people in the past that have been limited by location. For example, military spouses, disabled people or retired people. Military spouses have a hard time finding stable work because they are constantly moving. And there are many people who have retired, but still want to practice their craft or continue working somewhere. Because of remote technologies, there’s a whole new pool of people to choose from for the work that needs to get done.

BC: So do you think that in the future robots will do everything?

L.S.: I think robots should do the boring work and humans should do the interesting work. And maybe in the future not everybody will have to work full time, and maybe that’s ok. Do we have to work 40 hours a week? Why? That was a random number set by Henry Ford. Maybe we could work 20 hours a week and the rest of the time we could travel, or work on our hobbies, or spend time with our family, or just do whatever we want.

BC: What do you think is the influence of technology on productivity?

L.S.: Recently, I see a lot of companies struggling to go from being time-oriented to results-oriented. When we can work from anywhere, the focus is more on what you get done, not how long it takes you to do it. Spending the whole day at the office only means that you spent the whole day in the office, not that you were productive.

Summing up, the good thing about technology is that it dissolves borders but it requires a new way of working. What it means to be “present” at work is changing, and it’s opening a lot of new opportunities. A lot has happened in the last five years. I encourage people to explore some of the new tools and think about how they can use it in their own lives. My Work Together Anywhere Workshop is a great place to start.

Lisette Sutherland is Director atCollaborationSuperpowers.com, a company that helps teams work together from anywhere. She is also the remote team manager for the all-remote freelance team at Happy Melly.

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