Scaling company culture with AI: an interview with George Swisher, CEO of LiiRN

Can AI help foster cohesive community in an organization? LiiRN thinks so.

Source: Simplilearn

Creating a healthy work environment that scales is something of a holy grail for all growing companies. As internal networks become more dispersed and organizational structures grow more complex, it becomes easier for communication disconnects to occur. How can companies continue to cultivate a shared vision and culture, and give employees a chance to define and improve both? LiiRN CEO George Swisher thinks the answer is AI-driven.

Swisher founded LiiRN, a people-centric, AI-powered transformation software, in 2018. The AI platform has a two-fold purpose: to help leaders make decisions based on employee feedback, and then allow employees to participate in enacting those decisions. The LiiRN platform collects customized survey data on leadership performance and company priorities. The AI synthesizes upward feedback, converts it into leadership performance ratings, and identifies quantitative and qualitative trends and findings to inform decision-making. The platform also invites self-nominated change-agents to shape and drive forward company-wide initiatives.

In an interview with Swisher, he shared how AI can drive rather than reduce personal connection, and help business leaders to listen to and lean on their people.

What problem are you solving with LiiRN?

LiiRN aims to help companies drive change through people versus processes. Many leaders working to design strategy end up working with small populations of people, doing surveys or doing stakeholder interviews. But trying to drive a huge change with the input of a small group of people is a disservice to both the firm and the company. People are fearful of change when they don’t understand it. So a few years ago I thought, what if I had the ability as an individual consultant to work with all hundred thousand employees in real time? The impact would be tremendous.

And so the idea was to launch a software that could do that, that could physically touch people as if it was someone you knew and who understood the big program that was going on out there and help the employee relate. When you drive change from the bottom up instead of from the top down, you avoid the education and awareness gaps that come with large scale change.

Companies can use our technology as kind of a middleware between the leadership and staff, to find the gaps between what leadership thinks and what the people on the ground are actually seeing and thinking. Our voting feature makes people feel like they’re part of the decision-making process. If you can do that for a company, say, that’s 100,000 employees, you’re able to help 100,000 employees feel like they’re contributing to a decision that the leadership is making. You get people who are more empowered, and I think that’s a big emotional feature of how you activate people. It automates some of the change management processes and helps leadership make decisions and investments that their company believes in. With ongoing feedback collection, you can create a dynamic feedback loop, to continually shape the change journey.

What are some of the most common pain points the leaders you work with encounter?

New leadership teams are sometimes nervous to listen to data and to draw conclusions if it can be interpreted in multiple different ways. It’s one of the reasons that we have moved to partnering with consulting firms with expertise in software-based data analysis. We use the data to quantify how many people activate and why. Typically, we see north of 30% of the total population raising their hand to be on a work stream in a specific change management area.

If you have lower adoption, we use the data we collect to understand why. We track when people opt out or say “I don’t understand what you’re asking and talking about.” This feedback surfaces whether the real issue is understanding and awareness, versus the willingness of people to participate. Alternatively, the data can also show if people think the initiative is misguided or has implementation risk. Leaders gain transparency through the software’s data analysis.

It sounds like you’ve found ways for AI to create more human interactions. What are the limitations to leaning on AI? In what ways can AI tools be anti-social, and how do you mitigate those risks?

If you’re going to trust the output of our system, you have to know it’s based on the right input. Potential biases to data come in so many different forms. Ideally, if we look at, for example, who is in the sample population that you’re getting information from, we’d account for any skewing as we analyze it. We have limited control, of which population, the stakeholder at the enterprises chooses to invite into our software. So if they choose to only involve the US population and use that information to influence the way they make decisions for their Asia-based population, for example, that clearly creates a lot of challenges, given the cultural differences. We work to screen out and limit bias with some of our onboarding screens and some of the setup and training that we do. We promote as much as we possibly can an approach of widening the sample size, to make sure that you’re involving as large a population as possible that is as diverse as possible. But there’s definitely limitations to it. It’s hard to solve it when you’re collecting what others choose to input.

Also, if there is a high concentration of a certain demographic in a company, we can’t control for who they’ve hired. So if they’re only getting information from a specific group of people that’s the majority of their population, it clearly sways the input that we’re getting and the resulting outcomes. So for us, I think we’re trying to maintain a middle ground where we highlight who companies are asking for input from and how it impacts the output. 

We’re focused on making our data inputs more comprehensive by integrating with more internal systems in our upcoming work. HR systems can provide added layers of data, like performance management data and learning data; systems like NetSuite provide more business performance data. The more that we can integrate, the more our machines can learn, and the more we can build better cases for the viability of the decision we’re recommending.

Change management in the context of technology often raises the specter of worker displacement. How can technology-based change management tools like yours help us prepare for an unknown future of work?

What I learned personally moving from a tech-enabled service businesses working with big enterprises to being a full software company is that technology isn’t replacing us. There is a fear of tech advancing too fast. But I think the bigger question is how do we reskill and retrain ourselves? And how will we hold the enterprises of the world responsible for managing change? Even if there are people who will be losing jobs, which is never a good thing, we have the opportunity to say, “Well how do we rethink what workers are doing and what new skills they need to adapt? And how can we help them do that?” Yes, we’ve introduced self checkout into the grocery store. But if we’re going to replace those people, what are the skills they have that we can still benefit from? They may be really great at customer service and customer success — can you retrain them to help people shopping inside the store, to create a personalized experience? Flipping the way that you look at it can help people understand the opportunity. Then we all advance. But a lot of companies don’t think that way when they’re developing or implementing automation technology.

It’s a large number within consumer retail and manufacturing — upwards of 70% of some of the largest companies and employers in the world — whose jobs will be automated away in the next 10 years. The magnitude of that is scary. Unless you retrain people to think about it as an opportunity and change the way that they’re actively pursuing alternatives, we’re going to have problems. Being a coder isn’t the answer for everyone.

Top 10 mental models for the workplace

 Source: Litmos
Source: Litmos

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.” — Henry David Thoreau

Mental models allow us to simplify our complicated world. They are abstracted truths that, in finding the through-line of many instances, despite losing detail they are actually more true than any individual instance. They are powerful drivers of our behavior that help us quickly choose what to focus on and how to make decisions. So it’s worth taking a conscientious look at the ones that have baring on our day-to-day, and consider how we want to employ them.

Based on the Farnam Street list of 109 mental models, I have selected the top 10 that I have most often needed to revisit in innovation and strategy consulting work. They roughly fall into the categories of planning, process, and people – the raw ingredients of any initiative or organization. Below is a brief description of each, and why they are perennially relevant.

1. Planning

Whether planning for your company or your client, managing complexity and collecting the right level of input to make informed decisions is a critical skill. And it is also a complex thing to try to optimize. Here are a few mental models that help guide my focus and sense check my thinking.

The map is not the territory

A map is intentionally designed to be a reduction of what it represents, and is not to be confused with a full representation of reality. As George Box famously noted, “All models are wrong but some are useful.” To preserve the utility of maps, we must guard against over-simplifications that loses touch with reality. For example, average is a myth when it comes to clothing or car seats – acknowledging this has spurred the universal design movement, which demands a much deeper understanding of users than summary data can provide. Which leads us to our next mental model…

Seeing the front

The military has a leadership norm of “personally seeing the front” before making decisions. When decision-makers establish a ground truth first-hand, they avoids losing touch by over-relying on data that fails to capture the nuances of real life. As Jared Belsky would put it from a business leader’s perspective, “Get out of your ivory tower and into the stores.” Then you can test and validate your ideas, assumptions, and plans directly.

Second-order thinking

Second-order thinking involves thinking beyond the immediate effects of an action to the knock-on effects. This kind of holistic thinking needs to be balanced against the typical interpretation of Occam’s razor, which posits that the simplest explanation is most likely the correct one. Occam’s razor is not a call to give up critical thinking, but does call us to put more weighting on simpler explanations.

Tendency to overgeneralize from small samples

Overgeneralization occurs when we take a small number of instances and come to a general conclusion from it, even if we have no statistically sound basis for it. This is tricky to navigate if you are in situations with naturally low numbers of instances. In these cases, I try to validate my conclusion from multiple angles, and am highly open to updating my thinking as new information becomes available.

2. Process

A plan cannot manifest without an effective process to execute it. At the same time, process has many opportunities for minor or major misalignment that can limit both team outcomes and progress towards larger goals. Below are several key process-related mental models that, if applied well, can drive task success, systems improvement, and individual growth.

Feedback loops

A feedback loop occurs when an input originates from within the system itself, not from outside the system. Feedback loops can be positive, negative, or neutral, and can often be greatly impacted by any one actor who decides to intervene by changing one of the key inputs. This means that you can change the course of a relationship, with a coworker or client, using the right strategic interventions. It’s also why first impressions matter so much, as that impression is easily reinforced.

Regression to the mean

In a normally distributed system, while you might observe deviations from the average, performance will tend to return to the average with an increasing number of observations. This is most visible day-to-day with unconscious habits. Say you want to break your habit of checking e-mail too often. You may make a short-term effort to look at e-mail less, but unless you learn a whole new habit (say, by having e-mail blackout periods or switching to Slack), you may find yourself drifting back to sub-optimal behavior patterns.

Tendency to want to do something

Most humans have the tendency to need to act, even when no action is needed or additive. Action can give the illusion of productivity and progress, perhaps shielding our ego from the fear of failure. At the end of the day, though, we are better off focusing on results. Which links to our next mental model…

Velocity

Velocity is how fast something gets somewhere — speed plus direction. An object that moves two steps forward and then two steps backward has moved with speed but with no velocity. Focusing on velocity can be a tricky disposition to manage in light of its competing mental model “Tendency to want to do something.” Thus, if you are uncertain as to whether actions will be additive, it is important to try to take considered actions that produce data that inform whether you are moving in the right direction.

3. People

All the planning and process in the world doesn’t amount to a hill of beans without getting people on board with you. Working well with people is most of the magic of successful initiatives. The following mental models are two considerations to keep in mind when getting in the flow with your team or client.

Influence of stress

Stress causes both mental and physiological responses and typically amplify our biases. Stress can also cause us to be hasty and revert to unhelpful habits. Thus, it is important to be sensitive to people’s stress levels, and to try to either reduce stress or introduce conditions that improve the quality of team engagement during stressful circumstances.

Circles of competence

Circles of competence are niche areas of specialization that people develop. Understanding your circle of competence enables you leverage your strengths, identify opportunities for improvement, and learn from others. Many a successful CEO has cited this as a top skill that enabled them to manage a global company. The same is true on a micro level, within a small team.

Leveraging mental models

The world can often seem very complicated because, well, it is! But not all of that complexity is relevant. Being able to more quickly filter out the noise and cut to the heart of the matter is a critical skill in an world of increasing information density. The mental models above provide tools to help evaluate plans and processes, and optimize how you work with people.

From Adam Grant to Susan Cain: What introverted leadership looks like

The article is for all the introverts out there who have risen to a leadership position. Looking at your peers, you may intuitively notice as you look laterally and above you what the data show: 96% of leaders self-report as extroverts. You may be wondering if you can succeed and be effective as a leader, given your personality type. Let’s look at what at the science has to say.

First, can you fake it til you make it?

Your first course of action may be to consider, can I just act like an extrovert until I become one? The science of personality suggests that this would likely be an uphill battle. The Big 5 personality traits (which have more research backing than the Myers-Briggs framework) have been shown to have strong consistency over time, with only moderate changes over many years. The Extroversion/Introversion trait is highly stable; it can vary somewhat over time, but not significantly. So your best bet is to figure out how to play to your own strengths as an introvert.

The research summary that follows re-frames leadership from having “correct and incorrect” styles to “pros and cons” that pair with personality type. There is a way to play to your sweat spots and craft your environment for success.

The research

You may remember the best-selling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can ́t Stop Talking. Authored by Wall Street lawyer turned author, Susan Cain, who took the reader through her seven years of aggregated research on the strengths that introverts wield and the cultural dynamics that they navigate. Adam Grant has recently brought back to the fore some of the key findings on what type of people introverts manage best. Below is a summary of the key points for business leaders to consider.

In Index Card Summary style, the three key lessons to keep in mind, and that I walk through below are:

1. Introverts and extroverts make equally good leaders, but are more effective at leading different types of people.

2. Yet the extrovert bias is real and present in corporate America.

3. Effective leaders who are careful to avoid similarity bias will craft environments for each personality type to thrive in.

1. Introverts and extroverts make equally good leaders, but are more effective at leading different types of people

Cain and Grant both cite introverts as being uniquely good at leading initiative-takers. Their inclination to listen to others and lack of desire to dominate social situations makes introverts more likely to hear and implement suggestions. By encouraging the talents of their teams, they can more easily motivate them to be even more proactive. The challenge for introverts is to manage misguided or less proactive employees.

2. Yet the extrovert bias is real and present in corporate America

As Cain shared with Business Insider, “Extroverts are routinely chosen for leadership positions and introverts are looked over, even though introverts often deliver better outcomes. They’re not perceived as leadership material.” The modern American archetype of a leader is a talkative alpha who is comfortable in the spotlight – the more a person talks, the more attention they receive, and the more powerful they are perceived to be. The result is that introverts are seen as poor leaders by 65% of executive leadership. They also earn ~20% less and manage half as many people as extroverts, according to Truity Psychometrics.

3. Effective leaders who are careful to avoid similarity bias will craft environments for each personality type to thrive in

Adam Grant posits that the dynamism of modern business environments makes proactive employees critical, and introverted leaders tend to encourage and cultivate such employees. The most effective teams are composed of a good mix of introverts and extroverts, and it is highly possible to create a symbiotic environment for both. Leadership can craft and distribute tasks based on people’s natural strengths and temperaments. For example, extroverts can more effectively manage information overload, high pressure, and multi-tasking, while introverts are better at solving complex problems through patience, clarifying, and persistence. Projects and their timelines can be crafted and distributed accordingly.

We need introverted leaders

Being an introvert does not make you a bad leader – in fact there are many strengths you can play to. The challenge is that you won’t be able to learn everything by example from your extroverted peers. Don’t focus on changing your personality – the science says this would be draining and would yield limited results. Your version of successful leadership will activate a more proactive workforce and enable you to tackle long-range problems.

To think of a classic introvert/extrovert duo, Bill Clinton and Al Gore immediately come to mind. One ascended to the presidency for 8 years, carried in part by his charisma. The other was perceived as dry and dispassionate on the campaign trail, but went on to be a pivotal leader in the modern climate change movement. Looking at Cain’s descriptions of personality characteristics, these aren’t surprising outcomes: perhaps Clinton is the action-oriented and rewards-sensitive extrovert, while Gore is the slower and more deliberate introvert, less attracted to wealth and fame. Which is a more effective leader? That, I would argue, is the wrong question.

 Source: YouTube
Source: YouTube

Cheers to the best communicators of 2018

It is immensely human to want to be understood, and a great skill to be able to make oneself understood by wide-ranging audiences. This end-of year post is a hats-off edition for those who take complex, multifaceted topics that otherwise appear unknowable and clearly describe the inner workings of our world in layman’s terms. Four communicators in four fields have been especially influential and necessary.

Four fields have outsized impact on our working present and future: finance, management, science and technology. With the 10 year anniversary of the financial crisis just past, the importance of financial liquidity as the lifeblood of our economy is palpably understood by our businesses. And if strong financial conditions offer a tailwind, good management readies a business to benefit in the near-term. At the same time, science and technology are changing the nature of work day by day. Previously manual jobs like automotive assembly now require a technical literacy that demands that each person arm themselves with the latest technical knowledge. Thus, a knowledge of finance, management, science and technology makes for one capable business leader.

Four experts in these four fields have continually contributed to the public’s ability to grasp big and small ideas with clarity. And the winners are…

Best financial communicator: Felix Salmon of Axios

Felix Salmon’s daily articles on Axios and weekly podcast, Slate Money, complement each other with punchy clarity and practical insights that are both local and global. He speaks directly to the lightly-financially literate American and to the globe, as he covers trends in other large economies as well as struggling economies. He reads what would be tea leaves to most and makes financial indicators approachable. His frequent podcast refrain is to interrupt jargon-laden explanations from co-hosts and say “explain that in English.” Britain-born, he proves we don’t always need to be divided by a common language.

Best management communicator: Adam Grant, author

Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist who has written three books on how to drive personal and professional success. Beyond his famed insights from Give and Take, which show that generosity towards others can drive your own success, he’s gone on to create a podcast called WorkLIfe, in which he interviews entrepreneurs, employees, and companies to unearth practical advice to improve our work lives. He is a prolific tweeter and poster on LinkedIn, where he offers bite-sized daily advice for the business leaders of today.

Best science communicator: Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry has been on the New York Times Best Seller list for the better part of 2018, a testament to his famed ability to generate both wonder and create scientific understanding among his audiences. He has a foundational interest in encouraging curiosity and methodical discovery, which makes the everyman feel he or she can, with careful pursuit, know the unknown.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

By Neil de Grasse Tyson

Best technology communicator: Wired, technology magazine

All of Wired Magazine deserves recognition for making complex topics with broad social implications, from the blockchain to ag-tech, easily digestible (no pun intended), with the implications unpacked. Wired humanizes and empathetically portrays the thinking and motivations of the entrepreneurs seeding some of the mega tech trends that are rippling through society.

In summary…

Thank you for an insightful 2018 to the brilliant communicators who have synthesized the most important mechanics and trends in the four fields that are the pillars of modern business. Cheers to you!

5 things my dog taught me about management 

My new puppy has brought home a few important things to me in the last month, and not just the balls I ask him to fetch. Learning to train him has illustrated some of the most foundational principals of effective management. Below are the top five training points for building up your working relationships with those you manage, whether human or canine.

1. Build effective communication 

Before you can expect a dog to behave well, you need to be able to identify the cues they are giving you as to their needs. Are you annoyed that they are barking? What might they be trying to communicate to you? Perhaps they are hungry or haven’t gotten enough exercise that day. Noticing what your dog needs and providing that clears away concerns that may prevent them from being receptive to your guidance. When you have met your dog’s needs, you can also communicate your needs by praising the right behaviors (like chewing chew toys) and disincentivizing the wrong behaviors (like chewing shoes).

If you’re experiencing friction with an employee, have you taken cues from them as to their work style? Have you established communication norms? Have you provided clear feedback about what is working for you and what is not? (Pro tip: try creating a Management Readme on Readme.bio for each of your teammates, to more quickly orient yourself to everyone’s work style preferences.)

2. Break it down

Further to the communication point, it often is not enough to just say “be better” at XYZ, as such asks are not specific, and do not delineate a path forward. My dog initially struggled with “leave it”. I started with a simple piece of paper towel in my hand (which he normally loves to chew). He successfully left it. But I made the mistake of jumping right to putting it on the floor and walking away. He chewed it immediately. It was too big a leap for him. I’d skipped across the incremental steps that would have built up his focus. Similarly, explaining a piece of a process to colleagues and then jumping to the end, without breaking out the steps in between, makes it likely that you will lose people in the process. For managees, throwing them in the deep end with minimal prep is much more overwhelming than incrementally increasing responsibility.

I invested time in learning about dog training so that I could figure out how to lead him to the behaviors I wanted to see. Similarly, managers much invest the time to specify what precisely they want to see in terms of actions and outcomes, and work with their team to identify how to get there in the needed time frame.

3. Be consistent

Being consistent and predictable to those you manage helps them to figure out how to work best with you. My dog now start making little noises at 7am every day, as he knows that’s when we take him out to do his morning business, get fed, and play. He doesn’t make noises at night, as he knows we intend to sleep all the way through it. Similarly, managees can meld to your schedule and style if you are consistent. If you always block off 8-9am to review final work, they will plan to provide you content for review at that time. If you praise people for thoughtful project planning or being vocal during meetings, you can expect to see more of that.

4. Have patience 

Dogs take months and even years to be fully trained even in a single behavior. Expect them to make mistakes, and be forgiving yet persistent. Even smart dogs take a lot of positive reinforcement to solidify a habit. Humans need the same! It is perfectly normal to need to repeat yourself over and over, in different settings, so be accepting of this reality.

5. Invest

Dogs grow into behaviors, not out of them. If you continue to invest in building the right behaviors in the first year, you will reap the benefits for a lifetime. Your puppy will grow into an impressive dog who is a loyal companion. It goes without saying that people are also worth the investment! Your managees will prove resilient, and can grow leaps and bounds with the right support.