Technology and Organizations

Datameer CEO Goes With the Flow

I have the honor of a post in today's Harvard Business Review BlogHelp Your Employees Find Flow

HolacracyResults-Only Work Environments. These new, more flexible ways of working may be a step too far for many organizations. Still, greater employee freedom can create a better sense of “flow,” which enhances engagement, retention, and performance. This can be achieved by loosening your grip on work practices — but you don’t have to let go completely: remove obstacles, set boundaries and meaningful goals, then let work take its course.

Stefan Groschupf, founder and CEO of Datameer, a big data analytics company, talked with me about how he tries to reduce negative interruptions and increase “flow.” His industry is one of the most pressured to recruit and retain top talent. He’s finding that the organization is more productive (e.g., has more leads generated in marketing or has engineers moving through projects more quickly) with active management of interruptions and engagement to enhance flow.

Please take a look at the full post as Stefan Groschupf provides some great insights. Two things I loved about our conversation:

  1. He can test his beliefs given Datameer's focus on data-driven business. They are always tracking results. This isn't flow for the sake of flow. It's flow for the sake of business.
  2. When I asked him about examples related to my ideas of you can lead by letting go, he didn't back off. For him, it's about the work. This seemed to parallel the "Lead, Follow, and Get Out of the Way," conversation I had with Marc Klein, Event Manager and Associate Principal at Populous. The addition of technology may give leaders more confidence in their ability to keep track of the work process, and thus, enable them to let work go with the flow, rather than needing to keep a death grip on the business. 


Lead, Follow, and Get Out of the Way -- Leadership Supports the Final Four

This weekend is the 2014 NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four. Thousands will be watching in the stadium and millions will watch worldwide. Like any event of this type, there is a team behind the scenes, setting the stage for the great performances on the court. Temporary facilities are built, operations plans laid down, credentials and security operations put in place, and a temporary workforce brought up to speed at a breakneck speed.

Lead, follow, and get out of the way is how I describe the management style used by Marc Klein, Event Manager and Associate Principal at Populous, the company tasked with the event planning and design for the Final Four.


Highlight the goal and make sure it matches the customer’s needs. Provide the resources to get the work done.


Follow as in pay attention and coach. This is where work design and technology support come into play. Klein’s team uses cloud-based shared documents to keep their work aligned. He gave me the example of how they use Smartsheet to get the most out of their numerous trips to an event site.

“Everybody has access,” and it’s simple. Team members developed their own tools in the shared spreadsheets, expanding and enhancing their workflow. The transparency helps the team coordinate their limited time on the ground, and Klein can keep a handle on what’s going on without being in the way -- the final dimension of this leadership model.

Get Out of the Way

“On the day of the event, they’re going to be the ones on the field.” You can’t be an expert in everything, so hire people smarter than yourself and step out of the way. Klein highlights the ownership people gain when they are given the freedom to follow their own path.

I expect you’re nodding your head at this. Management classes have taught this approach for decades. In 1973, we used Vroom & Yetton’s model on when to take a decision on your own and the conditions when you should involve your subordinates. In 1997 we upgraded to Tom Malone’s version, acknowledging the role that information technology plays in making more and better information available throughout of the organization.

And yet, many managers don’t practice this approach. They have a decision making meeting but lead with the answer they want to hear. They ask for revisions to work until they might as well have written it themselves.

I asked Klein if he had a thought as to why some can’t seem to get out of the way.

Some people just feel the need to have their own touch on everything. Not sure if it’s ego our just being able to say they had input…. All it does is undermine the confidence of the people who do the work. Even if something doesn’t look the way I envisioned, if it meets the customer needs, step out of the way. It takes an ‘ego check,’ but the team gets the glory.

A Modernization of a Leadership Standard

Perhaps the transparency made possible by tools like Smartsheet,, and other collaborative work systems will give more leaders the confidence to follow rather than meddle, loosen their grip, lead with a lighter touch -- however they might think about getting out of the way of work to be done. Leaders have critical roles to play as visionaries, resource providers, and coaches. Leaders can also look to enhanced roles as work architects as we begin to have work done as a blend of traditional employees, contract workers, “task rabbits” and the crowd.

Photo courtesy of Rich Smith.

A Mosaic of Education

I'm just back from the Mazatlán Forum, “Technology and the Future(s) of Education: U.S. and Mexican Perspectives.” For three days and a couple of wonderful extra meals, leaders from education, industry, and academia worked to find a more effective future for students in the United States, Mexico, and the world.

"Education Will Be Cloud Based"

Howard Charney, Senior Vice President, Office of the Chairman and CEO, Cisco Systems, gave a clear message to all of us during the closing keynote: Education will be cloud based — the cloud becomes the repository and the structure of education changes. More broadly he noted, "If you think your area of expertise is going to stay unchanged, you're mistaken and you're going to be out of a job.”

We needed to hear this from someone as well versed in both technology and higher education as Mr. Charney. No one in the room denied that most educational institutions have been static for centuries -- San Jose State being an interesting exception, as per Mo Qayoumi's (President, San Jose State University), opening keynote. We were not as unanimous on universities’ need to change, though that was the argument I made in the first of the faculty presentations. I called for us to lead with a lighter touch (my full presentation is below).

"Lead With a Lighter Touch"

Specifically, I said we need to loosen our grip on our:

  • Degrees: Move to smaller modules that are available when a student needs the knowledge
  • Walls: Offer our modules freely to the world (sometimes free as in "free beer;" but always free as in "free speech")
  • Faculty: It is a rare faculty member who is the best presenter across all the topics in a course. Instead, “faculty” for a course or module should be the best on the topic — just as we select readings written by others, we should select presentations done by others if they will do a better job with the material. This assumes share and share alike in that I need to offer my presentations to others (thus, why we must loosen our grip on our walls first).
  • Assessments: Faculty-given grades are proxies for student capabilities and not necessarily tied to capabilities organizations are looking for. While we should certainly arrange feedback, organizations or down-stream consumers of student work may be in a better position to assess quality and fit. Educators need to work in partnership with organizations to provide relevant education.

To this last point, one of my colleagues noted that I had a “functional view of education.” To that I replied, "guilty as charged," but that perhaps my view of functional is not as siloed as might be expected. Ethics, self-understanding, critical-thinking, etc. are things organizations want as well.

Don't Let Learning Flatline

Rather than offering lumpy four and two year degrees (for that approach I showed two heartbeats and then a flat-line), we should find ways to provide knowledge when a person needs it (depicted by an on-going heartbeat). The cloud lets the material be always accessible, and then frees faculty to prepare other material rather than repetitively teaching the same topics. More topics go into the cloud and educators spend their non-authoring time coaching, responding, and challenging.

Mosaics are More Nuanced

This last is how I brought us back to the idea of a mosaic of education. Mosaics are not linear, but rather rich pictures filled in by small pieces (in some cases as small as 5000 pieces per square inch). If we think of capabilities being gained over the course of a lifetime — especially if today’s new employees will have 20+ different jobs in their careers — the mosaic form of education allows us to respond to changing needs.

This is a message I’ve shared before, but rarely in a room with so many in position to take action. I look forward to what the future brings.

Many thanks to all the sponsors of the Mazatlán Forum 2014, including (more to come) Art Lund, Casa Lucila, The Jonathon, and the community of Mazatlán.




The Visual Organization: Review of Phil Simon's New Book

Phil Simon’s new book, The Visual Organization: Data Visualization, Big Data, and the Quest for Better Decisions (Wiley and SAS Business Series) is a bridge to better things. Analytics, big data, evidence-based management, lean entrepreneurship — these modern and not so modern terms point to valuable approaches for organizational decision-making. Our work and our tools continue to increase the volume, velocity, and variety of the data we have access to. Unfortunately, our personal skills are not adapting at the same pace as the data around us, and so, even though we do have better tools for working with data, the human side of this equation can still cause a gap. Data scientists and engineers will continue to be sought after hires for the near and mid-term future. The Visual Organization offers a visual language to help us make use of the data we have today, with, and sometimes without, the help of high-end data professionals. 

Definition of Data Visualization

The working definition in the book is: visualization, or dataviz, signifies the practice of representing data through visual and often interactive means. An individual dataviz represents information after it been abstracted in some schematic form. Finally, contemporary data visualization technologies are capable of incorporating what we now call Big data.

The Power of Visualization

Simon helps us find appropriate bridges between data and our organization’s decision making needs. Visualization generally opens evidence-based management to a much broader audience. Organizations like Walmart, Netflix, Amazon, and eBay live and die based on decisions made from their data and have teams of data scientists to help make this happen. Visualization opens some of these techniques to the rest of us.  With visualization, even small organizations can have the pulse of their customer interactions, for example, without over extending their resources. Growing organizations can push decisions to where they have the most value (generally closest to the customer), without teaching everyone how to interpret text-based regression results. Even as individual contributors, we can use visualization to improve our work. We may need to start small, but we can improve from being static users of “small data,” to interactive users of small or big data.

Four Levels of Visual Organization (From Chapter 6)

Netflix, the video subscription service, and host to one of the most visible open prize competitions around analytics, is an example of a level 4 company. Simon describes a presentation by Netflix’s Jeff Magnusson, manager of data platform architecture and Charles Smith, software engineer, shared three pieces of the Netflix data philosophy (quoting):

  • Data should be accessible, easy to discover, and easy to process for everyone.

  • Whether your dataset is large or small, being able to visualize it makes it easier to explain.

  • The longer you take to find the data, the less valuable it becomes.

Netflix may attack these goals using interactive/big data (and everything in between) — but any organization can gain by following the same three tenants. The value of The Visual Organization is that it provides methods and tools to help. 

Free sample and more info


My review is based on an early copy of The Visual Organization: Data Visualization, Big Data, and the Quest for Better Decisions (Wiley and SAS Business Series), which I received for free from Phil Simon. I do have several copies on order that I will share as guest speaker gifts in my classes. It’s that good, and it’s not bad that he kindly quotes me in Chapter 5. 

Review: Scaling Up Excellence by Sutton & Rao

I often reference Bob Sutton’s work here and in class, and Huggy Rao’s work on enthusiast organizations and innovation is a classic. When I heard that their book, Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less, was due out I was thrilled, and rightly so. It’s wonderful.

Sutton and Rao offer a comprehensive guide to management in a package of enticing stories, subtly supported by references to high-end research. Their personal history in the Silicon Valley and their global access to interesting organizations provides the backdrop.

Main Theme & Who Should Read

The main theme is that, while many good practices exist in organizations, they either get lost or there are difficulties when attempts are made to spread them (scale them) across the organization. The breadth of this theme means that this book will provide value to anyone who would like to see organizations improve. The benefits are not limited by industry, functional area, or organizational size.

Key Ideas: The Seven Mantras

Sutton and Rao are far more direct than most academics; it often takes a lot to get a professor away from an “it depends” answer. In this instance they have enough background to be confident with the following:

We’ve identified reliable signs that scaling is going well or badly, and we’ve distilled these signals into seven mantras. If you are embarking on a scaling effort [I’ll add if you are doing anything to make your organization better], memorize them, teach them to others, and invent ways to keep them firmly in focus -- especially when the going gets rough.

  • Spread a mindset, not just a footprint. This first one is their, and your, protection against being labeled a fad.
  • Engage all the senses. From my perspective, this is where you consider how to weave together human, technical, and organizational practices such that they work together, not against your goals. It’s also where I realize that my presentation of these ideas is much less colorful, and perhaps less likely to scale.
  • Link short-term realities to long-term dreams. Organizations that can do this have mastered ambidexterity -- the ability to both get work done now, and not let that get in the way of great things in the future. (In my mind, this is a precursor to solving the The Innovator's Dilemma.)
  • Accelerate accountability. This one sings to me as a focus on transparency. I’ve asked in the past, “What evidence, tools, and techniques do people in mainstream organizations think they need to move in this direction?” The examples provided here may move us closer to my ideal.
  • Fear the clusterfug. Yes, they are using a euphemism, but it gets across that we can't allow even mundane bad things to get worse. Speak up. For those wanting to use their business research background: Don’t escalate commitments to bad situations. Think about the Denver baggage-handling fiasco and fear a similar outcome on your watch.
  • Scaling requires both addition and subtraction. This ties directly to the idea of managing for now and for the future. Sometimes activities that have worked to create excellence stop working as you scale. As Sutton and Rao note, having an all-hands meeting every week makes great sense for a small organization, but you are likely to have to shift the form of this activity as you grow. Information flow and commitment are still important, but you need to be willing to find new ways that fit your growth.
  • Slow down to scale faster--and better-- down the road. I completely agree. I am wondering why, in my writing, I start with this one (in the form of “Stop-Look-Listen”), and yet they end with it. Perhaps thinking of this as a list is the problem. It’s not a list, it’s a cycle or a weaving, which also goes along with their borrowing Michael Dearing’s image of whether this is Buddhism versus Catholicism (see Chapter 2).

Apply These Ideas

My goal with this review is to get you to read the book. You will benefit. Your organization will benefit. The next time I teach a general graduate management class, Scaling Up Excellence will be a required reading.

I’m still trying to decide how much experience in organizations you need to have to gain value from their ideas -- and I’d love your opinion. Is this a book to help undergraduates trying to understand the complexities of organizations? If you are a mentor, is this a book you would suggest to a person in their first full-time job? Without a doubt it’s a book I’d give to someone taking on a new leadership role at any level.

Disclosure: My review copy was provided by the publisher. I’ve also purchased a copy to gift to a colleague.

Subscribe to Quick Insights You Can Use

Syndicate content