After years of working for huge companies like Hewlett Packard and Perot Systems, Chris Creel, author of Adaptive: Scaling Empathy and Trust to Create Workplace Nirvana, dedicated eight years of research and development and six years experimenting into the creation of what is essentially workplace nirvana–a work environment that is not only successful, productive, and scalable, but also allows individual employees to thrive in an environment they love. He calls this the adaptive workplace.
Chris explains how incorporating technology into the structure of our companies in new ways can create a more human work experience. He shows readers how rolling out the adaptive model can instill many of the tribal elements that make successful startups so alluring. He lays out for readers a clear plan for attracting, retaining, and utilizing the best talent out there today. Most of all, Chris explains why the old way of running businesses simply won’t work anymore.
Nikki Van Noy: Can you start by explaining to me what’s missing or wrong in the workplace today?
Chris Creel: I have always found it so interesting that everybody is so miserable at work. It is this endemic problem that we all suffer through, we all joke about it, we all have this gallows humor about how terrible it is–we joke about our bosses, we joke about our colleagues, and it’s just this thing that we all seem so resigned to.
I think it’s so hilarious that we’ve put so much creativity into everything else in the world to help us all live happier lives. Technology, food, travel, and yet, throughout it all, work has remained this constant misery. You know, a friend of mine, we would joke and say, “You know, they call it work for a reason–you’re supposed to be miserable.”
I thought to myself, “Is that really true? Are we all just resigned to this?” I started thinking really hard about that years ago. I didn’t really understand why it was this miserable experience, but as I began to think more about it, it occurred to me, that it’s just a dehumanizing process.
I don’t know if it was always like this, but I know that it began to become this way back in the 1800s when manufacturing really began to become a more obvious trend in American life and around the world. This guy Daniel McLelo was looking for a way to better organize–in his case it was the train with the railroad systems in the northeast–he was looking for a way to organize humans in order to get the most efficient rail system he could.
He came up with the org chart, that’s where this all comes from. When you think about why you even have a boss–why do I have a reporting chain? It’s because of some Scottish dude in the 1800s who was trying to organize a railroad. We’ve been living in that world for over a hundred years.
Not long after that, this other dude comes along. His name was Frederick Taylor and if you look up Taylorism, he’s the granddaddy of the scientific management method. He created this thing called the scientific management method. It was all about measuring every little hiccup and squeak out of every employee to maximize productivity. These two things together, the scientific management method and the org chart, these two things together began this dehumanizing process that lasted all the way up until the current day.
We’re all expected to behave like cogs in this machine. It’s dehumanizing, so of course, we’re going to be miserable to some greater or lesser extent.
Nikki Van Noy: That’s fascinating that the world has changed so much and yet, our work is still based on this antiquated system.
Chris Creel: Yeah, it’s really fascinating that we haven’t stopped and asked this question like, “Why is it like this again? Can somebody remind me why we do it like this?”
Businesses have been organized in the same basic way since the 1800s–the org chart and the scientific management method. None of us ever stopped to ask why it was like that and if it made sense anymore. What I think is the most fascinating about that is, during the .com boom, from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, everything changed. The internet changed everything, and we all began doing new kinds of businesses and completely new industries were created out of nothing.
Amazon and Netflix–streaming–it creatively destroyed huge swaths of our economy and created new swaths of our economy. Yet, through it all, we retained this antiquated organizational mechanism that I believe is at the root of why we’re all so miserable because we’ve all been so dehumanized by the whole process.
The Magic in Startups
Nikki Van Noy: In your book, you talk about this one sector of business that seems to be able to avoid this dehumanization at work, which is startups. Why do you think that is?
Chris Creel: Because I think it starts with a human endeavor, it starts with passion, it starts with friends, it starts with people who just have to do something. I mean, now that I’m the founder of two startups, I see it live in action. I started another company, gosh, back in the 1980s, and it’s always the same thing, there’s a human endeavor in the very beginning. So, when you’re in a startup, you are in a tribe of people who are all focused on something that everybody’s excited about. You don’t join a startup like you join a corporation.
When you join a corporation, you’re going to get a job–you’re not going to join a family. When you join a startup, it’s high risk, you have got to know who those people are, and you can’t just jump in, because especially if you have a family, and it may be different for a younger person than an older person, but regardless, it’s higher risk.
I think startups when they are small, avoid this dehumanizing process. That organization is important because it’s small and you’re working with people you know.
Nikki Van Noy: How do established businesses retain some of the elements that make startups more human-friendly?
Chris Creel: Well, there’s a tipping point. When the startup is successful, they begin to grow, and they need to hire employees and you need to do it fast. There’s really only one organizing principle that we know of to scale your company and that’s the org chart.
The challenge is, the minute you introduce that or a scientific management method like six sigma or TQM, you immediately begin to strip away that familial, tribal, human experience of the startup. Now you have got a machine on your hands.
That org chart is meant as a passive control mechanism. You’re the CEO, therefore you do CEO stuff–you’re the vice president of operations, therefore you’re going to be doing vice president of operations stuff, right?
You’re now expected to operate at a very specific role and so that org chart is a passive control mechanism. Then you have enforcers in that mechanism, like managers–one of their roles is to play the enforcer of the org chart. One of the areas of research that I write a lot about in this book is what if that org chart could be administered by bots?
I got this idea because having been a manager now for decades, a lot of managerial work is very repetitive, it’s very rote, it’s very dehumanizing. You are expected to behave in a very robotic way. You fill out this form and you notify HR about these things. It occurred to me, gosh, what if I could begin to automate the administration of that org chart using chatbots?
Having a chatbot responsible for strategic execution and that you’re using a chatbot for project management–on its surface, that sounds crazy. It really sounds like you couldn’t even do that, but it turns out that there has been this fundamental shift in technology where the power of the technology is so incredibly great, like with AWS or Microsoft Azure or Google compute engine.
These elastic platforms have every single technology you could possibly need to take down almost any company that’s not in manufacturing first. If you’re in an information technology company, then you could be a threat, digging around in AWS and finding out the components to bring together to destroy a business. I’m doing it right now with one of my startups.
So, with the power of platforms like this, you can do a lot. There are powerful machine learning algorithms in those platforms. There are these incredibly powerful databases of computing technologies. So, you can bring all that to bear to completely automate, well not completely, but you can largely automate a lot of the raw administrative work that managers do to administer the org chart.
Now, as soon as you do that, suddenly, you start to wonder what the purpose of the org chart really is. That’s where I got into this idea where you could organize a business in a completely different way if you had something as powerful as chatbots that could shoulder the administrative burden of it.
Nikki Van Noy: Initially it seems like such cognitive dissonance that the way to bring more humanity into a company is through technology. Can you speak to that a little bit?
Chris Creel: This was, I think, one of the biggest discoveries I had. I’m a technologist, I’m a programmer, I’ve been writing code since 1979. The internet was born three days before I was on December 9th, 1969 and I was born three days later on December 12th, 1969.
My life is kind of book-ended by this technological explosion. So, what I found was, when I first got this idea, I thought to myself, okay, this is just going to be a fun thing for me to do. I did it purely for joy. I had no real pressing business demand to build a chatbot to manage my projects or help me with strategic execution.
I just did it for fun, and then when I did it for fun and I started using it in practice, what I discovered was that I was no longer the nag, I was no longer the pointy-haired boss, because it was the bots that were doing all the nagging–it was the bots that were, looking at people’s schedules, and making sure everything was lined up properly, and everybody had marked their issues correctly and updated their issues correctly.
All of that gross stuff, I didn’t have to worry about that anymore. The bot was handling it. Suddenly I had a lot more time on my hands and the question became, “What am I going to do with that time?” So, what happened was I transitioned into more of a coaching role. Instead of being the taskmaster, I became the person looking for ways to help my team become more effective and efficient.
That was a really fascinating transition for me. That’s where I realized that these bots can take over all the stuff that makes us miserable, leaving us with the opportunity to actually work and strengthen our relationships, and become a more effective team. Because you know what? If I have a project manager who is really great at filling out some kind of a project management report, that is really not going to help us as a team.
It’s not going to help us be a more cohesive, effective team. If I were to outsource all that to a robotic administrator and give us the time to actually connect with one another and talk through the issues of learning each other’s strengths and weaknesses, that’s a way more productive use of human time.
Empathy and Trust
Nikki Van Noy: Talk to me a little bit about how empathy and trust play into all of this.
Chris Creel: This is a really fascinating subject for me because I believe that we do not do ourselves any favors with collaborative technologies at the workplace, like email, or Slack, or Microsoft Teams. I actually think that these technologies can do more harm than good, which is ironic because a lot of my book is about why a company should deploy Slack.
The reason I say that is–look at Twitter, look at Facebook, or look at any platform where the primary model of communication is through chat or something other than a face to face conversation. When you take that face to face component out of communication between two individuals, it can get nasty really fast. In fact, there’s an old internet rule called Godwin’s law. It was this guy’s, and he wrote about how if you look at any forum, regardless of the topic, it will eventually devolve into somebody calling somebody else Hitler.
Nikki Van Noy: That sounds accurate.
Chris Creel: It could be like about chocolate chip cookies and the next thing you know, it devolves into Hitler. Case in point, I’m looking up a chocolate pudding recipe the other day, because I wanted to make some chocolate pudding with all these eggs that I get from my chickens. I swear, six comments down, somebody said, “Hey, you know, don’t talk to me like that.” I’m thinking to myself, guys you’re talking about chocolate pudding in a forum.
Here’s what happens. That kind of communication strips away opportunities for building empathy and trust because you can’t read the other person’s facial expressions. You’re disconnected and this happens in companies all the time. With flaming emails and people who detect a slight from a colleague, which isn’t really a slight or maybe it is a slight. I think that the kind of communications that we largely deal with in corporations today are dehumanizing.
It gives us lots of opportunities to not trust one another. That lack of empathy and trust dehumanizes us even more. It breaks down the social fabric that we as humans really crave.
This was actually something that I decided I was going to try and tackle with these chatbots. So, what I did, I began using some very simple natural language analyses when people would interact with the bot, or when people would interact with the bot and that bot was facilitating a conversation between two people, let’s say about an issue or a strategic objective or the progress update on an initiative. This bot that I built would facilitate that communication between the individuals and when it would detect things like negativity or irony or somebody who was saying something that was a little off-kilter, the bot would simply step in and attempt to correct the conversation, because if the bot was confused, then the person on the other end was probably confused as well.
Once I did that, I noticed this extraordinarily powerful transition in the way that people were communicating with one another, not only in chat but also in meetings. It actually translated into spoken communication in meetings. People would pick up on it, and they would make reference to well, you know, “The bot would probably be upset because of the way I said that, so let me try again.”
Nikki Van Noy: So, just to make sure I’m clear on this. Basically, the bot is integrated with Slack or whatever communication technology you’re using, and then it just pops up and says “Hey, that’s a little snarky,” and the user has the chance to correct it?
Chris Creel: That’s right. When you’re talking about, for instance, a project update, or an issue update, or collecting feedback about somebody to help them level up their game, it’s really easy for us as human beings to be very tone-deaf in our written communication, especially if you have certain assumptions about your relationships.
So, if you assume that you are friends with this person, you might say something in written communication that you think is funny, you might throw a little irony in there, but then the person on the other end reads that and they might not get the joke. This happens constantly. As a result, it begins to fray at the edges of our social network, and it impacts business results.
One of the things we were doing, one of the areas of research that I pursued with this bot, is looking for ways that I could detect language that would impact empathy and trust.
Then, what we did was we programmed this bot to then go to 360-degree feedback from everybody in the organization. The bot would go off, and it would fan out and say, “You guys have been working together on this initiative, or this project, or these issues. Would you be interested in providing feedback to this person on how they can do better next time?”
Now, typically, this kind of feedback only ever comes from your manager. This actually goes back to our earlier discussion about how these bots really changed the way the companies organize. Historically, all of your feedback came from your manager. You’re basically putting your entire career in that person’s hands, which if you think about it is kind of crazy.
Nikki Van Noy: As you explained it, it sounds like a lot of managers are presumably over-tasked by all the mundane details and nagging they have to take care of. So, you’re already at a disadvantage.
Chris Creel: Yeah, what’s interesting is that your relationship with your employees is heavily colored by this managerial relationship you have with that person. There’s the fact that this person might have fifteen direct reports and so they can’t really give quality feedback to each individual.
Furthermore, a lot of times, those managers don’t actually know what that person is doing on a daily basis. Yet, here we are as companies expecting the manager to provide all of that person’s feedback as if they’re somehow the authority, which is just patently not true. The people that are the authority on how well a colleague performed are the people that person worked with.
What we did at that point was say, “Okay, at the end of the quarter let’s gather up feedback from everybody in the organization.” That is a pretty straightforward thing to do, but then what we did was as we were collecting the feedback, the bot would look at the feedback and run some natural language analysis to say, “Hey, this particular comment might actually damage this relationship with this person, you might want to rethink it.”
What’s cool about that is that now, people have this opportunity to not just provide feedback, but provide really powerful, productive feedback with the constant coaching from this bot that is looking at their language and giving them tips on how to improve it. No manager could ever have the bandwidth to do that, but bots do. Bots can do it all day long.
Nikki Van Noy: It also strikes me that in doing things like this, you are shifting from a culture of obligation to a culture of accountability.
Chris Creel: Oh yeah, that is a really cool way of putting that. Accountability is ironically something that most corporations are terrible at. Having been in corporate America now for gosh, thirty years, I can tell you that my experience in general with companies big and small has been that accountability is uncomfortable. Holding somebody accountable for a thing is uncomfortable. Holding a person accountable for a thing also requires a lot of discipline.
You have to know at the moment that that person needs to be held accountable. Accountability is just this generally difficult thing for corporations to actually drive through their organization. A lot of people talk a good game about accountability, but they do a very poor job of actually driving it through the organization. A lot of this goes back to a lack of empathy and trust. It is hard for you to hold somebody accountable if that person doesn’t trust you. Some of them are going to see it as an affront and so, it becomes uncomfortable.
Bots, on the other hand, don’t care. They can hold somebody accountable and you can design that bot to do it in such a way that it is productive and a healthy, pleasurable experience. They are always there. They are always on task and they can hold each individual accountable for following through on whatever it is that the bot is working with them on. In doing so, now what you can do is you can begin to create this extraordinarily cohesive organization, where everybody knows that they are being held accountable by a bot. They are doing this in the spirit of creating a cohesive team.
Their language is being coached in their interactions with their team members in such a way that they are always looking for the most beneficial, powerful, positive psychological effect they can achieve as per the bots’ guidance. So, in the end, what you end up with is a group of people who have much deeper relationships with one another.
In fact when we ran this model, one of the things that we found in our engagement surveys was that the degree of responsibility that each individual employee felt for one another was so much higher in this model using these bots than outside of this model where you are using more traditional techniques.
Nikki Van Noy: Let’s talk a little bit about the impact this has on individuals. Are there any stories that stand out in your mind?
Chris Creel: Oh goodness, I’ve got dozens of stories like that. I’ll share a very specific example. So, there was an individual on our team when they came to us, they were institutionalized. They come from a large corporation, and when they joined us, they were shell-shocked by this approach that we had taken. Because in the absence of a specific organization, we ran these bots and had no reporting structure. There was no manager.
Everybody was in this very fluid, flexible organization, with no hierarchy, and no reporting chains. Everybody had accountability for a particular thing, but there wasn’t a boss per se. This individual came to us and it was very unusual for them, and they struggled. They struggled really quite mightily for the first quarter of their experience with us. So, the bot fanned out, collected the feedback on this individual, and they did terribly.
What was interesting was all the feedback came to them saying, “You have so much potential, and there are some things that you are clearly struggling with. We want to help you.” So, there’s that degree of empathy. The team members saw the potential of this individual and provided them with feedback with the bot coaching them on how to provide the best feedback in real-time through, in this case, Slack. So, that person, when they read that feedback, we were then able to work with them to come up with very specific targets for them to pursue.
That person went from having some of the lowest scores in the organization, to literally having the highest score over the course of about six months. Most people in that situation would have quit, they would have gotten fired, or maybe they would have been sidelined because it would not have been clear exactly what was going on. They might not have realized how much faith the organization had in them and they would just have felt isolated.
But in this case, because the team was supporting them and the bot was facilitating that communication, that individual ended up just doing great. I just have story after story like that of people who came to the organization, went through this experience, and walked away telling me that they themselves felt as though they had learned.
Ending Workplace Isolation
Nikki Van Noy: What really strikes me about what you just said is that workplaces can be incredibly isolating, even though you’re surrounded by people a lot of time.
Chris Creel: That is a really interesting perspective. I think you’re right, and I think that this is especially true as companies begin to realize that remote workers are more productive than in-office workers–that is just a scientific fact. But remote workers also are incredibly isolated. So, as a remote worker, you’d feel doubly isolated. However, even people who are in the office, I think you’re right. I think they also feel isolated.
What is interesting about the way that most people get through their days is they just assume that everybody is doing a good job. They don’t assume that they need to give somebody a pat on the back or whatever. The bot that we developed would regularly go out to collect this information. It was constantly probing the organization to see how things are progressing, how things are going. It would give you evidence of the organization’s strengthening or weakening. It would give people this constant feedback on how they’re doing relative to everybody else.
All that to say, I don’t think we spend enough time checking in with our colleagues to see how they’re doing, to give them a pat on the back, let them know the good things that they are doing and the things that they could be doing better. I just don’t think that we are good enough about that, nor do I think that anybody expects us to be like that because again, we just get our blinders on. We just go.
What this bot is doing is it is taking over the responsibility of collecting this information incrementally along the way and trying to look for ways to push the trend upwards of everybody’s performance, and always looking for ways to nudge somebody who performs a little higher. It is an administrative task, but it is an administrative task that I don’t think many of us are very good at. But the bots are great.
Nikki Van Noy: I imagine that in addition to how it benefits the individuals, business results have to see a positive impact too.
Chris Creel: We ran that experiment over the course of six years. So, over the course of six years, we ran three engagement surveys that were independent of the experiment. They were just a corporate-wide engagement survey. The great thing is that we had a control group. The control group was the rest of the organization. We had this group and it was at any time ranging between fifty and two-hundred people. Just the engagement scores were in the high 80’s low 90’s for those groups over the course of that six years, for those three separate engagement surveys. That all by itself was amazing. Even our CEO said, “I have never seen any engagement scores like that before.”
In addition to that though, we also produced the team operating that model, which was responsible for creating the first data analytics practice for my previous company. Eventually, a year or two after me starting that with this team, yielded a billion-dollar buyout, because of the team that we had pulled together. That work was then parlayed into a new team. So, we took that team, we said, “Okay, go off and do your thing.”
We started off a new team with this model and they produced three very powerful market transforming technologies that the rest of the company had been unable to produce for as long as they had been around. So, the output, the innovation, the creativity from groups operating this model is clear.
I have seen it now at least four or five different times, enough that I realize that I have to go do something about this. The engagement scores along the way are always sky-high. The thing that I think a lot of companies miss is why any of this stuff is important.
All of this stuff has to roll up to a strategy. That is actually another place where companies fail is that they can’t execute their own strategy. You know, there are these big consulting firms that spend millions of dollars helping customers create a business strategy and then when they go to execute it, they just fall over. Why do they fall over? Because strategic execution of strategy is the motherload of administrative overhead.
Trying to get the entire organization to align themselves with a corporate strategy and focus all of their energy on then driving that strategy to completion is an administrative nightmare. There is just no way anyone human could ever do it, which is why the vast majority of business strategies all fail to some greater or lesser degree. In the thirty years, I have been doing this, I have never seen a company big or small, name brand or not, be able to actually execute to completion a business strategy–most of them get forgotten along the way.
What we found here was these bots could orchestrate the execution of that strategy across the entire organization, no matter how incredibly complex that execution model looked like, because it is a bot. They could offload all that administrative work to the bot and let the humans focus on the important work of making that change happen.
Nikki Van Noy: What would you tell a business owner is the one thing that as soon as they finished listening to this podcast, they can go out and do to get headed down this road?
Chris Creel: Okay, so a lot of people actually are on this road, they just don’t know it. Slack, Microsoft Teams, these technologies are already out there. I have actually spoken to a number of companies, big and small, who are already using Slack, probably quietly. I talked to a large financial organization and I was in a meeting, we were talking about this adaptive work, and he said, “Well, we wouldn’t do this because we don’t use Slack.”
The guy sitting next to him at this table looked down and he chortled a little bit. I looked at him and I said, “Let me guess, you have it on your phone right now?” And he said, “Yeah, I totally have it on my phone right now. I use it to communicate with my family and I am also using it to talk with people here at work about different things.” This stuff is already happening. People crave this kind of collaboration and communication.
Where most companies are screwing this up is that they roll these platforms out and they’re like, “Godspeed everybody. Good luck.” No training, no roll-out strategy, no rules around how they are going to use it. So, people just fall into it. My advice to business leaders is, look, this stuff is already happening. It is already out there, trying to stop it is like trying to stop water, you are going to fail. The best thing to do would be to embrace it and embrace it in a big way.
Come up with a communication strategy around it. Come up with some rules of the road, update your employee handbooks so that the employees know what the rules are for using these technologies and its appropriate use. Forget about the bots, forget about all these other things, just do that. Suddenly what you are going to see is a breakdown in the silos that people are complaining endlessly about, because those chat platforms, they don’t care about your damn silos.
They are going to let people communicate and work with one another to solve problems, independent of the silos.
I would say the one thing you could do is just implement a chat platform but do it in a very mindful way with an eye towards empowering employees to solve problems with one another, regardless of where they are in the organization.
Nikki Van Noy: Does that mean moving away from email?
Chris Creel: I think it is high time for companies to completely reconsider their communication platforms. Email is horribly insecure. With one email you can forward an entire thread of intellectual property outside to another person. You know, think about how many times that has bitten companies–where some disgruntled employee says, “Screw it, I am going to forward this spreadsheet or this flaming email thread to my personal account and then I am going to post it on a forum.”
The email is one of those technologies that its time is coming to a close. In fact, when I was with my last company, one of the things that we did was we just said, “Look, we don’t need email addresses for this team.” They are not communicating with people on the outside. They are not salespeople, so they don’t have to talk with customers. This group is entirely internal. If you have a group that’s entirely internal, ask yourself why they need an email address?
Almost always it’s because of compliance reasons. The company has to deliver training notices to employees through their email system. You can do that just as easily through something like Slack and it will be way more effective, way more secure, and you get this incredible collaboration platform to side benefit.
Nikki Van Noy: I think that all of us have, at one point or another, had an experience in a dehumanizing workplace. This information is really incredible to hear, and it is wonderful to imagine what work could potentially be like.
Chris Creel: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. I am super excited to see where this is going to go. I see the trend is already there, it is already happening. My message to executives is, “Stop and step back and look at this trend for what it is because you can leverage this. You can harness the power of these trends that are already out there. That will be way more effective for you as a business than just letting this wash over you.”
Moving Beyond Traditional Techniques
Nikki Van Noy: Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you want to make sure we get in here?
Chris Creel: I just want to make sure that we get the right material in there so that they realize that this is already happening. These trends are already in place. They are only going to strengthen over time, and you have some choices to make as a business leader. Your choice is to either ignore these technologies, which you are going to do at your own risk because I promise you, your employees are already using this stuff. You could choose to do a limited deployment of these kinds of technologies and say, “Okay, I am just going to have a chat platform.” That’s fine too, but unless you do it with an eye towards empowerment, people simply aren’t going to use these platforms.
What I am suggesting is seeing this as a turning point in your company’s way of competing in a market place. Then use these platforms and use these bots as a way to harness every single available cycle that your company has to offer to execute against their strategy.
That’s where I think there’s this big shift because the problems that companies have to solve these days are getting bigger and bigger. Competitive landscapes are changing, the technologies are changing, workplace demographics are changing, all of these things combine to create really big problems for companies. Smaller startups are able to solve these problems quickly because they are small, they are nimble or agile, but they are going to run into the same issues themselves as they grow.
My point here is big corporations need to be able to solve big problems. They can’t use traditional techniques anymore, because those traditional techniques were never very effective in the first place. In order to solve these big problems, you need to think about something differently, and the point of this book is all the tools are sitting right there in front of you.
They are not that hard to use if people are already using them. Just recognize that the power is within your grasp, you have just got to think about this new ecosystem of technologies as a competitive advantage, not some kind of a threat to your organizational stability.