CykoMetrix Spotlight is a regular series published by www.CykoMetrix.com, a SaaS-based online assessment company specialized in team effectiveness optimization.
Each show features a prominent personality in the psychometric assessment, human resources, or coaching industries, where we learn about how data can be judiciously used by companies to increase productivity and improve work environments.
In this episode, CykoMetrix CMO Sylvain Rochon, greets Tim Ragan, a business engineer and free agent who has spent 20 years in IT and 35 years total in the business world. Tim is a strategy consultant & process guru. Founder of Career Constructors, he works closely with dozens of leadership teams involved in nearly 100 unique businesses and projects.
Tim Ragan: Hi Sylvain. Nice to be here and thank you very much for the opportunity.
Sylvain Rochon: Well, I'm glad you are here. We've known each other for a while, which is when we were on a board together, and I knew then that you were doing psychometrics assessments as part of the consulting work and helping businesses do better and have better dynamics and the things like that. I will let you speak to that. But I do have a set of questions for you that are interesting to me. I hope you can help me out based on your huge experience in the field. Now, you have a real interest for improving team effectiveness, which is a shared interest of ours. Can you share with the audience why you are so passionate about this subject?
Tim: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks, Sylvain. I am an engineer by training, originally an engineer fell in love with business when I got into the high-tech sector and played around the 20 years that you refer to as a traditional employee. I had the opportunity and the privilege to work in a number of different companies, jump around a lot. I became sort of a de facto troubleshooter, fixer, things like that. My real focus at the time was on process. I mean, you mentioned I am a kind of a process junkie. It was on business processes and I tended to believe that if you got the processes right, then the business would work fine and people would follow the processes. It was really more of a tool and process issue and not a people issue. And boy, was I ever naïve.
What I discovered is that the core root of the challenge of high-performing organizations is whether or not you have high-performing teams. I came by this knowledge after that 20 years of the business tinkering and the engineering; I got into the people's side through an organization that I purchased which was a career development organization. That kind of got me into individual focus, but also then when you put individuals together and they become teams, how do you build and maintain a high-performing team. That became what I realized as I started down that path of the journey. So I've already got all the kind of the IT business process stuff and I understand all the machineries stuff that is going on in organizations. But now this was kind of the eye-opening part on the people and realizing oh, wow, people operate it in all kinds of interesting ways given the kind of environment that is designed for them.
You know, we talk a lot about culture. We talked about psychological safety and things like this. All these pieces started to come together and this is maybe halfway through my career journey. What I realized, to boil it all down Sylvain, is that fundamentally the team sits at the intersection of absolutely everything. If the team doesn't work, and when you think about it, almost everything that we ever do is some sort of a team. It requires the efforts of multiple people, and that might be just a few people, but it often times as big teams and lots of inter-operating teams and teams within teams within teams. So it can get pretty complex. That is really the core operating logic of any endeavor that we as humans are trying to accomplish is do you have an effective team that works well together that is able to hold each other to account, also to embrace and endorse each other and that we feel safe working together, and that we are able to give kind of put our best efforts forward. Of course, to do that you have to feel that you are in that safe environment to do that. And of course when I reflect back on a lot of the stuff that you do and you see in organizations and a lot of the behavior of leaders, there is nothing that is creating psychological safety for people.
That became sort of the whole fascination in my work. I have sort of embrace the idea that if you get the team right, if you get the team effectiveness element everything flows from that. A really effective team will not put up with work processes that don't make a difference. It will not put up with doing work that doesn't matter. It will not put up with certain kinds of behavior in the organization. A low-performing team, a team that doesn't have the confidence to put themselves forward and say, 'Hey, this was our mission and this is what's in the way.' A low-performing team just not going to do that. They are not going to be willing to really put themselves out there potentially in harm's way, if they don't feel that they are in an environment that is going to embrace and support and provide for them. So that was really the sort of realizing that team effectiveness thing is the core. It truly is the heartbeat of any organization. If you get the team substantially right and you figure out the team effectiveness and how to build high-performing and maintain high-performing teams, the rest of it tends to follow from that.
Sylvain: Nice. Yeah. Well, we agree of preaching to the choir. This is what we do as well. Now here is another question. In your bio, you mentioned that you are a free agent, and there is such a thing as a free agent economy like consultants do. It has been around forever. But now emerging you have something that is called the Gig Economy, the Uber drivers and the Airbnb people. What is the difference between the two and how important is the difference?
Tim: I think it is really fundamental difference. I am all about the free agent economy. To me, a free agent is someone who has the mindset that embraces the idea that their career development and career progression is on them. They are ultimately responsible. If what I'm doing right now is not working for me, I need to do something about it and that something can be any number of different approaches. But fundamentally not to sit back and say, 'I hate my job, but I am waiting for my boss to give me a better job. I am supposed to get trained, but nobody's giving me training. I'm pissed off. What are they going to do with it?' A free agent owns that and says, 'Hey, this is what we agreed to. How can I help put this in place?' So, free agent mindset is kind of embracing true total ownership of their career and their career development. If you take it one step further, there is an obvious kind of next step where one of the ways to enable that is actually going out on your own and being completely independent.
So, as you said, we've had this for years. We call them consultants, contractors, freelancers, solopreneurs. We got a bazillion different names for them. But fundamentally, they are independent self-employed professionals typically with no team, typically in a work-from-home environment. With COVID-19 where everyone is getting a bit of a taste of what it is like for free agents who are self-employed and working from home office is typically. So that is kind of the free agent. If you think about the gig economy, the best example of a gig economy company would be something like Uber. Ultimately, the gig economy is about trying to make gigs essentially very, very cut and dry so that we are replaceable units. You as an Uber driver, me as an Uber driver, and someone else as an Uber driver really are somewhat indistinguishable. Yes, we have different ratings. Yes, we might drive different vehicles. But at the end of the day, we are both given a gig which is pick up this fare drive to there, follow these rules. Uber as the platform sets all those rules and has all of this ability to essentially define how much your unit or how much your value of contribution is worth.
Of course, if you think about Uber, their end game at some is to maximize their profitability. Their profitability would be much greater if labor was free. So, the whole idea of automated vehicles fits nicely into Ubers long-term view of what the future of taxi of what we used to call taxi driving might look like. That is kind of an example that the challenge that I see with the gig economy philosophically is it is a race to the bottom. At the end of the day, you and I and ten others all look pretty much exactly the same as Uber drivers and we race for that. We try to be in the right place at the right time and race for the fare. So, then we are indistinguishable from each other effectively. The platform Uber owns all the intelligence about matching and who gets what. We are then beholden to the platform.
In a free agent, if you think back to consultants, contractors, self-employed professionals, good free agents really understand their wheelhouse. They are clear about how they add value. They are clear about the kinds of problems that they are incredibly good at solving. They have engaging stories that they can tell about past examples of how they were able to help build an effective work team from a dysfunctional group, or how they were able to optimize cash flow for the small business owner. I envision a world, and this doesn't yet exist, but I believe there is an opportunity for us to go down this route, which is where people are clear about how they add value and then it is a matter of how do I find the organizations that have that particular issue. So, if I'm all about building high-performing work teams, and I've got a track record of turning dysfunctional or poor performing groups into high-performing teams. What I am now looking for is people who have that problem. Now that I have the language, I can kind of go out and leverage the networking capabilities that we have to go and find those things out.
So, in many respects, the free agent economy is an attempt to take the gig economy and that race to the bottom and kind of flip it on its head and say, 'No, the free agent economy is actually about helping people identify what they really love doing and how they at maximum value, and then helping them find the right clients and organizations to engage with to deliver their best value.' So, it is exactly the opposite, in many respects, of a race to the bottom. It is actually unleashing the potential and the capability that we as humans have and that organizations desperately need, but they don't get in traditional ways because we are all part of teams. In fact, the best example of this is the Gallup Poll that is done annually with engagement levels where they talk about employee engagement levels. They've averaged about 30% annually for the last dozen years. So, 30% of your workforce. So, think about you as employing a hundred people in your company. If you are the average company, 30 of your people are incredibly switched on, jump out of bed every day, and are totally engaged, and 70% either are somewhat or totally disengaged. So, close to 70% of your employee base of a hundred people are phoning in their work and 30 are truly engaged.
You look at that. Again, this is the engineer in me looking at that and saying, 'Wow, there is a hell of a lot of potential here that is being squandered.' And whether it is squandered because we are asking smart people to do stupid work, or we are taking people who aren't very engaged and getting them to do dumb work, or we have people that are not engaged and we might give them great tools. But if they are not engaged, they are not all that interested necessarily in doing more than they just need to do to survive. So, for all of those reasons, organizations are at the main. I am talking sort of the average. Organizations are incredibly ineffective at leveraging all the resources that are pumped into them to create the output. Does that make sense?
Sylvain: Yes, it does. I have an addendum question that came up because they are clearly not the differences between the free agent and a gig worker. That is clear. We are talking about earlier about the team effectiveness. We know how consultants like independent workers that are motivated. They are creative because they need to be there. They have to build their own Bryant, basically. How they work with established teams like inside a company for example, and we know what the dynamics to that. They are outside workers. They do a job. They leave. But now established teams are also interacting with gig workers and they are not as creative or as motivated because, like you said, they are kind of at the bottom. They are just doing things that anybody can do, like with driver's license in the case of Uber. How does the increase of interest and use of gig economy workers impact teams, like established teams? Have you seen any data about that? Did that change anything?
Tim: Yeah, I think organizations are struggling somewhat to figure out how to layer in independent contractors, consultants, free agents, or gig workers, whatever you choose to label them. If I've got a core team of twelve people and we bring in three people who are external contractors because they have specific skill sets, we have tended to live in a world where it is us and them, right? Employees are employees, and contractors are contractors. They may have a coffee together and have a bit of a laugh, but clearly they are not really part of us. We might invite them to team meetings for the next three months while they are doing their project, but they are not-- Yeah, that is one of the challenges with being a free agent or a gig worker. But you know, I will stick to the free agent language is that you are not really part of a team. You are literally, and this is the free agent model in professional sports. You are being brought in because you have this incredible skill to do this, and this is what we would like you to do. As long as you are doing that and we are going for the championship game, you are part of us. But then at the end of the season it's like, 'Hey, great. Wow, that was terrific.' You got your championship ring like everybody else does, and then maybe you are not on the team because you are a free agent and your contract is over. But work is becoming more like that. And so one of the things I think and this is where I think your organization has a great role to play.
I think about a blended workforce. I can envision where maybe my company has 70 or 80% of a core team, but I continue no matter what project I take on, I need to layer in some new capabilities. But in many cases, I probably don't need a hundred percent of that capability for all time. I probably need a big dose of that capability for 3 months or 6 months to get that part of the project done, or that software written or whatever the case is. That is the ideal application for this notion of free agents if I can find them easily. If you start thinking about building a blended workforce, there are a few new tricks that we have to figure out. One is I need to sort of prequalify a bunch of capable people who have the skills so that at the point when I have the need I am not going and looking for them straight out of the paper. As an example, I was working with a client, and big data developers is what they use a lot of.
Big data developers are highly, highly focused, very hard to keep in your company because people are always headhunting them. So it would behoove you to kind of have a pre-vetted list of big data developers that you've already somewhat pre-qualified. Because then when I have the project, it's 24-hours to lock them in. If I can't lock in the first person on the list, the second is also pre-qualified, and the third is pre-qualified, and the fourth. So now it's just diving through the roster to find one of those people available. So that is the part where it is similar to Uber, but the difference here is in the Uber situation it would be as if you had pre-qualified. There are only six people that I really like taking trips with because they always bring me a copy of the New York Times and a fresh cappuccino and they know exactly how I like it. And so these people are pre-qualified to pick me up.
I think organizations are going to have to learn some of those same tricks because the reality is that our world is changing so quickly. There are so many new technologies, so many new approaches. If my business model is that I must bring in all of these people, own a hundred percent of them as an employee, and develop their skills in a world that is rapidly changing and that is constantly being infiltrated with new technologies and new approaches. I can't do that. I literally cannot keep up to that. So I need to create, and I believe this will be one of the things that organizations are really going to have to do some serious thinking about rebuilding, resuscitating their organizations. Post-COVID is an excellent time to start thinking this. We just had some very, very important lessons about what we can and cannot do and how business is doing don't work. But ultimately, to build this kind of blended workforce where I can literally dial up new capabilities and when something weird happens or when that disruptive competitor comes in and reduces my revenue by 30%, it is very elegant to be able to dial down my cost structure and have my labor cost somewhat as a variable cost rather than a fixed cost.
I really believe that those kinds of things organizations are going to have to learn how to do fairly well because that is going to give them the future adaptability and agility that they require to stay alive and to thrive. So that is kind of how I see. I am not sure if I answered the question, but that is kind of how I see the pieces fit together.
Sylvain: No, I think it leads to what I wanted to ask you later because we were talking about disruption here. Like it is a new way of thinking for companies like the variable expense for labor, for example. It has been around forever, but it is way more of the forefront. You have agile teams, for example, internally. Things that shift around. You got a consultant. You got gig workers. You got more and more part-timers and contractors kind of working in and out of teams. A lot more collaboration. So, there is all this turbulence in the world, right? You mentioned it already that companies need to figure out how to work in a blended way, blend all this stuff in. But how can a company really become effective working with all these moving pieces constantly?
Tim: It is a great question. I think a critical answer to that is one of the biggest challenges is I think everybody would agree that if they haven't already done it, they need to go through some sort of digital transformation, right? We all recognize that we need to be more virtual, more online capabilities, more of this, more of that. The difficulty is, how do I do that? How do I get there in the long term, and in the short-term don't take on highly disruptive, defocusing projects? A typical digital transformation as presented by the big consulting houses. I have been through a few of these in the past. They are multi-year endeavors, highly disruptive, and you are still trying to do kind of business as usual. Well, you are trying to do this massive big transformation. The two don't necessarily connect very well, right? So the trick is somehow I have to be able to focus on short-term performance improvement, and in the process of doing that I actually learn a whole bunch about my organization and the skill sets and the resources needed to build that long-term agility that I talked about, that blended workforce. So I still need the short term performance improvement. I mean that is literally businesses are addicted to short-termism and to short-term especially publicly traded companies.
So, I still need to somehow do that day-to-day stuff to not only keep the day-to-day business going, but actually improve the day-to-day performance while laying the groundwork for the long term. So the trick is to do it in a very bounded way and envision. This is kind of the business engineering base speaking. Envision it if you will the equivalent of a turbocharger and imagine if you could go into one part of your organization and literally kind of bolt this turbocharger in that part of the organization. As you turned it on and tuned it up, you started to get significantly better performance. I think one of the opportunities is that there are significant performance improvements that we had all over the organization. It is a matter of really choosing where do you want to target in to get a significant burst of performance, and while you are doing that there are a number of tactics and strategies you can do to follow to accomplish this. While you are doing that, you basically unleash the team. Start to develop those team performance, high-performing team attributes that we sort of mentioned earlier, and build almost essentially cocoon this part of the organization off from whatever your usual culture is. And this now has kind of a focused performance culture that is about delivering short-term performance improvements mostly through streamlining work processes and eliminating useless work and things like that, and at the same time build the knowledge about what kind of skill set is required to deliver what kind of results.
Now you are starting to get more of the data set that you would need to say, 'Jeez, now that I tighten this up and I've used that as the opportunity to get a lot more sense of the skill sets and how they are consumed and what work inputs are required to create what outcomes. Now that I have a better sense of all of that, I now have the core knowledge that I need to decide if I now really wanted to boost this part of the organization further. Can I do it through a blended workforce? Do I need to own all of these resources, or can I bring in some of these resources as free agents? And if so, how would that look?' So, the model I am proposing here is that you are essentially doing very focused performance improvements in parts of the organization but using that exercise as the way to build in the hooks for understanding the future of how I can scale and how I can make it more agile, more adaptive through identifying if and where and when free agent labor could be used.
Sylvain: Very nice. Well, we are living in this disruptive world. It is exponentially changing all the time. So, we need to learn how to be dynamic and turbocharge our teams.
Tim: Well, I think this is fairly, I don't want to say it's obvious, but if you spend some time thinking about how organizations work, everything that I've laid out makes a fair bit of sense, I think. One of the things that has surprised me is that there hasn't been more aggressive movement on this through the HR field, right? And also, I know that the HR field struggles somewhat to be taken seriously at the senior level. One of the criticisms I think of HR professionals is that they aren't always taken seriously by the leadership team, and often that is because the leadership is engineers and accountants and finance people. Let's say the hard parts of the business not the soft HR people oriented pieces. And then I think the further encumbrance that HR has, if you think about this, all the HR toolkit that exists was pretty much designed for 1850s organizations. They literally are designed around a belief structure that says work doesn't change and when it does change it changes slowly predictably. So it makes sense to have management by objectives. It makes sense to have an annual performance review. It makes sense to have a belief that I am hiring 40-hours of your labor per week and at some level we still tend to see employees or at least groups of employees as somewhat interchangeable resources.
That makes sense because we designed all these tools a hundred and fifty years ago for the industrial era factory. So the challenge is and to bring this around to sort of modern-day stuff, it is almost as if imagine if you've spent a hundred years putting together this incredible let's say multi-bay mechanics store, and you've got every spanner ever created and spark plug gaps on one wall. You have a completely outfitted garage, multi-bay garage for internal combustion engines, and suddenly the door opens and enrolls the Tesla. Well, it is not that I don't want to fix the Tesla, but none of the tools fit the Tesla. Literally none of the tools fit because it is a completely different paradigm. That is kind of what free agency and the rapid, disruptive, talent driven world is like compared to an 1850s factory. It just literally performs fundamentally differently. But because those are all the tools that we've been encumbered with, that is the starting point. And so what we are trying to do is take those tools and make them a bit better. You know, let us put a bandaid on this tool. Let's add this to that, as opposed to saying, 'You know what? It is actually time for a complete rethink.'
That is the face I think we are heading into, and that is either going to be quite elegant if it's led intelligently or it's going to be highly disruptive, but it is going to happen. That what is that five, ten, fifteen-year period looks like as we reinvent the company, and reinvent team engagement, and reinvent workforce, and how do we construct vibrant agile organizations. We are barely scratching the surface here. Barely scratching the surface. This is going to be where we spend the next 15 or 20 years trying to figure this out.
Sylvain: I agree. Like as a free agent or as an entrepreneur like ourselves, it is an exciting time because all this change need to happen and we are right up in it trying to solve the issue and trying to figure out how can we change. How can we go from an 1850 type of work environment or process to a modern one where we have AI and exponential development of everything constantly? I think it is fascinating. But yeah, I mean, I would love to speak to you more, but I think this is going to be enough for this discussion.
Tim: I would love to do this again. It is wonderful. A lot of these things are sort of new ideas that still need to be explored and experimented with and tested. I think that is one of the things that it is always easier to-- I think historically we lived in a culture where it is easier to go with the status quo, you go with what we've used in the past. Even sometimes well beyond when we know that it doesn't really work, but it is what we know and it is what we are comfortable with versus heading out into the great unknown with this notion that says, 'Who knows what the hell we are doing, but let's experiment and rapidly learn and be agile.' They are all wonderful concepts. They are very difficult for us to do when we, again, coming right back to the team effectiveness thing, is if I don't feel I am in a safe environment to do those things. Is my experimental nature really going to be embraced and applauded, or am I going to be hit with a stick if I get it wrong?
Too many of us live in the I get hit with a stick, in which case that takes away a lot of the incentive to go out and tests the boundaries and experiment. So, I think from a leadership perspective in organizations, there is a lot that needs to be done to create the right kind of environment to experiment, and also in companies and this is part of that I need the short-term performance and the long-term improvements. Which parts of my organization am I prepared to experiment in, and which parts I just need to hunker down and just continue to do them and they work well? So again, this is not a sort of a one-size-fits-all. This is where you've got to think through where do these pieces fit and how best to build them into the overall organizational architecture. As you say, I think there are lots of work to keep us busy for a long time yet.
Sylvain: I think forever. It will all going to be changed from now till infinity. So for the entrepreneurs and the creatives within us, there is always going to be stuff and interesting things to do, to work on, and improve. Well, ladies and gentlemen, this has been Tim Ragan from careerconstructors.com. You can look him up there, also, of course, on LinkedIn. Thanks a lot, Tim, for joining me on the Psychometric Spotlight. It has been great, and yeah, we can do this again and tackle other questions another time.
Tim: Excellent. Thank you very much for the opportunity. It was wonderful to speak with you today. Take care.
Sylvain: Take care. Bye-bye.
His first career was as an employee completing a (mostly) fulfilling 20 successful and action-packed years in the high technology sector. As a constant 'career re-inventor', in those 20 years Tim served in 11 vastly different management and executive roles – spanning development, operations, product management, channels, marketing, quality and business unit management -- in 4 global companies, including as CEO of a tech startup.
Tim then left the employee-world and re-invented himself as an independent -- a 'free agent', in his words. Over many years as a strategy consultant & process guru, Tim worked closely with dozens of leadership teams and has been involved with 97 unique business and organizational projects, and counting.
Tim is an electrical engineer and has an MBA, with a deep technical and business appreciation of our modern turbulent work world. And with 35 years of deep business experience and personal career re-invention under his belt, he knows firsthand what it takes to survive and thrive our modern working times.