My experience with a Deliberately Developmental Organization

What if I told you that there are companies out there where people can come to work as they are, with no need to hide behind a mask? Where challenges are put before you as opportunities rather than tests? Where your employer is invested in helping you grow by mentoring you into new roles? Where transparency applies to everyone, business leaders included?

In early 2016, I came across the book Everyone’s Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, by Andy Fleming. The book describes three companies, including the famous Bridgewater investment firm, and their take on a culture centered on transparency and a generalized effort to the continuous development of their employees.

In this post, I will share with you the results of an experiment with a deliberately developmental culture that we have been running for nearly a year now with our own company Quantum Monkeys, a small agile and culture improvement consultancy firm in Montreal.

At Quantum Monkeys, we strongly believe in walking the walk, not just talking the talk. We try to stay atop emerging approaches to company culture and work in order to bring them to our clients. Our own values call for only bringing to clients approaches, practices and techniques we have experimented with using our own company and risking our own assets. If we do not believe in something enough to risk our own money, then we are not bringing it to our clients.

We are extreme dogfooders.

Over the course of the last year, Quantum Monkeys would change a lot. We started right after a pivot which has significantly reduced our ranks, and we would hire four additional people in the following months. Our service offer would evolve wildly, ending up rejecting many of our industry’s practices and redefining how we work with clients. A lot of these changes would be the direct consequence of our experiments in a deliberately developmental environment.

What is a Deliberately Developmental Organization?

A deliberately developmental organization (a DDO for short) is an incubator for people’s development.

DDOs share some traits with the Management 3.0 approach, such as an emphasis on company culture, personal growth, self-organization and transparency. But the resemblance stops there. Management 3.0 aims to create happiness and self-realization in the workplace. DDOs aim to make a badass out of you, going further and faster than you thought possible.

You see, DDOs understand that profits and employee development are intrinsically tied. The higher the expertise and engagement level of employees within the company, the higher the ratio of reliable profits. By drastically improving employees’ autonomy and mastery, they aim to increase their reliable profit by a similar margin. By looking at the businesses studied in Fleming’s book, including the world largest investment company Bridgewater and west coast real estate giant The Decurion Corporation, this seems to be a sound strategy.

Like business incubators, DDOs are not cakewalks. They are challenging environments, designed to drive your growth. All the companies represented in the book — and something I can attest with my own experiment — understand is that not everyone is suited for such a culture. It has nothing to do with performance or compliance, but affinity with this way of life. It’s common to see employees go because of a bad cultural fit, and yet have their employer genuinely singing their praises. For those who do fit the culture, a deliberately developmental environment is an experience like no other.

Characteristics of a Deliberately Developmental Organization

No two deliberately developmental organization is exactly alike. All of them however share some core characteristics:

  • DDOs require you to be genuine. Leave that mask at home and come as you are, warts and all. Don’t waste time and effort trying to maintain an eminence front of control and competence. You are expected to have gaps in knowledge, skill or otherwise. You will be able to work on those.
  • DDOs take you out of your comfort zone. You don’t learn fast by being comfortable. When you are good at what you do, then it’s time to move you toward something different.
  • DDOs want you to work on your weak points. Everyone has some skill sets they could be better at. In a deliberately developmental environment, those are quickly identified and made public, so everyone has responsibility to help you work on those.
  • DDOs expect mistakes and ask you to fix them. While you are asked to challenge yourself by taking on new duties or roles that often depend on your weakest skill set, no one can expect you to be perfect. Mistakes are expected. Owning those mistakes, getting help to fix them and learning from the experience is also expected. It’s not about being okay to fail, it’s about learning from fixing your mistakes.
  • DDOs require everyone to play. From the intern to the CEO, all employees are bound by the same rules of transparency and helping each other toward improvements. No one is immune. This is not only a question of fairness, but the fact is, holding a higher rank does not mean that you’re perfect. In fact, those with more responsibilities need all the help they can get to improve.
  • DDOs are themselves transparent. It’s not just employees who have their records shared. The company itself makes most of its data available to its employees, including financial info, sales, client lists, and the like. In some companies, like Bridgewater, only information that is private or subject to a nondisclosure agreement is not shared; all their meetings are recorded and available to all employees. In this financial company, it creates a strange dynamic where all employees had to be declared as insiders for trading purpose!

A deliberately developmental org isn't about OK to fail, it’s about learning from fixing your… Click To Tweet

There is more to deliberately developmental organizations for sure, but this cover enough for you to understand the core principles.

Setting up the experiment

One of the things we learned with all of our experimentation is that throwing a whole new approach at a team all at once rarely works. Even in change-driven environments like ours, people do resist change if it does not feel natural. In a recent blog post, Jurgen Appelo makes a similar observation: people need to be eased into change.

I started our experiment in the Spring of 2016, about a year ago. I broke down the deliberately developmental approach into sets of practices with the intention of introducing them a few at a time, adding more every few months. We usually move faster than that in our experiments, but since for this one we needed to see the results over a long period of time and we were also running half a dozen other experiments at the same time, it was important not to overload our people.

First round of experiment

I decided to start our focus with three practices. I call them:

  • working on your weak points
  • keeping people out of their comfort zones
  • making mistakes and fixing them

I believe these three practices constitute the core value of the deliberately developmental offer. I wanted to test those core practices for the longest time possible. They also feed each other, so that’s a plus.

Adoption was not as easy as I would have liked. At the time, there was a strong independent streak running in the company. As such, one person did not commit to the experiment. He was not in charge of anyone, but still it caused trouble — we instantly gained an armchair critic who would undermine our difficulties and challenge our results, arguing that we would be much more efficient by playing to our strengths rather than working on our weaknesses. By not participating, he never had to be accountable for his own progress and he mitigated the successes those participating really needed. The situation got resolved when he realized that he was being left behind and rallied to our experiment. Still it was a good lesson to keep in mind: it is important to have everyone on board.

What surprised us the most in the early stages of the experiment was the sheer speed at which we can learn new skill sets when we’re thrown at them. We were few and nearly overloaded with work, so opportunities for mentoring and hand holding were limited. This made every victory significant. We gained confidence quickly, not always in our knowledge, as we did not yet realize the speed our expertise was growing, but in our capacity for overcoming challenges.

What we have learned at this point:

  • These three practices — working on your weak points, staying out of your comfort zone, and making yet fixing mistakes — are a powerful combination. Brand-new skill sets were acquired by people in a matter of weeks. And with more varied skill sets comes a better perspective.
  • Everyone is playing is essential. When some are exposed and involved and not others, you end up with armchair critics. They will undermine your efforts from a zone of comfort. In a safe environment like ours, it will sour the mood. In a cutthroat environment, those who take the risks and expose themselves to safe armchair critics might pay dearly for it.
In a Deliberately Development Organization, EVERY employee must be committed. Click To Tweet

Second round of experiment

The first few months made us grow fast and got us ready to take on additional challenges. Our clients were impressed and our business grew, necessitating the hiring of new employees.

I decided to introduce the everyone is playing practice to make sure we would not have another armchair critic. It fixed the problem for good.

Since we had new people coming in, we introduced the no masks policy, where we asked people to be themselves, warts and all. For many it was a jarring departure from their previous work experiences. For it to work meant that we had to be very reactive to people opening themselves — admissions of lack of knowledge was immediately answered with a quick training, lack of confidence was answered with mentoring, family health problems were answered with support and a plan to cover the employee’s responsibilities in case she or he had to take some time off. Uneven mood or quirks were tolerated as long as there was no disrespect of anyone. This helped create an environment where people felt safe to be genuine, removing a barrier to growth.

Finally, we introduced a total transparency practice where all discussions in the company were open to everyone and all information in the company was accessible to all employees. From there it was only natural that everyone had a voice in the discussions. A voice does not necessarily means a vote, as we are not a democracy. The company’s owners have the last say, a privilege that is used as rarely as possible. After a while we realized that the best course of action will emerge from discussions driven by knowledgeable, confident and empowered people.

A Deliberately Developmental Organization must have brutal transparency top to bottom. Click To Tweet

We introduced self-improvement challenges to the team. From blogging to short TED Talk-like presentations in front of the public, these initiatives trained us to research subjects quickly, to synthesize learning efficiently, and to remove the fear of showing our expertise to the general public. Everyone participated, including our intern.

What we have learned at this point:

  • With the new perspective granted by the practice of keeping people out of their comfort zone, new avenues start opening. You start getting brand new ideas you simply could not have thought of before. Now that’s powerful!
  • Being able to come to work without a mask really does lift a weight from your shoulders. Being genuine helps bonds form much faster, removing a distraction from work and improvement.
  • We also uncovered specific challenges to improve certain areas are great tools, especially when everyone is playing.

Continuing the experiment

We concluded the second round of our experiment with all the core ideas of deliberately developmental organizations in play. Already we could see the changes such an environment has brought us: we had revised our entire approach with our clients, moving away from the standards of our industry and experimenting with models for delivering more value to our clients while simultaneously leaving us with more free time to work on self-improvement, pet projects and the like.

Right now, we are introducing more optional techniques that sound interesting. For example, the investment company Bridgewater uses what they call baseball cards: a tool that groups information about your personality type, the characteristics where you truly shine and the things you can improve, as voted by the people you work with. The idea behind the baseball card is to draw an unbiased portrait of an an individual as perceived by her or his peers.

We are also introducing systematic coaching for everyone. Separated from mentoring on specific roles, this is meant to help each recipient define goals and reach them, to provide an external perspective to a situation, and to establish a continual reminder that is available.

Lessons from a Deliberately Developmental Organization

1. A deliberately developmental organization will test your mettle and reveal a potential you never expected.

Like a boot camp or an incubator, a deliberately developmental environment will challenge your limits and bring you much further. Once you get your footing in such an environment, it can quickly become exhilarating.

This is also true for the organization itself. With people gaining new perspectives, new capabilities and increased influence, the organization’s status quo will be challenged. New ideas will emerge and replace old ones at a surprisingly fast pace. While that change can be very positive, watch out to avoid spiraling into a pointless maelstrom of change. Keep your eyes on the company’s vision.

2. A deliberately developmental organization is not for everyone.

While I do believe anyone can benefit from developing varied skill sets, gaining new perspectives and working in an environment where they can be themselves, I fully understand why not everyone can be happy in a deliberately developmental environment. What is exhilarating for some will prove to be a major turn off for others.

It is demanding, unsettling and often leaves you feeling exposed. Your talent, experience and confidence can do little to help you if you don’t have a compatible temperament to start with.

3. A deliberately developmental organization can tire you out easily.

Working in a deliberately developmental environment is hard work. Constant, relentless hard work. The progress is amazing, but maintaining that rhythm for an extended amount of time can be taxing.

Over the course of the experiment it became painfully clear that we were becoming tired. The combination of fast changes and jumping from domain to domain took a toll. We found out that evolving people within a single field of work was far less taxing, and a slower rhythm of change was far more manageable. We would still bring people into different domains to expand their horizons, but less frequently or less deeply.

4. Expect more sparks in a deliberately developmental organization.

As people develop new points of views, they also develop new opinions. A diversity of opinions will lead to heated, passionate discussions. Those are good (as long as they stay under control) as that dynamism will reflect positively in the problem-solving ability and innovation of the team. Keep in mind that such heated dynamism will be jarring to your new recruits.

5. Trust and camaraderie start meaning something else in a deliberately developmental organization.

Trusting your teammates and working together for the greater good is one thing. After several months, we’ve become more like those tight-knit families who can argue all the time but at the very second one of them needs help, everyone is there to pitch in, no questions asked. This is quite something to experience in the workplace.

6. It’s not an all or nothing package, but some practices are required for the DDO approach to work.

The core of the approach can only be gained by keeping people out of their comfort zone and making mistakes and fixing them. But the everyone must play practice is the only one I would deem essential for it to work. Once you have that, you can play with the other practices and find those that fit your context.

7. In the end, it’s still about PEOPLE.

Is all that effort, discomfort and challenge worthwhile? After a year in a DDO, I would say: Worthwhile? Yes. Necessary? No.

I do strongly believe that people’s development is a key factor in a successful business. People are your best assets: make them awesome and give them a voice. But there are several ways to do just that, and deliberately developmental organizations, as they are described Everyone’s Culture, can be a bit extreme for many.

However, if this sounds like the kind of challenge you would enjoy, it is worthwhile. Empowering and exhilarating, this experience will take you to another level.

Have you experimented with DDOs? Or perhaps just with breaking down comfort zones, keeping transparency around mistakes and their fixing, or another experiment that involves all hands on deck? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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Comments

  1. Many thanks for putting this “out there”. I’m 3/4 of the way through the book myself and and seriously thinking about whether this is for us.
    I’ll let you know what we descide but your article will help.
    Thanka again

    Comment by Paul Sykes on July 17, 2017 at 3:22 PM

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