When I was 26, I had a job interview that I’ll never forget. It was for an entry-level sales position with a fast-growing telecom company in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
At the time, I had just shut down my first startup, had burned through all my savings, and was in desperate need of a job.
A friend of mine told me about the firm one night over beers: “Hey Lex, I know that you just shut down your startup. Sorry it didn’t work out, man. But hey, if you need a job to pay the bills, they’re hiring where I work. It’s not the best job in the world but the money can be good if you work hard at it.”
The notion of hard work and good money sounded like a pretty good opportunity. I needed something I could throw myself into until I found my footing again. So I called the company the next day, told them I was referred by one of their existing reps, and set an appointment for an interview.
To prepare for the interview, I practiced my spiel about why I’d be a good fit for their organization, polished up my resume, put on a suit, and went in with a mix of hope, anxiety, and chutzpah.
I arrived at their offices and approached the receptionist’s desk. The receptionist, middle-aged and blurry-eyed, looked me up and down skeptically and, with a hint of exasperation at having to deal with me, said, “May I help you?”
“Ah yes, I’m here for an interview for a sales position. My name is Lex Sisney.”
She glanced down at her calendar and shook here head: “There’s no interview today. You first need to take the written test.” She reached into her file drawer and handed me a 50-question fill-in-the-oval-and-make-damn-sure-you-stay-in-the-circle-scantron-test. “If you pass the written test, then you’ll be invited back in for an actual interview.”
I thought to myself, “Really? Why didn’t they tell me this on the phone? I’ve got to take some psycho-babble test before even speaking with somebody? And is this the kind of place I want to work for? WTF. Oh well, I guess I do need the money so I better just play along.”
So out loud I said, “OK, let’s take the test.”
“See the clock over there on the wall?” she said. “You have 30 minutes to complete the test. Have a seat under the clock and the time will begin. Do you have a #2 pencil?”
“Ahh, no, I’ll need a pencil please, do you have one?” She rolled her eyes and reluctantly handed one over like it was her last meal. I took the pencil, turned on my heel and walked back to my assigned seat under the clock.
The test asked me questions about what I’d do in hypothetical situations like the following:
“You see a co-worker take a company coffee mug from the storage closet and put it in his briefcase. You should:
A) report the theft to HR.
B) ask him what he’s doing.
C) take a mug for yourself.
D) tell him to put the mug back.”
I snickered under my breath but played along anyway. I finished quickly and turned it in with 15 minutes to spare.
The receptionist scanned it over with a raised eyebrow to make sure I stayed within the circles and didn’t miss any questions. “OK,” she said, “someone will call you if there’s a possible fit,” and I left. (Note: psychometric tests like this one have transitioned from #2 pencil to the web but they can still be just as asinine.)
About a week later the company called me in for the actual interview. And I was told that this time, I’d actually get the chance to speak with the hiring manager.
I arrived early and re-greeted the receptionist. She seemed in a somewhat better mood this time: “Have a seat Mr. Sisney and Mr. Johson will see you when he’s ready.”
After waiting for 20 minutes past the scheduled time (is this a doctor’s office?), a new voice spoke from the receptionist area. “Mr. Sisney? I’m Lidia, Mr. Johnson’s assistant. He’s ready to see you now.”
Lidia led me back through the cubicles and telemarketers to a large windowed office. There at a small, round conference table sat “the Man.” As I was ushered into the office, he didn’t actually look up or greet me but sat leafing through some papers, extended a limp-fish handshake, pointed to a chair across the table and sternly said, “Have a seat.”
After what seemed like five minutes of just sitting there waiting, he finally looked up from his reading, made eye contact, and with pursed lips told me, “I’m concerned about your ability to conform.”
“Excuse me?” I asked trying to mentally process what he just said. He placed one of the pages he was reading on the table and with two fingers slowly twisted it towards me so I could read it.
“You see this chart? This fourth column is conformance. Your scores in these other three areas are very high but you have the lowest conformance score of anyone I’ve ever seen.”
I said, “Hey, that’s pretty cool. Can I have a copy of that?”
“No,” he frowned. “But tell me why should I believe that you can conform to our way of doing things here?”
I tried to dance and weave and sell him on the idea that non-conformity really meant “creativity” but I didn’t think he really bought it. The interview lasted about 10 minutes total and I left thinking it was all a big waste of time.
Surprisingly, they called me a few weeks later and offered me the job.
“No, thanks,” I said. “It seems like you’re looking for drones for your empire. That’s not really me.”
Conformity vs Community
I share this story because the push towards conformity is relentless. If you’re not careful, it will insidiously work its way into your culture and eat it away from the inside.
Just think about this interview I had. It’s clear that this company was suffering from high turnover in the sales team so they tried to fix the problem by weeding out risky candidates (like me) using a psychometric profile test early in the hiring process.
In effect they were saying, “Turnover is costing us a lot of money. We must control for it by only hiring reps who can conform to our process.”
Did it work for them? No! They still had high turnover in their sales team; those they did attract were of the lowest common denominator; and their entire recruiting process became a bureaucratic numbers game.
It’s no coincidence that this company went public a few years after my interview and went bankrupt a few years after that. Why? The market no longer demanded their products and they couldn’t adapt because they had conformed to the past.
Wise leaders build their businesses on a different principle. Rather than allowing for conformity, they design for community.
- Conformity gives the illusion of control but, in the end, its focus on “monocultures” makes the system brittle, stagnant, and tired.
- Community takes more time and courage to build but its focus on diversity ultimately makes things alive, vibrant, and adaptive over time.
The tricky thing to manage when designing for community is that community requires some conformity!
How to Design Your Culture for Community, Not Conformity
Imagine a community where no one speaks the same language or shares the same ideals, where there’s not a clear structure or decision-making process, and where the systems don’t interoperate (all of these things require some level of conformity). What do you get? Anarchy. Inefficiency. Exhaustion. Failure.
So how do you balance that? Or, how and where do you require some conformity but keep its relentless advance in check so that individual diversity can flourish, adapt, and up-level the entire system over time?
The answer is that every situation is unique but the underlying patterns remain the same. The secret to spotting those patterns and managing them more astutely is to understand the four forces of Organizational Physics: Producing, Stabilizing, Innovating, Unifying (PSIU). If you’re new to the concept of the four forces and how they show up in every system, read Part II in my book Organizational Physics – The Science of Growing a Business.
Take a look at the PSIU matrix below because it reveals the secret to balancing community vs. conformity:
The behavior of every complex adaptive system can be understood through a drive to shape and respond to the environment.
On the left side are the Stabilizing and Unifying forces. The Stabilizing force creates Conformity. It makes things efficient, repeatable, and scalable. The Unifying force allows for Community. It makes things harmonious, congruent, and working well together as a complete whole.
On the right side are the Producing and Innovating forces. The Producing force is about getting things done and producing results for clients. The Innovating force is about adapting to changing conditions.
In order to be successful over time, the left side (Stabilizing and Unifying) of your organization must always be harnessed to support the right side (Producing and Innovating). I say “harnessed” because, like horses run amok, if left to their own devices, the Stabilizing and Unifying forces will creep, control, and condemn the rest of the system to failure.
For instance, if the Stabilizing force is out of whack, there will be too much bureaucracy, rules, standards, and efficiency in the system. The organization shows up like a shit factory. It produces the wrong thing very efficiently.
But the Unifying force can get out of whack too. If it is out of balance, the culture becomes all-consumed by politics, infighting, and the “drama in here” versus the “needs out there.” In this case, the organization shows up like a bad soap opera or a community at war with itself.
To repeat: the secret to designing a business that leverages diversity to become strong and vibrant over time is this: the left side must support the right side! If the Stabilizing and Unifying forces are NOT supporting the Producing and Innovating forces, then they are cancerous and must be ripped out/changed/healed/improved. That’s your job as a manager.
Why must the left side always be in support of the right side of the matrix? Because the purpose of the business is to produce results for its clients, now and over time. If you’re focused on meeting the changing needs of the external market, then everything else is open for reinvention.
- Is a process slowing us down in our ability to meet customer needs? Replace it.
- Is our culture too focused on what’s going on in here? Get out of the office and go meet with customers.
- Are we too staid in how we’ve always done things and the market is changing rapidly? Better get busy on blowing things up.
- Is our recruiting process bringing in the right candidates to meet client needs now and over time? No? Better go change that process.
So as a leader, how do you know what to do and when to create community and not fall prey to simple-minded conformance? You need to create a framework for success. Equipping you with such a framework is outside of the scope of this article because it would require a book
But a short answer is this:
- You need to define and defend the Vision and Values of the community. And yes, Vision and Values must be defended, just like the Constitution of the United States must be defended. If you don’t defend it, you’ll soon lose it.
- You must put in place a sound structure of accountability and have key metrics in place to track performance.
- You must enforce a sound team-based decision making process that allows for diversity of perspectives in the decision and ensures rapid implementation post-decision.
- You must create space for others who buy into the desired vision and values to have a place in the organization where they can express their individual genius in service to something larger than themselves (i.e., the clients).
Once you have these elements in place, that’s enough “conformance” to create a vibrant community. Your task as a manager is to now help keep the community focused on what’s happening out there in the world: being in service and producing results for clients and adapting to changing conditions over time. That’s sacred. Everything else in the community is open for reinvention.