We caught up with consultant Mark Eddleston, whom he considers himself a “New Ways of Working Nerd.” He offers training and coaches organizations that are looking to make significant changes within their structure, ways of working, organization patterns and so forth.
Our one-hour conversation was an interesting one, we delved deep into how he began his work, what was his motivation to help other organizations make a change within their structure, and offers his favorite organizational patterns that make great teams – great!
My first question for Mark was an obvious one: How did he get into being a coach, and why?
“I kinda had many jobs, I moved around New Zealand, Australia and thought I could get good jobs and that I would be frustrated, yeah I quickly got frustrated in these jobs. Possibly more so than other people. I thought that I was the problem.”
“And my reaction to it was: ‘I'll move to London, ok!... I’ll move to Melbourne, New Zealand.’ I just moved trying to find something that didn’t frustrate me. And I had some really good experiences along the way.”
But it all started with Eddleston and self-management when he began his work with The Community Law Center in New Zealand.
“Their purpose – first time I ever worked on something with a purpose. So we were a law firm and a community organization. My role was to look after the volunteers, about 200 students, law students who provide the service alongside 100 lawyers.”
“The boss there, he kinda didn't want to be the boss anymore. He kinda grew the organization from 5 to 25, the income grew and it became world class in doing what it did. With that growth he introduced some middle managers, but it wasn’t really working. He began to explore other alternatives, he began to read books about Spotify and Netflix and Reinventing Organizations, the book came out when I was there. He later photocopied Chapter 2.3 of that book, and asked us all to read that chapter, where it really explains if you want to move away from top-down traditional hierarchy and what do you do?”
For Mark chapter 2.3 was an exciting chapter, since it discussed complexity, a topic that is close to his heart.
“I was obsessed with complexity, so I was: ‘omg, understanding complexity helps us understand the world.’ I hadn't heard anyone talk about it ever since, so I was quite stoked to see someone talk about it in this context of work.”
His boss in the meantime, asked Mark’s team if they would be interested in trying this new ways of working. The coach adds: “Some people were very enthusiastic like me, other people were a little bit nervous and some people didn't really care – top-down, distributed ‘ I’ll come here and just do my job.’ We had everybody's consent to start, and started the next day. Everything was transparent, even our salaries.”
Salaries can be a tricky thing, and at times it is the last thing an organization tackles, due its complexity. But Mark experienced salary transparency very early on in the transformation: “That highlighted our boss, he got paid a lot more than other people, he was like: ‘Look this is the problem, can you fix it? I really don't want to be involved, but I don't like this.’ And he even turned down pay rises from the board.”
Soon Mark and the entire organization saw themselves having full transparency about everyone’s salaries, and were open to discuss what could be done and make a change!
“I knew kinda the salary transparency was not a thing you start from the beginning, not a simple thing to start with. But looking back it was a good thing to have started with because he was like: ‘Ok, we don't get paid fairly, who wants to have a discussion about this?’ And everyone showed up. We even had a different meeting for this, we used circle discussion.”
Circle discussion, how was the process in your experience?
“So it meant that traditionally in our meetings there are so many meetings that take place, and normally the loudest and most extroverted do all the talking and we know now from the research from Harvard, MIT and Google that equal talk time is one of the indicators of a great team. We introduced equal talk time and started talking in rounds to discuss this problem about salary and he stepped out of the decision making and gave us the control. He said: ‘I don't want to make the decision, who cares about it the most?’"
So was it fruitful, how was the salary transparency process after that?
“Later our managers were taken away and we were asked to create PS support groups, join with three other people in the organization and do the things you used to do with your managers. We received some training in difficult conversation and feedback, so that helped to navigate the advice process when people disagreed and helped in meetings and other processes.”
“I thought it was a terrible idea and that it wouldn't work. And the reason I thought it didn’t work was because we had this big discussion with the organization and then we had another discussion about how do we do this. And then we looked at the financial information. It turns out we had a couple of thousands of dollars in the salary pot. We had transparency that it was fair, we had agreement that we wanted to make it more fair, but we didn't have the money to do anything, or much. But what happened was that, very very slowly, we began to think more about roles, instead of jobs. When somebody would leave, we would ask them what their roles, and ask the rest: ‘Who would like to take on these roles?’
"So for example if I left, you wouldn't need me to replace me with a whole full time job because some people in the organization would have taken some of my roles.”
And as for bonuses and pay rises, the coach adds that they would distribute their unspent budget amongst all. “So for example if you had the highest salary you would get the lowest bonus and if you had the lowest salary you would get the highest proportion.”
How would you describe what you do right now?
"I normally call myself a New Ways of Working Nerd, but if I need to be more professional, consultant, or trainer. After this role with my first ever experience in self-management, I came back to the UK. So I was very happy at that job, the first time I wasn't frustrated at a job. It felt like we owned the organization, we felt truly that we could have an impact in the organization – it was wonderful.”
As a trainer, where do you start making a transformation within an organization?
“The answer to so many questions is that, it depends. so, because of complexity. With anything that involves people, there is no manual, there is no recipe. The first step with one team will be very different from the very first step with another.
There are no first steps, there are patterns.”
💡 Article pick: The Influence of Company Culture On Employee Engagement
What are the patterns within new ways of working according to you?
“I’m sure if you ask someone else, they will give you a set of different patterns. For me are healthy meetings and I found out that there are two things that make a team GREAT. One was empathy: Above average social sensitivity, but it's hard to change that, so if I have very little empathy, there's not much to change. It's going to take a lot of work for me to become an empathetic person.
The second indicator of high performing teams was: Conversation turn-taking, and we can change that this afternoon, using a structure in a meeting, by having a circle discussion – I'm a huge fan of circle discussions.”
So what is a circle discussion?
“Say we had 3 of us in this meeting, if you were online, we would speak in alphabetical order, but if we were offline, we would just speak one person at a time. The flow of conversation would go one way only.
At times you would have a talking stick, inspired from the indigenous in Canada and when you’re holding the talking stick you have 3 options: you have the opportunity to pass, I want to pause because I want to think or I can talk because I want to participate – so I can say whatever that is that will contribute to the discussion. And it kinda goes around between the circle, until no one has anything left to say.
It ensures that no one dominates. That links to psychological safety, one of the many ways you can promote psychological safety in a working environment.”
What are some tips or advice you can give to organizations to promote psychological safety when collaborators “fuck it up?”
“There is research by Amy Edmondson, where she looks into what makes teams better than others. Her hypothesis was that teams that were successful made less mistakes, but what she found out was that successful teams actually fucked up more. And then she dug a little more into her research and she found out that it is not about making mistakes more or less, but talking about it. They are open about their mistakes. If there is psychological safety, fuck ups aren’t really a problem.
If I fuck up in a team, your response would be: ‘How can I help?’”
You call yourself a New Ways of Working Nerd, what does that mean to you?
“Anything that moves away from traditional top-down hierarchical organizations. And that explores these patterns.”
The trainer went on and shared his top three favorite patterns that can enhance an organization and its teams:
- Circle Discussion
And one of Mark's favorite feedback modules is the brain friendly feedback.
“I really like how it says that it should always be 1-1, and done in person. Never in writing and ideally not over the telephone.”
Steps for a brain friendly feedback according to Mark:
- Check your intentions, purpose.
- Then ask the person for permission to give the feedback, maybe they’re having a bad day or give them a heads up about what it’s about.
- Be very specific, using data and facts. No opinions.
- Let the person know the impact that specific behavior made.
- Lastly, check -in with the person after giving the feedback.
As we concluded our conversation with Mark about his work, his journey with self-organizations, patterns in new ways of working and so many other transformational things, take notes on his top three patterns to make your team a more successful one.
You can find Mark Eddleston’s work, here.