5 Key Learnings from the New Work Summit

© 2017 The New York Times. All rights reserved.

© 2017 The New York Times. All rights reserved.

In early March, I had the opportunity to attend the New Work Summit hosted by the New York Times in Half Moon Bay California. The summit was attended by an impressive array of speakers and an equally impressive group of executives who lead some of the nation’s most successful companies. The event was an opportunity for us to share best practices and strategies for building employee engagement and positive organizational culture. Here are my top five takeaways from the summit:


1. Improved Management Tools FIFA-style

Research shows us time-and-time again that managers play the biggest single role in driving employee productivity and engagement. Yet, we continually fail to provide managers with systems that give them the information needed to achieve the most with their employees. Marcus Buckingham presented screenshots from Sega’s FIFA International Soccer to illustrate a better way to support managers with technology. Like the Sega game, Buckingham envisions an HR Information System designed to provide managers with real time information about:

  • the strengths of each employee

  • assignments and progress to goals

  • level of engagement/ satisfaction

By presenting realtime information in this way, managers have a holistic view of the employee data needed to effectively deploy/reassign personnel to meet challenges as they arise.  And whilst we may not yet have FIFA-style systems at our fingertips, I could imagine achieving similar functionality with existing online tools like Trello. Or, we could go old school and create a similar map of our team on our office walls using post-it notes. For many, the place to start is learning your strengths and those of your direct reports. Visit VIA for a free strengths profile.


2. Dig into How Candidates Solve Problems

Unfortunately, so much of what we have been trained to do at interview doesn’t help us hire better. Those crafty questions to ascertain obscure knowledge, in an attempt to judge fluency in a chosen discipline, don’t work.  Neither does an emphasis on university grades (except for the most recent of college graduates). At Positively Partners, we focus on hiring for mindset - key attitudes that have been shown to account for 88% of job success. But if we're not crafting your interviews for you, what can you do?

Laszlo Block, and other top executives at the summit, swear by interview questions that ask candidates to describe step-by-step, in lots of detail, how they solved a challenge. Whilst the nature of the problem doesn’t matter, what the candidate considers a challenge and her approach to it offers important insights into her resilience, growth mindset, critical thinking skills and coachability. Be sure to listen for how the candidate frames the challenge, collects data to help understand its components and seeks to understand what will or will not work. You may find yourself using most of a one-hour interview on this single question, but it may be all you need to decide if you’re sitting in front of your next great hire or someone better suited to your competitor.


3. Mental Models Increase Productivity

Cognitive Psychologists have shown us that we all tell ourselves stories about how the world works. Yet, some of us tell ourselves much more robust stories than others. And because these stories are a kind of habitual forecasting that helps us to ready ourselves for new experiences, the frequency, variety and amount of detail included in our stories can have a profound effect on how we perform. During the summit, Charles Duhigg, author of Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Productivity in Life and Business, explained that our stories serve as mental models through which we can cognitively practice our responses to various scenarios in ways that can help us better focus our attention when we encounter similar situations in real life.


4. The Power of radical transparency

Transparency in the workplace has been shown to have real advantage. Employees are better positioned to solve problems, make decisions and serve customers when they are well informed. Transparency of information like rationale for decision making, quarterly financials and org-wide salary frameworks have been shown to help engender trust, diminish siloing and foster a greater sense of common interest.

Despite these values, many leaders remain skeptical and seek to control the flow of information at a time when technology continues to offer more and more ways to democratize it. During the summit, Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates, described his firm’s culture of radical transparency. At Bridgewater virtually all meetings and internal debates are recorded and made accessible to everyone. Dalio shared that when employees are first introduced to radical transparency it can feel like “going to a nudist camp for the first time.” Yet, soon after employees are able to work through their initial reactions of "feeling exposed" to experience the full value of transparency. Dalio talks more about how we can foster radical transparency in his book Principles, scheduled for release in Fall 2017.

No doubt, radical transparency is an extreme approach to increasing the free flow of information within the workplace and there are complications. Personally, I am passionate about transparency, but I am not sure I would be comfortable working under the watchful eye of cameras and recording devices. What do you think, is this a higher order of transparency to which each of us should strive or is it just way too far?


5. Diversity Trumps Skill

It might surprise you to learn that on difficult tasks the best team won’t be the one composed of the most skilled individuals, but the one with the greatest diversity. Professor Scott Page, University of Michigan, explained that it is diversity of ideas that drives the levels of innovation and creativity needed to solve challenging problems. Groups of skilled individuals can come up with a selection of ideas, but it is the diversity of the group that helps the good ideas get better and the bad ones get eliminated before time is wasted implementing them. In other words, we don’t add diversity to a team in the way we diversify our financial portfolio to lower risk in exchange for a return that is equal to the average of our wins and losses. Adding diversity to our team is an accelerator that allows us to win more and achieve returns well above the average. Page calls this the diversity bonus.  Check out The Difference to learn more.