Verge Team Assessments

Initial Conditions: Your Onboarding and Integration Process

Verge Team Assessments

I remember one of my first classes at Oxford. I sat enthralled while Professor Boulton (Embracing Complexity) lectured us on the abiding concepts of complex adaptive systems (CAS). As a former USN SEAL and budding molecular biologist (at least in my youth), I knew a bit about complexity, at least enough to say, “It’s all very complex.” But what Professor Boulton offered was new; it was exciting. It was deep and seemed to get at the essence, the marrow, of what this welter of existence was all about.

I approached her after class as any good former SEAL would—sheepishly. I managed to say that I enjoyed her lecture and that complexity, as a discipline, had fascinated me for some time. Combat is, after all, rather complex. But I’d always seen it as more of a metaphor, I told her. She looked up at me, patted me on the shoulder, and said, “It’s reality. Get used to it.”

The memory of that encounter still makes me chuckle. But Professor Boulton was right: the world is complex, and I’ve gotten used to it.

And in that world of complexity, we tend to stick, ironically perhaps, to a few simple concepts to explain what we mean by complexity and complex adaptive systems, like the fact that complex systems (our bodies, our companies, our planet, “and beyond”) are systemic. We are interconnected, interdependent, synergistic—the sum of our parts times a whole lot more.

Complex systems are also path-dependent, meaning history matters. Where we came from matters because it has a say in where we’re headed. It gets a vote. Our history, like our genetic history, to some extent fashions our trajectory into the unknown. But history isn’t deterministic, nor are your genes. The timing and sequence of events, life’s avalanches and earthquakes, that come down the pike and bash into our historical patterns of thinking and acting (i.e. the way we’ve always done it)—this interaction of current events and past habits shapes our future, for our planet as well our companies, our bodies, our minds, and our cells. These systems are multi-scalar, too. What happens at one level, unlike Vegas, doesn’t stay there but occurs in a similar fashion at numerous levels, from the infinite to the infinitesimal.

And complex systems are emergent. Astonishing features seemingly pop into existence and fundamentally—and qualitatively—change the nature of a system. Stuff happens. Emergence renders for us an uncertain world, not random, not chaotic, but not predictable either. Just up in the air. To fully recognize and come to terms with this aspect of complexity is to embrace humility. If we’re honest with ourselves, our elegant solutions are rarely elegant for long. And sometimes the best we should hope for is a workable solution, even a clumsy one.

And change within a complex system, at least radical change, is episodic. It is true that we are constantly changing, always in the process of becoming, never fixed. But the significant changes wait for tensions to build up and then the system tips and is forever altered, its equilibria punctuated and unable to turn back. Hard to un-bake a cake no matter how hard the pull of nostalgia.

Systemic, path-dependent, emergent, and episodic— c’est la complexité. Such is complexity.

But I left out sensitive. Complex systems are also sensitive—to both local context and initial conditions (some equate the two). The way the future unfolds is not just related to our history, but to the myriad features and relationships, the interconnections and interdependencies, in our local environments. Think of this initial context (or conditions) as a substrate: if it is dense in nutrients and opportunities, the population stands a good chance of flourishing. If not, well, then the population doesn’t stand a good chance.

Your onboarding process for your company is your initial condition for your new employees and execs, or one of them anyway. To what degree do you set the conditions to increase their odds of flourishing, and to what degree do your new hires fend for themselves? For many, onboarding is an afterthought. The new guy gets shown around and then he or she is on their own. These companies view onboarding the same way the Spartans looked at the Agoge. You have to fight to survive. Battle tested, bruised and beaten, you join the ranks of the elite. Welcome to the club.

Sounds cool to some, I suppose. Until you consider where the Spartans are today.

We refer to that initial condition inside organizations as “onboarding and integration.” By phrasing it that way, it hints at the importance of socialization. It’s not only about welcoming someone to the team, but it’s also about integrating them into the fabric of the cultures (yes, plural) of your organization. It’s about starting them off not only on the right foot but putting them, first and foremost, on the right path, the right trajectory, to success. When you recognize how deeply interconnected and interdependent we are in our teams and organizations, in our worlds, then you grasp the extent to which what one of us does affects us all. The onboarding and integration process marks the beginning of this awareness for many: Here’s how I create value for you, and you for me.

We can give you the information to build a proper onboarding and integration program, and then drop the mic and walk away. A lot of consulting firms can do that—a lot actually do. But such initiatives likely won’t work, at least not for long. Our mission is to give you that information—for free. And then we partner with you, using our knowledge of complex systems and how they change, adapt, and thrive, and our understanding of coaching and the psychology of goal-setting and goal-flourishing to help you, with all of your knowledge and experience, build a program that will make the Spartans wake up in their graves and take notice.


Verge Keynote

Shaping and Constructing Culture: aka Leading in Complexity

Verge Keynote

You’ve heard this before, I’m sure: “Changing culture is the hardest thing you’ll ever do.” Aside from the fact that such a statement is debatable, it does beg the question: What even is “culture”? How do we define it? Do we accept the biologist’s definition, the sociologist’s, or the anthropologist’s? Take your pick; I like them all. But if you pull out what’s similar and what’s generally agreed upon in most of these definitions, you’re left with a workable definition of culture, something you can use: culture is a group’s shared and integrated beliefs, values, assumptions, behaviors, and material objects (or artifacts). Culture, as a form, is a pattern of relationships between and among people in a group.

You can do the same thing with leadership, by the way. There are 90-some-thousand books out there on leadership, yet no one, neither business gurus, academic icons, nor military gods, can agree on a definition. I suspect there’s a good reason for that, though those authors seem not to know it. For one, leadership is highly contextual. And what counts as leadership in one context might not in another. The command-and-control leadership philosophy backed by government bureaucracies and their armies the world over would likely prove an abysmal failure in a fleet-footed business bent on generating, not consuming, capital.

Because contexts matter and are continually shifting and changing, like Heraclitus’s river, what counts as leadership will also have to shift and change (although I contend strong character should remain a commonality). It’s for that reason that leadership will always resist being precisely defined. But we know this: leadership from a position of character involves influence, occurs in groups of people, and is aimed at striving, struggling, and even fighting in some respects, to achieve the group’s shared goals.

Notice that nowhere in those ingredients for leadership is listed rank or position or title. They are indeed tools of influence, but they are not in and of themselves leadership. And if they are your only tools, good luck. Best to go work for the government.

What interests us, though, is the nexus between culture and leadership. And that nexus falls squarely on one word used in both descriptions: group.

The group is both the culture and the leaders (yes, leaders). Culture influences leaders, just as leaders, to include those with and without titles (and it’s important to understand that), can and should influence culture. And those leaders should influence the culture in what direction? Toward the achievement of its shared goals, naturally.

Viewed through the lens of complexity, culture and leadership (and strategy and performance as well) are not separate entities but form the warp and weft of a single integrated organizational narrative, a tapestry, a web even, a story of who the organization is, where it’s been, and where it’s headed. And both are emergent properties of their local context. Yes, you heard that right. You can literally do nothing, and yet both of these psycho-social phenomena will arise unbidden. Groups form, and out of those interrelated and interconnected groups culture and leadership comes forth. If you’re fine with leaving the attributes of these powerful phenomena to chance, though, then read no further.

But to pull on just one of those emergent threads for a moment, leadership is the primary tool, skill, process, and system not only to shape a high-performing culture but to actively construct the vessel in which that culture is contained and in which it flourishes. And that in a word is an awesome responsibility.

In our minds, a high-performing culture is synonymous with an adaptive culture. And it is the leaders’ (plural) responsibility to construct that culture, monitor it, and, when the leaders feel they are on the right path, to jealously guard that culture against all intruders foreign and domestic (to borrow the language of defending the constitution).

To do that, fill your organization with some hearty proactive problem solvers, particularly those who feel strongly that the problems they face are best solved by committing to a search for truth through spirited dialogue. It’s learning that emerges from the discussions and productive conflict, and it is to learning that you must commit. You might not celebrate failure, but you have to do more than tolerate it; you have to learn from it, and to do that you’ll need to ensure that feedback, to include the good, the bad, and the ugly, is the coin of the realm. (Incidentally, honest, bottom-up feedback is what’s missing in the command-and-control style of leadership.)

On top of that, adopt a favorable view of human nature—or at least a positive view of the people in your organization. Get this: people generally set out to do good—they want to do good—and they can and will change if you create a psychologically safe place for them to do so. But don’t just adopt a favorable view of people, root out those who don’t harbor that same view. They will only, in some subtle ways, “train” their subordinates and peers, and perhaps their leaders as well, to display the kinds of poor traits they accuse people of in the first place. This particular kind of negativity is insidious, and there’s no room for it in a culture set on reaching the stars.

Next, add a healthy dose of optimism to your organizational diet. Put it in your morning coffee. (Everybody else seems to have a recommendation for what goes in your coffee these days, optimism is mine.) I’m not saying you should become a Pollyanna, not at all. Optimism simply means that the team believes they can manage and even influence their internal and external environments—at least to some extent—and that in the face of change, even radical change, they can remain resilient and even reinvent themselves if necessary.

Remember, too, that while history matters, and that while living in the moment is a powerful personal practice, you must orient your teams toward the future. To do that, commit to open and truthful communications. Cast off the old communication wheel, where subordinates communicate with the leader but not with each other, and create a communication web where everyone can, at least in theory, talk freely with everyone else. Such a practice affords many things, not the least of which is an ability to anticipate events on the horizon, both those that pose as threats and those that pose as opportunities. To not only survive in a complex environment but to succeed in it, to flourish, the quality and quantity of interactions inside an organization will directly correlate to engagement, innovation, and performance.

And if you can commit to that last piece, which isn’t easy, that also means you have to commit to diversity. You have to go all in. And I’m not talking solely about a healthy mix of men and women and a blend of ethnicities. That’s important, but I’d encourage you to go deeper and expand your notion of diversity and what it is. Go beyond the color of skin and sex and bring together people with different skills sets, different levels of education, and different cultural backgrounds. Sic that group on the issues that confront you right now. Why? Because diverse people see and interpret the world in diverse ways—and cognitive diversity is a wonderful thing. If you can integrate and weave together into your organizational narrative the threads of their insights, you stand the chance of creating solutions that are far more powerful than what any one person (you for instance) could have dreamed up, or far more powerful than what any homogenous group (the exec team or the marketing team) could have summoned.

Lastly, people in high-performing, adaptive and sustaining cultures understand that the world is only growing in complexity. Swear off the traditional, linear, causal view of the marketplace (and the world) in favor of systemic thinking and complex mental models that boost learning and performance. Think of your organization like your brain. Your people are your neurons (all 85 billion of them!), each connected to scores of their brother and sister neurons, all interconnected and interdependent, and all with the ability to change and adapt. What might emerge if you were actually to create such an organizational model? Try consciousness.

If you want to lead, then this is your charge.