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March 1, 2022

Interview: Gene Kim Speaks with A Radical Enterprise Author Matt K. Parker

By Gene Kim

The following is an interview between Gene Kim and Matt K. Parker, author of the newly released book A Radical Enterprise: Pioneering the Future of High-Performing Organizations. You can watch the video of the interview here.

Gene Kim: Matt, good seeing you. By the way, congratulations on the release of your new book, A Radical Enterprise.

Matt K. Parker: Thanks, Gene. It’s good to see you too.

Kim: Oh my gosh, it’s so good seeing you. By the way, I got to tell you how much I enjoyed your fantastic book. It reminded me of one of my own favorite books that I read decades ago called Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and The Neuroscience of Everyday Life by Steven Johnson. I just thought your book did such a magnificent job, very much like that book, about showing us some of the most famous and strange organizations on the frontier of organizations that have chosen a very different way to organize themselves, which seems very important as maybe the height of centralized command and control are likely behind us. How am I doing in terms of characterizing some of what you intended to put into the book, Matt?

Parker: Yeah. No. Great. You’re doing great. I think you’re hitting on all the stuff.

Kim: Well, I-

Parker: I don’t know how to say it but, yeah.

Kim: First of all, how did you first come to learn about radical collaboration and how organizations may not all look the same in terms of how they’re structured?

Parker: Yeah, it was really through experience. I experienced radical collaboration before I learned about it. My first decade in the software industry was not a great decade as far as I’m concerned. I worked for a lot of corporations, both very small and gigantic, and across the board, I had very stressful experiences, very non-collaborative experiences. It seemed like everyone had tried to figure out what is the least effective, most annoying way we could make software together, and let’s do that. And after a decade of it, I thought, “Well, maybe software isn’t for me.” And I was lucky enough, right around that time, that a company called Pivotal Labs reached out to me and said like, “Hey, do you want to come interview? We saw some of your open source work. It looks really interesting. We thought you might fit in here.”

And I knew only a little bit about them. I had used Pivotal Tracker on side projects. I heard they did extreme programming. I really didn’t even know what that meant, but just walking into that place, it was a lifesaver because the second I walked into that office that they had there in New York at the time, I realized that software doesn’t have to be sad or stressful, that you can do amazing things and have a lot of fun doing it. It was such a wonderful experience just walking into it, seeing all these people pair programming, laughing-

Kim: What year was that, by the way?

Parker: …smiling… That was 2011.

Kim: 2011?

Parker: Yeah. And so just walking into a sea of standing desks and sitting desks and people doing pair programming and laughing and building software together and geeking out. And I thought, “Oh, okay, maybe there’s hope.” And I was lucky enough to get a job there. And I spent the next decade there doing all those things, working on those teams, eventually playing some leadership roles as well, including global head of engineering as Pivotal Labs became something global and spread across the world. And the whole experience was both life-affirming and life-changing. And I knew that I was experiencing something profound, but it wasn’t until many years after working there that I began to dive into what exactly is it that makes this so amazing, and who else is doing this? And how far can it really go?

Pivotal took a certain length, but I thought “Maybe there are more companies out there doing this or doing similar things, and how far have they really gone with this?” And that’s what led me to write the book. That’s what led me to research all these different organizations that you can read about in the book, from giant, massive organizations like Haier, the appliance manufacturer, down to very small startups like cLabs, the cryptocurrency companies and everything’s in between. It was a really gratifying experience to discover there’s a whole world of radical collaboration out there and to understand how it works underneath the hood. That’s really what I became focused on throughout the book.

Kim: And, by the way, the person who introduced us was another person who was in a leadership role at Pivotal Labs, Elisabeth Hendrickson, who was eventually a VP of engineering there as well. So yeah, there was something… In fact, I met her around 2013, and I had a very similar feeling visiting the San Francisco offices, that there was a magic there that was very, very different, that I think many people have studied over the last decade. So it’s amazing to hear just how many people who either worked with Pivotal Labs who just described just how they managed to create something very, very special and unique there.

Parker: Yeah. Yeah. Elizabeth is a really cherished mentor for me, and it’s through the behavior and modeling of someone like her that you really begin to understand what radical collaboration is all about. She was a leader within the organization, but she embodied the spirit of support leadership. Her job was to figure out “How can I make a whole organization autonomous and self-organizing and self-linking teams such that I obsolete myself? My success criteria becomes me no longer being necessary here.” And that’s such a powerful way to think about your role as a leader within an organization. It’s really, how do you create an organization that can succeed, thrive, grow without your centralized command and control, and that’s what she helped Pivotal do. And that’s what I’ve seen now at many other corporations around the world.

Kim: That’s amazing. And by the way, Elisabeth Hendrickson has also been a mentor for me, just to show that it’s not just about being nice. The famous story that she told me was that when she joined Pivotal Labs as director of quality engineering, the first thing that she did was eliminate quality engineering as a separate discipline, which I think even people at Pivotal Labs found a little startling and alien and strange.

Parker: Mm-hmm (affirmative). No doubt. Yeah, bold moves.

Kim: Yeah, so-

Parker: She was full of them and she did it with compassion, though. And whenever Elisabeth was making some sort of change at Pivotal, it was never without compassion, without understanding that change is hard, it can be scary, but we’re all in this together, and we’re iterating on our organization in ways that will empower us all.

Kim: Wonderful. So great, in fact, before we go to the next question, can you just maybe briefly describe, maybe from the outside, what did it look like as Elisabeth Hendrickson came in and did something as radical as eliminating quality engineering, because she cared so much about quality? What did it look like maybe from the outside of the organization?

Parker: Well, I was inside the organization when it happened, so it’s a little hard for me to say what it looked like from the outside, but I can tell you the experience from the inside. As Pivotal and Pivotal Labs began to embrace the discipline of exploratory testing, we began to have a much more cross-disciplinary and generalist approach to not only being able to do test-driven development within the confines of a story but to be able to explore the application and the edges of it in a way that helped us really understand and embrace what it was to use the application, to understand what it was to experience this application, not as internal software developers but as people on the outside, as our users to be able to empathize with them. And that process played out over the course of a couple of years on Cloud Foundry and within the R&D organization. And it led to roles changing and evolving throughout that time, but we very much had a spirit of like, “We’re learning as we go, and we figure this out together, and we succeed at this together.” It never felt forced on us, which much organizational change can, if you’ve been inside the traditional enterprise. This felt very much more organic and iterative, which I think was a really powerful experience for all of us who were there.

Kim: So amazing. So as you opened up the aperture and looked at other organizations that were also blazing this very strange trail, what was the most surprising thing that you learned during your research? And I was so delighted, in that research, you also mentioned some very famous and storied organizations like W.L. Gore, and so forth that I’ve read about, but this is the first time I’ve seen it put into a cohesive hole. So what was your biggest surprise as you tried to make sense of all these sometimes very different-looking organizations.

Parker: Hmm, my biggest surprise? I should have read these questions beforehand because now I’m wondering what was my biggest surprise? I might have to think about that. I think what I didn’t know going into it… So I understood the experience of radical collaboration from someone who was within an organization doing some level of it and experiencing what that felt like on teams. And I certainly had a sense for this was not only good for me, this was good for the products we were creating for the users consuming our products. There was something virtuous about all of this. But I didn’t have any metrics around it. I didn’t actually know of any of the organizational science research that’s been developed over the last decade and a half, basically, that has begun to really tease apart all the different organizational archetypes in the world, how they’re growing and changing and how they’re competing against each other. I didn’t know how competitive radical collaboration and the paradigms of partnership and equality really are. And that, I think… I can’t say that it was surprising, but the numbers on them are almost startling. When you look at how they out compete traditional organizations on all these different economic dimensions, from growth and market share to increase in customer satisfaction, just bit by bit, you see how on all these different financial dimensions, they’re out-competing.

And they’re doing so without resorting to traditional corporate structures and dominator hierarchies and command and control. They’re actually doing it with organizations that are very decentralized, with organizations that are able to sense and respond to changes in the market extremely rapidly. And I think, in hindsight, there are many things about that that makes sense because, in many ways, these organizations, internally, they almost look like free markets internally in the same way that you see a free market at a macro scale. They have many of those same market-based dynamics internally, and the best of the markets, the autonomous free economic agents being able to compete or collaborate at will. There are many things about that that you see within these companies that enable that outsized economic success.

Kim: Yeah, it’s funny. This actually gets to the question I wrote down, which is that I’ve been thinking so much lately, working with Dr. Steven Spear at MIT Sloan, about how the structure of organizations so much dictate its resulting dynamics. And for me, it really comes down to how information flows. So can you talk about how… And I love the fact that you brought up free markets because markets are just a fantastic mechanism for matching supply and demand, for taking all available information and pricing as a signal. Can you talk about how information travels differently in these organizations that you studied than in typical organizations?

Parker: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. So I guess we could compare/contrast. A typical information flow that you find in a traditional corporation with how that would play out in a radically-collaborative organization… This may or may not get to exactly what you were hoping for, but I think… One of the things I lead with in my book is that these organizations seem to be succeeding without traditional bureaucracies or bosses, and I even use the word bullshit. And I know that’s a strong word to use, but I think anyone who has spent much time inside a big, hierarchical corporation has experienced a level of corporate bullshit that can’t be denied. Anyone who has experienced frustration in their role and their only recourse is to say, “Dear manager, I’m frustrated. Here’s the problem. Here’s the context. I have no power to solve this on my own. I can sense the problem, but I can’t resolve it. Please resolve it for me.” And to watch that manager turn around and say, “Hey boss, my report has this problem. Here’s some of the context. I don’t quite get it all. Maybe we could do X. What do you think?” Oh, okay, “Hey, boss’s boss..”

And you just watch this message travel up a corporation’s hierarchy until it’s distorted beyond all recognition and either nothing happens or worse, the wrong thing happens, and you end up that more frustrated, so these long, convoluted chains of games of telephone in which messages are distorted and taken farther and farther away from their source. The opposite is happening in these organizations. I think you could say one fascinating thing about the difference in information flow between a radical collaborative organization and a traditional command and control organization is how much information remains local within certain pockets of the organization.

So if you think about a company like Haier, Haier is a massive 80,000-person company. It would never work. It would never scale to the size that it is and continue to succeed if they had a traditional hierarchical structure. Instead they have something called micro enterprises. They have thousands of micro enterprises within the company. And these are like autonomous self-organizing mini companies within the larger company, owning their own profit-loss statement, having zero distance to the customer, and making decisions on a day-to-day basis of how are they solving for the next customer need? How are they moving forward the next innovation? And how are they collaborating with other micro enterprises within the company or with enterprises outside the company to make that happen? So I think that’s the primary difference that you find within these organizations is how much of the bullshit information flow has been eliminated because you’re actually empowering an organization to sense and respond to organizational tensions? That’s the real power. That’s why they’re so fast and why they’re out-competing their competitors because they can change and adapt so much more nimbly and quickly than anyone else.

Kim: I love it. I think that feeling that you describe, I think definitely resonates with me, where it seems like, in certain organizations, we deprive every individual of their full creative problem-solving potential and their ability to be creative on behalf of whomever they’re serving versus the opposite, which is fully unleashing that. And so I think that is just so remarkable that you describe it that way. So we are in the midst of what many have dubbed the Great Resignation. Is this merely a fleeting phenomenon or a sign of something bigger?

Parker: Yeah. Well, I can predict the future, so I’m going to go ahead and tell you it’s definitely the sign of something bigger. It’s not just some unexpected phenomena that we’re experiencing today. Everything behind the Great Resignation today has been building for decades and decades and decades. For several decades now, productivity in these corporations has dropped. They’ve become less productive over time. And that’s largely because people have become more disengaged over time. This is a crisis of meaning and a crisis of purpose. 9 out of 10 people today would give up 23% of their lifetime earnings just to have more meaning in their jobs. That’s not something that happened overnight. This is a crisis that has been built for a long time now. And we’re finally at a point where people have had enough, where people say, “Not only am I fed up with this, I believe change is possible.”

Some of that happened because of the pandemic. Some of that happened because people had a chance to stay out of the office, to get work done from home. They’ve had more autonomy over what they’re doing moment to moment and day to day, in many cases. And some of the research around this, I point to in the book. And so they’ve had an experience of what it’s like to make more of the decisions that they know they should be making anyway. And when they make those decisions, there’s a whole great deal of neuroscience and organizational science research that backs up that they are more successful because they’re owning and implementing these decisions. So it’s leading to this discovery that coincides with this moment of like, “I can take it anymore” that is leading all of these people to say, “Wait, there’s got to be a better way. We can do something better. I can do something better. I’m not sure where it is, but I’m going to go find it, and maybe I’ll even quit before I know what it is.”

Kim: Yeah. So what would you say to people who don’t want to quit, and after reading your book, they say, “Hey, I want to take some of these ideas of radical collaboration and bring them into my organization”? What advice would you give to them if they’re not, ultimately, the person in charge of everything, that there might be people who don’t believe or may not be brave enough to actually change the way of working? What concrete advice would you give to them?

Parker: Yeah. Well, I think the first thing they need to know is that there are three transformation strategies that you can see in the world that have some level of empirical evidence for success when it comes to transforming from a traditional corporate organizational structure to a radically collaborative structure. And the first you could describe as a bottom-up transformation strategy, so one in which you don’t have support or buy-in from the top, necessarily, before you begin. You don’t wait to get somebody at the top to sponsor it. There are actually organizations that have transformed in that scenario, which I think is important to know because I think many of us have been in that situation and thought it was hopeless. It’s not hopeless. There are case studies that you can read about, some of which are in the book, about organizations that have gone through that.

There’s also a more common transformation strategy that you can see in which somebody at some high level in the organization has had this a-ha moment that “We have to change both because it’s the right thing to do for the people within the company and because it’s the right thing to do for the company because we’re going to get blown out of the water by radically-collaborative organizations if we don’t change.” And so it’s a top-down, plus bottom-up transformation strategy. In one of the companies in the book, I detail a case story of how they made that happen. They’re called TIM Group. And in fact, their CTO, Jeffrey Fredrick is an author at IT Rev. He wrote a great book called Agile Conversations. Well, what they did was they said, “Hey, everybody, let’s start a management reading group.” And people thought, “Oh, I guess that’s not for me because I’m not a manager.” And they were like, “No, wait, everybody gets to participate because what we’re going to do is we’re going to figure out how companies are being managed today, not just the way we’re doing it but the way other companies are doing that may seem different, radical, impossible even. Let’s go look and see what’s out there.”

And so they had this very open-ended reading group that went through and looked at all these little white papers and case studies of all these different companies, and they started saying, “We could do some of this, actually. In fact, I would rather do some of this than what we’re doing now. Let’s try this. Let’s try that. Hey, can we try this one?” And they just went through, step by step by step, a devolution of power out of the hands of a denominator hierarchy and into a radically-collaborative organizational structure that drastically changed the nature of the company. And I think that’s a really powerful case study to read about in the book because they’re a technology company, and I think anyone who is in a technology company right now that wants to see both examples of how this played out inside another technology company and even a little bit of a roadmap that they could follow themselves, check out that story.

The third transformation strategy that I’ll just mention briefly is one that’s being pioneered by a consulting company called K2K. They’re in Europe, and they’re working with companies all over Europe to do radically-collaborative transformations. And those happen in a pretty amazing way. There’s somebody at the top, again, inside the company that says, “We know we need to change.” K2K comes in and they shut down the company for a whole week, and everyone goes and visits progressive organizations, organizations that have already made this shift. And they come back and they say, “Here’s what we learned. Here’s what we liked. Let’s see what we want to do.” And they put together a list of recommendations and then they take a vote, and they have to have 80% of the companies say, “Yes, we’re going to do this.” And they have to have the CEO and the whole, C-suite says, “If we stand in the way, we can be fired.” That’s actually happening right now in the world. And I think all of those case studies, too, that are happening through that company and through that approach are worth looking at in detail as well. Even if that’s not the approach you take, you should check it out. So, anyways, at a high level, I think those are some of the things you can look for if you’re in the situation, you want to change your existing company, and you don’t want to quit.

Kim: Very good. And so, if you are within a typical hierarchal organization, what specific… Short of embarking the entire company on that path, what are things that people can do to change the organization around them, to work in a more radically-collaborative way?

Parker: Yeah, absolutely. So the important thing to remember is that although radical collaboration does speak to an organizational structure, it also speaks to an attitude and a mindset. No one can stop you from treating the people around you with trust, respect, humility, empathy. No one can tell you can’t do that within a company. You can act radically collaborative towards others, even if you are not in a radically-collaborative organization. I think that’s the very first step to take. It is changing your internal mindset.

The second step to take is to say, “Hey team, why don’t we try to run our meeting in a radically-collaborative way? We’re all going to get together to figure out what we should prioritize next as something for our team to do. Our typical way of doing that is asking the boss what to do and doing whatever he tells us. Hey, why don’t we try this new meeting approach? It’s a radically-collaborative meeting approach that allows us to synthesize our various insights in a way that allows us to move forward and choose the next task of work without just assuming some person knows all the answers with actually leveraging our unique insights, creativity, intelligence, to move us forward more rapidly and more collaboratively.”

There’s a whole host of meeting techniques, some of which I wrote about in a little book you can find in O’Reilly called Radically Collaborative Patterns for Software Makers, that detail just different activities you can do in the space of your team, in a meeting to experience radical collaboration. Now, you may step out of that meeting and be right back in a non-radically collaborative environment, but I promise you teams that go through a little experience like that always want more. They want to do it again and again, and then they want to take it farther, and it begins to change the way people relate to each other, the way they think, the way they act. And pretty soon, you know it, radical collaboration becomes second nature. And then it spreads from team to team. Yeah. So those are some things you can start with.

Kim: Thanks. Fantastic. And by the way, I forgot to react to your bringing up Jeffrey Fredrick, a person who I also tremendously admire, who was also introduced to me by Elisabeth Hendrickson. And it actually took your book for me to learn about all the amazing stuff that he was doing at the Tim Group. Even without knowing that, I just found him to be an incredibly clear thinker and just an incredibly transformative… a person who just have done transformative things throughout his entire career. So thank you for teaching me about that. Is there anything else that you’d like to share about your incredible book, Matt?

Parker: Yeah, let me end with this. So there are four imperatives to radical collaboration and I call them that for a reason, because I don’t think at the end of the day, an organization will succeed with radical collaboration without embracing all four of these imperatives. These are things I synthesize from all these different companies I research and interviewed and profiled. And it’s really pulling together not only their experiences and their practices but combining that with insights from organizational scientists and psychologists. These four imperatives: team autonomy, managerial devolution, deficiency need gratification, and candid vulnerability, those four together are what make radical collaboration so successful, both for people experiencing them and for organizations and companies competing on the market. So I don’t want to give the impression that you could just cherry-pick out of this book one or two ideas and think that those alone will help you succeed with radical collaboration. I think it is the complex interplay of all four of these things. The good news is you probably wouldn’t want to embrace any of those imperatives without embracing the others because you wouldn’t have fun because it would be dysfunctional. It wouldn’t succeed. It wouldn’t evolve and grow and iterate and change. So I think I just want to end with both caution and recommendation. Embrace them all.

Kim: Fantastic. Well, if there’s one phrase that I could use to describe your book, it was mind-expanding. It was really just marvelous to read, and it was such an adventure to read about all these organizations that look just so different than organizations that we traditionally think of when you think about how organizations are supposed to look and behave. So congratulations again, Matt, on a fabulous book, and looking forward to catching you hopefully soon later in the year in person one of these days.

Parker: Yes. Yes. I can’t wait to get back to in-person meetings and conferences. I look forward to that too.

Kim: Thank you so much.

Parker: Okay. Thank you, Gene.

Learn more about radically collaborative organizations in A Radical Enterprise: Pioneering the Future of High-Performing Organizations by Matt K. Parker.

- About The Authors
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Gene Kim

Gene Kim is a Wall Street Journal bestselling author, researcher, and multiple award-winning CTO. He has been studying high-performing technology organizations since 1999 and was the founder and CTO of Tripwire for 13 years. He is the author of six books, The Unicorn Project (2019), and co-author of the Shingo Publication Award winning Accelerate (2018), The DevOps Handbook (2016), and The Phoenix Project (2013). Since 2014, he has been the founder and organizer of DevOps Enterprise Summit, studying the technology transformations of large, complex organizations.

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