Building Employee Trust Through Subversion Analysis and Ideation Workshops

From last time…in the next post, we’ll talk more about what we tried on our team:

We began “42projects” as an experiment to stimulate innovation by empowering employees to contribute in more meaningful ways. The overall goal was to liberate the tremendous talent and motivation on the team by exploring the relationship between people, culture and innovation.  The effort continues, constantly calling for attention in the midst of the “day job.” So often, the “people stuff” gets lost in the tactical operations – and it’s usually the most important component of our work. As we continue to explore ways to change the way we manage, we wrap our experiments, big or small, under the banner of 42projects (see also, Douglas Adams) and hope that we can influence real change.

Going back a few years, our early exploration led us to an increased awareness of organizational trust as a key to unlocking potential and high levels of job satisfaction. Our working premise was that leadership can and should work to improve trust throughout the organization, and that increased trust levels will increase Organizational Citizenship Behaviors (OCBs), which in turn will lead to increased levels of innovation and employee happiness.

In a report from University of British Columbia, economists found that trust in management is the most valued determinant of job satisfaction. They state that a small increase in trust of management is like getting a 36 percent pay increase. Conversely, the researchers found that if that same amount of trust is lost, the decline in employee job satisfaction is like taking a 36 percent pay cut.

After further exposure to the importance of organizational trust, a “42Trust” project was started to learn more about the topic of trust and experiment with ways to improve it within an organization like Microsoft.

In 2008, 42Trust began as part of the 42projects initiative to focus on trust and identify trust-building behaviors that could be encouraged within the organization. The first step was to brainstorm a list of organizational trust factors. The resulting list of trust factors were then grouped into more general trust-building behaviors and, via a pairwise comparison Trust Game, these behaviors were prioritized by employees.

While the list of prioritized trust-building behaviors was interesting, it was not clear how they could actively drive trust behavior changes. The team did try using a wiki-based “Trust Playbook” to help share information, and that was helpful in some cases. However, the overall sense was that the information was useful, but not very actionable.

Subvert to Revert

In experimenting with ways to make these trust-building behaviors more actionable, we turned to the concepts of “The Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ),” and the Subversion Analysis technique in particular.

The basic premise behind TRIZ is that systematic and inventive problem solving is possible because “somebody someplace has already solved this problem (or one very similar to it). Creativity is now finding that solution and adapting it to a particular problem.”

Since Genrich Altshuller originated the concept of TRIZ in the 1940s, TRIZ has evolved to encompass many tools and techniques for systematically solving problems. One TRIZ technique in particular, Subversion Analysis (Figure 1 below), seemed to have application in making trust-building behaviors more actionable.

Figure 1 – Subversion Analysis Framework – Case Study

Subversion Analysis uses the tactic of subverting the desirable outcome and making it the goal of the inventive problem solving technique. Unlike traditional brainstorming, which focuses on random idea generation, Subversion Analysis establishes a target goal and then focuses on inventing actions to reliably achieve that goal. The subversion is that the target goal is the opposite of want you want to happen. Out of identifying the subversive actions comes the opportunity to devise improvements that can be used to eliminate or mitigate those actions. This results in an improvement of the desirable goal, a reduced opportunity for the undesirable goal to occur or both.

To share some personal experience, I found, for example, that I use trust-building language far more in group conversations, particularly when I don’t know all the participants, than I do in a one-on-one conversation with someone I know well. Upon reflection, this makes perfect sense, but is not something I would have noticed without going through the subversion analysis exercise.

Our belief continues to be that if – by identifying and raising awareness – we can increase the likelihood and frequency with which people exhibit trust-building behaviors and reduce the exhibition of trust-eroding behaviors, organizational trust will grow over time.

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