My experience with a Deliberately Developmental Organization

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by Maurice Lefebrvre

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 mistakes.

quantummonkeys on Twitter

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.

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.

quantummonkeys on Twitter

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.

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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!

8 thoughts on "My experience with a Deliberately Developmental Organization"

  • Paul Sykes says:

    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

  • David Thomson says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience – modelling DDO! BTW the authors of the book “An Everyone Culture” are Lisa Lahey and Robert Kegan, not Andy Fleming as stated in the first paragraph of the article.

  • Rosanna Hunt says:

    What was the process for identifying an individuals’ weakness? Could one persons’ perceptions of another’s weakness be a matter of opinion? In which case, whose opinion counts? Did you use an “issues log” to identify weaknesses as described in the book? Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  • Maurice Lefebrvre says:

    Hi Rosanna,
    During our experiment, we used the “baseball card” approach to broadcast both strong points and weaknesses. Weaknesses were first proposed by each individual after a self-assessment and then evolved during our weekly discussions. It was possible for us to do it this way because we were a small team and operated from a very safe place.
    Since I wrote this article, we implemented a few variations with interested clients. We kept the idea of the baseball card, but modified it a bit to ease adoption in a less safe environment. The card feature 3 things that person can act as a reference for, and 3 things that person look for help to improve. It sounds better than “strengths” and “weaknesses” and more of an invitation to work in tandem with that person on certain subjects.
    The “reference” and “looking to improve” subjects are selected by the person and their team. In some instances, they are simply determined through discussions, with the “looking to improve” set as a personal continuous improvement goal along with the team’s continuous improvement goals. In other instances, teams have developed satisfaction surveys for every member to send to anyone (other employees, other teams, managers, even clients) after offering a service, and used the answers to fuel their team and their personal continuous improvement efforts.
    We also noted that people enjoy being recognized as references on certain subjects, and we saw a rapid deepening of their skillsets as a result. It didn’t only happen with the listed subjects, but with their coaching and mentoring skills also.
    As a whole, we experienced that the baseball card approach with this terminology used and as a part of a continuous improvement effort, does work well to create a very positive rapid learning environment with less resistance. When paired with Modern Agile principles, especially “Make People Awesome” and “Safety as a Prerequisite”, it creates a quick, very positive snowball effect. It gives people a taste of what can be, and are usually followed by the various people first and happiness at work practices you can find here on Happy Melly.
    Going “full DDO” in one go is still quite brutal and requires a high level of buy-in, it is possible to grow into that model in a determined, but gentler way. The changes are as profound though, but a wider range of people can adapt to it.
    I really should write something new about that 🙂

  • Bryan Ungard says:

    Hi Maurice,
    I’m just finding this thread now, sorry it took me so long! I work at Decurion, one of the companies in the DDO book. I’m accountable for the company’s DDO culture.
    I love the directness and boldness of your experiments with DDO practices. You’ve accomplished a tremendous amount, congratulations! And… I’d like to encourage you to keep going by thinking about “DDOs” from a different paradigm. What I realize now is that the practice of improving people is at best a less constructive frame and at worst opens a brutal dark side that leads to energy drains and potential harm for people and the organization. In general, if it’s energy draining rather than energy increasing, then that’s a sign that something is off.
    When we started building Decurion as a DDO we didn’t start by thinking how to develop people. We started by exploring the company’s potential to play a role in its world that makes a unique difference. Once we started seeing what this potential and role could be, we then realized that in order for the company to play this role it would have to develop new ways of thinking, being, and doing. We set out to develop the company to be able to play a “bigger” role. A role that only Decurion can play. We focus first and foremost of developing the capacity of the organization and the world in which the organization plays.
    In order to develop the company, people are invited (and increasingly excited) to develop their capacities to play new roles that are beyond their current abilities that and are key to evolving the company and the impact the company makes. The pull comes from the larger contribution that the company and each of them can make to something bigger that is meaningful and important (to them).
    Development isn’t central. Development is a tool that serves something bigger. Figuring out what that something bigger is both essential and powerful.
    Another insight I’ve had is just how toxic feedback is. It’s become an unquestioned axiomatic “truth” that feedback is required for growth and development. It isn’t. Not only isn’t it required, but I can now see how it gets in the way of the authentic development of you and your company’s ability to be uniquely yourself. And by being uniquely yourself you’re able to interact in the marketplace from a much more powerful place.
    I wish I’d known this when we started working developmentally. We’ve been at this more than 20 years now and we’re going through a big shift (again) since the book was published. My purpose was always to help create organizations that are life-giving, not just better at business. Decurion set out to show that there is a different way of doing business. I worry that our example in the book is misinterpreted as a way to get more out of people in the guise of benevolent development. The potential is so much more than that! I believe that we can create life-giving businesses that are truly “badass” in a way raises up the potential of both the business and each person. Of course, these businesses will have an amazing impact and performance, but not because we’ve “improved, but because of how we change our ways of thinking, being, and doing…

  • Maurice Lefebrvre says:

    Hi Bryan,
    I agree with your assessment. Since we concluded our experiment, I deconstructed the approach as described in the book into something closer do deliberate practice but for deliberately gaining new skills (I refer to that as deliberate development).
    Instead of basing a corporate culture around that element, I make this deliberate development a component of a larger, culture-based approach to give meaning to the company’s effort and create an environment where curiosity, engagement, and meaningful impact are prioritized. I draw from a variety of sources from Tribal Leadership, Badass: Making user Awesome, Drive, Modern Agile and several others.
    I agree about the dangers of unchecked feedback and a deep focus on improving people the same way we upgrade machinery. I found out that a decentralized small team structure, an innovation mindset (through small, controlled experiments), as well as a culture of mentorship, respect, and psychological safety are all part of a healthy system that includes deliberate development. Growing people like they are mushroom isn’t the way, but providing a meaningful goal for the company and creating the right condition will see people wanting to grow to better engage with something greater.
    People will willingly and happily move out of their comfort zone if they feel safe and supported. This isn’t surprising: after all this is how we learn as children. What is surprising is the feeling of genuine excitation at doing new, challenging things. It’s something many haven’t experienced in a long time.
    The results are there too. Companies filled with bored and disengaged people become bustling with energy after a surprisingly short time. Innovation booms, annoyances get corrected, people collaborate more and the focus become delivering good value rather than spending the proper amount of hours at work.
    The biggest problem I face isn’t the employees, but the management. Change can be frightening. I wrote a post about the kind of power imbalance frequent in companies that need to be corrected before this kind of environment can flourish (Why is changing a company so difficult?
    All that being said, I need to thank you guys at Decurion for trying something new. Pioneer work is usually bumpy, but it remains important for the new possibilities it can open.
    Let us know how things go.

  • Troy says:

    Reflecting on Marcus Buckingham’s work in the book “9 lies about work”, I would be interested to see how you might adjust the experiment. The natural growth rhythms found within nature (S-curves) might be the tool to sassess hwen to push and when to coast in an ever increasing spiral upward. I would argue that if any individual weakness was discovered that it can be addressed in three ways; 1. Outsource/Delegate the weakness (i.e. leverage your team), 2. Utilize tools to mitigate that weakness, 3. Assess how your strengths can be leveraged to tackle that weakness (but don’t waste brain power to work on a weakness that is a direct result of your strengths).

  • Jane Cheng says:

    Just learnt DDO from an event and the company Bridge Water was mentioned by one professor and the different approach were so impressive.

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