Lee Bryant podcast interview: humanising business and finding your people

Lee Bryant

In Episode 27 of the Together London Podcast, I talk to Lee Bryant about humanising business and finding your people. You can follow Lee on twitter @leebryant.

To learn more about these themes, come to #dareconf: people skills for digital workers, 22-23 September 2014 in London.

Listen to the podcast


Download MP3 file, subscribe in iTunes, or subscribe for email updates.

Read the transcript

Jonathan Kahn: I’m speaking to Lee Bryant who’s joining me from the Old Street area of London today. He’s the co-founder of PostShift. Lee, thanks for taking the time to talk to me today.

Lee Bryant: Pleasure.

Jonathan: You’ve recently co-founded this company, PostShift, and you’re about dealing with this idea of digital transformation.

The way that business is done is changing because of the new digital stuff we have access to. Can you tell me why you started the company, and what you’re trying to achieve with it?

Lee: Yeah, sure. We had a background of about 12 years dedicated to mainstreaming the use of social technologies in the work place and in large organizations. We did that for a number of reasons.

Partly because it’s a very logical thing to do. Also there’s a Trojan horse element to it in the sense that if you can humanize organizations by increasing the level of connectedness among the people that make them up.

Then you’re less likely to have bad organizations that, I guess, impose their external costs on the communities and society in which they exist.

We have lots of learnings and some success doing that over 12 years, but we would consistently hit a barrier of organizational silos.

Organizational structural limitations that would prevent us from seeing the really interesting added value benefits that we thought we could achieve with social technology. We sat down and thought about that for a while.

Realized that it was quite remarkable that there was so little innovation in organizational design and how we orchestrate human labor in organizations to achieve things.

We’ve innovated in the technology. We’ve even innovated in the business models recently to a large extent, but very, very little innovation around the structure and culture of organizations.

We figured that this was a natural progression from the work we’ve done around social technology, and then we’d love to have a crack at spending the next decade working on that.

Jonathan: To take you back to what you just said. When you say social technology inside the organization, are you talking about Facebook, Twitter things inside the firewall?

Lee: Yeah, more or less. If you look at the way that business is conducted on a very basic level, much of it comes down to people emailing documents around.

Having meetings and going through over bureaucratic processes and procedures to get things done. It occurred to us really around 2002 that if you look at blogs in those days. If you look at social networks like Facebook and so on.

If you look at micro blogging, micro communication with things like Twitter and Yammer and so on. Then you look at Wikis, and you look at other social tools. You could apply those in the work place, in fact, in a much more meaningful way that we tend to use them in our personal lives.

There’s more common purpose and people are supposed to be aligned towards achieving the same objectives.

Jonathan: Yeah. You may be trying to do something very, very complex with a large number of people. That’s, for example, more complex than a dinner party.

Lee: Yes, that’s right. At least everybody is incentivized to achieve that outcome. Rather than waste large swathes of their time receiving emails and filling in really dull documents and not really using their intelligence. Certainly not using their collective intelligence as much as they could.

We figured that it’s a win-win to use social technology because it makes the work place more interesting, and gives people more opportunities to express their creativity and their skills.

Also it’s a much, much more efficient way of orchestrating the combined knowledge, work, of the individuals involved.

Jonathan: Those are the technologies you in the previous business — were helping businesses to implement. Then you realized that there was this blocker to do with the silos, and the structure, and stuff.

You talked about orchestrating. When you say orchestrating are you talking about the way that we work together?

Lee: Yeah, absolutely. If you take analogs from the non-business world. You look at how protest organizations work. You can look at how armies and military forces work.

You can look at how clubs and networks of people operate. In almost all of these cases you would never find the rigid cascading hierarchy, and bordered lack of collaboration that you would tend to find in a large enterprise today.

In fact it’s almost true to say that no start up in business would ever recreate the structures that we take for granted in a corporate today. You’ve got to ask the question, “Why is that? Why is it that we can tolerate continuing to work with such broken and not fit for purpose structures”?

Jonathan: It’s interesting because when you gave a talk about this at #dareconf mini, you talked about how, when you do create a start-up and then you try to scale it.

Sometimes people go to the obvious structure until they get an HR department, even without necessarily saying, “Well, do we need this? How would this, serve our needs”?

Lee: Yes, that’s right. We lack the mental models and the templates to create alternative structures at scale. When you get beyond 25-30 people, you’re going to start to consider having a management layer.

Then, the management layer will naturally divide into teams, which are competitive against each other rather than always cooperative. Then, you’ll have special functions.

Essentially, when you fill in the boxes and arrows on an org chart, people end up protecting territory. They’re mini empires and they’re going to begin to flesh out and to protect.

Rather than creating a single integrated highly networked highly interwoven collaborative structure, which is logically what you want to achieve with a company.

Jonathan: The thing that’s coming in my head is a lot of people in our industry, particularly in digital end-user experience and product management, will talk about silos being the problem or culture being the problem.

I have struggled with this. I’ve for a while been around saying, “The culture is the problem. Change your culture. That’s the problem.”

I realized that what I was saying wasn’t very constructive because it was just telling people that they were doing it wrong. It wasn’t really engaging with people emotionally and saying, “Why don’t we try and do this thing together and try a different way to do it”?

My question to you is how you make this not about being org-chart nerds and, like, people who study anthropology and, commit to that, to changing that.

Lee: That’s interesting. I’m going to think, first of all, we’ve had 12 years experience talking to people in different roles in these organizations. I don’t think I’ve ever come across somebody who says, “Actually, I’m fine with the structure.

It’s optimal, we can make it work.” Everybody recognizes that it’s clearly not the optimal way of structuring the work that they do.

There really is a desire to do things better. It’s just that, I think in many cases, management and the need to maintain operations in the day to day keep us locked in to that way of doing things because change seems too difficult.

I think in the past, we genuinely have lacked the tools to operate differently. It’s really only with the advent of always-on connected technology and what we call social technology that you can operate in a different way.

If you go back to the history of all this, it did arise for a reason. It arose because pre-telephone, pre-telegraph, this was about the only way that you could guarantee consistency and coordination when scaling up from individual departments to a national or, even, an international scale.

Jonathan: It was a communication problem.

Lee: It was fundamentally a communication problem, but we don’t have that problem anymore. We all have enough technology in our pocket to solve that problem a hundred times over.

It’s not a lack of desire, it’s not a lack of will. I think it’s a lack of knowing how to do it without throwing the baby out with the bathwater and destroying whatever value you have in the structure already.

We don’t say it’s only about culture although it’s largely about culture. What we’re engaged in is an attempt to, piece by piece, create islands of new practice and then have a way of joining them together that can eventually create an alternative structure, within the existing structure.

Jonathan: Let’s explore that island thing because that’s one of the themes I wanted to get to. People say that one of the themes of Agile is ‘Show, don’t tell,’ which I have found incredibly difficult to put into practice.

Because I think so many of my instincts are tell type instincts.

When you say islands, that makes me think of trying to ship something or do something on a small scale, even without permission necessarily, just do it. Then, hope that people come to you and say, “That island seems to be having things happen for me. How do I get the outcomes you’ve got”?

Lee: Yeah, I think that’s true. I’m not quite so black and white in terms of show and tell.

Jonathan: OK, great.

Lee: Because storytelling is still an incredibly powerful motivator of changing behavior. I think if you can create islands you can protect those spaces.

And that requires a degree of executive oversight and a really cool sponsor who will let you make some mistakes and explore some new ways of working.

What we generally advocate, I guess, is that you have walls around that island, but they’re glass walls so people can see in and they can see all of the bounty and beauty of this better way of working.

Jonathan: This is your story, Lee, already.

Lee: [laughs]

Jonathan: You’re telling me a story of a firewall that you can see through but you can’t walk through and tell people to stop doing it.

Lee: Exactly. Then the idea is that you stimulate demand through a pull mechanism by allowing other people to see what’s going on and want to join in but be temporarily barred from doing so.

That creates a head of steam and a desire for them to create their own island or to join the slightly bigger island.

But at the same time I think we do need to tell stories about why we’re doing this, how we’re doing this, and how people felt about it, what their experience of it was, in order to influence other people.

Because a lot of the informing, pop science theory that’s behind this is things like network theory, things like the way that influence spreads in social networks.

Indeed, going back to people like Mike Earls and other work, how we copy each other. We are absolutely hardwired to copy things around us. Mimicry is baked into the way that we operate and the way we learn.

Allowing people to copy that is a better alternative to the old school approach of deriving best practice as a manager and then moving it out of context and trying to replicate it elsewhere.

Jonathan: Yeah. It’s like you pick up the “Harvard Business Review” and you find best practice and then you tell everyone to do it.

Lee: Yeah. That doesn’t really work. But if you can see into this glass-walled island, to mix my metaphors even further…

Jonathan: Yeah. [laughs]

Lee: Then you will tend to try and mimic that.

Jonathan: On this glass-walled island…It may be because I read the book and it made a big influence on me, but I read the Steve Jobs biography. The whole thing, because I was obsessed.

He retells the story, I think it was a rehash of another book which told the story originally, about the Macintosh. It reminds me of the Macintosh, where Jobs decided that his job was to protect his team from Apple.

They flew a pirate flag from the building. It literally was a firewall. That is amazing given that that was the company he had founded and he saw his job as protecting the people, which was like an Agile team, from the outside organization.

That seems to me like that’s one of the stories that you’re telling there. When you talk about finding a sponsor, protecting a space, that’s what it sounds like to me.

Lee: Yeah, absolutely. I always liked reading history, and if you read the history of most revolutionary movements and large-scale change movements in the history of, let’s say, socialist countries in the Eastern Bloc and so on.

They almost always begin with a small, ragtag group of people, real humanists who want to do something good, but they make the fatal mistake of embodying those ideas in a system which is above any individual human.

The first thing the system will do is to seek consistency, seek compliance with its system, and drive out the humanity and the experimentation and the innovation. Milan Kundera’s books about Czech Communism from 1945 onwards are absolutely fascinating.

Full of human stories about how that system would destroy individualism and destroy ideas. I think that’s, for me, it’s almost a guiding principle that anything you build needs to retain its connection with individual humans. Otherwise, it’s in trouble.

Jonathan: That’s really, really interesting to me, because…It makes you think about Facebook. There’s this idea that at the start-up, because of the business model constraint, I suppose, of how do you have a system that people aren’t paying for.

There’s this idea in Silicon Valley that the only thing that will be sustainable is to build something on the scale of Facebook or Google, which is so big that it’s totally dehumanizing, in the sense of it’s a platform that covers the entire universe. Do you know what I mean?

Lee: Yeah. I agree. But I think, to balance that out, the genius of Google and Facebook and indeed start-ups like Uber and Airbnb is that they’re all about connecting us to each other, not connecting us to them.

My connection with Facebook is just through the use of the site. My connection to Google is just through use of its tools and its data. Really what that company’s doing is connecting me to people I do care about, and a bunch of other people that I probably don’t care about.

Yes, there’s something very dehumanizing about this seeking such scale in those platforms, but at the same time the reason that they’re working and the reason they’re quite sustainable is that they’re fundamentally about connecting people to each other.

I agree. I think the future is not Facebook scale. The future is much, much smaller and more intimate than that for most interesting things. But don’t lose sight of the fact that they work because they enable us to talk to each other.

Jonathan: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m just seeing a decentralization theme in what you’re saying.

Lee: There is. There’s definitely a decentralization theme. But at the same time the need to be connected requires what I always think of as a lobby or an atrium. In other words, it needs a big public space where I can find people.

Especially within the context of the workplace or a company, and then I need to be able to scuttle off into a private room or a private space in order to have a meaningful conversation. You can’t have meaningful conversations at global scale.

I’ll give you an example. I think BT years ago did a thing called BT-pedia. They did their own single, big collaboration wiki within BT. The problem with it was the scale was just too big and therefore insufficiently intimate.

It was a brave person that would start a discussion or start a new thread or a page at that level of oversight.

What you really want is a big space where you can find people and then you quickly move out of that and into an intimate, protected space where you can have real human conversations.

Jonathan: Which is what people tried to do with things like hash-tags.

Lee: Yeah, that’s right.

Jonathan: Where you can come together around this topic.

Lee: Yeah, absolutely. That’s another wonderful human hack of a big system into a smaller, more intimate system that’s a lot more usable for that purpose.

Jonathan: Yeah. I think for some reason the centralization thing is a trigger for me at the moment. Just thinking about the culture wars we’re having.

The way that we’ve suddenly learned that the internet’s being militarized and used to track our every movement and repress us and stuff.

There’s something there about I’m hearing from you that you see your work as trying bring human connection back into business via digital.

Lee: Yes, absolutely. There’s an implied decentralization in there. At the same time, there’s a need to be connected. The irony is that if you look at it in a corporate or business perspective, we are insufficiently connected within those companies at the moment.

Job number one is, in fact, to join everything together. When things are joined together, you can then reduce the scale and decentralize…

Jonathan: Right. Is this like this distinction that Dave Gray makes when he talks about Amazon? They have the platform, which is common across Amazon, which allows everything to interact…

Apart from those base services that Amazon provides, each of the individual business unit decide what they’re going to do internally towards themselves.

Lee: Yes, that’s a very good example. The funny thing is if you look at most multinationals, the reality is they’re like that in a way already. They’re trying to…They don’t recognize that reality.

Like London is a collection of villages that are joined together, most multinationals or individual business unit or departments which are joined together.

They’ve got the balance wrong. They’re too siloed on the day to day level. Then, they’re too unified at the top level. They need to be somewhere in between at both levels.

It’s better that there are more interwoven connections across all of these units at the human level, but also, they’re more autonomous at a business level.

Jonathan: You’re right. You need more centralized comms or whatever they use as networks in order to enable collaboration in smaller groups.

Lee: Yes. It doesn’t necessarily need to be centralized in the way that we traditionally think of the word. It can be networked, as long as there’s enough connectedness in the network. That’s all that matters.

Then, people can find their routes to other people and they can find their collaborators. The beauty of networks is things like intelligence of the edges. It’s fact that you don’t need a centralization model to get the best out of a network.

Jonathan: Awesome. My final question to you is, you talked about the importance of story-telling, the importance of getting a sponsor to these types of things. If someone is listening who is identifying with the challenges you’re talking about.

But doesn’t yet see themselves as able to talk about these type of changes. It doesn’t seem to be part of their job description. It doesn’t seem to be what’s relevant to the people around them. Do you have any suggestions about things we can do?

Lee: Yeah, the first most obvious thing is what a colleague, called John Stepper, in Deutsche Bank in New York has pioneered very successfully which is you just work out loud. You blog, you talk about these things. You write about these things. You put out the stuff out there.

Almost, inevitably, you will find other people in your own organization who share those views. Who will connect with you. At the very minimum, you can have a good conversation. What might emerge is that you are candidates as, what you might call, change agents to take something forward.

Within most organizations, there are some very good and very sensible business reasons for trying to de-bureaucratize, trying to reduce complicatedness rather than complexity, and to be more direct and more agile, more task-focused in how work gets done.

If those are your goals, those are not happy-clappy-hippie goals. Those are very practical. It would be a very blind organization that wouldn’t give you a little bit of latitude to at least think through how those principles could improve business performance where you are.

Jonathan: It’s almost like the executives are probably looking for this already.

Lee: In a way, they are. We’re all prisoners of this structure in some respect. This is why one of the problems we had in the previous business was that social collaboration, social technology projects became the property of IT.

Why? Because, anything more technical than a digital watch is property of IT. That’s silly. My 13 year old already has iPads and phones and computers and stuff. He doesn’t need to know how it all works, or how network protocols operate, but can do incredibly powerful things with those tools.

There’s no reason that everything technical in an organization should be owned by IT, just as there’s no reason that everything to do with people should be owned by HR, for example.

We are all prisoners of those specialized structures that exist. People at the top tend to see across those silos. They see the scope for changing them as well as being limited.

When there’s a group of volunteers if you like, you’re willing to try and break down some of those silos or at least do some projects across the borders. Then, usually that scene is a good thing.

Jonathan: It doesn’t have to be a corporate change initiative?

Lee: No. In some cases, if you have the right support, the right execute appetite for change, then you can do the ultimate, which is something that is top-down driven, but also bottom-up driven, and focus on the middle region.

Most things tend to begin from a bottom up project or a task-force or solving a particular problem more directly, quicker, more cheaply. For example, than traditional processes of the organization have been able to do.

Jonathan: Fantastic. That’s an inspirational way to put it I think. If you have commitment to the company or whatever, whenever we are, we can have a go, do something, put a blog post out there, or start having conversations and see where it takes us.

Lee: Have a look at John Stepper’s blog. He literally expressed frustrations years ago, and said, “Gosh, I wish we could work like this.” Then a few people said, “Hey, I loved your post. Yes, I agree with you. I’d like to work like that, too.”

Fast forward a few years and he’s one of the leading social business practitioners worldwide within an organization.

Taking the lead on behalf of the organization in trying to address tough business goals, large cost saving, large efficiency savings through a social technology transition process.

He was given that mandate. It may not work in every case, but that was one where it did come precisely from working out loud and sharing and talking.

Jonathan: Thank you, Lee. This has been lovely. Where can people find out what you’re up to?

Lee: We have a rather sub-optimal website at PostShift.com. I’m on twitter, under my name, Lee Bryant blabbing off about these issues from time to time.

Jonathan: It’s been interesting. I’m sure people are going to get a lot from it. Thank you for your time today.

Lee: Pleasure. Thanks a lot, Jonathan.