Meet OD Innovator: Shane Snow

I explore human behavior and the brain, as a journalist and researcher, and write about how we can apply this science to work and life. Right now, I’m celebrating the launch of the flagship program in my online training center Snow Academy, which builds on my latest research on ‘Dream Teams’ and helps business people master the subtle skills that make an enormous difference in teamwork and professional relationships.

What common challenges do you encounter as an OD Professional?

The challenge that I keep thinking about the most lately is how ego gets in the way of growth. When leaders and those with influence in an organization do not model “intellectual humility,” it’s harder to realistically get others in the organization to grow and change. Ironically, a lot of leaders become stuck in their ways of thinking—and model stubborn or egotistical behavior without even realizing it—precisely because they’re smart and have been successful. Research shows that our own success is often the thing that leads us to be unable to see new ways of doing things. This little insight alone has huge ramifications for D&I, and for the success of OD programs in the future.

Tell us about your commitment to advancing a culture of success in organizations you work with.

Teams work best when members are on board with the team’s success over all else. But realistically, not every job will be more important to every worker than other things in their lives—family, personal career ambitions, etc. Further, any team that makes a commitment to diversity and inclusion is signing up for a group with a whole lot of different personal values, personal stories, and personal priorities.

So when I work with organizations who want to improve their culture, I like to focus on the question of “How can we clear the way so that everyone on the team can work wholeheartedly toward our shared goal, without having to override who they are or what’s important to them personally?” Often this means realigning incentives and rewards so people focus on the team’s success as a means to their own success. Just as often, this boils down to simply taking lots of micro-opportunities to reinforce that team members are there to add to the culture, not fit it. For example, simple habits like praising people for pushing the ball forward in team conversation, not just praising whoever comes up with the “right” answer, go a long way.

What methods, resources, or content does your team create and offer to allow for this type of transformation?

Last year, I worked with the former two top education designers from The Princeton Review to put together an interactive online program called “Dream Teams” for helping business people level up their teamwork skills—and for teams to build high-performance culture together. It consists of videos, interactive lessons, digital content that customizes and guides you through concepts as if a tutor were sitting next to you, and real-life exercises for creating productive collaboration habits as a group.

We just launched this in our online innovation skills training center, Snow Academy. Key to making transformation happen in larger teams is our “Facilitator Program,” where we train designated people within organizations to help guide their teams through the curriculum and actually practice good team habits through a series of group discussions and exercises. We’re super excited about the results we’ve seen and eager to share the program with more organizations this year!

In what ways does OD work take into consideration the whole individual in experiencing growth and learning?

I love this question because it gets at where so many of us have missed the mark over the years.

If indeed it’s true that a good team can be smarter than the sum of its parts, but only if its members think differently and fully engage (and it is true!), then that means the teams with the most potential have a lot of differences beneath the surface.

The old-school approach of recruiting for personality and culture fit—and of encouraging people to get in line and think and talk the same—squashes down that potential. Good OD work recognizes that the individuals with the potential to add the most to an organization are just that—individuals. They have different ideas and perspectives and habits and heuristics and work styles. So teaching them and helping them grow is not as simple as one-size-fits-all. We won’t successfully grow our people by talking to them and training them how we’d want to be dealt with; we’ll grow them by customizing our approach to how they roll—or by delivering the growth and learning experiences in a way that allows them to bring their whole self and learn in a variety of ways.

How do you and your clients measure those results? Can you share a specific example?

We’ve developed a few outstanding self-assessments—around things like Team Potential and Intellectual Humility—that we like to have clients we work with take before, during, and after going through Snow Academy programs. This way we can see the impact of the learning and practice.

With keynote speeches and in-person workshops I deliver, my team surveys team members about their learning experience as well.

But the most valuable, in my opinion, is the digital journal that people keep when taking Snow Academy programs like Dream Teams. Throughout the program, team members privately log how they’re putting concepts into practice, and where they’re seeing challenges and results. This self-reflection alone increases the retention of habits—but we also see a correlation between completing these reflection exercises and the scores people give on the self-assessments later.

Of the various business transformation initiatives that you’ve spearheaded, how did you get the ball rolling?

It’s always the smoothest when leadership is on board and takes the programs along with their team members. In the absence of that, it’s hard; however, I can think of examples where groups of team members took their development into their own hands and had great success.

One individual comes to mind who completed our Dream Teams course on his own and found himself feeling a lot more empowered and effective in dealing with his superiors and colleagues.

Another group comes to mind, where five ambitious young workers from different departments at a startup company decided to form their own little study group and work on Collaboration, Growth Mindset, Communication, and other skills together. It started as a book club and turned into an informal leadership development club. Super cool!

How do you sell your ideas to senior leaders in the organization?

My approach always depends on the personalities and priorities of the leaders themselves. I strongly believe that leveling up collaboration skills can help any kind of organization, but if a leader is focused on the next two quarters’ sales results over all else, then that leader ought to be sold on how improved collaboration will speed up sales cycles, resulting in better problem-solving for customers and therefore larger deal sizes, etc. And that means focusing on the kinds of skills and culture transformation that will make the biggest impact there first. Once you get momentum and start seeing change, it’s easier to keep going and build on it.

My favorite scenario is where a key leader in the organization truly believes in the long-term, all-encompassing benefits of developing these kinds of “meta-skills.” Then my job is to help that champion showcase the awesome results—do internal PR, as it were—that their team gets from the program.

How have you been able to position yourself as a trusted advisor either internally or externally as an OD Professional?

Often what a promising, high-potential team needs to get unstuck—or to kickstart an even higher rate of progress—is for someone with an outside perspective to help them see what they need to see. That’s where all of my work in both journalism and science research comes into play; I’ve spent 15 years as a business and science journalist, written three books about innovation and human behavior, and worked with hundreds of top organizations around the world. The nature of this work has helped me develop a wide array of perspectives, which I use to connect dots and help organizations see what they need to see.

Once you’ve received the green light for an initiative, how do you build momentum among stakeholders?

I like to help orchestrate and communicate small wins. As I wrote about in my book, Smartcuts, creating a series of small wins is among the most psychologically powerful ways to motivate not just someone who’s working toward a goal, but also those who are observing them. Everyone is more excited to support and root for you if you are communicating and celebrating little bits of progress along the way. You’ll get more support from stakeholders this way versus going away for a year and then showing up having accomplished whatever it is. Momentum is all about visibility.

Organizational transformation often takes months and years. How do you maintain momentum for such a long period?

My guiding principles for this are:

a) creating consistency and excitement through rituals;

b) balancing that consistency with novelty to avoid boredom or burnout;

c) celebrating small wins along the way.

Great cultures create traditions that they can call their own, thereby bonding the group and creating a shared identity. The key is to do this in a way that doesn’t step on any individual’s ability to bring their whole self to the group. So making organizational development, training, and group bonding part of a group’s tradition—then making sure to switch things up and celebrate the wins in order to keep the energy up—all this is the ticket. (We actually have several lessons on doing exactly this in our Dream Teams program at Snow Academy.)

As you’re undertaking a transformation, how do you spread the word about what’s happening within the organization?

I prefer a two-pronged approach: First, have the top-level leaders share what’s happening in mass media form—memos/emails, pump-up speeches, etc. Then, have each manager share the word with each individual who works for them. The goal is to make sure that everyone knows what’s happening and that it’s important throughout the organization—and doing so in ways that make it impossible for someone to slip through the cracks or be out of the loop if they happen to be sick one day, work remotely, etc.

Also, I’m a big fan of the adage, “If you care about something, put it on your walls.” At my last company, we had a big screen in our entryway that shared the one big piece of company news of the day. It was impossible to avoid it, and we used it to convey things we were excited about from a culture and OD perspective. We also painted murals on the walls and hung posters in conference rooms with the guiding principles that we were learning about and committing to during our ongoing up-leveling of our skills together.

What have you found most effective in managing resistance during the transformation process?

This is such an important consideration that we created a series of interactive lessons on managing resistance in each Snow Academy program (including the flagship Dream Teams program). There are several main types of resistance that transformation initiatives face, so the first key is identifying what the root concerns are. Then, the best thing to do is to sit down with people 1-on-1, starting with those who are most vocal or influential, and resolving the concerns behind their resistance—and enlisting them in helping you help the rest of the team.

The biggest mistake is to send an email or hold a meeting where you talk generally about the resistance and concerns. Sitting people down 1-on-1, looking them in the eye, and seeking to truly understand them takes more time and can be uncomfortable, but pays off in spades. We also coach people on how to do this effectively, which makes it less scary and helps you reinforce the fact that you care.

How do you start the process of changing deeply ingrained mindsets?

First, I think it’s important to seek to understand where the mindset comes from. Often, we have deeply ingrained views because we’re scared of change because changing cuts at our identity. Just as often, when it comes to successful people at least, the issue actually stems from our own success. We get cognitively entrenched in our views and our ways of doing things because they’ve helped us to succeed so far. Whichever the case is, making a mindset change starts with understanding the source of the mindset—and resolving that concern.

How do you monitor and encourage adoption in a transformation?

I like to use the two-pronged approach I described about spreading the word: Have top leaders emphasize the importance of the transformation, and then have each leader in the organization emphasize the importance in 1-on-1s with each of their reports. Consistency here is key; too many initiatives fall by the wayside because they get announced once and never emphasized again. It’s leadership’s responsibility to see transformation through, rather than placing the onus on team members to do everything (on top of their existing jobs). This kind of transformative work is precisely the job of a leader.

Do you have any final lessons that you’d like to share?

I firmly believe that of all the skills that will make a difference in the future of business, intellectual humility is at the top of the list. Even making a little progress on developing intellectual humility will have ripple effects, making change management, OD, leadership training, and day-to-day problem solving easier and more productive. For anyone who’s reading this who wants a primer on intellectual humility, I’d encourage you to take this self-assessment on it at http://snow.academy/intellectual-humility-assessment — you’ll get a free report that explains where your strengths and weaknesses are, along with free resources for how to improve.

Jason Myers

About Jason Myers

As the Editor-in-Chief of OD Innovator Magazine, Jason Myers is on a mission to help people transform their organizations into more innovative and collaborative environments. He co-developed a Crash Course in Collaborative Project Leadership to arm leaders with needed skills to drive innovation in any organization.

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