How would you define meaningful work? And your team?
How can you expect your team to do meaningful work if you can’t define it? If you’re struggling to find the right words, our guest on The Melting Pot this week has a few ideas to help you. Here’s a hint: it might not be about what you need to do, but what you should stop doing.
This week we learned from Lisa Bodell, best-selling author, CEO and founder of FutureThink, a business focused on helping companies simplify how they work to make space for driving growth and innovation. This has been Lisa’s passion for over twenty years, and she is all about taking a provocative approach to challenge our assumptions every day.
In this interview, Lisa and Dominic talk about how to get people to do more of the right things, building culture –specifically, how to cut the crap and stop stupid rules. She also asks what makes meaningful work, which she often finds leaders can’t articulate clearly. Lisa shares a few of the ‘killing’ exercises she uses with leaders to help them start investing their time and drive innovation.
Lisa Bodell is the CEO of FutureThink, ranks among the Top 50 Speakers Worldwide and is the best-selling author of Kill the Company and Why Simple Wins. She’s a global leader on simplification, collaboration, and innovation, whose keynotes inspire audiences to change and arm them with radically simple tools to get to the work that matters.
Lisa brings a compelling perspective to the sought-after topics of simplification and innovation to over 100,000 people each year. A thought leader and serial entrepreneur, her transformational message has inspired executives at top-ranked organisations such as Google, Cisco, Citigroup, and the U.S. Navy War College.
Based on her best-selling books, Kill the Company and Why Simple Wins, Lisa provides a provocative yet practical approach that enables organisations and individuals to eradicate the unnecessary complexity and time-sucks that hold them back from more meaningful work, and allow simplicity to become their new operating system.
Lisa has taught innovation at both American University and Fordham University and has a TED talk on the topic. She has served on the board of advisors of several organisations, including the Global Agenda Council for the World Economic Forum, the United States National Security Agency, the Association of Professional Futurists, and the Novartis Board of Diversity & Inclusion.
People are busy. If you asked someone twenty years ago how they were doing, they would have probably said ‘I’m fine’. Today, however, the answer would be ‘I’m busy’. It seems as if being busy is a badge value. Health issues aside, Covid-19 has given us one of the most positively transformative times of our lives, says Lisa. It forced us to question our assumptions about how we work, what we do and how we live.
“It comes down to how we spend our time. And most people realise they were wasting it. And that’s a reflective moment. And it takes something like Covid for people to stop and realise they aren’t in a groove; they’re in a rut. And they look and feel exactly the same. Sometimes we have to stop, pause, and have something severe happen to realise, I’m not spending my time. I’m just busy. I’m not investing time. I’m spending it.’
A great example of how difficult it is to make a change is an anecdote by Peter Attia in his new book Outlive. When he was at medical school about 54% of people who had a first heart attack died of that first heart attack. And of those that didn’t die, 85% made no lifestyle changes and died of a second or third heart attack. It’s hard for people to change even when they get a big wake-up call.
In that sense, Lisa adds that even though a heart attack is a severe issue, one of the biggest reasons people can’t embrace change is because they try to take too big steps that can be overwhelming.
“If we could just break it down into smaller parts, I think we’d start getting some steps forward, and we’d see some more progress. Rather than all this big, huge, disruptive stuff in terms of changing our lives, baby steps might allow us to embrace change more positively.”
Humans are creatures of habit, which is one reason why we usually get stuck when things get comfortable. We think, says Lisa, that doing the same thing repeatedly because it’s comfortable is good. But just because it’s comfortable doesn’t mean it’s productive. That is, for her, the difference between a groove and a rut.
“And I think sometimes we have to stop and really think about, is this something where I am investing my time, or am I spending my time? And start to shift our mindset towards, if I’m just spending my time, it’s not getting me anywhere. That’s not productive. No matter how easy or simple or organised it is, I need to be investing my time. And if I’m going to invest my time, what are the steps that I need to take to do that?”
Change won’t happen overnight. Instead, says Lisa, taking smaller steps to make a change is what will make the difference. And that logic can be equally applied in the workplace where, instead of saying that you’re going to cancel all your meetings, you could have one day without meetings or cut meetings from one hour to thirty minutes.
“There are little ways you can take your time back to start feeling more I should say not more, less risk averse. I think that’s one of the problems with people is we’re naturally risk averse. We like stable things, and taking a risk means things could become unstable, and we don’t like that.”
Ever heard the term ‘unbossed’? Based on behavioural theories around human motivations for change, it’s –as Gallup defined it– ‘a provocative term for empowerment’. To illustrate, Lisa shares the example of the CEO of the healthcare company Novartis, who talked about their smart approach of being ‘simplified, curious, and unbossed’.
“And that’s so cool because rather than telling people they need to be productive and drive shareholder value […] What he’s telling them is, here are the behaviours I want you to have every day and think about that with every way you invest your time.”
And that means the leaders start letting others make decisions without them. However, the most challenging thing they found is that suddenly the bosses had more time on their hands but didn’t know what to do with it. Now that they were unbossed, they were also unbusy, which made them uncomfortable. So getting used to having time to think and making that valuable and necessary is essential.
“We always say how we want to have more time to think. And that means being less busy. And then, when we get the time to think, we feel like we’re being lazy. You know how people are, ‘I’m going to sneak thinking time on my calendar because if people think I’m actually thinking, they must think I’m not working.’ So, we’ve got to change the whole corporate mindset that thinking and having space to think and not just be busy is really important because being unbusy can be very productive.”
If you’re over-scheduled, you don’t see the opportunities coming your way. And even if you do see them, you can’t take advantage of them. Time is a non-renewable resource you’ll never get back, and CEOs need to eliminate the scarcity mindset about their time to reach their full potential.
“It’s something interesting to think about when people ask me, ‘What’s the biggest barrier to innovating and change?’ And I’ll look at the audience and say ‘You, the leadership’, because if they don’t do it, no one else working for them will do it. Because what holds us back from simplifying and innovating, quite frankly, is fear.”
For Lisa, it all comes down to behavioural fear. People won’t simplify or stop doing something to make space for something else to happen because they’re worried about making a bad decision, looking bad, or getting fired. The same happens with innovation, she adds. We are risk averse because of those same fears.
“So if we can minimise the fear and leaders can exemplify the behaviours we want in our teams, people will do it. And I don’t think leaders realise how much there’s a gap between saying what they want people to do in terms of taking a risk or innovating and actually doing it themselves.”
Another example of this is the CEO at Pfizer. Before, he was in charge of simplicity and innovation. And he realised that his team wasn’t innovating because they were in meetings all day. So he told people to say no to meetings. A month later, he wondered why everyone kept attending to all of them. When he asked his Chief of Staff what was happening, he learned that the team was doing the same because he was still going to the meetings himself. So the CEO still wanted to show up, but the signal he was sending to everybody was that he didn’t mean to say no.
People won’t do it until leaders don’t show the behaviours they expect from others. They suffer the same fear, says Lisa.
We live in a culture in which, to be valued, you have to do more. So we are rewarded for doing more. And that’s why we create the beasts we become a slave to. Lisa has loads of what she calls ‘killing exercises’ to tackle those things in our culture that hold us back. One of them is the ‘killing stupid rules’ exercise.
She argues that we don’t have time to innovate because we’re busy doing work. The Kill Stupid Rules exercise poses the question, if you could get rid of any two rules that hold you back in your daily work, what would they be? People come up with many suggestions, but most aren’t rules, but cultural assumptions, norms and fears.
“I’ve been with the CEO of organisations that will look at his leadership and say, who exactly were you waiting for to tell you it’s okay to change your meetings from 60 minutes to 30 minutes? Are you waiting for me to tell you that? So it’s the cultural norms and the behaviours that hold us back much more than we realise. And it’s doing something like that, telling people they can challenge assumptions that allow them, with the boss, to get rid of the stuff that’s not working. And that has to be woven into our culture more often.”
One of the places where culture gets more obviously exposed is meetings, and even though everybody seems to know the difference between good and bad meetings, no one actively does anything to change it. Instead, they endure the length of it. This is the issue with having a culture of ‘nice’, but for Lisa, it’s important to provoke.
“I think a culture of nice is bad. A culture of respect is good. And nice means obligation. You’re spending time. Respect is where you can actually better use and invest your time. And if we can get to that and say, okay, if this starts to happen, it’s okay to say this. So I think, to me, it’s around some of the cultural norms. Just saying, I’m going to make a shorter meeting. If you got one guy that talks for the whole meeting now, it’s been a shit meeting. So we’ve got to change the cultural norms and the language that allow people to push back when it’s not going well.”
We all know how much time of the day we are busy, but how much time do we dedicate to innovate? Lisa believes that individuals need to free up thinking time and schedule it, something that people at Accenture are already doing and that Lisa does with her team. As a leader, you must mandate thinking time because people won’t do it otherwise. So, everyone on the team must block a half day every week. It doesn’t matter when, but it has to be unstructured and uninterrupted time.
For Lisa, you need focused time to tackle big things and get into that habit. Because eventually what you want is to have meetings only on Fridays, for example. She thinks that we should only have one day for meetings, not just one day without them. “It’s the wrong thinking”, she adds. Another action we can take is to structure them better to allow for better thinking when getting the team together. This will get us thinking in meetings versus informing.
“I think emails are for information, meetings are for decisions and collaboration. Phones are for urgency. And if we can better get people in those habits, we’re going to better use our meeting time to be collaborative and innovate. So those are some small things, but I think the more we can carve it out, mandating, thinking time and being able to better use our meetings for thinking rather than informing, that’s a good start.”
“The first thing you got to do is define what meaningful work is and if you ask a leader do you know what meaningful work is? They say yes, and then you say what is it? They can’t articulate it concisely because they haven’t really articulated it. And so what we do is we actually work with teams, and we’ll say, write down all the things that you spend your time doing and circle the things that are valuable and of the things that aren’t circled. Why are you doing them and how could you get rid of them or minimise them? That creates the space for change.”
What Lisa has seen when asking this to leaders, most of them don’t circle many valuable things. And then she asks them, ‘what do you wish you were spending your time doing if you had more of that time?’ When they write this down, there are many common themes. And that helps them define for themselves what meaningful work is.
What you’ll find, says Lisa, is that the things that you spend your time doing are internal, and the meaningful work tends to be external. We’re spending too much of our time internally, and we need to cut that out and define meaningful work in terms of what that means facing forward.
Another great exercise she recommends to clients is ‘stop doing’ and weave it into their strategic planning. When you have strategic planning, you can tell people to include what they’re going to stop doing next year, along with what they will do. For Lisa, this is a way of institutionalising this practice. If you get them to articulate and commit to what they’re going to stop doing, you’re getting them to commit to the things they would use as a barrier for why they couldn’t get things done later.
“Unnecessary stuff is like weeds. It grows back even when you get rid of it. But if you institutionalise simplifying things, that creates a space for innovation to happen. Simplicity is the front end of innovation. Because if I go out and tell people to innovate right now, they’re not going to do it. Do you know why? They’re busy. They don’t have time. So I’ve got to create the space so they can start to feel safe and start to think about new things. Because otherwise, it’s just going to be easy to keep doing the same old stuff. They’re not going to get fired.”
For Lisa, leadership has a problem, and, that is, people are not leading. They’re managing. They’re executing their calendars and managing people. But, what is leadership? She argues that leading is thinking forward, beyond just the next quarter, year, and three to five years. “It’s major telescope stuff, not microscope stuff.” However, leaders are older now, don’t have time to think, and have been doing their jobs for too long. They’re risk averse because it’s hard to escape their own construct.
So, Lisa works with many leaders and tells them “kill their own company”. And that works by asking them to pretend they’re their own competitor looking to put them out of business. This forces them to create a safe space where they must put themselves out of business by identifying all the weaknesses that, if they were a competitor, would take them down.
“It’s a really productive exercise to get out of your own head and to shake up the way that you work again and realise what is really necessary and what is your weak spot. Because we’re always posturing. We’re always given the SWAT. We have so many strengths and so many weaknesses, but those are opportunities. And if we could rephrase it in terms of weaknesses. I think it would give people much more permission, to be honest, versus political.”
If you want to solve your problems, give them away. That’s the advice that Lisa gives leaders because what happens when we try to solve our problems is that we fail because we’re too close to them. Another exercise she does is From Impossible to Possible, where she gets people to write down very specifically all the things that are impossible. Then, you break down all the assumptions around it, but you also assume you'll never be able to improve it because of your assumptions. Well, then you give away your assumptions to someone else, and they have to make those impossibles that can never be changed, says Lisa.
“What’s great about it is the minute you give it away, people get their war mentality on. They are so good at solving other people’s problems. And what you find is that everyone’s able to solve everyone else’s problems and bonus points. Actually, if you do this exercise with people completely outside of your group, or team, or outside of your own industry, because they really come up with avant-garde solutions that you’re too caught up in and can’t see.”
Dominic Monkhouse is a proven architect of business growth with a demonstrable track record. As managing director, he scaled two UK technology companies from zero revenue to £30 million in five years. Since 2014, Dominic has worked as a CEO and executive team coach, helping ambitious CEOs and their leadership teams reach their full potential and achieve sustainable growth. He is the host of “The Melting Pot with Dominic Monkhouse” where he talks with some extraordinary thought leaders, fellow business authors, and CEOs to absorb their wisdom. Dominic is the author of F**K PLAN B: How to scale your technology business faster and achieve plan A, an exciting blueprint for cultural change and business transformation.