Desiging Fulfilling Work: Jeff Saperstein Inteviews Dart, Part 1

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Original Podcast

Jeff Saperstein:

Hi, I’m Jeff Saperstein co-author with Hunter Hastings of the book, The Interconnected Individual: seizing opportunity in the era of platforms, apps, and global exchanges. As an interconnected individual, you want to know how cutting edge thinking can help you design implement, manage, and enjoy your own individual economy.

Today we’re talking with Dart Lindsley, head of Global Process Excellence for Human Resources at Google. Dart has held numerous high-level positions at Cisco and now Google in organizational design and empowering employees for better engagement in their work. He believes that workers or customers as critical to the success of every enterprise, as those who purchase products and services.

This one idea has the power to revolutionize talent operations. Enterprises need to devote as much energy and attention to improving workforce experience as we do to fostering the creation of highly effective teams. We must rearchitect the services we provide and the methods we use to design them.

We’ll discuss how to use the employee engagement and workforce experience, opportunity both from an organization and worker perspective. You can improve both your organization and your own work satisfaction in your career. If you understand how to better design the work experience. So let’s begin.

Jeff Saperstein:

Well, Dart, you’ve been thinking about the work experience for a very long time. Can you describe the challenge and the opportunity to redesign work and what do you mean by redesign work?

Dart Lindsley:

Sure. So I have indeed been working in this area for a long time. I’ve been very lucky to work for, I think, some of the best employers in the world. And, and I’ve had the opportunity to work for instance, as the head of business architecture for some of these companies. In that role I was required to think about human resources whole: So not about the pieces, but what’s the whole thing for. And I’ve come to believe that we are using an incorrect mental model to think about work.

It’s never great to find out that you’re fundamentally wrong about something, but on the other hand, it’s a huge opportunity. And that’s some of the things I’d like to talk about today.

It’s like… when I think back on, on mental models that we’ve had wrong in the past, it’s sort of like the transition from the miasma theory of disease to germ theory; which is, we used to think disease worked one way and as a result we would treat it one way and all the ways that we would treat it were ineffective. But once we realized how the world really worked, we were able to make huge improvements and remove a lot of affliction and make the world a better place.

That’s where I think we are right now with work. And so what I think we are not getting right – you said it in the beginning on what I think is right, which is, I think employees are customers. But companies think about employees as a factor of production. That employees are something that you buy that’s like a table or a chair that you use to create value for your real customer.  And it’s interesting: companies talk about the workforce this way and people in the workforce talk about themselves this way.

I’ve come to believe that that that’s just not right, which is, if you really look at the definition of what a customer is, a customer is someone who exchanges value with your enterprise and who is free not to, then you realize that employees fit that criteria.  That employees provided an enormous amount of value to an enterprise and are free not to. Free to choose whether or not to work for a particular company in a big way –  you know, to take a job – or whether or not to choose hour by hour to work for that company or to give their whole heart to that company. That’s the kind of freedom employment have. And so what, what I’ve come to believe is that we have to look at every enterprise as being a multi-sided network, which is to say that they have a business model in which they have at least two customers.  One customer is the customer for the goods and services that they produce. And the other customer is the worker customer. And that the worker customer is buying – really, honestly, subscribing – to a completely different product. That they’re subscribing to the work experience product that the enterprise creates.

When you switch the world, you sort of put it on its head a little bit like that. You start to realize that that every company has this whole other line of business, which is designing and building the work experience. When you do that, the world changes. And you have to think about your company differently. You have to invest in it differently, you have to use different methods to approach the problem. That’s what I’ve been working toward over these last number of years.

Jeff Saperstein:

It’s a fabulous, fabulous vision. Let’s go a little more granular. How do you see work changing with the methods you propose and that you’ve been developing over these years, given that the employee is a customer?

Dart Lindsley:

So as soon as you start to think about an employee as a customer, then you have to start asking yourself very different questions. Most enterprises don’t have a customer research arm that’s focused toward workers. And so they don’t really have that part of a marketing department that would really deeply understand what it is that we all want from our work. So one of the first steps is to start doing that kind of research. And the way I’ve been doing that is, I’ve been asking hundreds of people a marketing question that was popularized by Clay Christensen. You can find him talking about it online. I’ve been asking “what job you hire your job to do for you?”    The reason you ask that question is so you can understand really how you should be designing the product you’re designing and building, and you’re giving to that customer. This is asking people: tell me about the value that this product we are building is bringing to you so that we can build it better.

When I’ve asked that question, some of the answers, at least at first seem to be fairly straightforward. Some people say, “well, come on, I hire my job to give me money.” And then you ask a little deeper. You ask why do you need money? And they say, “well, to keep my family safe.” So you say, if you could keep your family safe and nurture and grow your family without money would that work for you? And they say, “Yeah, I don’t need the money. I just need my family to be taken care of.” Other sort of answers you might expect is I hired my job to learn.

But then there start to be some other answers to that question that get less and less intuitive and things you might not expect.

One answer is “I had my job to solve puzzles. This is a place where I can go and they give me great puzzles that nobody’s ever solved before. And I get to solve them.”   

One of my favorites is “I hire my job to look good at parties.” So your job is sort of like adornment. You ask yourself before you take a job or engage with a job, does it go with my outfit?  I know I personally have turned down job offers with tons of money associated with them, because frankly, it just didn’t go with the rest of my outfit.

One person said “I hire my job to pretend.” I said, what do you mean, you hire your job pretend?  He says, “I like to go to work. I like to play dress up. He said, I like to pretend I’m a vice president. I said, you are the vice-president. And he said, “no, I’m a jazz musician. I just play a vice-president at work. And what I really want from my job? I want I want an audience and I want a stage. I want to be able to get up on that stage and I want to be adored.”

And so, as you dig into these things, you realize that people are getting a lot of value out of their work beyond the monetary aspects of it.   And in fact, that there are these whole economies of value that are flowing through enterprises to workers that are not money. They are not the standard money, benefits, anything like that. They are, in fact, a lot more valuable than those things. Or at least, if you’ve got enough of those basic things, these are the things that you yearn for next. These are the things that make you feel whole and alive at work.

We haven’t operationalized those economies to be more optimum. Those economies right now are more or less accidental. And so here’s an example. So I’m finally going to get to your question, Jeff, which is how do I see work changing with the methods I propose. So let’s take puzzle solving, which is a pretty common answer in my world.  People say they hire their job to give them puzzles to solve.

I have two people on my team, or I had two people on my team, Jim and Dawn, and they both came to work to solve puzzles. They also both solve puzzles in their spare time. One of them does the crossword every single day, and he does the Saturday crossword or the Sunday crossword in about 20 minutes. He’s awesome at puzzles.  The other one over breakfast likes to take GRE logic practice tests. So these are things that they love to do in their spare time. When they come to work, they get to work on puzzles. 

Well, as a manager, I get to allocate those… I get to manage the economy of puzzles. There’s only so many puzzles to go around, but I know that Dawn likes one kind of puzzle: she likes these big open-field, don’t-even-know-what-the-solution’s-supposed-to-look-like kinds of puzzles. Jim likes these ones that have a big math component and are small and knotty and difficult, but kind of finite. And so if I gave each of them random puzzles to solve, they’d be less happy. But if I can direct to them the kind of puzzles that they both love,  that make them feel whole and alive when they come to work, then I’ve just optimized the economy. We have not operationalized that kind of, allocation of work. And each one of these things that people hire their job for has a similar economy.

Jeff Saperstein:

This is a revolutionary way to approach work. So let me dig a little deeper. So is there a percentage of the job on puzzles?   Like, you know, the person that wants to be adored we say 25% of your job is to be adored and 75% is what we need for you to do that is not being adored, but we need in order to justify paying you. Is that at all part of what the equation is? Or is it, I can enable you to do a much higher percentage than a small percentage, or I don’t even know if percentages is the right way to approach it, but I think you understand. Is it possible to have half a loaf and for them to be satisfied?

Dart Lindsley:

So so first of all, one of the things that I think is implied in your statement that I often come across in my own mind when I’m thinking about this is, if we treat workers like customers, and if workers consider themselves to be customers. Ourselves, really, because it’s not them and us, it’s, we’re all workers on some level.  So, if we consider ourselves customers that in some way we are going to do less work or do things that are not aligned to where the company wants to go. 

When that story that I told you about those puzzles, that’s all work. When I ask people about what they hire their job to do for them, the answer is they want quality work, more than anything else. And their definition of quality may change from person to person, but it’s not less work and it’s not adjacent to work or beside work. It’s work!   It’s just that some work people love,  and other people hate. And sometimes it’s the other way around.   

Is any economy ever optimized perfectly? No. And so there’s always going to be some sub-optimization and I think we all strive to do better.

Jeff Saperstein:

Do you see technology affecting the work experience, and particularly as work is redesigned with AI as tools that will help to facilitate this vision that you’re talking about and how will people be working with AI to be more engaged?

Dart Lindsley:

Yeah, I think there’s two answers to that question. One of them is: how is AI going to help us to operationalize these new services that I was just describing, like work allocation and things like that. And then the second question is once I’m in a role, and I’m doing work,  is AI augmenting my work experience in terms of how I do my work?

Let me answer the first one first, I’ll give you an example of how the world would change. Today when you go to a career site and you’re looking at a company’s  career site and you start to search for jobs what you search on is the skills that the job needs from you. And what’s interesting about that is that it’s sort of like going to Amazon and instead of searching on the product that you actually want,  the first thing that Amazon says what currencies they accept for that product.  But that’s not what they do. They say here’s the attributes of the product that you will love. Oh, and by the way, at the very end,  here’s what we take in payment, what currency. 

But career sites start with: here’s the cost of working here. Here’s the skills we need from you. And it doesn’t really tell you that much about the specific joys or, or values of that particular role. 

And so what we would do instead is to turn that on its side Is this a job that will give you puzzles to solve? Here’s the kinds of puzzles that it’s going to give you to solve.  Will it help you be on stage? Show me all the jobs where I get to compete head-to-head with others. Show me all the jobs and what I’m going to learn in this job.

So, in other words, let’s start looking at what are the aspects of the product that people are subscribing to when they come to work, as opposed to what the company wants from them. 

Can AI help with that? Absolutely,  because AI can learn if it has the right data. It can ask applicants what kind of experience they want at work.  Based upon their answers, we ask them six months later and they say, it’s the best job they’ve ever had in their lives. Once we start to collect that kind of information, we can wrap it back around. We can teach the AI how to find jobs for people that are going to make them feel whole and alive and that they get the  best jobs they’ve ever had. That’s an example. 

Now about the second question. When your work is augmented by AI, is it going to help or hurt?  It’s probably gonna depend, but one of the kinds of work I think about a lot is building things. People often tell me they hire their job to build stuff.    Just give me a workshop, a tool shed, and some materials and let me build stuff. 

When you are building stuff do you use power tools? Well, there’s occasionally sort of an eccentric person who likes to use hand tools like a brace and bit to drill holes, but for the most part, what really gives people joy is seeing the thing they build come together, and the narrative of the assembly of what they’re building. I have built wooden boats, and there are these sort of narrative moments where you’ve sanded all of the wood and it’s all white and dusty, and then you apply varnish. And all of a sudden it lets the light out of the wood. It goes from white to suddenly being this rich golden color, where you can see down into the grain.  And that’s part of the narrative of building a boat. It’s that moment of reveal. Well, I use power tools. It’s not special to me to use hand tools or power tools because that experience of applying the varnish isn’t going to be changed. And it’s one of the joys. A lot of these AI things will get you to those moments quicker, help you to get to the best parts, the valuable parts, of the work.

Jeff Saperstein:

Yeah. I love it. This is fantastic. Can you provide some specific examples of how you’ve changed the work experience using these methods? Real jobs, real people, in terms of you were able to make it more engaging for them?

Dart Lindsley:

Yeah. I can mostly describe it from my own teams. It’s about being very conscious of what gives each person that energy. And one of the things that changes is, you start to ask, how am I going to win the kind of work that my workforce wants to consume? What’s the high quality work that they’re going to love?  

In Good to Great  there’s a story about a toy company that was thinking of going different ways with its product line or its whole business. And then they asked their workforce, what’s the thing that you really love to do. And the workforce said, well, we like to build toys for younger kids. And so they said, okay, this is the direction we’re going to go. The direction that our workforce wants to go in terms of the kind of work that they want to do.

In my last role there were a couple people on my team who were creatives and who who were in analyst roles. And one of them had a PhD in psychology, but was not really doing anything related to psychology. And so we sat back and we said, what if we created a new service to provide experience design inside the company. Let’s create that service and win that business. We win that work so that these people, who would love that kind of work, get it.  And we did, and it worked. That’s an up and running enterprise inside my last company.   

And, and so that was about recognizing that work is a product that people subscribe to and really being conscious about that. And it goes both ways. I’m talking about it as a manager, and I’m talking about it as somebody who needs to operationalize stuff, but it’s also up to the people doing the work to fully understand: what are the attributes of the work experience that I want to have? And I need to work to, to create that, that opportunity.

Jeff Saperstein:

I know that you love the idea of methods and having procedures and having structure and having metrics and having impact. The stuff you’re talking about sounds very qualitative. How do you justify all of this to your management?  What are those – if you can share – what are some of those methods and metrics that makes it sound very productive and very value creating from the perspective of management.

Dart Lindsley:

Yeah. So in terms of methods, I mean, essentially the main methods of this are the part of market research that really understands what customers want, and design. The design of the work experience. And so the challenges of selling that kind of thing to management are always the same. A common response is : what does design do for me? And, and the answer is it makes a delightful product that people want to engage with. I am reluctant to say that worker productivity is what you’re going to get. And the reason I’m reluctant to say that is not because it’s not what you’re going to get. You are going to get productivity. 

As an aside, First of all, productivity is actually notoriously hard to measure.  The early productivity stuff was all on bricklayers. Why? Because it’s the easiest thing to measure in the world. But when it comes to software engineers it’s not that easy. 

But the second reason is,  imagine I’m running a business and my first thought is how much money are you going to give me. You, Jeff, are coming to my counter, and my first thought is, how much money can I get from Jeff?  You’ve, you’ve experienced this when you go to a hotel and there all these hidden costs and they charge you for the parking, and then they charge you for the water and they charge you for the mint on your pillow. And you feel it’s like the slow motion mugging that happens when you go to a hotel like that. And it’s a horrible experience.

Well, to run a great business you don’t start with customers from how much money they are going to give you, you start from what does my customer really, really want? And you build out from that, and you trust that if you consistently give them those things that lead them to feel whole and alive, that goodness will come. And so in that business you have people who are not thinking about the dollar amounts that they can get. You have people who are thinking really hard just about what Jeff really wants and how can I provide it to Jeff. 

That sales pitch doesn’t always work with leadership, by the way. The dynamics of enterprises are like this truck I used to have that pulled hard into the left, you know, which is that, you know, every time I, if I wasn’t constantly fighting the steering wheel, it wanted to go into oncoming traffic and the part of the company that’s very concerned about making money, wants to pull you away from the qualitative and the uncertain. And it wants to pull you toward the quantitative and the certain even comes at the cost of the long term benefit of the enterprise. That’s, that’s a constant battle. I’m not sure I have any great wisdom on that. 

Jeff Saperstein: 

You mentioned “whole and alive”, which by the way I wrote down, because it’s a wonderful phrase. Can you talk about what you mean by? 

Dart Lindsley: 

Yeah. I absolutely lifted that from writer Christopher Alexander who wrote a series of books on architecture. He writes about a quality without a name. He explains that there are certain structures, architectural structures, that when you engage with them, the experience causes you to feel whole and alive. And there are others that make you feel dead.

And he says that it’s a lot like kindling a fire.  When a structure works, it’s something that feeds on itself and makes things richer and richer. So part of the reason I used the phrase “whole and alive” is because I’m holding work to a very high standard. Work is a product, unlike almost any other.  Your work is bigger than buying a house. It’s bigger than buying a car. When you buy a work experience with your time, it’s going to consume this enormous part of your life. 

And in fact, you know, worldwide it’s trillions and trillions of hours are spent experiencing that work experience product. And today work is this undesigned, accidental thing. It’s inhuman design in many cases. I say we should seek work that causes us to feel whole and alive partially because of this rich literature that was created by Christopher Alexander and his colleagues that is talking about this quality without a name that makes design work. And then the other reason is, because this is one of the most important things in your world and it shouldn’t make you feel dead. You should reach for something and it shouldn’t just pay you and make you feel dead. It should, of course, pay you and achieve this higher level thing.

Jeff Saperstein:

You know, many of us have experienced that. It’s almost like Malow’s self-actualization, where you feel like everything, all your faculties are being used and you’re seeing progress. You’re seeing purpose. You’re sharing with colleagues. There’s a way of discussing this from a coaching standpoint that people do feel very much alive and whole.   And I even remember someone saying to me, ”in the job that I have, I feel like I’m dead and dull.  I want to feel very much what you’re saying is kind of this universal aspiration to be not only valuable, but to have that sense of, I am being fully utilized in a way that brings out all my best.”  

Jane McGonigal wrote about reality being broken. Do you remember that book where she says, if we can only get the thrill of gaming into work, how wonderful we could make the world? And if we focused on solving big problems with using the energy that people have in gaming?

Dart Lindsley:

Gamification is a great example. Yeah, it’s funny – it’s the idea of understanding the design attributes of games so that they can be repeated in work. But games are just places to rapid prototype things that make us whole and alive. For people who love to build, Minecraft is a sort of a rapid prototype. It’s a simulation of building.  And so gamification is a great term. I like it a lot. But it’s kind of backwards. Game is not the key thing here. Game is just an experience that you can, that’s a simulation reality.

Jeff Saperstein:

Yes, exactly. So the last question I have for you is about the individual. Obviously our book The Contected Individual,  we’re looking for people to seize opportunities using these technologies. We’re finding work that matters to them. How can individuals better prepare themselves for career opportunities, perhaps with a different understanding of the work experience as you’ve talked about it. Which haracteristics and skills, both the hard and the soft skills, may be more important if they’re seeking this whole inner life at work.

Dart Lindsley:

I thought I would have a different response to this when I considered  this question ahead of time. But now that we are at this point in the conversation, I realized that when you think about buying a work experience,  and you think about which one you want to buy, they actually do take different currencies. 

And you know, the risk is that we think about ourselves as a product that somebody else buys. And we forget that we’re buying a product when we take a job. And so risk of this question is that we start from the skills we need to pay,  as opposed to asking what work experience product do I want to buy. But starting with the work experience product that I want to buy you do then have to ask yourself: for the people who are selling that work experience, what currency do they take?

It’s very much going to depend upon what kind of experience you want to have before you think about the characteristics and skills that may be most important. If you are a puzzle solver and you love to solve puzzles, then there’s going to be a suite of currencies that you’re going to want to bring to the table to buy that experience. I  know this one because I come to work to solve puzzles. I need to come to work with a rich skepticism. I need to be able to articulate abstract ideas. And that comes from practicing solving puzzles. I think that’s the way to think about it, as those characteristics and skills that are the right currency to buy the work experience product that you want. 

Jeff Saperstein:

I remember, and this may be from a conversation we had many years ago when I asked you, what are you looking for? And you said, you’re looking for someone who’s skeptical about data. Did I get that correct? That they questioned the data. They questioned the assumption. They questioned the immediate conclusions that people come to and you want them to be skeptical as they approach data.

Dart Lindsley:

Now, that’s true. And now let’s think about this as somebody who’s selling a work experience product. AS somebody selling that puzzle-solving work experience product, this a currency that I take. In my world of puzzle solving skepticism is core. I don’t want people who have religion about a particular way of solving a problem, because you need to be creative in how you solve them. And so there’s a lot of different things that I’m looking for as a vendor of a puzzle solving work experience.  But if I was in sales, that’s not what I’d be looking for.  If I was in sales I might be looking for somebody who wants to win. If I was in engineering, I might be looking for somebody who wants to build. And if I want some loves to build I would be asking for a different currency,

Jeff Saperstein:

Fascinating. This has been terrific. And people can follow you. I presume on LinkedIn and Twitter. And I know that you are very prolific. So people should be looking forward to what you write and what you say and what you speak. And this has been a phenomenal contribution. And thank you so much.

Dart Lindsley:

Thank you very much for the opportunity to share some of these ideas. I really appreciate it, Jeff.

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