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Done Right part deux - a conversation with Alex Shootman, CEO Workfront

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy March 18, 2019
This is a follow up to my review of the book Done Right where I get a progress report on how some of the ideas in the book are working out in practice. It is encouraging.

Earlier in the year. I reviewed Done Right – Alex Shootman’s perspective on modern workforce management. As I said at the time:

...and since then I've returned to the book, looking at some of the exercises the author includes and re-reading some passages. But then I also wanted to raise questions with Shootman to flesh out ideas and answer a few lingering questions. I recently got that opportunity. In my book review I said:

Shootman challenges the emphasis of Richard Branson (he of Virgin fame), who firmly believes that employees come first, Jack Ha (he of Alibaba fame) who thinks it is always about customers first, and Warren Buffet, who believes in the supremacy of the stakeholder. Each leader is undeniably successful as measured economically. Shootman’s opening premise is that the trifecta of employees, customers and stakeholders share equal standing in developing strategies that optimize a business rather than these constituencies operating within the context of constant tension.

I was left worried that the author hadn't really developed a 'why' argument that helped me see how the three constituent parties might be balanced. In our conversation, Shootman explained that we really should view this in the context of how you execute projects. He says that most organizations tend towards one or other emphasis but that isn't always the right way to get things done. He gave the extreme example where a drug might be seen at risk of killing people. In those circumstances, you really don't care too much about what stakeholders think but want to focus on ensuring the problem is identified and fixed as quickly as possible. In short, the exact mix and balance between stakeholder, customer, and employee vary from time to time.

During our conversation, I suggested that there are parallels to be drawn between Done Right and Dreams & Details, a book I reviewed last year and which focused on the need to provide employees with purpose and freedom but with guardrails in place. Again, Shootman was able to point to examples where the provision of guardrails is a net good. That led to a discussion about how you appeal to your workforce in which Shootman referred to the emotional requirement for buy-in to change:

If you're going to lead modern work then you have to plan to appeal to both the emotional side and logical side of ourselves.

This was contextualized in a project with which Workfront had been struggling until the team was given the freedom and resources to find a solution. The outcome was as Shootman explains:

For the rest of their lives, they can be proud...I have this basic belief that since the beginning of time, pride in the work is the greatest motivator.

He then went on to detail a GM story where McKinsey had been brought in to discover why some plants were more profitable than others. It turned out that in one plant, they held 'family days' where the families of workers were brought onto the shop floor and the workers could demonstrate what they do and why it's important. That had a positive safety impact, which in turn meant that the plant was not costing GM as much as others.

Our conversation, like the book, was peppered with such stories but I was equally fascinated about how you deal with failure. Projects fail all the time and for many reasons and all too often people get disheartened and what starts off as a bad situation only gets worse. Here, Shootman drew on his conversations with the US military and how they learn to 'embrace the suck.' If you're unfamiliar with the term - as I was - then this is a good starter:

The Armed Forces have no other choice. If they’re out in the Iraqi desert or in the mountains of Afghanistan, the only way they’re going to get through those challenging experiences is by embracing (rather than denying or ignoring) them.

But for us with our modern conveniences and propensity for denial, we can distract ourselves, numb ourselves, fool ourselves over and over to avoid, disconnect, ignore, postpone, procrastinate and put our heads in the sand when we don’t want to look at what is.

Including feelings of unease or discontent towards unfulfilling careers.

Throughout our conversation there was a common thread and message for leaders:

If we want people to be the best they can be then we as leaders need to be really, really good at explaining what the role is and explaining to people why their role matters. If you don't do those two things well then you won't get an extraordinary outcome.

There is much more to the conversation, not least how Workfront is changing and how it is 'eating its own dog food' as it puts into practice some of the learnings that came out of Shootman's research into the book.

Impressed? You should be because as we came towards the end of our time, Shootman described to me how the company discovered from customers what works, what doesn't and where it needs to improve. That led to the company providing me with the photo below, taken at the last customer event. It shows for all to see how Workfront is perceived to be performing along the customer journey. Dangerous? Sure. Transparent? Absolutely. Valuable? Priceless.

workfront done right
Workfront customer journey

What's interesting to me is that I am now discovering some common threads among those I speak. The world of work is changing and whle there is much talk about robotization and its impact on the workplace, enlightened leaders see a different dynamic where the need to provide meanginful and purposeful work is more imprtant today then has perhaps been obvious in the past.

The topic of measurement came up as this is one of those areas that is still develooping. Here, the book makes a variety of suggestions but right now, Shootman says customers are picking one or other measure to figure how best those can be used. That should not surprise since it is early days in both finding measures that make sense to the organization and then implementing.

There's a lot to learn and I'm pleased I had the chance to have the conversation.

Image credit - via Workfront

Disclosure - Workfront is a premier partner at the time of writing

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