Cliff has made a career out of breaking down the obstacles that stand in the way of great work. He is often challenging the status quo in his quest to develop the right culture and systems for creation of excellent Companies and Products.
After a tour of addresses across South Africa, Cliff moved to Stockholm where he led a team of Coaches at Spotify for 4 years. Now he helps Scale-ups remove their Growth pains, enabling to Create Focus, Find Leverage, and Build Habits.
He was my guest on the Lean Whiskey podcast, episode #19, back in August, 2020.
In this episode, Cliff shares his favorite mistake story about a time when he got some “fairly brutal feedback” about his normally direct style of communication. Why did that knock his confidence back for a few months? What did he learn and how did he adjust?
Questions and Topics:
- Decision to work on yourself vs. finding a better fit?
- What did you learn about this? Moderate it? Finding more of your self confidence again?
- 2 insights that really helped him
- I’ve interviewed two former Spotify people (Ward Vuillemot and Kevin Goldsmith). How would you characterize the culture of learning from mistakes there?
- Reflections on your time at Spotify?
- Balancing autonomy and alignment?
- Avoiding a mistake at one extreme or another?
- Habits – James Clear — Atomic Habits
- Flight Levels Academy — founder and still a little involved
Scroll down to find:
- Video version of the episode
- How to subscribe
- Full transcript
Find Cliff on social media:
Video of the Episode:
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Navigating Mistakes in Professional Career: Learning from Cliff Hazell
Among the most accomplished careerists, few can match Cliff Hazell, renowned for his relentless pursuit of great work and his ability to overcome challenges frequently faced within professional environments. With a knack for challenging conventional wisdom, he is known to erect and nurture suitable cultural environments and systems necessary for excellent company and product development. In his quest to bring out the best in organizations, his journey has seen him rise from the beautiful landscapes of South Africa to bustling Stockholm.
While in Stockholm, Cliff led a team of coaches for Spotify for a noteworthy four-year period. His current pursuit includes aiding ‘scale-ups’, organizations seeking to expand their operations smoothly. His role often involves assisting these companies in addressing growth pains, enabling them to focus, identify leverage, and establish professional habits.
However, success was not always a given. Cliff, like every other person, has had to grapple with various mistakes in his professional journey. Among these, one stands out as his ‘favorite'. It offers a profound learning experience.
Cliff Hazell's Favorite Mistake
Cliff's favorite mistake occurred in the course of his usual work, which is often characterized by a very direct approach. Notably, this happened while working with a team at Spotify. This well-established team occasionally found itself entangled in circular debates which hampered progress and productivity. At one point, during an in-depth discussion about recruitment, Cliff lost his cool. His outburst, rather than causing the needed improvement, left an uncomfortable rift within the team. This mistake provided a valuable lesson about considering the potential impact of one's reactions in such contexts.
Insights from the Mistake
In the aftermath of this episode, Cliff felt his confidence knocked considerably. He receded from being actively involved in various projects. This experience made him realize that overconfidence can easily lead one to make rash decisions that may not yield the intended result. However, under-confidence can also be problematic as it can prevent one from taking important initiatives.
To become more effective at handling such situations, Cliff engaged the help of a coach. Over time, he learned to assess the situations accurately, prepare himself accordingly, and deliver an appropriate response. All these actions have since become key aspects of his professional approach.
Another learning point for Cliff was the need to understand and take into account what other people are looking for in a particular situation. This realization made him shift his focus towards meeting people where they are, asking pertinent questions that would guide them towards the right direction.
Reflecting on the Spotify Culture
Spotify is known to have a culture that fosters learning from mistakes. Despite facing challenges from time to time, Cliff affirms that Spotify generally excels at continuous learning. The company's culture embraces agile implementations at a frequency and cadence rarely seen in other organizations.
However, Cliff cautions about the common desire to visit or join companies for their perceived ‘perfection'. He insists that no company is perfect but rather, each has its unique set of challenges and opportunities. Instead of seeking perfection, he suggests people think about the types of problems they enjoy working on and find a company that provides such challenges.
From Overcoming Mistakes to Developing Professional Habits
Over the course of his impressive career, Cliff Hazell has found that overcoming mistakes and embracing growth opportunities often leads to the development and strengthening of professional habits. The experiences gained from these lessons, particularly the insights from his favorite mistake at Spotify, have informed Cliff's coaching approach and ultimately paved the way for his work in aiding ‘scale-ups'.
Considering Occupational Preferences and Company Culture Dynamics
One important lesson that Hazell shares involves scrutinizing one's preferences in selecting an appropriate work environment. He encourages an in-depth consideration of the challenges one enjoys working on and advises positioning oneself in an environment that offers similar scenarios. For instance, if one prefers a structured system with defined roles and responsibilities, a more corporate, scaled company may be appropriate. Alternatively, if an individual dislikes that structure, a startup setting may be more fitting. In any case, reflection and self-assessment play vital roles in identifying one's preferred working environment.
Moreover, the balance between autonomy and alignment in a company's culture is a key dynamic to consider. Drawing from his experiences at Spotify, Hazell elaborates on the unique challenges a rapidly scaling company faces. For instance, he observed that while excessive autonomy could lead to a lack of alignment, stifling rules could also inhibit innovation and growth. In essence, an appropriate balance is essential to foster a productive professional environment.
The Pursuit of Balancing Autonomy and Alignment
Finding the perfect balance between autonomy and alignment is not a straightforward task. It tends to involve much trial and error, as a move to the extreme of either end could be problematic. However, according to Hazell, the key lies in the ability of the company to adapt and correct its course.
One interesting point that Cliff raises relates to the challenges associated with an overabundance of autonomy. This can create a situation akin to herding cats, causing the company to spread its resources too thin and dissolving its cohesion. On the flip side, rigorous alignment can lead to a lack of space for innovation and creativity.
Many organizations toggle between these two extremes, leading to expensive restructuring and transformational shifts. The question of autonomy and alignment is best addressed by a careful evaluation of both aspects and a thorough discussion regarding the computations of moving too far in either direction.
Recognizing High Leverage Points
In the course of his work, Hazell pays keen attention to high leverage points. These are areas that, once addressed, can lead to significant changes within the organization. He argues that the process of finding these points can be simplified by thinking of alignment and autonomy as conflicting points on a spectrum. By focusing on the positive and negative outcomes of both, a company can have a healthier conversation regarding the balance and prevent any abrupt changes that could disrupt the organization's stability.
Promoting Habit Creation
In recent years, Hazell has cultivated a keen interest in the concept of habits. He stresses that behaviors within a system largely depend on the system itself and recommends introducing appropriate types of frictions to guide behaviors in a desired direction. This could involve removing barriers to innovation or introducing elements that keep the company on its desired path.
Focusing on catalyzing habits rather than procedures can accelerate the process of growth. Additionally, it allows the company to learn from its mistakes in a more systemic way that encourages constructive growth. This, in conjunction with the ability to recognize high leverage points, plays a pivotal role in steering a company towards its goal.
Navigating Various Organizational Stages
The organizational stage that a company is in profoundly affects the dynamics at play. As Hazell explains, the guiding principles used by a new startup with an intentional culture will differ greatly from those employed by a scale-up that has an established, though possibly unintentional, culture.
Understanding these distinctions helps in developing a tailored approach to addressing issues specific to each stage. For instance, a scale-up would focus more on meeting demand effectively, while a new startup would spend more time figuring out what works. As such, the stage an organization is at becomes a determining factor for the nature of the problems to be solved and the solutions to be implemented.
Cliff Hazell's insights underline the importance of learning from mistakes in professional environments and how these lessons shape professional habits. By considering occupational preferences, examining company culture dynamics, striving for a balance between autonomy and alignment, promoting the creation of habits, and understanding various organizational stages, companies can facilitate growth and continuously develop towards their goals.
Automated Transcript (May Contain Mistakes)
Mark Graban: Well, hi, everybody. Welcome back to My favorite mistake. I'm Mark Graban. We're joined today by Cliff Hazell. Cliff has made a career of breaking down the obstacles that stand in the way of great work.
Mark Graban: He's often challenging the status quo in his quest to develop the right culture and systems for the creation of excellent companies and products. After a tour of addresses across South Africa, cliff moved to Stockholm, where he led a team of coaches at Spotify for four years. And Cliff now helps scale ups, as they're called, remove their growth pains, enabling them to create focus, find leverage, and build habits. And additionally, not the highest point on your resume, Cliff, but he was a guest of mine on a different podcast series I do called Lean Whiskey episode 19. So, Cliff, it's good to talk to you again.
Mark Graban: Thank you for joining us here on My Favorite Mistake.
Cliff Hazell: Indeed. It's great to be back. Thanks for having me.
Mark Graban: You probably don't chalk that up as a huge mistake doing the lean Whiskey podcast with me, though. That was fun.
Cliff Hazell: We didn't drink enough whiskey for me to consider it a mistake, perhaps. So, yeah, we might have to do better next time.
Mark Graban: Does whiskey lead to mistakes? Undoubtedly, yes.
Cliff Hazell: Yes. I would suspect.
Mark Graban: Are we are drinking water now, even though it is evening in Stockholm from where cliff is joining us here. Middle of the day too early for that. So I will stick with I'm not hiding anything in my coffee mug other than water.
Cliff Hazell: And this is water, not vodka or anything.
Mark Graban: Well well established.
Cliff Hazell: Good.
Mark Graban: Good to so, with all of that, there's a lot we can talk about from the work you do and your different experiences, Cliff, but we'll dive right in as we normally do here. The different things you've done in your career. What would you say is your favorite mistake?
Cliff Hazell: My favorite mistake, so I gave this quite a lot of thought because I've listened to a few episodes in the past, and a lot of people have these really great mistakes, and I wanted to have something that I thought was interesting. So the story that I have is one about my own personal kind of learning journey. I have a very direct style most of the time in my work. And if you want sort of the short version of the story, I would say my Mistake is about starting to doubt that as a result of a series of events that happened and basically pulling back from using that strength. I later learned some tools that helped me to figure out a little bit of where it can be helpful and where it can be problematic.
Cliff Hazell: But I set a lot of people on fire and caused some fairly dramatic things in this particular situation by perhaps using it in a misguided way or too aggressive of an approach at the time.
Mark Graban: Wow. I appreciate you sharing that and kind of summarizing, maybe we can dig into some examples or however you want to tell it of maybe first times or kind of typical way where that direct style served you well or worked well with others. And then you talk about that sequence of events where did that strength become a weakness, as they sometimes say.
Cliff Hazell: So I think the thing is, the mistake for me is one of these things of starting to doubt myself in that situation. And so the scenario where I would often use this would be you imagine a situation, a bunch of work colleagues going out for lunch and there's a lot of discussion, should we go there? Should we go here? Should we go this other place? You end up spending almost 30 minutes discussing where to go and then you have no time for the actual lunch.
Cliff Hazell: So usually what I would do in that situation is to say I want to go here. What do you think? And most people would be like, yeah, sure. Or maybe one person would be, Well, I'm vegetarian, and be like, okay, cool, well, they've got this thing on the menu or we can go this other place. But just kind of pushing the group towards a decision.
Cliff Hazell: The particular situation that I had in mind where this started to become a problem. I'd been working with one of the teams that I worked with at Spotify and it was funny because I was listening to the episode you did with Kevin Goldsmith as well and hear some really interesting there's some overlap between some of the teams that we were talking about there. But the situation was I was relatively new at the company, trying to prove myself and kind of in the early stages of working with the organization. I was working with a group of folks who had been quite effective as a team, but there was this sort of pattern of quite often getting stuck in kind of circular debates. And in one particular situation there was a quite in depth discussion where I lost my cool and ended up swearing at a number of the folks in the context of a meeting.
Cliff Hazell: The context was basically a discussion around recruitment and the conversation was basically going, well, we need more headcount and we need to be able to hire in the future. And I was like, Dudes, I hear this, but we have 15 open headcount right now. You've managed to fill three in the last twelve weeks. How about we go and effing hire a bunch of people before we have this conversation about where do we get more headcount and so on. The senior lead of the area turned to me and was like, well dude, that's a great point, but there's also no need to kill us with it.
Cliff Hazell: And that was fairly brutal feedback to me at that particular point in time. And I felt that certainly with a number of members of the team who I'd been building trust with up until that point. I'd burnt a lot of bridges. They were quite frustrated that I was kind of sort of bashing them and attacking them in front of their boss who was the VP who was in the room. And yeah, there was a fair amount of fallout as a result of the slightly abridged version of the story that I've told you in the last few seconds.
Mark Graban: Sometimes we don't get that feedback right. People don't like the way you're behaving, but they don't say anything in the moment or after the fact. It's kind of a cliche or it's easy to throw around. Talking feedback is a gift. What did you do then in the face of that feedback?
Mark Graban: Either kind of in the moment or afterwards in terms of relationship repair, if that was needed?
Cliff Hazell: I'll be honest, I mean, it knocked my confidence for probably a good few months. It was sort of a full stop at the end of a series of events that had occurred and I was quite frustrated. I had luckily had a coach who I'd been working with at the time who was guiding me through some of this and talking to me about some of the challenges and kind of unpacking what maybe was the challenge in here. But yeah, definitely felt pretty knocked by it led to me withdrawing and probably not leaning into a number of things that would have been far more effective for me to be involved in because I felt like, oh, well, clearly my style is not working and there is a problem here. I'm obviously the problem and so I need to go and figure out how to fix myself.
Cliff Hazell: And yeah, as you say, feedback is a gift, but sometimes not all gifts are wanted and it certainly doesn't make it hurt any less in those situations.
Mark Graban: One other question about the feedback do you think was the issue the cursing or even without cursing, was it a matter of tone, even that bothered them?
Cliff Hazell: I think it was partly the fact that my role was supposed to be a coach and I was expressing strong opinions in this context. The actual cursing, I think, maybe was a bit harsh for the specific context, but maybe it's not like people were sensitive to swearing. I think a lot of it was just that case of like, for me, I was getting frustrated and it didn't necessarily create kind of the improvement that I was looking for in that situation. Certainly didn't in my area. It maybe lit a fire under one or two people who were like, actually, yeah, why the hell are we still talking about this?
Cliff Hazell: We've been going around in circles about this hiring question instead of actually hiring some people, we're discussing when are we going to get more headcount? I had some interesting revelations about why they were behaving that way in sort of my learning that came from it over the coming weeks and months. But, yeah, it caused a number of side conversations and derailed that team for a good few weeks while there was conversation about a few of those activities. Yeah.
Mark Graban: Well, Cliff, I think you said fairly clearly the mistake wasn't even just how you had behaved there, but the mistake was doubting yourself too much. I was just curious if you could reflect on some of the thought process of you talk about this decision, as you put it, to work on yourself. Another decision or path could have been like, well, I should go find a different place where this style is welcomed or accepted or finding a better fit. Do you change yourself or do you change where you are? How much did you think through some of that?
Cliff Hazell: So I had considered that already. Part of the challenge was that preceding this, I had been working in another part of the company where I had clashed with somebody else in a similar manner. And my approach to that had been to leave that part of the company and move somewhere new. In retrospect, I do think that that was a good decision because that situation wasn't likely to pan out any differently. But there definitely was this kind of fear of like, this is my chance.
Cliff Hazell: If I don't fix this, I might actually get fired from my dream job. And that was kind of the fear. So it was like, I need to find a way to somehow make this work. And so, yeah, I think it's natural in those situations sometimes, especially when you get feedback from someone who you particularly value and look up to, to get harsh and critical feedback without necessarily some kind of clear insight on what you could do differently, that can be very tough and challenging. So it told me a lot about how I give feedback ironically as well from perhaps the I don't say their bad example necessarily, but just from how it made me feel, given how that feedback was delivered to me.
Mark Graban: Did that leader I mean, you talked about it sounded like going to others to get some counsel or advice. Did that executive who had, I don't know, scolded you in that meeting? Did they follow up with you for kind of a little bit more of a debrief or discussion or do you think was their point made? I'm just curious, your relationship with that person?
Cliff Hazell: I wouldn't say I have much of a relationship with them now. I don't have any beef with them or anything.
Mark Graban: But, I mean, then at the time, did they with you?
Cliff Hazell: There was a follow up conversation that ironically made it worse. They doubled down on the criticism and kind of rubbed my nose in it further, which I think is perhaps partly what didn't help. But, yeah, I mean, that's sort of a side on thing. And I guess the piece of it that I took away from it was that I probably needed to figure out something about how I was going to approach these situations better because I couldn't be derailed by something like this constantly. You can't be effective if you're doubting yourself constantly.
Cliff Hazell: I don't think there's obviously a balance. Overconfidence can be problematic as well. But underconfidence, I think, leads to not actually taking any initiative and not getting on with many of the things because that's certainly how I felt in that moment. Yeah.
Mark Graban: I'm curious then, the two pieces of this question of how much do you moderate directness or the way the directness is expressed versus finding moderation around self confidence or kind of recovering with your self confidence? I mean, in the years past that point and even to where you are today in your work and your career, how would you say that's progressed in terms of I think as you just said, maybe balance or moderation?
Cliff Hazell: There were two particular insights that came together that really helped me with that. The first was a conversation with someone who had been coaching me on some of these situations and I was expressing my frustration about this particular interaction. And this coach got up and he drew on the wall a picture of a sailboat and he asked me and he just said so that problem that you were describing, could you describe to me if that problem was a cannonball and it hit the ship, where would it hit the ship? And I kind of looked at him, was like, what do you mean? And he's like, Just draw for me where would it hit the ship?
Cliff Hazell: And I realized that actually a lot of the problems and specifically the one that we were talking about, which was this recruitment scenario that I had lost my cool over, it certainly wasn't hitting the ship in sort of the main deck of the ship and going to sink the ship. Right. And what I realized in this and I've actually used this as a technique many times myself when I work with folks who are facing similar sort of challenges, it taught me, firstly just to kind of look at these situations and say, well, what actually is the impact of this thing? Is this something that I need to deal with? Is it something that is a major issue?
Cliff Hazell: Would there be a problem if we take a few hits or not? And that really helped me in terms of trying to sort of assess and prepare myself for the situation so that I could sort of measure my reaction and respond appropriately. Because I think often I was getting sort of a level of energy and frustration that was coming out perhaps that was not really appropriate for the situation or for the particular context. And so that could be something or that is something that was super helpful for me. I mentioned that there was a second one, which was a conversation I think you actually know joanna Rothman.
Cliff Hazell: I'd had a conversation, actually.
Mark Graban: Not really.
Cliff Hazell: No, not okay. We may have to fix that then. Okay.
Mark Graban: I trust God. Yeah.
Cliff Hazell: I was having a conversation with her, actually, and she was talking to me about a very similar situation that I was dealing with at a slightly different it was a little bit earlier in my career, but that insight reflected and came back to me at this particular point. She was saying that one of the things that she tries to do when she's communicating and working with people is obviously she has a goal of some kind of change she's trying to make. I think that's usually the thing that we want. And the idea was that if you're trying to communicate with people, you want them to really hear it. And so the reflection for her was to try to think or for me at least, was to try to think about what are the other people looking for in this situation and how can I help them achieve that?
Cliff Hazell: And so what I realized was in reflecting on this as a result of the conversation about the sailboat, was that most of the time those leads were actually thinking much longer term. I was thinking about a very short term tactical thing of like, we're talking about this now, but long term we may need a lot more headcount that we don't have. And so what that helped me to kind of realize is that maybe I should take into account a little bit of what they were doing and meet them where they are, and maybe I could ask some slightly different questions to guide them. So things that I came up with in that situation were something along the lines of when would be a good time to ask for more headcount? And maybe things like what might help us convince the people around who decide how the headcount is allocated, what would we need to do in order to do that?
Cliff Hazell: And I think in those sort of situations, what's really helpful is that it made me realize that it's not necessarily that I was using the skill. Like, it wasn't the skill that was the problem. It wasn't my style or approach. It was much more the context in which I used it. And I found this hugely helpful in terms of, as I said already, this thing of assessing and preparing myself for the situation, responding appropriately, but also to be able to teach others who've been through these similar situations.
Cliff Hazell: Because I definitely don't think I'm alone in this. I think a lot of people have gotten frustrated, lost their cool in certain situations and gone just flip a table kind of thing. Like this is ridiculous. Why are we still talking about those kind of things? And yeah, tools can certainly be helpful to find a way through those kind of things.
Mark Graban: Yeah, I'm smiling. Not because I've literally flipped a table, but there are times where I've kind of flipped out about something. And yeah, I think you made really good points around the coaching and the reflection of trying to think of, like, well, to paraphrase back, how serious is the situation? Or some people might say, pick your battles, or maybe make sure the response is commensurate with the situation. That's something I've tried to reflect on personally.
Mark Graban: I'll tell you, just without telling the whole story. But one mistake I made and I was on Zoom with somebody, it was a one on one situation, and there was something that upset me, and I thought I was pausing to take a breath, but you can imagine the body language was me looking away. And I think pardon me, fit. So I think my deep breath sounded like it was a huff. It was not a calming deep breath, or at least to that other person.
Mark Graban: So I had failed in my attempt to pause. If I had been off Zoom, if I could have held the phone away for a second, kind of a different situation. So, anyway, I share that just back in the spirit of some of my own journey in terms of regulating reaction to things, I certainly have a way to go still on that.
Cliff Hazell: Yeah, I think as the title of your book, The Mistakes That Make US, I regularly reflect back on this particular situation. I've actually written a couple of blog posts about aspects of it, and specifically, the sailboat metaphor is one that I would say there's probably very few weeks that go by where I don't think about a situation that I'm getting about something, and it's like, okay, but where is it going to hit the boat? Yeah. And usually it's not nearly as serious as I think it is. It's just that in the you know.
Mark Graban: That'S that's a powerful and helpful analogy or image to keep in your mind about the sailboats. That's definitely a good takeaway. You had mentioned Cliff, you had mentioned Kevin. You're the third former Spotify person who I've interviewed, and people kind of in my you and I have met and talked a number of times, but within sort of my network of people, the former Spotify folks are doing interesting things. I appreciate them.
Mark Graban: Not just Kevin Goldsmith, ward Villamot. Previously on Here I can put links to their episodes in the show notes, but I was going to ask you for your perspective, Cliff, from your experiences, thinking back and characterizing at Spotify, the culture of learning from mistakes, what stands out to you as you think back about that time?
Cliff Hazell: I think it's interesting because obviously there's different experiences in the moment where maybe you're sitting right close to a problem and going, like, why are we doing this thing? Again, making a mistake? There's also the benefit, and especially listening to Kevin talking about it. We worked in the same area for a period of time, and that's how we met originally and hearing him talk about some of those things, realizing there actually was a lot more learning than maybe it may have felt in the day to day. And I think that's part of what is actually quite fascinating about it is that I now also have the benefit of having been outside of the company for a while.
Cliff Hazell: I work with other companies, I work with my own kind of business and different challenges that I'm facing in that kind of work environment and realizing just how hard it is actually to learn on a very consistent basis. And so the story that Kevin told, without kind of going into too much detail, just of that like, hey, we made a bunch of mistakes and then we realized why and then we went and did something about it. There's a lot of companies that I've worked with and seen where there's just this thing of like, well, we just chipped the thing and we didn't even bother to check what happened. And that kind of an approach which.
Mark Graban: Yet alone, not wanting to admit the mistake, not even wanting to check and see.
Cliff Hazell: Right? Yeah. And if there is something generally all of the data gets presented often as like, we have to justify or explain what's going well. And I've worked a lot with companies that have loads and loads of metrics. And one of the challenges I find with that is that you can always find one number that looks good.
Cliff Hazell: If your bag of tricks is huge, you can pull out whatever works today and go, look, this thing is going up. It's like, yeah, but we all know that the business is trying to perform better in the aggregate and that's clearly not yet happening, so we can tell ourselves that story, but it's obviously important. Your question about the culture at Spotify? I look back on that experience as a profoundly positive experience over the course of my life. I think there's very few people who get to see a company that is actually living and breathing and doing this stuff in person, especially in and I don't sort of mean to be critical of the agile industry as a whole, but a lot of folks are talking about things in an aspirational sense rather than from what they've actually seen.
Cliff Hazell: And one of the advantages that I think the folks who've spent time at Spotify is they can draw an experience of like, hey, we actually did these things. We didn't just read it in a book or hear a story or an idea about it. When you actually knuckle down and build a collaborative system across a few hundred people, that does go in one direction for a few weeks and then go, actually, that's totally the wrong decision, let's go in the other direction. That's a totally different experience to sort of the idea of everybody talks about iteration and incrementalism, but very few do it on the frequency and the cadence that the company was doing. And so I think it's quite fascinating.
Mark Graban: Yeah, well, and it's fascinating to where people want to come and visit a company like Spotify. And you had an interesting LinkedIn post encourage people to go find and connect with Cliff on LinkedIn. He's making real good use of that platform and sharing in different formats. And one of those posts was four reflections on your time at Spotify and one that stood out in particular was your advice or your caution about going and visiting perfection. And I've seen where people want to go visit Toyota because they think they're visiting perfection or some particular health system that's doing great work with lean and improvement.
Mark Graban: Tell us more about sort of the caution there. And I think you had an interesting recommendation in that post of what we should do otherwise instead of trying to go visit perfection.
Cliff Hazell: Yeah, so I think there's a number of things that are interesting and it's obviously the case that no company is totally perfect. I lost count, as I said in the post, of how many people through an interview process were going. You asked them, well, why do you want to work here? And they're like, well, I want to see what perfection looks like and obviously it's not the case. Spotify had a totally different set of challenges and some new things that are totally different.
Cliff Hazell: What I like to suggest to people is to think about the types of problems that you enjoy working on. Some people like very early stage, sort of super messy, like complicated in that sort of a sense type of problems. Other people want something that is much more I don't mean to sound like it's sort of simple and hard problems because that's not the point. But there's a different set of problems that exist in a larger scaled organization. It's going to be smaller incremental kind of optimizations rather than bigger radical about faces and turns.
Cliff Hazell: If you want some rules and structure or if you don't like any rules and structure, there's no right and wrong, there's just different preferences. And so I think a lot of it is to go and look at the problems that you want to deal with. And if you're bored of solving the first tier of getting a startup off the ground, probably don't go work at a startup. But if you hate having to do anything in a system with any kind of rules or structure, probably a more corporate and scaled company is not going to be suited to you. So I think it's worth considering that and trying to match.
Cliff Hazell: I talked to a lot of people who ask me this thing of like well, if I can't change my company, what should I do? I say, well, there's a number of things that you can do differently in sort of the approach to change. But the final option is also if you can't change the company. Maybe you should change companies and take that time to reflect and go, what kind of stuff do I enjoy doing? Not just what am I good at?
Cliff Hazell: I'm good at accounting. It drains me. So I want to work on things that energize me as well as something that I'm good at. So find that intersection and go and do those things. I think that's where we can have the most meaningful impact if we have the luxury to choose.
Cliff Hazell: Yeah.
Mark Graban: One of the other reflections of those four you mentioned rules and structure. And I think this is a fascinating point because people in healthcare have a lot of concerns about this. And maybe it's just human concerns in a workplace around how to find the balance between autonomy and alignment. Tell us a little bit more about that. It seems like we could be making a mistake at one extreme or the other.
Cliff Hazell: Yeah, so I think one of the things that I found interesting so, I mean, when I joined Spotify, the company was about 700 people, and when I left four and a half years later, it was about 5000. That's quite a big change. And that's, most importantly, it's a very rapid change. So the company that I joined was not the same company that I left. It was vastly different over that time.
Cliff Hazell: One of the things that was interesting with the autonomy aspect was that there was an enormous amount of freedom in the early days. But one of the challenges that a lot of folks, especially in the agile space, talk about is like, we don't have enough autonomy. And that's probably true for most of the environments that they've worked in. The flip side is that if you have a complete overabundance of autonomy and a lack of alignment, what can be challenging is you're trying to essentially herd a bunch of cats in one direction. And if you've ever tried to herd even a single cat, you know how complicated that is?
Cliff Hazell: Put two or three more in the mix and it's kind of tricky. And so I think what there is, is that there's an element of kind of trying to create some kind of aligning purpose, direction, motivation, this kind of thing to say, yeah, we're trying to go this way. In the lean world. I've heard of this thing of kind of doing multivariate experiments or multi set product development, that kind of thing. There's a difference between intentionally trying three different strategies and then picking the one that wins and doing that by accident, by mistake, or just unwittingly.
Cliff Hazell: And there were definitely situations where we had that. Three teams trying to build an analytics tool to solve the same problem probably doesn't make a lot of sense. I think every company will have an element of this, but that, for me, is one of the downsides of kind of balancing the alignment autonomy. I don't know that there's a perfect balance, but. I definitely think it's something interesting that not a lot of people have been on the other end of that where they say almost whoa, too much autonomy, not enough alignment, which was my experience in the early days.
Mark Graban: Yeah, I think either can be problematic and it's situational. There are situations where people in healthcare, generally speaking, value their autonomy, but in a lot of cases they've had no choice but to be autonomous. The organization wasn't really actively trying to create alignment. And then if you start trying to have the pendulum swing back where too much autonomy can lead to variation in how care is provided, which can lead to bad outcomes if not harm to a patient. So to have that adult conversation around, I realize you value your autonomy.
Mark Graban: We're not trying to take it all away. I think then the fear of people thinking what's going to swing too far the other direction, maybe just being mindful of that never ending challenge or that pendulum will probably just continue swinging. And I don't know if this is true from a physics perspective, I'm trying making it sound like a perpetual motion machine, but it's not easy to find where that should land.
Cliff Hazell: I think what's interesting is that when you start to bring together, if we simplify it down to two different perspectives, if you say there's one that's arguing for alignment and one that's arguing for autonomy, it's obviously more complicated than that. But if you sort of plotted them as conflicting, there's both positive and negative of alignment and there's both positive and negative autonomy. And so when we can have a healthy conversation about the positives and negatives of both aspects of that, we can have a much healthier conversation about where is the balance for right now and what would it look like if we went too far in one direction or too far in the other direction? So we don't end up over? Correcting.
Cliff Hazell: And I see a lot of orgs doing this is that we're centralizing everything because the problem is decentralization and then two years later they're going the other way. And so there's this back and forth, very expensive, restructure, massive transformation kind of an approach. Whereas if you say in these contexts or in these situations or even just in a broad sense for the company, we're going this way too far, let's pull back a little bit. Not this kind of handbrake turn sort of approach that we often do. I think that helps a lot.
Mark Graban: Yeah, that figurative handbrake turn can be dangerous if not executed properly.
Cliff Hazell: Yeah, it ends up in a sort of a strange situation often. And yeah, a lot of accidents happen in that.
Mark Graban: So you know, as you've done other things post spotify, helping other organizations and coaching them, what are some of your thoughts on trying to either transfer experiences or do so in a way that's helping others with their circumstances? Creating an environment where people are more able to learn from mistakes, to admit them, to respond constructively and grow. Do you have some thoughts on how to coach people through that?
Cliff Hazell: Yeah, something that I've been quite interested in lately is the concept of habits. And looking at this through the lens of from an organizational perspective, if you think about things from a systems thinking perspective, we sort of assume that the behavior of the system is a product to some extent, or people's behavior within a system is a product of the system. And so if you look at it through that lens and you say, okay, well, let's say we see certain things happening that we consider to be positive, we want more of those, we could try to reduce the friction around creating those behaviors. So if you've read the book Atomic Habits by James Clear, a fantastic book, he uses this lovely metaphor of if you want to read your book more often when you make your bed in the morning, put the book on the pillow, the likelihood that you read it when you go to bed increases. Right.
Cliff Hazell: If you're trying to eat less biscuits, lock them in a box, keep them at the back of the cupboard, hide the key in another room. That amount of friction doesn't necessarily mean you will never ever eat biscuits. But you go from this many biscuits to that many biscuits just by a little bit of a friction change. And so I like to look at it from this perspective of like, if we want to be more innovative, how could we remove the barriers to innovation? If we want more alignment, how could we introduce the appropriate types of friction to stop us going off track and to keep us on the path that we're trying to go on?
Cliff Hazell: And so using these things to actually shift the behaviors. So instead of looking exclusively just at the outcomes at the end of the cycle, let's talk about would people start more things? Would there be more ideas bubbling up from the organization? Let's say if we're trying to be innovative, what would that look like? How can we catalyze those habits rather than just looking at it sort of at a process, procedure and policy kind of level?
Cliff Hazell: Because I think if we want to be better in the future, we have to kind of act our way to that future. And yeah, that's been a big piece of what I've been looking at recently.
Mark Graban: Yeah, because a lot of this is situational, depending on the starting point, the situation, what are you walking into? Is it a very new startup that is trying to be intentional about culture? Or is it and maybe tell listeners who don't know the term scale up a company that's further along and some culture is there, whether they were intentional about it or not.
Cliff Hazell: I think of it as kind of a slightly later stage startup. So you're scaling you've probably found some kind of product market fit, you've at least got some sort of revenue. You know, that the idea works to an extent and the question is how to meet that demand effectively. And so it's less of a figure out what works and more do this thing at a larger scale. Which was exactly the point that I joined Spotify and vast majority of the clients that I've been working with are in that same situation.
Cliff Hazell: There's not kind of a question of does this thing sell? Are people wanting to buy it? It's more how do we get it out to enough people, launching new markets, acquiring things that plug into it, that kind of thing? Yeah, I think what's interesting in this, and we didn't yet touch on some of the sort of stuff around flight levels, but a big part of what this is, is about trying to figure out the appropriate layer within the organization. And I use the word cautiously, maybe I use the word level instead because it's not actually hierarchical levels.
Cliff Hazell: The point is to say if we're working in the team, we can fix problems that relate to the team. But if you're trying to address sort of the strategic alignment of a company as a whole, you probably don't fix that by working inside every single team. You might do that by setting clearer objectives at the company level or maybe minimizing the quantity of different objectives because people don't tend to keep more than five or ten things in their brain at a time. And so if we can make it, this is the current five big initiatives that we're focusing on. Suddenly you create clarity within the organization and with the appropriate flight level of understanding within that organization, you can move things in a much healthier direction without necessarily having to try to change the entire organization.
Cliff Hazell: As I said before, I like to try to find the points of high leverage. And for me, flight levels is really an approach to finding those kind of things and saying, where do we look at which level in the organization to make changes? Rather than just let's go and do a wholesale transformation where we teach everybody 200,000 person company. It takes too long and it often doesn't work, in my experience.
Mark Graban: It sounds like in a way an inverse of the sailboat question of instead of where's the weak point or what's the threat to the weak point. This is looking more at what's our constraint, what, as you call it, that high leverage point that really would drive the biggest impact from even going back to older dustier, quote unquote, lean manufacturing. There's kind of a process, often called strategy deployment that really tries to help focus, as you had said. Well, in a different LinkedIn post there we probably won't talk about at length here of not making everything a top priority. How many times have we seen that?
Mark Graban: I think of a healthcare system, 300 top initiatives. And how many of them get done well, not many, because it's like, why didn't number one get done? Well because of number two. Why didn't two get done? Because we're focused on number five, which also didn't get because of focus on number one.
Cliff Hazell: I like the connection that you're drawing with the sailboat because I think at some level what I was doing is I was making this conversation about the recruitment issue the most important thing, and quite frankly, it wasn't. So I think there is a lot of value in helping organizations to be able to make those decisions, both on a personal level. The big part of the challenge, I find, is that I can make that choice for me personally. Chances are if the two of us are trying to work together on something without something to guide us, though, the odds that we make different choices about what is the most important thing is quite high. And if you scale that out to even the 700 people that Spotify had when I started, it's already going to be unlikely that most people are going to pick the same thing.
Cliff Hazell: And so if we can try to create these things that focus people and say, yeah, actually this is the biggest constraint, the biggest bottleneck, the biggest factor that will help us be successful. Let's make sure that it's not the only thing that we do, but that we at least don't let the third thing or the fifth thing underneath that block the first one. So let's put as much energy to streamline and accelerate number one before we put effort down the line. So we're not, as you said, bumping into each other and going, well, we didn't do one because we were doing two, because we were doing three, because we're doing four. That's the thing.
Cliff Hazell: We just need to help companies. Just need to I catch myself whenever I say just but if we can get out of our own way internally and actually rather compete in the market or with kind of the broader industry rather than just being this department competes with that one and this project competes with that one yeah. We can make a much better situation.
Mark Graban: Yeah. Well, again, we've been joined by Cliff Hazel, and you can learn more about him. We'll put links in the show notes. Cliffhazel.com, what are different ways that people can find you and work with you in different you you mentioned flight Levels. It might be a mistake or something's not updated.
Mark Graban: You have a couple of different affiliations.
Cliff Hazell: Yes. So I teach flight levels. I was the co founder of the flight levels academy with Klaus Leopold and Catherine Dietzer. I'm no longer directly involved in the organization as kind of a founding member, but I'm still involved in content creation and I spend a lot of time teaching and so on. I found basically that I enjoy the hands on work with folks directly, as opposed to kind of the company building aspect of it, if that makes sense.
Cliff Hazell: Yeah. So I'm doing a bunch of stuff with flight levels. I'm very active on LinkedIn. I'm trying to kind of get as much of the things that I've experienced out into the world and I think give it away. But I think I've learned a lot of things and people seem to resonate with that.
Cliff Hazell: And I find myself often answering questions in a way that it resonates with others. And so I thought, well, let's try this out. And so I've been, for the last six months very active on LinkedIn, and I think a lot of folks are enjoying it. So I would love to connect with other people. I love hearing their experiences, not just with the stuff that I'm talking about, but also what have they learned along the journey.
Cliff Hazell: People are adding a lot of ideas into the mix and saying, hey, we tried this thing. What about in that context? What have you seen? And it's really quite a lot of fun. So if you want to reach me, LinkedIn is the best place.
Cliff Hazell: As you just said, google my name and you will see me there. I'm very happy to connect or grab a follow and come jump in and we'll learn some cool things together.
Mark Graban: Well, it's a great way to look at it. I love yeah, learning as you're helping and coaching others. So I will encourage everyone to go connect with Cliff. I'll put links in the show notes to LinkedIn website and other things Cliff is up to. So this has been a lot of fun.
Mark Graban: Two different discussions, two different podcast series. Like I said at the beginning, one without whiskey, and this was still fun with water, and that sounds terrible. That was a mistake. Like, I needed Whiskey to have a good conversation with you that first time. That's not true.
Cliff Hazell: Well, I mean, the first time we met, we did actually meet over Whiskey in person before we even did the podcast. So I guess a continuation of that. I hope in the future we get an opportunity to have another Whiskey again and have some more conversation. But I'll take any conversation I can have with you, with or without whiskey. So that's all good.
Mark Graban: Well, this was fun. So, yeah, Cliff was in Austin when we did that. If you're back near there or if I find myself in Stockholm, I'll definitely reach out. That would be great. But thank you for being here.
Mark Graban: Thank you for sharing your story and your really, really appreciate it.
Cliff Hazell: Cliff, it's been a pleasure. Thanks for having me.