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Q&A on Achieving Impact through Engagement

The book achieving impact through engagement by Si Alhir and and Peter L. Simon explores two models on employee and customer engagement: The Ownership Pyramid (TOP) and Artful Agility or Actions-Intentions-Results (AIR). Together these models can be used to achieve impact in organizations based on increasing engagement.

InfoQ interviewed Alhir and Simon about the reasons that employees are disengaged, why both employees and customers need to be engaged, and asked them to explain The Ownership Pyramid and Actions-Intentions-Results models. Next InfoQ asked the book authors for examples how these models can be applied to increase employee and customer engagement and for advice to achieve business impact.

InfoQ: In the book you mention the research that was done by Gallup which shows that many employees are disengaged. What are the main reasons that they are disengaged?

Simon: Employees are disengaged today for many reasons. I feel that the primary undertones that drive disengagement among employees is the lack of ownership bestowed upon them by leadership. Today’s working environment has become the most volatile and insecure in generations, making it difficult for those in power to enable others, because of the perception they may lose their job if they empower their direct reports and relinquish too much power. Many in leadership roles today play their cards close to their chests too; not being open and collaborative with other employees, this too drives disengagement for those looking to collaborate with their direct report. Looking at the different layers of The Ownership Pyramid, once ownership is stripped from an employee, the Foundation Layer is destroyed, and overall interest in their role and responsibilities becomes void. Bringing the points discussed together, employee disengagement stems from fear and uncertainty within the workplace, driving leadership to act defensively and putting chokehold on individual ownership by not empowering others, whether intentionally or subconsciously, in order to protect themselves.

Alhir: The gap between “how we work” and “how we live” is central to the “future of work” and “digital transformation” movements! Definitely appreciate Jacob Morgan’s work in this space! You can learn more about him at the future organization as well as his thoughts on the single greatest cause of employee disengagement.

In our transformation work, which ultimately resulted in Conscious Agility (which you graciously interviewed us on in March 2015 in Q&A on conscious agility), Brad Barton, Mark Ferraro, and I focused crucially on the idea of “identity”. We suggested that identity encapsulates awareness and ownership where awareness involves being conscious of ourselves and one another while ownership involves embracing how we impact and are impacted by one another within our enterprises and marketplace. Additionally, we emphasized that identity should not be confused with ego, which is focused only on the “self”.

While there is some “superficial” treatment of employee and customer engagement (perks, incentives, games, and shallow emphasis on happiness, purpose, empowerment, transparency, etc.) in the marketplace rhetoric today, at the core, is identity --- that is, the gap between “how we work” and “how we live” --- fundamentally, who we are!

InfoQ: Can you elaborate why both employees and customers need to be engaged? Do you have examples showing why engagement so important?

Simon: Employees and customers are locked in a dance ritual that needs to remain in sync for it to continuously succeed, and drives mutual engagement for the result being delivered. Mutual engagement provides a level of ownership and drive (actions and intentions) for a given result from both the customers and employees. Customers are receiving a product, service, and/or user experience from an organization, made up of employees, that is representative of the overall dynamics of that organization. In turn, the types of customers an organization attracts to its products, services, and/or user experience is the result of the symbiotic relationship the organization has with a customer’s individual dynamics. The dynamics of the employees need to match the dynamics of their customers for both to remain engaged, and for the relationship and organization to be successful. If an organization’s products, services, experiences are able to match the dynamics of viral/influential customers, a cultural transformation can occur, changing the dynamics of individuals to align with the dynamics of the organization; and that is pretty powerful. For example, Apple created computers that represented the company’s dynamics and it attracted customers with similar dynamics. That customer base remained intact and became viral/influential within their respective communities. The iPhone became the tipping point, as it epitomized Apple’s dynamics, yet it was small and cost effective enough for the masses to own. A cultural transformation began to occur, as human dynamics began to change to better align with Apple’s dynamics, attracting a greater pool of customers; making both the customer and the employee engaged to the same results being delivered.

Alhir: Gallup’s research connects engagement to business outcomes (productivity, profitability, customer satisfaction) and financial success. Furthermore, Gallup emphasizes that maximizing one of customer or employee engagement rather than both only results in short-term unsustainable growth.

Working with various organizations, including their teams and individuals, when team members don’t interact with their customers or at-least-a customer proxy (product manager/owner), they don’t fully recognize the impact of their decisions and actions. Team members might say, “so what if we miss a date” or “so what if the service/product experience is not as fluid”, etc. Fundamentally, the more disconnected people are from the ultimate impacts of their decisions and actions, the more people rationalize their decisions and actions (independent of their impacts)!

The greatest transformations are achieved when coaches work with employees and their customers!

InfoQ: There are two models explored in this book, the first one is The Ownership Pyramid (TOP) model. Can you explain this model? What does it aim to deliver?

Simon: The Ownership Pyramid (TOP) is rooted in the concept that empowering individuals to take ownership in both their personal and professional endeavors will lead to greater value being delivered to themselves, society and the organization where they work. The model is sub-divided into three layers, the Foundation Layer, the Intention Layer, and the Action Layer. All three of these layers are interwoven and dependent upon each other, all with the goal of providing the building blocks to achieve ownership. By iterating through TOP, one is able to continuously achieve a greater degree of Ownership and in turn deliver a greater degree of value. For TOP to be fully utilized it’s critical that governments and organizations alike empower their citizens and employees respectively, allowing the individual to maximize on all TOP has to offer. The aim of TOP is to provide individuals and teams with an engine from which to continuously achieve the greatest degree of ownership. The more proficient one is to TOP the more promise one has in continuously delivering value, especially when overlaid with the AIR model.

Alhir: TOP emerged from practice and focuses on the emotional and psychological commitment of employees through commitment and accountability. The purpose of this model is to foster co-creation where every individual is committed and accountable to flourish and deliver value.

TOP includes three layers, composed of building blocks, where each layer depends on the next layer below. TOP explicitly relates to Gallup’s Employee Engagement Hierarchy and AIR’s aspect of Ownership.

The Foundation Layer includes the Love, Respect, and Forgiveness building blocks. Notice that the Foundation Layer captures the building blocks needed to foster AIR’s aspect of Ownership.

The Intention Layer includes the Direction, Focus, Goal, Effort, Knowledge, Discipline, and Plan building blocks. Notice that the Intention Layer captures the building blocks needed to foster AIR’s aspect of Dynamics and Reality.

The Action Layer includes the Execution, Retrospection, and Self-Improvement building blocks. Notice that the Action Layer captures the building blocks needed to foster AIR’s aspect of Dynamics and Reality.

While this is a very general explanation of the model, notice how the central themes of Ownership, Dynamics, and Reality cross-cut all concepts!

InfoQ: Can you describe the Actions-Intentions-Results (AIR) model? Which purpose does this model serve?

Simon: The AIR model is a crucial component in allowing individuals and teams to adapt to outside forces, while maintaining individual and team ownership and continuously delivering value. If TOP is the engine providing the building blocks to achieving ownership, AIR is the external layer that provides a buffer to enable individuals and teams to maintain ownership and deliver value even in times of great volatility and uncertainty. Without AIR, TOP would break down over time, and without TOP, AIR would have nothing to feed.

Alhir: AIR emerged from practice and focuses on employee-customer encounters, interactions between employees and customers, through embracing reality! The purpose of this model is to foster healthy dynamics where every individual can embrace reality to flourish and deliver value.

AIR involves Actions, Intentions, and Results: What is there without Action? Nothing! Actions express How. What is there without Intention? Possibly Nothing! Intentions express What. Results express Why.

AIR involves Owners! Ownership explicitly relates to Gallup’s Employee Engagement Hierarchy and TOP. Ownership begins and ends with employees!

AIR involves Dynamics (Flow and Pull)! Dynamics explicitly relate to Gallup’s Employee Engagement Hierarchy and Customer Engagement Hierarchy. Dynamics involve employees and customers! Actions & Intentions and Action Owners & Intention Owners are in an intertwining dance of engagement where Flow & Pull express When & Where.

AIR is real! Reality explicitly relates to Gallup’s Customer Engagement Hierarchy. Reality begins and ends with customers!

While this is a very general explanation of the model, notice how the central themes of Ownership, Dynamics, and Reality cross-cut all concepts!

InfoQ: Can you give some examples how these models can be applied to increase employee and customer engagement?

Simon: TOP and AIR can be applied to increase both employee and customer engagement in a variety of ways. By empowering both the employee and customer, the process in how a product is developed and delivered will provide for a value-focused, high quality experience for the customer. TOP enables both the employee and customer to be better aligned on needs and expectations, as both cherish the same values that are outputs of TOP, creating a relationship between the customer and the employee that allows them to collaborate (engage each other) on the results (products, services, user experience) being delivered. AIR is the middle layer connecting the two parties that allows for the communication and responsiveness to occur.

Alhir: Each building block can be elaborated with behaviors (TOP) that are integrated (AIR) to foster achieving impact through engagement.

From the Foundation Layer, by providing space, fostering confidence, and being other’s humanity, ownership (AIR) emerges! For example, an organization or team where people’s confidence is too low or too high impacts people’s ability to recognize each other. One such team with confidence being too low simply waited to be told what to do versus engaging to contribute their talents for the benefit of the team and organization. By fostering love, respect, and forgiveness, we were able to help the team become more confident and contribute.

From the Intention Layer, by recognizing desires, aligning outcomes, clarifying intentions, becoming sustainable, fostering growth, and clarifying actions, dynamics (AIR) unfold around clear Intentions and clear Actions! For example, an organization or team where people are not clear on their intentions and actions impacts their ability to align. One such team simply thrashed until it was disbanded as “failing”. By fostering a sense of direction, focus, goals, and effort, we were able to help another team clarify the team’s intentions and align; and by fostering awareness of one another’s knowledge, applying discipline, and formulating a plan, we were able to help another team clarify the team’s actions.

From the Action Layer, by delivering value, continuously learning, and embracing one’s humanity, reality (AIR) is embraced where value is delivered as Results! For example, an organization or team where people’s ability to deliver value and continuously learn impacts people's’ abilities to succeed. One such team simply thrashed until it was disbanded as “failing”. By fostering a sense of execution and retrospection, we were able to help another team start continuously learning and delivering value; and by fostering self-improvement, we were able to help another team become much more stronger.

While these examples may seem almost too rudimentary or simple, but we should keep in mind that fostering these behaviors is not easy!

InfoQ: Any final advice that you can give to achieve business impact?

Simon: Organizations need to empower their employees to take and maintain ownership of their work. Utilizing TOP and AIR, employees can achieve and maintain a greater degree of ownership no matter the environment, allowing them to continuously deliver value. The more one is empowered to take and maintain ownership, the more engaged they will become, as they will be provided with a sense of accountability and purpose in the overall delivery of the result.

Alhir: Experience echoes that employee and customer engagement, and achieving business impact, is founded on commitment, accountability, and embracing reality! This triad is crucial --- realistic commitment-based accountability may be quite “natural”. We don’t commonly use the words “natural” and “unnatural,” but we commonly use the words “functional” and “dysfunctional”! “Unnatural” organizations, including their teams and individuals, suffer from a lack of committed people, who have difficulty holding one another accountable, and how often shy away from reality! We encourage people to consider this triad!

About the Interviewees

Si Alhir (Sinan Si Alhir) is an Enterprise Transformation Coach, Trainer, Consultant, and Practitioner who focuses on Business Agility and Antifragility while working with Individuals, Collectives/Communities/Teams, and Enterprises/Organizations. He is a catalyst with over three decades of proven experience in appreciating and leveraging all aspects of human dynamics/nature to catalyze individuals, teams, and the whole enterprise to sustainably achieve impactful results towards meaningful intentions — bridging the chasm between strategy, leadership, & culture -and- business agility and antifragility -through- humanization/transformation/change-management. His clients have ranged from start-ups to the Fortune 500. Learn more about Si or visit his LinkedIn profile and blog.

Peter Simon is a Transformation and Enterprise Coach who has been involved in IT project management, business analysis and software development for over 15 years. Starting in a family construction business, then transitioning to software development as a Project Manager, QA Engineer and Business Analyst, the similarities between the construction and software development processes allowed Mr. Simon to identify communication and collaboration shortcomings that were innate to the IT industry. With a focus on Ownership, both at the individual and team level, Mr. Simon continues to help foster high levels of collaboration among leadership and teams throughout an organization, by establishing an environment where Ownership can flourish.

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