Sustainability and Systemic Change

If you’re here looking for answers, I’m afraid I don’t have any. I do have questions, though, and maybe by putting them out there we can find a next step on the path forward together.  

I have the great fortune of working with Madeline Van Der Paelt, and she sent me a note after a particularly-frustrating meeting recently. It was a quick one-liner, “I’m curious what you thought of the meeting this afternoon.” That small prompt turned into an hour-long conversation about how so many of our efforts to Do Better™ fail, and why that might be. 

I think that economics is a contributing factor. 

Behavioural economics

Behavioural economics tells us that rational people usually make rational decisions based on the information and incentives presented to them. (Important note: I am not a behavioural economist and have no training in the field, I could be completely wrong in my understanding.) 

As a case in point, Chelsea Troy has a great article Why Your Efforts to Make Your Company Inclusive Aren’t Working. In it, she says:

[E]veryone kind of thinks they are paying attention. But they ain’t. And the reason they ain’t is that, usually, the information has no bearing on their career trajectory.

Bias trainings are interesting, but after they’re over employees don’t focus there because they’re not evaluated on their inclusion literacy. Instead, employees focus on the skills they need to get ahead—writing code, appeasing the boss, establishing influence.

Individual people treat inclusion like an elective because the company’s incentive system treats inclusion like an elective.

Intentional decision making

Replace “bias training” with “security training”, “architecture reviews”, or pretty much anything that is not explicitly on a team’s quarterly objectives, and we often see the same pattern. With few exceptions, quarterly objectives win, because that is what all of our incentives are tied to. In some ways, that’s kind of the point of those objectives in the first place: providing folks with the tools to focus on what’s important and rewarding people for meeting goals. However, we need to make sure that we’re making conscious decisions about what we’re leaving off the list, and ask ourselves whether we’re making the right choices. 

It’s important to remember that lots of organizational values will never show up on an OKR (Objectives and Key Results) list, because they’re supposed to be overriding concerns that everyone knows to do. However, sometimes in the effort of pursuing an OKR, or when working with a rapidly-growing team, we can forget some of those fundamental values. 

When this happens, we can end up with the same results that Chelsea describes: a flurry of activity to check off a box, with no follow-up or real systemic improvement. An hour of training doesn’t address systemic problems: we need to change the system. 

Our objectives reflect what we think is important

It seems silly and obvious to point this out, but our objectives are the definition of what we think is important. In the presence of infinite resources, we can do everything, but in more realistic situations, we often have to make trade-offs. 

In order for us to make real change that sticks, we need to make sure that our objectives reflect not only “Ship feature X and get feedback from N customers” but also the other activities that are important to running the business successfully, while being decent humans. 

Mechanisms are a key to success

Adrian Hornsby, a principal engineer at Amazon Web Services, writes about how Amazon achieves operational excellence through mechanisms that encode their processes. He quotes Thomas Edison, saying: 

A good intention, with a bad approach, often leads to a poor result.

We can have all the good intentions in the world, but unless we have supporting processes in place, it can be very difficult to make those intentions reality. 

In the article, Adrian talks about the virtuous cycle of tools, adoption, and audits. I’m extrapolating a bit, but my understanding of the essence is: Create a tool, encourage adoption through education, and audit its use. Use the audit results to improve the tool and increase adoption. 

Making change sustainable

There are so many things that I can be better at, and I often feel so overwhelmed that I … do nothing. I fall into the trap of wanting to be perfect and I let that get in the way of being better. One motivational image I’ve seen that sometimes helps me get past being overwhelmed has an equation: 

1.01^{365} = 37.8

If you’re not mathematically inclined, this might look a bit confusing, but it says “if you take a number greater than one, even a little bit, and multiply it by itself a lot, you get a much bigger number”. If you improve a little bit every day, at the end of a year you will be a lot better. 

What mechanism can I use to avoid being overwhelmed and trick myself into making that 1% daily improvement that will compound over years? 

Can we nudge ourselves towards the change we want?

I have a list of questions that I ask myself every week. I picked this tool up from working with Madeline and her team. Their questions are a bit different, but mine are: 

  1. What did you do for our customers this week?
  2. What did you do for other Trenders this week?
  3. What did you do for yourself this week?

Heavily-redacted and abbreviated sample check-in.

Every week I open a new document, paste in these questions, and as the week progresses I add answers. I find it helps me keep my head in the right place. 

I wonder what would happen if I set up a bot to nudge me with an extra question, maybe a new one each week, that helped remind me of the behaviours I want to improve? What if I took all of the items in Chelsea Troy’s rubric for inclusiveness, turned them into “how did you demonstrate X” questions, and used a different question each week to help me remember to be more inclusive? What if I added in questions for other behaviours? There are all kinds of examples: 

  1. How did you build up a team’s capacity to be more self-sufficient this week?
  2. How did you help someone become a better code reviewer this week?
  3. How did you help a team improve their operational effectiveness this week?

These work well for my role, your set of prompts might be different! 🙂 

I’m going to give it a try

We’ve got a hack day coming up, so I think my project is going to be a nudge-bot that sends me a question of the week to add to my list. I’m curious to see how it works out. I’m hopeful that this mechanism will help me make small sustainable changes in my behaviour and surface some of the things that aren’t always included in the big-O Objectives. 

What questions do you think I should ask? What behaviours are you looking to amplify in your teams and organizations? I’d love to hear your thoughts. 

Many thanks to Madeline Van Der Paelt for sparking the conversation and her thoughts on the initial draft of this post. 

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