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Contributor Safety in Practice

During this episode of Culture by Design, we're continuing our four­-part series on the change management principle, Behave Until You Believe. These episodes are focused on the practical application of each of the four stages of psychological safety and, this week, Tim and Junior tackle Stage Three: Contributor Safety. During the episode, they'll discuss our innate need to make a difference, the relationship between autonomy and accountability, and relevant examples and behaviors that will help you put contributor safety into actual practice. 

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Episode Show Notes

During this episode of Culture by Design, we're continuing our four­-part series on the change management principle, Behave Until You Believe. These episodes are focused on the practical application of each of the four stages of psychological safety and, this week, Tim and Junior tackle Stage Three: Contributor Safety. During the episode, they'll discuss our innate need to make a difference, the relationship between autonomy and accountability, and relevant examples and behaviors that will help you put contributor safety into actual practice. 

What is contributor safety? (04:04) In this third stage of psychological safety we give others autonomy with guidance in exchange for effort and results. This stage is all about the human hunger for meaning. While it’s great to be included, to learn, grow, and develop, that’s not enough for most people. Deep in our hearts we have a need to make a difference.

The balance of autonomy (12:35) Tim and Junior discuss the delicate balance between autonomy and accountability. If your teams want autonomy, they have to learn to love accountability. Ask yourself this diagnostic question: Do I gravitate towards transparency or do I gravitate towards ambiguity? 

Behavior #1: Communicate Tradeoffs (18:33) Everything in life is a trade­off. Effective execution and consistent innovation depends on our ability to effectively choose to do some things instead of other things. Tim and Junior explain the power that comes from deliberately saying no to good things to make room for better things. Do we celebrate and encourage that choice?

Behavior #2: Give People the Why (28:07) Urgency may get you started on an endeavor, but the deep "why" keeps you going long after that initial excitement has worn off. And this doesn't always have to be institutional! Your "why" can live at the individual or team level and be just as effective.

Behavior #3: Let Them Do it Their Way (33:51) When we increase autonomy in an organization, we increase risk. Many organizations believe that micromanaging will mitigate that risk, but that's not the case. If you give autonomy to employees who want to do their best work, you'll get their best work as long as they have equal amounts of autonomy and accountability. 

Important Links
The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety Behavioral Guide

Episode Transcript

0:00:02.4 Producer: Welcome back, Culture by Design listeners. It's Freddie, one of the producers of the podcast. In today's episode, we're continuing our four-part series on the change management principle, Behave Until You Believe. These episodes are focused on the practical application of each of the four stages of psychological safety. This episode is on contributor safety in practice. Tim and Junior will discuss our innate need to do something that matters to make a difference. They will discuss the relationship between autonomy and accountability, and of course provide relevant examples and practical behaviors for you to put contributor safety into practice. As always, this episode show notes can be found That includes a link to our free psychological safety behavioral guide with over 100 practical behaviors to improve psychological safety and culture. Thanks again for listening. Enjoy today's episode on contributor safety in practice.

0:01:06.4 Junior: Welcome back everyone to Culture by Design. My name is Junior. I'm here with Dr. Tim Clark, and today we'll be continuing the Behave Until You Believe series and discuss behaviors that foster contribution, contributor safety in practice. Tim, how are you? 

0:01:22.2 Tim: Doing great, Junior. Good to be with you.

0:01:23.3 Junior: Likewise. Today we'll be diving into our top three picks from the 4 Stages Behavioral Guide as actions we can all take both individually and institutionally to behave until we believe in stage three contributor safety. So as a recap, individual and organizational transformation has five steps. We've talked about this the last two episodes so I'll be brief; awareness, understanding, appreciation, behavior, and belief. You'll notice the sequence of those five, and some of you may think, well, that's an interesting sequence. Why is it the way that it is? Tim, there's a little bit of controversy on one of these, isn't there? 

0:02:01.8 Tim: There is. There's a controversy about the last two steps. So does behavior come first and then belief, or belief and then behavior? There's controversy on that point. Think about that. Do you need belief before behavior? Think about personal change. You can't achieve belief or conviction about something while you're in a passive state. That conviction can only come as you exert effort. And yet we see organizations stall in the transformation process, in their transformation efforts, as they continually focus on what? Awareness. It's an awareness campaign here, it's an awareness campaign there, and they think that after the awareness campaign that they're going to go automatically to belief, but they haven't jumped into behavior. So they're missing that. And so we have to jump into behavior and then the belief will come. It's a very interesting thing. It's almost counterintuitive, but we can't be passive and expect that we're going to cross that threshold of conviction. We have to get up in doing, and then in the process of doing, in that self-discovery process, as we're having experience, then the belief becomes solidified.

0:03:26.6 Junior: You may recall two episodes ago, we talked about the model and we talked about that chasm that we have to cross, the threshold of conviction, and in order to cross from belief to behavior, we need to move through that. And most organizations fail right there because they work only on the head. We talk about head and heart and hands. They're working on the head through these awareness campaigns that Tim mentioned, but in order to be successful, we have to engage our hands simultaneously to generate the confirming evidence that what we're doing works and that it's the right thing to do.

0:04:01.9 Tim: That's right.

0:04:04.0 Junior: Recap on contributor safety. What is it? It's the third of the four stages. It's social exchange is autonomy with guidance in exchange for results. Contributor safety satisfies the basic human need to make a difference and offer meaningful contribution. When we create contributor safety for other people, what do we give them? We give them autonomy, we give them guidance, and we also give them encouragement in exchange for their effort and their results. Tim, what would you add? 

0:04:34.4 Tim: Well, I'd add that we need to think and reflect on this stage carefully. This is the stage that is about the human hunger for meaning. It's great to be included. So if we recap the stages a little bit, Junior, stage one is inclusion safety, and it's extremely important that we're included, we're accepted, we have that sense of belonging. We are relational creatures; we do long to belong. That's a very deep fundamental human need. And then also stage two, learner safety. We do need to learn and grow and develop mastery, and that's also a deep-seated human need that needs to be satisfied. But that's not enough. We can't stop there. We have to keep going because there's another human need that is so fundamental that we need to satisfy, and that is the fact that deep in our hearts we have a need to do something that matters to make a difference. That's what we're talking about with stage three contributor safety. That's the human hunger for meaning. Isn't it interesting that you can be included and you can learn and grow, but you're still not quite, you're not there. You're not satisfying this need to do something that matters to make a difference in the world. That's the next need, and it's something that we have to satisfy, we have to keep going to this stage three contributor safety.

0:06:04.3 Junior: I think for each of us, if we think about the times in our careers, our personal lives where we've been most satisfied, what characterized that period? Contribution was definitely a part.

0:06:17.8 Tim: Yeah.

0:06:18.3 Junior: I can't think of a single time where I felt high satisfaction and high engagement, I wasn't doing anything.

0:06:22.8 Tim: Right.

0:06:23.5 Junior: I don't think that that's true for humans. I don't think that we can get high engagement, high satisfaction, without contribution. So I'm absolutely convinced that it's an innate human need. We need to be able to make a difference and do something meaningful. And it's not just activity; it's meaningful activity. We have to do something that we think matters.

0:06:42.0 Tim: Very true.

0:06:44.7 Junior: So let's talk about accountability for a second, because this is an interesting piece of stage three, contributor safety. We've talked in the past about the three levels of accountability, task, project process, and outcome. When you have high contributor safety in your organization, your team thrives under outcome, accountability, level three accountability. The roles are very clearly defined, but people are encouraged to think outside of their roles, and they're given autonomy for implementation. And we'll talk about that a little bit later. Small wins are celebrated. When you don't have high contributor safety, autonomy may be given with, and if it is given, it'll have little guidance, maybe no guidance. And if it's not given, there's no autonomy. Maybe it's high micromanagement and it's high control, and team members may feel like they're just benchwarmers or they're just cogs in a big wheel. They are not doing anything of their own discretion, they're being told exactly what to do. And so this accountability piece, the autonomy piece, really interesting. What do you have to say about this, Tim? 

0:07:52.2 Tim: Well, actually Junior, you made this statement, and I just wanna repeat it and underscore it. You said, "If your teams want autonomy, they have to learn to love accountability." I wanna say that again, I love this statement so much. If your teams want autonomy, they have to learn to love accountability. Those two principles go together. We should never even think about divorcing those two things. They go together. Autonomy and accountability go together. Autonomy is never free. We earn autonomy based on the fact that we're demonstrating ourselves to be accountable. We want to be accountable for our performance, we want to be accountable for our results, and we're happy to do that. Junior, that reminds me of another principle that I've seen over and over again, and that is, in life, in organizational life, in personal life, in any aspect of life, high performers want to be measured. Isn't that interesting? 

0:08:54.3 Junior: Yeah.

0:08:55.0 Tim: Now, high performers want to be measured, but low performers, they don't want to be measured. They want to swim in the ambiguity. They don't want to be measured. Isn't that interesting? High performers want to be measured. They want to be accountable. They want to be able to demonstrate the fact that they are contributing, they are achieving, they are accountable.

0:09:19.8 Junior: Yep.

0:09:20.0 Tim: I find that so fascinating, this beautiful marriage between autonomy and accountability. This is what brings happiness and joy in life. And if you try to avoid it, if you try to go around it, if you try to deny it, you never get there, you never are able to experience that deep satisfaction that comes with performance and achievement and contribution.

0:09:43.6 Junior: Yeah. And I don't know if I can take credit for that original statement. If your teams want autonomy, they have to learn to love accountability. I'm pretty sure I pulled that from the most recent version of the behavioral guide. And if I did, then shout out Jillian, because she was probably in charge of that revision.

0:09:57.1 Tim: I love that.

0:09:58.4 Junior: So well done.

0:10:00.8 Tim: Yeah, it's well said.

0:10:02.2 Junior: And the second point, high performers want to be measured. This one I've seen time and time again, and I think that there's something lurking underneath that could be worth talking about. Why would it be that high performers want accountability? And why would it be that low performers don't? Because if you have accountability, it means there's criteria for success, and it means that you are going to be measured against that criteria for success. So, two points here. If there is no criteria for success, you cannot succeed, nor fail. So if you can't fail, then what do we want to do about the measurements? We want them to be fuzzy, we want them to be really foggy. We don't want clear and concise metrics, because that often means that we're gonna be put into a binary environment where we succeed or we fail.

0:10:58.2 Tim: Right.

0:11:00.1 Junior: And so, we don't like that feeling of failure. So we can do one of two things. We can become high performers so we don't fail, or two, we can create really fuzzy accountability mechanisms. We can create really fuzzy, general, foggy accountability metrics. And that way we don't fail, but we also don't succeed and we just live in this ambiguity and this fog and you kind of slink into the background, you try to not be noticed. And then when you go home at the end of the day, you don't have to come to terms with the fact that you failed. You just say, well I just showed up and we did things and it's all great. Right? But if organizationally, we want to be high performing, if as individuals we want to be high performing, we want the failure so that we can see what we're doing wrong, so that we can improve, we can deliberately practice and we can become better.

0:12:00.1 Junior: And so look at people's orientation as you're coaching, as you're building a team, as you're attracting talent, do they want to be held accountable? Do they want clear metrics? If they do, really good indication that they've got a lot of potential, there's room to grow and they're going to do it. If they don't and they shirk and they shy away and say, I don't know, maybe there's another way that we could measure that would be just more... I just don't like that. Right? Okay. Now you see, well, this person's orientation, probably something that we either need to work on or manage out.

0:12:35.6 Tim: Junior, I think there's a diagnostic question that we can each ask ourselves, and we can ask it throughout life. Am I gravitating towards transparency or am I gravitating towards ambiguity? The better you're performing, the more naturally you want to gravitate towards transparency, because you're happy about yourself.

0:13:00.5 Junior: Yep.

0:13:00.6 Tim: You're happy about your performance, you're happy about looking into a clean mirror, and so you're gonna gravitate towards that transparency. Let me give you a very simple example. This is true. Last week, so I have a digital scale in the bathroom, and I get on it, and last week I got on it three days in a row and I'm seeing how I'm doing. And the fourth day, I know I didn't do very well on that fourth day, I didn't get on the scale.


0:13:36.2 Tim: I didn't want to know because I knew that I had, I was backsliding...

0:13:41.0 Junior: Yeah.

0:13:41.7 Tim: Isn't that interesting? 

0:13:42.0 Junior: Yeah.

0:13:42.8 Tim: I didn't want the transparency that day. I wanted the ambiguity thinking, well, you know, I'll come back the next day because I already knew I hadn't done a very good job that day. I find that very interesting. That's just a microcosm or a very small example of the human condition. Are you gravitating toward transparency or are you gravitating towards ambiguity based on the accountability that you're taking for yourself? 

0:14:10.3 Junior: Yep. So here's another angle. Unearned autonomy with no accountability can lead to disorder, discomfort, and dissatisfying results. So that's a combination that we don't want. High autonomy, low accountability.

0:14:25.6 Tim: Right.

0:14:26.2 Junior: And on the other hand, too much accountability with no autonomy leads to micromanagement, handholding, and paternalism. So there's this really delicate balance that we have to tease out over time between the autonomy and the accountability. What's the overarching goal, though? What are we aiming for? We want to transfer two things: Critical thinking and accountability. Those are the things that we're trying to transfer to our people through this process. One last point before we dive into some of the behaviors. Why, I asked myself this question in the last couple days, why is restricting contributor safety so pernicious? We may not see it as a dangerous thing. We may see it as, well, we might just not get the performance that we want out of our people.

0:15:12.8 Junior: And that's the end of it. I think there's more to it than that. So we think about stage one, inclusion safety, and we all can agree, hey, a violation in stage one, inclusion safety is a big deal, right? We're hurting that person. We're being exclusive, we're attacking them fundamentally, right? There's this fundamental element to who they are, and that's why it's so bad. And then we say learner safety, same thing, but maybe people perceive it as a little bit less bad. If you don't allow people to learn, you're just not gonna get the performance you want. And that's the way the conversation goes. But I would put forward that there's something more going on here, that it is almost just as damaging to take away contributor safety as it might be to take away stage one. Now I don't know if that's true, but it's something that's worth discussion. Because what are you doing? You're taking away a fundamental human need and desire.

0:16:13.8 Tim: Yeah.

0:16:14.8 Junior: It's not benign, and it's much more than just slightly negative. I think it's very much injurious. I think that it's very much dangerous. And so we need to take that into consideration and approach it with, I think the same frame in saying, in order for me to really recognize this person's humanity, we need to allow them to contribute. We need to allow them to do work and to do something meaningful. What's your take on that? 

0:16:40.4 Tim: Well, Junior, it's a compelling argument. I think you're absolutely right. And it highlights the relationship between stage one, inclusion safety and stage three, contributor safety. There's a tie there. Stage three, contributor safety is perhaps maybe just the fuller expression in many ways of stage one, inclusion safety, to allow a person to contribute based on their ability and their desire and their motivation is to allow them to be them.

0:17:09.7 Junior: Yep.

0:17:10.9 Tim: Right, it's to allow them to express themselves through contribution. That's part of personal identity. Don't get in the way of that.

0:17:20.4 Junior: Yeah.

0:17:21.3 Tim: Don't be an obstacle, don't hold them back, don't stunt their growth. And sometimes that's what people do when they become paternalistic.

0:17:29.4 Junior: Yeah.

0:17:30.5 Tim: Right? 

0:17:31.3 Junior: Well, I'll qualify this a little bit, because we do say that when we enter into stage three, we're in the performance realm, and people get autonomy as they produce results.

0:17:40.9 Tim: Right.

0:17:41.8 Junior: So where I think this becomes highly damaging is when they've demonstrated the ability to deliver results and then you take away that autonomy and ability to contribute. That's where this becomes most damaging. I'm not talking about someone can't do the job and you then don't have them do the job. That's not what I'm talking about. It's when they can do the job and then you micromanage, that's when it becomes really dangerous. Okay, let's move on. So, an environment of high contributor safety is not the default. That's an assumption that I think is important. So our goal is to create an environment of high accountability and also high affiliation. Creating contributor safety is hard. So how do we do it? Three behaviors that we're going to talk about today. Number one, communicate trade-offs. This is the first one we gonna dive into.

0:18:33.0 Junior: In the behavioral guide, it's shown as, keep focused with trade-offs. I just changed it just a little bit. Communicate trade-offs. Of all the behaviors we could choose inside of the behavioral guide and out, why would we choose this one? Why would this be number one? Now, I don't know that it needs to be number one forever, but for today it's number one. And here's the reason. Effective execution and consistent innovation depends on our ability to effectively choose to do some things instead of other things. That's the crux of the issue here. And if we can't do this well, everything falls apart. Everything in life is a trade-off. This is where it all begins. We need to choose a course of action, and by so doing, we're saying no to a whole bunch of other stuff.

0:19:20.0 Tim: Junior, you're the one that chose this one, right? 

0:19:22.0 Junior: I'm the one, I did.

0:19:25.1 Tim: You're the guilty party here.

0:19:26.4 Junior: No matter what you would've put in here, I would've come in and edited it out right before we started recording. No, I'm just kidding.

0:19:30.4 Tim: Why did this hit you so hard? Why did you give it first position here? 

0:19:38.5 Junior: Because I changed it to communicate trade-offs. Because I've been thinking a lot about our team and my own style, my own preferences, my own tendencies. And often what I will do is, I will show up with just a course of action. And the principle behind this I learned in math class for a number of years, which is show your work, right? Often in an exam, let's say that we're doing calculus, there are a whole bunch of steps that we go through before we arrive at the answer. And those help everyone around see the logical leaps that we're making and in every step along the way. If we just show up with the answer, or in our case, the course of action, it's not enough, because people can't get behind it. They won't have confidence that it's the right answer unless they see the steps you took.

0:20:30.2 Junior: And so for me, the reason that this stands out is because I've been thinking about, well, I haven't been showing my work very well, and maybe that will hurt the conviction of the team when we go a certain direction, because we haven't explored the alternatives or at least communicated them. And so I think that it's very helpful in a team setting, especially to say, here are the things that we could do. Here's what we think the best course of action is and why. And by taking this course of action, we're going to deliberately say no to a whole bunch of other stuff that might be bright and shiny, and also in isolation might be an awesome idea. But contextually because of this, this, and this over here, and because of what's happening over here in this functional area that you may not even know about, we've decided to do this thing.

0:21:18.6 Tim: Well, I think that's particularly true in a team environment, because as we communicate our trade-offs to each other, we're teaching each other. We're coordinating. And it's true. Anytime you do one thing, you're choosing not to do everything else. There are opportunity costs associated with every single thing that you're doing all day long. This is kind of hitting me pretty hard, the fact that not only to make trade-offs, but what you're emphasizing is to communicate the trade-offs that you're making to those around you so that they can see the trade-offs, you're talking about the trade-offs, you're deliberately acknowledging the trade-off as the analysis that you're going through to allocate your scarce resources. I'm saying yes to this, I'm saying no to all of these other things, and I'm sharing that with you.

0:22:10.4 Junior: And here's why I like the math analogy. If we show our work, and there are nine steps before we get to the answer, we can be 80% correct. If we don't show our work, we're either 100% correct or zero.

0:22:26.8 Tim: It's true.

0:22:28.3 Junior: We don't know. And so it allows us to go back and say, okay, this piece was wrong on our way to the decision. There was this trade-off that we made that actually didn't make sense. This assumption wasn't true. And so, instead of just showing up with the answer and it being a binary proposition, now there's gradation and we can say, well, we were mostly right, but here's this little piece, two steps down that went wrong. And because of that, we had this effect on the outcome side. So I think that that's another reason that it's really helpful. And then the last point that I'll make right here is that we don't know everything. And so there may be someone as part of that conversation that as we're going through the trade-offs and communicating them and making the assumptions, they might say, hey, you forgot about this thing. Or, hey, you didn't know about this, but this thing happened two weeks ago. And so it might affect the way that we go right now.

0:23:29.7 Tim: What you're saying, Junior, is they're not gonna be able to help you unless you're verbalizing and vocalizing the trade-offs that you're making.

0:23:35.0 Junior: Precisely. They just show up and say, well, okay, I guess this where we're going. And to my first point, like how much conviction are they going to have in moving down that path if they haven't considered the alternatives for themselves? 

0:23:52.5 Tim: Right. I can't help but think about the fact that in doing this and communicating your trade-offs, you're teaching each other critical thinking.

0:23:58.6 Junior: Oh, yeah.

0:24:01.2 Tim: Right? Because making trade-offs, you're allocating your scarce resources, which are what, your time, your attention, your energy, your money. And as you make those trade-off decisions, that's all critical thinking you're going through. And so if you're sharing that with each other, you're applying the principle of strategy to yourself, to your work, to the entire team. Right, Junior? The definition of strategy that we love so much is the deliberate reduction of alternatives. Well, we're doing that as an organization, but each person, each individual is doing that. And if you're communicating how you're doing it and why you're doing it, then we're all learning together.

0:24:43.0 Junior: That's exactly right. And then implicit in this is the ability to say no. And this is a skill that each of us must develop in order to be effective leaders. If we can't learn how to say no and communicate that to other people, we're gonna have a really hard time. We're gonna lose our focus, we're gonna lose steam. The team's gonna dilute their efforts, they're gonna be going in a hundred different directions. And so, in order to allocate those resources effectively, we're gonna be saying no a whole bunch more than we're saying yes and it's gonna have to hurt. And that's when you know that it's starting to work is when you're saying no to really good opportunities, ideas with a ton of merit that are just not it right now. And that gets really hard to do, especially if you have either you or someone else is really jazzed about an idea and they're like, wow, we should do this. And then through that evaluation, you say, no, I would love to in isolation, if we had infinite time and resource, that would be incredible. I would love to do that, but no, and then stick to your guns and actually not do it. It can be really hard, but something that we absolutely have to understand how to do in order to do this well.

0:25:57.6 Tim: It's hard because it seems unnatural, it seems counterintuitive, it seems that you're going against the set of incentives that are laid out before you. When was the last time, Junior that, that you or I congratulated a colleague for saying no to something? This is not normally something that we recognize or reward others for. But I have to say, I think it was just last week, I was talking to Freddie, our chief marketing officer, and he had just discontinued a couple of activities for the marketing team. And I had a conversation with him and I said, and I had that conversation, and I think I did congratulate him and said, well, I'm glad that you are saying no to these things, that you have come to the conclusion that we need to say no and we need to focus. That's normally an unnatural conversation because activities and priorities proliferate in organizations, there's a natural proliferation of about everything. And so just ask yourself the question, when was the last time you congratulated each other for saying no to things? That's not something that we normally get recognition for.

0:27:18.5 Junior: Totally true.

0:27:18.6 Tim: But we need to think about that because it's every bit as important as saying yes.

0:27:23.8 Junior: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. Another analogy that comes to mind is pruning trees. You have trees, I have trees, and if you don't cut those things back, it damages the tree long term. And sometimes, depending on the tree we're talking about, you have to get out the chainsaw. We're not taking little clippers, we're taking off some big chunks of this thing in order to redirect it, in order to give it future growth. And so a couple days after, man, that might, that thing might look worse than it did. And over time, you see, okay, we're sculpting this into what we want it to be. And sometimes that takes big change and saying no to a certain direction.

0:28:06.4 Tim: It does.

0:28:07.8 Junior: Okay. So, how do we do this effectively? Here's another one. Have your team share the trade-offs they're making. Have that be just an activity that you do that will help. So that's number one, communicate trade-offs. Number two, give people the why. Now, this one's a little more broad. The core belief, the purpose, the reason that inspires your organization, that needs to be public and it needs to be repeated. And another thing that I was thinking about over the last couple days is that this can live at the team level or the personal level; it doesn't always have to be institutional. You don't always have to just blare that institutional mission, although that's important as well. But let's say that you're leading a team and you're like 12 layers deep and you're working on this really specific project as part of this really specific product that's one of 17 products in three product lines that the entity offers, right? 

0:29:03.4 Junior: Maybe that institutional mission is not going to be enough to pull everybody forward. So create the why for your team at a mission level. And then when we start talking tactics, of course that's important too. Why are we doing this on a day-to-day basis? Why does this make sense? It speaks to some of the trade-off conversation, but helping people understand how did we get here and why are we doing this? Not just, this is the direction, and that's all. There's no additional context. You're not gonna get the motivation that you need to get discretionary effort and to really go when things get difficult.

0:29:39.4 Tim: That's true, Junior. We have to ask the question, why is the why so important? Why does it have so much power? I think it has so much power because it taps motivation. As someone once said, the what informs, the why transforms. If you think about an initiative or a change or whatever your priority might be, the urgency gets you started, but it's that deep why that keeps you going long after that initial excitement has worn off. We need that why. It will sustain the effort over time.

0:30:21.3 Junior: Here's a quote from Einstein. If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough. Now, that may seem pretty straightforward, pretty vanilla, but I think that there's a lot behind this. If we can't explain it simply, we don't understand it well enough. Now think about that as it pertains to you and your team. If you can't explain a course of action in simple terms, then you need to go back to the drawing board and think about it more until you can get to the point where you deliver it so succinctly that it is impossible for others to misunderstand. That needs to be the burden and that needs to be the filter. If it is not impossible to misunderstand, it is not clear enough. We make this mistake all the time, myself included, that we just assume, well, this is good enough, we'll explain it in a way that makes sense to us. But if you flip it and say, well, is this impossible to misunderstand? The answer is almost always no. There could be some room.

0:31:20.2 Tim: Yeah, I agree with that. And I think that that logic applies to the first solution here, which is to communicate trade-offs. Are you able to explain that well enough? Right? Because if you can't, then you don't understand it well enough. So you should be able to explain the trade-offs that way. Meet that same standard.

0:31:47.1 Junior: I had a meeting yesterday with a really small team that is in stealth stage startup mode, and they were walking me through the idea and I asked, why are you doing this? And then there was a 12 minute, I kid you not, 12 minute monologue that came after that. And so at the end, we had this beautiful opportunity to say, okay, so when someone asked us why we were doing this, how long did it take us to explain? Twelve minutes. That's not gonna be good enough. Right? 

0:32:21.9 Tim: No.

0:32:22.5 Junior: Especially if you're gonna go and try to raise some money, right? You're gonna need to be able to do that in 10-15 seconds. Give me one sentence. And there's gonna, you're gonna make some trade-offs by doing that in one sentence, right? There's a lot that you're gonna say no to and not say, but what is the essence of what you're saying? How can we clear out all of the filler? How can we get rid of everything that's unnecessary? What are the bones of the idea? And we need to get better at that as leaders. Like throw all of the jargon out the window, forget sounding cool, forget sounding like you know what you're talking about. Just give us the meat. Like what is it that you're going to say? Why are we here? And I think if we're, if we get better at that, ah man, we could get rid of a huge portion of the things that we say, the meetings we have and the activities we do if we could just get to the point. I really believe that, it's something that I'm gonna try and do better.

0:33:20.0 Tim: Clarity has a price though, right, Junior? That means that you've gone through the analysis to get there.

0:33:23.0 Junior: Oh, man. Yeah. It sure does.

0:33:26.4 Tim: So there's a price. You gotta be willing to pay the price for clarity.

0:33:31.7 Junior: Was it Twain? If I had time, I would've written a shorter letter.

0:33:34.4 Tim: Oh yeah. That quote is attributed to many people, including him and Blaise Pascal and others.

0:33:42.9 Junior: Well, whoever said it.

0:33:43.0 Tim: Yeah. It reminds me of that quote from Yuval Noah Harari, "In a world deluged with irrelevant information, clarity is power."

0:33:49.2 Junior: There you go.

0:33:49.4 Tim: That's what we're talking about.

0:33:51.7 Junior: That's what we're talking about. Okay. That's behavior two. Give people the why. Number three, let them do it their way. Peter Drucker said, "The only way to get the best out of people is to give them the opportunity to do their best." Now, this may seem like a funky quote that's slightly adjacent, that's off topic, it's not right on the money. Let me explain why I put this in here. Opportunities for people to do their best, like Drucker said, those are going to be risky for the organization. Autonomy is risk. We're ratcheting up the risk when we ratchet up the autonomy.

0:34:33.2 Tim: That's right.

0:34:34.9 Junior: Now, if people have a demonstrated, a proven track record of delivering results, which is why they got that autonomy in the first place, then we should be pretty confident. That does not minimize the risk. The risk is still there. And so that's why I think that this is so important when we're saying let people do it their way. We're saying give them the autonomy to do their best work, and if you do that, you'll get the best out of the people doing the work. So that's the connection that I think is so important here, is that let them do it their way sounds nice at first blush, like yeah, that's great, but that's risky for organizations, which is often why they take away the autonomy.

0:35:19.9 Junior: They start micromanaging because we feel like that's the way we need to mitigate the risk and get done what we need to get done. Precisely the opposite. We have to be willing to take on that risk, put trust and faith in the people to go out there and do their best and figure out how to do it. But the only way that this works is if you have high accountability, high autonomy people. If you don't have that and you have not developed that, you have no choice but to ratchet down the risk by taking away the autonomy. So this is why the people are so, so, so important. So get good people, I guess is antecedent. And then, okay, let them do it their way after that's true.

0:36:00.6 Tim: That's right.

0:36:01.9 Junior: So, opportunities for people to do their best work. There are a few examples of this that I think are pretty cool. So here's one from Lockheed Martin, is a Skunk Works project. I didn't know this. The SR-71 Blackbird was done in a Skunk Works environment.

0:36:19.8 Tim: Oh, I didn't know that.

0:36:21.6 Junior: Yeah, I didn't know this. So the SR-71 Blackbird, you've probably seen this plane, you may not know it by name, but I'm sure you've seen it at least in a picture; it's a successor to the U2 spy plane. This thing can reach 2200 miles per hour. It can fly above 85,000 feet. Now, it's no longer in operation, but this was incredible in manned reconnaissance. This was like the coolest thing that had ever happened in aviation. I remember the first time... I used to have cards of military airplanes, long time ago, and I remember the first time I saw, there were two of them that were my favorite, the SR-71 Blackbird and the Nighthawk. I thought these are the two coolest planes that I have ever seen. And the Blackbird, that speed, like it's crazy. So forgive me fanboying of the Blackbird, but this comes out of Skunk Works. So how did that come to be? By giving good people an opportunity to do their best. They were given autonomy, with guidance, and they gave you the SR-71 Blackbird. Those are results. And so, would the SR-71 be a thing if they had not been given the autonomy in a Skunk Works environment? 

0:37:40.9 Tim: No way.

0:37:41.8 Junior: No, no, it wouldn't. Another example is Google's 20% time. Now this may be less commonly practiced today, but Gmail is a product of Google's 20% time. They said, hey, 20% of the time you can work on whatever project you wanna work on. What would the world be like if Google hadn't got into email? It would be different. It would be very different today. So what...

0:38:01.4 Tim: Well, Junior, we also have to acknowledge that Google has taken a lot of other moonshots that didn't pan out. They didn't work, right? 

0:38:07.8 Junior: Oh yeah.

0:38:11.6 Tim: So we have to acknowledge that. But that's part of managing risk. That's part of granting people the autonomy in exchange for their performance as part of this whole process that we have to go through.

0:38:25.8 Junior: So we may not be building airplanes, we may not be building web apps, but whatever your domain is, think about how you might do Skunk Works. How might you do 20% time? What's the application for your environment where you could give a little bit extra autonomy in a sandbox safe environment and see what people can do. Maybe you say, hey, this product or this process, here's your outcome. I want this to be at least 10% better. That's all. And I don't care how you do it, but just go make it 10% better. See what people say. See what direction you go. You may find something really interesting. So the last part here that I think is worth calling out, is mission style orders. So we did a single point lesson that was published not too long ago, and it talks about centralized command, distributed control, and decentralized execution.

0:39:22.9 Junior: If you haven't had a chance to listen to that, I think that that's directly applicable to this behavior, let them do it their way. So please go have a listen. Okay. So those are the three. Here's a summary. Contribution is a fundamental human need. In order to contribute effectively, to take accountability, to take responsibility for critical thinking, we need an environment that supports us in those three things. Now, there are many ways to do this. We've talked about three today. Communicate trade-offs, give the why and delegate the how. If we can do those three things well, I think we will create much higher contributor safety, we'll develop our skills as leaders, and we'll have much better outcomes as teams. Tim, what are your final thoughts? 

0:40:12.8 Tim: Well, I would just reiterate the fundamental social exchange for stage three, contributor safety, Junior, which is autonomy with guidance in exchange for results. That's a beautiful equation.

0:40:28.3 Junior: It is. So keep it top of mind. And as you go into the next few days of work, try and keep that as top of mind as possible and integrate these into your behavior. Alright. Well, thank you everyone today for your attention. We appreciate your listenership very much, and we hope that today's content was valuable. If it was, please share it with someone who you think might find it valuable also, and leave us a like and a review. Take care everyone. We will see you next episode. Bye-bye.

0:40:57.5 Producer: Hey, Culture by Design listeners, this is the end of today's episode. You can find all the important links from today's episode at And if you've found today's episode helpful and useful in any way, please share with a friend and leave a review. If you'd like to learn more about LeaderFactor and what we do, then please visit us at Lastly, if you'd like to give any feedback to the Culture by Design podcast or even request a topic from Tim and Junior, then reach out to us at or find and tag us on LinkedIn. Thanks again for listening and making culture something you do by design, not by default.

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Episode Transcript

What’s a Rich Text element?

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