2020-07-21 HR Examiner article Jason Seiden Scaling Individual Performance with Work Automation Software AdobeStock 192924349 544x374px.png

“HR, I’m telling you now: the future of culture has a piece of work automation software sitting at its center. Harness it and you’ll find yourself having more success than you ever thought possible.”
- Jason Seiden


Can work automation software save the day when individual excellence doesn’t scale?


My life has been full of “bowl me over with a feather moments”—moments of insight so clarifying they fundamentally changed my outlook on life, despite also being so obvious (in hindsight, at least) that I had to wonder how I’d missed the revelation before.


I had one such moment recently, during a conversation with Mike Psenka, CEO of Moovila. The call started off with a friendly enough show of competition: When I showed up to our Zoom call in my college hat (it happened to match what I was wearing that day), wouldn’t you know it, but Mike was wearing his, too, and from my rival school, no less. With that, the tone was set for a great exchange. It’s like I knew before it started that we’d push each other into a new world view.


Revelation Part 1: The bad news is almost all culture building is DOA, full stop


At its core, culture is predicated on trust: no trust, no nothing.


And trust, in turn, starts with accountability. As Dr. Dewett recently talked about here on HR Examiner, performance excellence is the table stakes upon which trust is built.


High quality version of photo of Jason Seiden for HR Examiner Articles

Jason Seiden, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor

The problem is, individuals’ performance excellence doesn’t scale. So to the extent that culture requires trust in a manager to morph into trust in the organization, then as long as that trust is built on an expectation of high performance, it’s dead on arrival because there’s no way to transition the manager’s excellence to the broader organization.


My long held assumption that A-Players could naturally operate as an A-Team was tragically, fatally flawed.


Revelation, Part 2: That sinking feeling I should’ve seen this coming


Consider a team of A-Players, each the same in their ability to accomplish their tasks with near perfection.


Now let’s put numbers to them: assume that 95%-99% of the time, each A-Player gets tasks done as expected, on time. In other words, the members of this team make mistakes only 1%-5% of the time. Solid A talent. A plus talent, even. It doesn’t matter how many people are on this team; all that matters is that they each perform consistently near perfection.


Here’s the ouch: given a 30-task project, that A+ talent, each working 99% perfectly, will, as a team, only have a 74% chance of completing their project as expected.


Seventy-four percent is a C-Team, folks.


A-Plus Players, C-Team.


Revelation, Part 3: High school math helped me IRL to see how performance doesn’t scale


Despite having seen this play out countless times over my career, it was still counterintuitive for me that A-Players would always make C-Teams.


That’s because I had been looking at the issue as an interpersonal challenge. Looking at it mathematically suddenly changed everything.  What Mike described was something I knew to be true because he was describing the same principle that helps casinos turn tiny advantages into massive profits. Only here, it was tiny imperfections in work ability—tiny disadvantages, in other words—meaning the principle would be working against teams.


And how!


Turns out, if you’re 99% likely to be perfect at any one task, then if you have to do multiple tasks, your likelihood of staying perfect doesn’t stay at 99%, it degrades over time. The first time, you’re 99% likely to be perfect. With the second task, you’re starting point is now 99%—and you’re 99% likely to retain that. Mathematically, you’re now 99% * 99% = 98% likely to be perfect at two tasks. With the third task, your starting point is 98%, and again you have a 99% likelihood of retaining even that, meaning you’re now 97% likely to be perfect (99%*99%*99%). By the time you get 10 tasks out, you’re down to 90%. At 30 tasks, you’re at 74%.


Let’s stop at 30 tasks, as the math just gets more depressing from there. Let’s just say that as the complexity of a business continues to grow, those small imperfections in our performance get compounded into a major drag on performance—one that’s too big for anyone to put their trust in.


Revelation, Part 4: I wonder where has this perspective been all my life


Big truths have a nasty habit of hiding in plain sight, and this one was no exception.


Turns out, the “teams” we tend to belong to at work aren’t really teams. They’re more collections of individuals, pools of talent who are likely to step up and, through individual heroics, carry the—ahem— “team.”


It’s been these individual heroics that have allowed companies not just to ignore, but to completely miss, the inability to scale individual excellence. In all but the most complex organizations, it’s become expected that someone will step up. That person inevitably becomes the face of the team, department, and eventually, the organization. This is all considered to be a “short run” situation, while culture building somehow transfers peoples’ faith in that person to the broader organization, and the fact that barely any company ever graduates from relying on individuals to having a truly amazing culture is blamed on a war for talent, a difficult business environment, a merger, an ill-timed departure of a beloved leader, or any sort of other disruptive event. But that’s all misattribution.


The capital-T Truth is, all that culture-building was doomed from the start. The “culture building clock” was never going to count down to zero, it was always going to go on. Those disruptions were always inevitable—culture-building was never going to stop on its own!


Revelation, Part 5: There’s a solution on the horizon, and it’s the best thing I’ve seen in years


Las Vegas may not like it when someone figures out how to beat the house, but companies love it when someone figures out how to beat the odds. And, it turns out, there is a way to “count cards,” so to speak—not just once or twice, with the right leader, or after a ton of training, but at any company, with any team, at any time.


It just takes a brand new approach to an old problem, and specifically, new tools.


There’s an explosion of work management tools on the market right now — Mike and Moovila make one.


Before he and I talked, I saw those tools as either glorified spreadsheets—one more place to track work, store documents, and get in the way—or as relegated to operational experts with deep project management expertise who work in manufacturing and speak ANSI, ISO, and 6s.


After we spoke, I recognized their true potential: work management and work automation is about scaling individual excellence.


And that’s a game-changer.


What would happen if the root cause for so many challenges—uncoordinated work efforts, unclear direction, confusion communication streams, misaligned incentives, competing priorities, and sloppy plans—were just… rendered moot? I thought about what really makes A-Talent stand apart, and how often it comes down to organizational and strategic ability—the ability to “see around corners,” as it were. And here was software that, like a mirror, could give anyone that ability! No, it wouldn’t let managers design plans as if they were ISO 10005 certified, but it would certainly close the gap between their plans and those made by the experts.


Work Automation software nudges the math in a right direction. It relieves the pressure on those A-Players, requiring fewer heroics. It creates a level of insight and consistency in work across the organization that people can rely on—that people can trust—and which is tied to the company rather than any one individual.


This is the future, I thought. This is important.


HR, I’m telling you now: the future of culture has a piece of work automation software sitting at its center.


Harness it and you’ll find yourself having more success than you ever thought possible.