The next in our series of interviews asking a number of noted thought leaders for their views on a few basic but essential questions on Organizational Change.
I was delighted to get some time to talk with Noah Rosenberg for this article on organizational change and design.
Noah had a long career as a Digital Creative Director running a number of agency offices before making the leap to serial entrepreneur, starting and selling multiple high-impact startups.
As a lifelong learner, he’s always seeking chances to increase impact, maximize performance, and reach a higher peak. New skills and new environments drove him to create an entirely new kind of agency, to develop companies in the same way a team would a product, and ultimately to create an entirely new product category in Pikazo, an AI-powered art application.
He's been lucky to lead some incredible teams that have gotten to really incredible places — Top 20 on the App Store, keynoting Intel's AI conference, creating artwork live at the Museum of Modern Art, and most recently changing the way advertising and content interact. Noah loves helping everyone on the team reach their own peak experiences.
Noah is currently immersed in the intersection of Artificial Intelligence and Human-Computer Interaction, defining new ways that algorithms can make digital experiences more valuable and humane
Mike: Do you want to say something about that latest creative departure?
Noah: I can explain it a little bit. It's still pre-launch, so there's nothing to go look up and read about online, but here's a super easy explanation of it: We're creating a tracking system for free weight exercises. So, you have these basic five exercises that people think are the best for you, squats, dead lifts, bench press, shoulder press. In the past they have not been tracked, whereas if you go for a bike ride or a walk, there's all this great tracking that you can use. But this kind of weight training hasn't really been tracked.
So, we stumbled on a couple pieces of technology. One is something called pose detection where you can kind of see the skeleton of a person from a video of them. The technology can guess where your bones are and in that way, monitor your form.
Then, the second thing is from the older area of psychology called operant conditioning, the BF Skinner stuff. What we love about that is that it really speaks to the intuition (experienced as conditioned response) and goes through a higher bandwidth channel. So, when I'm at the gym and my coach is saying, "Oh, good form, Noah," I'm in verbal mode and I'm thinking, "Oh, he likes me," and, "Oh, am I doing it right?" and, "Does everybody else in the gym see me doing it right, and what does that look like?" It has nothing to do with completing the actual exercise. So, what we're trying to do is introduce other feedback methods that are a lot more useful and speak to the intuition or muscle memory.
Mike: Sounds interesting.
Noah: Here’s a really concrete example: if you are an iPhone or Apple watch user they have this new mechanism in there that gives a little thump. It's different than the buzzer in every other phone. In the camera app, there's a click to tell you when you have the camera held vertically. What starts to happen is it speaks , through your hand down your arm and into your intuitive, liminal muscle memory. So, even with the screen backwards facing out, you can still make the phone level.
In fact, when I show it to people, they don't find that very interesting. They're like, "Of course. Yeah, it clicks when it's level. That makes perfect sense. What are you showing me?" But I never say anything. I just hand them the app, turn it around, and say, "Make the camera level," and they can do it. There's no dialogue. There's no explanation. There's no confirmation from me. They intuitively know where that is, and then I turn off the click and it turns out, yes, you can get it back to level again because that communication went through your muscle system.
So, you can take that idea of the nonverbal feedback and look at what other ways you can apply it. We're just starting out with strength training because fitness is such a rich category already.
Mike: So, are you interested in neurofeedback in general?
Noah: We haven't built this yet, but I had this notion that it'd be really nice to make an app that lets you draw a perfect circle because there's no verbal way to describe that. Somebody says, "To the left more, up more." It's completely unintuitive, but if we could train you so you could feel where those boundaries are and draw this perfect circle, I think it would be a great example of neural feedback, and then there are many other applications throughout interpersonal connections, and business.
A sandwich shop wants to have their employees put the right amount of beef on a sandwich. A coffee shops wants to know how much stirring you do in the water, these sort of things.
Mike: So, you've got something which can apply that to the basic weight exercises?
Noah: Yeah, it's all workout stuff, so we can track weights, crossfit training, these things that are really hard to track using accelerometers but easy to track with cameras.
Mike: Oh, yeah, that sounds great.
So, as you're thinking about setting up your new company, I know that you've got a lot of experience in start-ups and being the CEO of a start-up. So, I just wanted to ask you as you approach creating another organization, are the subjects of culture, the future of organizations, and how they're designed very much on your mind?
Noah: Yeah, that's absolutely the high order bit. Honestly, that's been the challenge of everything I've worked on in the past and this day job I've got right now, it's blocked by the culture. It's blocked by the scenario and the setup and all of the mental models that go into what we think of as a workplace requirement.
The simplest one, a boss, right? If a boss has an idea or let's say a comfort zone, the whole company has to align around that comfort zone because ultimately, if the boss in that role is outside of their comfort zone, they can't make strong decisions and then they're no longer the boss, but the org chart then is lacking leadership.
So, there's a functional reason why that happens, and I'll give a real specific example. If your boss has a background outside of your specialty—say you’re a writer, and your boss has an MBA. You might get feedback to your written work that you should turn your carefully crafted prose into bullet points or cells in a spreadsheet.
The guy at the top of this pyramid,his strongest muscle memory, his most intuitive reasoning, his most intellectual agility is in business process. So, finally, he says, "Look, I know some of the technology, but I'm not that strong on and know very little about writing. I've done technology enough that I can trust those guys to create outputs that I can use in business process, but I have never done writing. I can't trust those outputs. How can we make writing look like business process?" Does that make sense?
Mike: I understand what you're saying. It obviously doesn't make sense to do it, right?
Noah: So, in relation to the culture of a new company that behaviour is really interesting and a problem that I wouldn't have intuited without experiencing it first-hand. That's the first order observation, but the second order observation I got from working in that environment has really given me a lot of better understanding of what it is that I do.
Mike: I was going to ask you, against the background of what you just said, do you think that for organizations to be able to succeed in functioning, whether they're existing organizations or new ones, that major change is necessary and inevitable in the way that we look at organizations and what we do with them?
Noah: Well, that's a bit of a loaded question, but the answer of course is yes. I think that change is going to happen, but what's interesting is on some level, this engagement was still functional for the manager at least, right? So, he can still point arrows, but I think to your point, there is always this generational shift where that top layer of managers will peel off. They will retire.
Then, you have the next tier coming in who hopefully have a little bit more of a developed sense, so the next tier are going to be all those Gen X people who are kind of deeply nihilistic. We're a short window. There's only 10 years of us, right, and then it shifts over to the millennials, but this little nihilistic part of us that says, "Yeah, I don't care about the organization at all. I grew up punk rock and I hate all structure, so I don't value the org chart." There's nothing to preserve.
Preservation of old structures is the opposite of the Gen X ethos, but the correlation of that is we also don't create new structures. We don't thrive on structure. We don't want structure. We want things to be in the present.
So, I'm thinking about creating my own company and this is probably going to sound counter intuitive but instead of designing the organization, what I I've learned from the last few years at work is that what I really need to design is the choice of my frustrations.
Vankatesh Rao writes a lot about organizational stuff and a lot about different mental models. He has this notion about your intellectual diet that I really like. It says a writer is going to write about whatever information they're consuming. There's always your own flavor to it, but a lot of your thought processes are based on what you're inputting. I really resonate with that. I think that's probably pretty true.
So, I think of it as my diet and I think heading into being a startup creator where you get the chance to have an empty canvas on how you want to build your company, the first approach is the unconscious incompetence approach, you don't know what you don't know, you go, "Well, I'm just going to make this be flowers and cotton candy. I'm just going to pick my absolute favorite things. Why would I put anything else in there? If I get to make it, it's just going to be what I want."
It's sort of a childhood fantasy land. You'll start to see offices with playground equipment inside. They look more like daycare centers than offices. Right away, you can see that's what was on their mind. Why would I put anything that I don't immediately like? That's sort of a diet of junk food. If I let my 10-year-old eat whatever she wanted, it would be Cheetos and Kool-Aid, but as you mature you start to realize you need other things in your diet, and particularly fiber. Fiber is by definition things you can't digest.
I started to realize how much I'm motivated, and how much I'm informed, by intellectual situations that I can't digest.
I can't digest this guy wanting to make a customer experience engagement fit a business process. Customer experience is about understanding the environments a customer might encounter, what they may see, hear, feel, and do. What makes the, feel a service is trustworthy, valuable, repeatable, and enjoyable. Business process is a simple flow chart. So it’s kind of like saying “Chess is hard. Let’s use the chess pieces, but let’s play checkers, kids understand that game better”.
So that idea kind of gets into my head and I examine it and think about how to make it work. And I get a non-answer on that. It's kind of like it does not compute. I just kind of don’t see a way to make it make sense. If it's what this guy's comfortable with and he's just going to force it, that’s what we’re going to have to do and that's how organizations have to work, okay, fine. but that's a dead end.
You're not really doing customer experience. You’re not playing checkers if you use chess pieces. You're just agreeing to not play chess, you’re doing something else. You’re playing horsey hop hop, it’s neither chess or checkers.
Mentally that becomes this intellectual dietary fibre. You can’t incorporate the idea, you can’t do much with it besides let it pass.
It's these ideas that you don't digest, that you don't incorporate, but maybe build other ideas around it, or maybe it helps you flesh out your own ideas. So there is value in ideas you can’t digest. The ideas themselves may not be valuable but mentally chewing on them can be.
What that's informing for me as I'm heading into creating another start-up, is that I don't so much want it to be, a platform for ego magnification, like probably my first one was. I thought, "If I'm leading an ad agency, I want to make a famous ad agency. I want to prove to them that mine is more famous." I want to do that job of ad agency better and I want to become some sort of important person from it.
Having gone through that and rung some of those bells, hit those achievements and realized there is no achievement there, you move onto the next of all these other kinds of self-deceptions you could create. My current self-deception is that I can create something not cool, but that is functional and sort of mature, I hope. I think that final output is just a creative thing that has room for me to keep creating.
Mike: Right. So, do you think then that as we move towards this new period of organizational design where a lot of structure's being thrown away because people don't want it anymore and react against it, do you think that means increasingly that the organization will tend to reflect the mindset and the thinking of the leaders who form the organization?
Noah: I think that's a very interesting question. Yes, that could happen, but I think that's actually a regression, that's not progress, because what that does is say we just require a chieftain who is a really great chieftain, but it's still a chieftain model.
Mike: What do you think progress would be?
Noah: I think we've seen what's happening to organizations happen in art and in some other places. So, you have an interesting analog in art. In the Victorian era, art was this game of being exactly digestible to the upper class. That was defined in a certain way. It was very naturalistic. The more realism you could get, the better. The crisper you could get, the better. The more pedigree you had, the better. This was what was going on in the salons in Paris, in the environment into which Gauguin and Picasso entered. So, it was really understood what counted as a good painting. It was very defined in everybody's mind and they knew it exactly when they saw it and you could write theses on it. It was very specific.
I think organizations have gotten to kind of point; there's the big four consultants that define what a good organization looks like and it's really specific and it's really measured.
Mike: It's all still rooted in the 150 year old tradition of Taylorist scientific management?
Noah: Yeah, or the Prussian army, early military structures. What is a vice president but a lieutenant?
Mike: What do you think the new thing looks like or could look like?
Noah: So, let's look at what happened there with Picasso where he had all that training, but then he came in and he started changing in a really specific way some of the requirements of a canvas in terms of meaning. You could look at Picasso and say he cleared the way just for Picasso, but also that it left room for Kandinsky. It left room for other cubists. Their work is very distinct from Picasso's, but it plays in that same space.
So, I guess what I'm getting at is once that tradition is shown to be fractured, it opens up room for other rules to be violated, but it also opens up room for other things to count as being a manager and for other structures to count as being companies. So, Picasso eventually did lead to something like Rothko, no structure at all. It led to Pollock, no subject matter at all. It really doesn't make sense to talk about a Pollock painting in terms of the subject matter. So, I think we're going to start seeing organizations that are so loosely organized but so open to possibility that it won't make sense to use the word manager any more. They'll still function and still include groups and still have an ethos.
Mike: Right, but don't you think there will still be a leadership owner in a sense in organizations? Would it be more of a function that anyone can do?
Noah: What a great question. This is a perfect thing for us to be thinking about. So, the higher order bit in my mind right now from this most recent experience is rather than choosing what you want to work on or even necessarily choosing how you want to fit into the organization, I think the structures will start to appear where you're choosing your frustrations. You're picking the grain of sand under your tongue, the thing that you're going to work on and work on and work on and turn into that pearl. So, for instance, I'm spending a lot of time with Martha Valenta lately. Are you familiar with her?
Mike: Coincidentally I just interviewed Martha a few days ago.
Noah: Oh, that's terrific. I just had lunch with her yesterday. The sort of grain of sand under her tongue is meetings and how meetings are done. That's not really on the surface a company level problem, but she could create a company around that where she could go into organizations and solve for that very narrow problem. So, as a leader, you would describe her as the person who most has that frustration. Since she's most driven by that frustration, she's going to be the one who puts the most energy towards solving it. In that sense, I think that might be how we define leader. In the sort of military sense, which has become corporate sense, the leader is the person who structurally you have to listen to.
Mike: Okay. I wasn't confining the use of the term to that.
Noah: Yeah. I think in that sense, there will always be people who are further out than others who have been working on the problem longer and have more view into the problem's space. So, in that sense, that's probably a fixed constraint.
Mike: Let me ask you about these two terms, values and higher purpose. If those things have a place in an organization, what do you think they are and how well do you think they can work rather than how well do they work, because my experience would be it's very easy to say that you have a particular value and then never apply it.
Noah: I've been working on a way of describing this because I have this intuitive mental model about it. That's really been chewing away at me on this engagement with this day job. There's that analogy of you can't see the forest for the trees. It sort of describes not being able to see the big picture, meaning you're so focused on an individual aspect of something that you're not really thinking about how it operates as a whole.
So, let's work with that for a minute and talk about it. A forest, the way you would describe a forest is something like acreage, maybe location on the planet or within a larger area within a nation or a state or a county. None of those have anything to do with trees yet.
Mike: Providing you with breathable oxygen?
Noah: Yeah. Yeah, that would be a nice way to think about it, but then you're like, "Well, what counts as part of the forest and not," right? Is the tree outside or is the grass part of the forest? You're thinking of this large global area, and I think that's where vision comes from. So, if we can make that analogy that the vision doesn't necessarily have to describe anything about the company in particular, but it describes at the meta level what it's trying to do.
That's the forest, and then the trees are the individual aspects of the company, right? So, those could be the things that go on your business model canvas. It could be your distribution. It could be your suppliers. It could be what your product is. It could be who your customers are, but they're still pretty high level objects.
Then, unfortunately in business, we jump down to leaves. So, we go from forest, which is really global and non-descriptive of anything internally, then we go to the individual elements, but then we go to the leaves. I happen to have a nice view of trees out the window. I can't even tell what leaves come from one tree or the other, much less which branch they're on, what direction they're pointed. Even a camera can't represent those leaves because even if you got every single leaf and every single orientation and direction, there's some behind it. There's no possible way to characterize all the leaves of a tree. If you did, they have moved by the time you've finished. It's just a pointless endeavor, right?
So, what that describes is the idea of getting into too much detail in your thinking. That's what's happening in this organization I'm in where they're sort of working from the bullet point out, from the middle out, from the most narrow degree out.
There's a lot of reasons I think psychologically we do this. Part of it is maybe where our own mental safety zone is, where we know we can think strongly, but also know that we can befuddle and confuse somebody else and nobody else can really do it so there's some safety there. Nobody could really tell you you're wrong because they would have to zoom into that detail, too.
So, you have forests, you have trees, you have leaves, but then you can go back again and you can go leaves, branches, trunk. So, a trunk almost any of us can draw really simply, right? It just looks like a box or a cylinder. The trunk is sort of the guiding principles of your company. It's the first principles, the base area of what you're trying to do.
The new company I'm trying to start is based on the principle that we make dumb things smart. That's our fundamental guiding principle. There's no big picture stuff there at all. That's just what are we looking to do, and anything that's dumb, physically dumb and has no software in it yet, we're going to add software to it and make it intuitive. That's a really base principle. It can go a lot of directions, but that's our first principle.
Then, our branches are, well, we're going to do with cameras and we're going to start in the fitness space, and so that's kind of how that main idea is starting to define itself, but it still isn't too specific. Then, when you get into the leaves, we start talking about what software libraries we're going to use, what hardware, who are we going to sell it to, how are we going to install it, is it 5 or 10 feet away from the workout equipment. These things matter, but they don't matter. I can't go to somebody and say, "Oh, I'm really specialized in the 5 to 10 foot space away from a bench press machine." That's meaningless, right?
What you end up seeing is this diamond progression where you go from forest, really broad, very broad generalizations of your mission (and our mission is to make the world more intuitive) to the trees area which we will do through partnerships with fitness companies, and then the leaves are this product and what it actually manifests, and then we can go back down to the branches and say it's part of machine learning and it's part of this new emerging liminal space.
Mike: There are values embedded, implicit in that?
I mean if the organization grows and it engages more people or engages people as customers, then those values will be important or relevant in that relationship. Have I got that wrong?
Noah: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that's the fundamental thing. What I hope I was describing in this mishmash of language is that the reason that organizations have trouble getting their values out is they try to do it at that middle leaf level. They're lacking either the forest perspective of guiding principles of, what are you really trying to do? Why are you really starting this organization? Is it to get rich, or is it to make a particular change? If it is to make a particular change, why?
So, we could start to talk about this. Why is it so important to speak more to the intuitive part of the psyche? Well, we really feel like if people can wake that up more, they'll treat each other better. There is nothing after that. That's the last why. I don't need to tell you why it's better to treat each other better.
I think if we can look at those stages of development and say that intuitive awakening leads to a lot of other really good outcomes. So, with that as a guiding principle, it helps inform a lot of the other decisions we're going to make in terms of what type of product we develop next.
Mike: Actually being able to identify the fundamental big picture values your organization is being based on, becomes the means through which the whole thing obtains integrity of function?
Noah: I would say that question actually goes down to the first principles. That's a trunk level question, and that's what I'm trying to get at with this diamond image is you have to have both. You wouldn't have a forest without tree trunks. The first guiding principles are: what are the things that we all agree are true? If we don't agree that they're true, we can't work together. So, some of those are we respect our user. We treat them as an adult. That to me is a guiding principle
Mike: I think that kind of thing is probably what most people think of when they talk about company values, isn't it?
Noah: Yep. What's interesting is people will combine those two with just a comma between them. What are your values and purpose? I guess what I'm trying to say is I see those as absolutely opposite ends of the spectrum.
Mike: I think it's very interesting perception, that definition. Thank you.
Noah: By the way, a lot of people will combine them as a way of brushing them aside, by saying, "That's all well and good, but I have shit to do."
"I'm counting these leaves. If I'm counting all these leaves, I don't have to bother with purpose and values"
Mike: As soon as they say, "I'm not interested in that because I've got shit to do," they've actually made a very big value statement right there.
Noah: Right. Yep. They're saying, "I don't care about values." That's a core value to many.
Mike: Yeah. So, let me ask you this great question before we run out of time. Is there one piece of advice that you would give to organizations who want to move towards a more complete kind of organization? Maybe something like but not limited to or bound by the idea of Teal. What would it be, the key, the core piece of advice? It doesn't have to be the only one, but one that you think would be very central and important.
Noah: Stay out of the leaves as long as you possibly can. Stay out of that middle area as long as you possibly can.
Mike: Focus on the bigger picture. Don't get lost in the details.
Noah: Avoid focus as long as you can.
Okay. So, there's two definitions of focus, and let's make sure we're talking about the two. One version of focus is misrepresented as intensity. So, people will say, "I'm really focused on my company." What they mean there is that they are putting a lot of intention into it. That's okay. That's not what I'm talking about avoiding. I'm talking about stay away from the telescopes and the microscopes. Okay, so stay away from these things that shrink your field of vision.
So, what that gets down to in functional terms in a company is micro-detailed decisions or definitions. There's that programmer analogy that premature optimization is the root of all evil. So, you start getting micro-focused on anything that has no impact beyond the moment that you're thinking of it, and that turns out to be a lot, a lot of things. Imagine you're filling out a form on the details of how you set something up or the directions you point the desks, and as soon as you make that decision, it has no more bearing on anything.
Mike: It’s a potentially infinite energy sink.
Noah: Yep, absolutely. The consultants put it in one of their two by two grids of time management and they say it's neither important nor urgent. I think of it as data detail and in fact, I would almost think of it as anything that would go into speeds and feeds, bullet points, definitions, measurements, any particulate that goes into the company. The longer you can avoid doing that, the better.
Now, that doesn't mean that those things aren't important to do, but having come from fine art training, there was this really simple idea that when you're going to do let's say a portrait, you block in the key shapes first and then maybe you do some of the color areas. Then, maybe you capture the basic gestural portrait and then you start kind of getting in a little bit more detail. Then, the very last thing you do are work on the eyes and the eyelashes, right? That's pretty intuitive. That comes in the first few weeks of training, serious training in art, but boy, man, everybody in business loves focusing on the eyelashes and the little tiny details.
Mike: They're going to start with the pupil and work outwards?
Noah: They would, right? They would. Very few people, exceptionally talented people can do that as a stunt, but they're hiding the fact that they have thought of the entire thing and they're just holding it as a model in their head. They have sketched it all out. They have planned it all out. They aren't working from the middle out with no idea where it's headed. So, basically they're doing a magic trick. To me, magic is practicing when nobody else can see.
Mike: Very good point.
Noah: So, yeah, that’s the one piece of advice, and I think it's probably the hardest piece of advice, because some of those details are so tasty.
Mike: Right. Actually, it's very satisfying to pick a particular detail because it's something that you can complete and finish and say, "Okay, that's satisfying. I've done that," and it's got a definite limited scope. It's much more challenging to actually be zooming out and looking at the whole and then figuring out what the next phase is for all the different parts to work together.
Noah: I think so. Could you imagine doing a sudoku or a crossword puzzle and just saying, "I'm going to get this box first and I don't care why? This is the box." Again, it doesn't make any intuitive sense.
Mike: Right, so that's it. That's the piece of advice is don't pick one square and try and solve it in your sudoku puzzle.
Noah: Yep. Let it fall into place and really relish in it when it does at the end because they do all fall into place.
Mike: That’s great Noah, thanks so much for taking time to share your thoughts on these themes