I first heard of Pluralsight when I saw a tweet from Techcrunch on the massive $135 Million Funding it received in August 2014. I thought to myself, “what is pluralsight?”. So I looked them up. It turns out they are a local Utah company – go figure; small world since I live in Utah now. I checked out their site to see what they were about and one thing immediately stuck out to me: there was a blog post written by Keith Sparkjoy entitled “Why Deming?”. I thought, hmmm, there’s something you don’t see everyday. So, I asked him to be part of my Leadership Insights Series.
So today, I’m pleased to present Keith Sparkjoy, a co-founder of Pluralsight and has held roles of CTO and is currently the Culture Coach. In this interview you’ll learn:
- Why Deming? And, what can we still learn from him?
- What’s wrong with modern management and what Deming has to teach us.
- What the Red Bead game can teach us about working in a system we’re entrusted to improve, but have very little control in actually improving.
Enjoy the article and check out Pluralsight also. You can learn more about Keith after the interview. Enjoy.
Hi Keith, and thanks for taking the time to speak to my audience. Could you please introduce yourself and your work to my readers?
I’m a cofounder of pluralsight.com, where our vision is to democratize professional training. We offer high quality video training at a very affordable price (subscriptions start at $29/mo). We currently offer training for software developers, IT professionals, and creatives.
What’s your role at Pluralsight and how does Deming’s influence play into it?
For many years I was the CTO, leading the development of our content delivery system, which included the public-facing as well as internal websites and other tools. I gave my teams a great deal of autonomy and eventually they became self-supportive and I was able to focus more on company culture, which is something I learned a great deal about while working as CTO. I discovered Deming while reading Dan Pink’s book Drive, as well as Erik Reis’s book The Lean Startup. Both seemed to be influenced by a guy named W. Edwards Deming, so I picked up a copy of Deming’s epic book Out of the Crisis. I also purchased a set of DVDs from the Deming Institute and watched the entire “Deming Library” over a weekend. It was a very emotional moment for me as I realized that we could maintain a healthy culture at Pluralsight even as we experienced tremendous growth (we grew from 20 to 200 employees in the span of 18 months). Prior to this I was starting to see sickness creep in and I was honestly worried that we were going to become just another typical “grown up” company that Scott Adams regularly mocks in his comic strip Dilbert.
Suppose you had a chance to have dinner with Dr. Deming. What advice would he have for you and for Pluralsight? What do you think he’d say about modern management?
I think he would ask our senior leadership team to spend more time where the work happens. See for yourself what is going on and try to break out of the bubble that naturally forms around you. Our leadership team has made great strides towards adopting Dr. Deming’s lens as a guide for cultivating a healthy company culture, but this is one place we still need to do a better job, I think.
Deming had a lot of complaints about modern management techniques. He pointed out how a lot of seemingly “obvious” management techniques have unintended consequences that lead to a distorted view of the company. It’s hard enough to run a profitable company in a depressed economy when you know the real numbers. But when you have a distorted view you’re relying purely on luck. Deming helps us unhook from practices that introduce distortion (annual merit reviews, stack ranking, commissions, employee of the month programs, incentive pay, and so on).
Have you conducted the Red Bead Experiment at your company? If so, what were some of the ah-ha moments?
Yes, we’ve actually done this twice. Once with top leadership and once with the entire company. It’s especially effective to put top leadership to work as willing workers so they can feel what it’s like to work in a broken system that they are not trusted to improve
PDCA is the accepted improvement loop at Toyota. But, Deming encourages PDSA. What’s your feeling? Does it matter? Why or why not?
I’ve not studied the differences between the two loops, but my understanding is that Deming wanted us to “study” the results, not merely “check” them.
In addition to being strongly influenced by Deming, as the Culture Coach do you also encourage improvement by teaching PDCA? If so, how is that being received?
We call it PDSA, following Deming’s lead. Yes we do encourage teams to use the PDSA loop to improve our systems. It’s generally been received well when the intent of PDSA is understood by all on the team. It tends to remove a lot of fear because the entire team (including the leader) works together to come up with a theory and a way to test that theory. So if the test fails, nobody is worried about losing their job. The failure becomes a learning: we come up with a new theory and test again. By spinning that flywheel we are able to innovate and produce better results for our customers.
Not everyone understands PDSA. I recently heard about an employee who was afraid to share her idea for a PDSA with her leader. This is the type of thing that culture coaches can help with – rooting out sources of fear within the company and working with teams to drive it out.
Let’s discuss the concept of fear. Deming had a lot to say about fear. Is fear in the workplace still an issue for modern management? How do you address fear in the workplace?
Definitely it’s an issue. And one of the hardest things about it is that it’s often not discussed. Nobody wants to talk about what they are afraid of. This is one of the hardest jobs of management. They must develop a strong rapport with their teams so that team members are able to open up and talk about what they fear. It’s tough to work at your best in a creative endeavor like ours when you’re afraid all the time. But before any of this can happen, the traditional manager has to have a serious change of heart and learn that managing by fear isn’t an effective long term strategy. Managers must transform into leaders. Leadership is very different than management, as Deming points out.
Viewing the organization as a system was one of Dr. Deming’s main contributions. What are the negative consequences when we don’t? How have you addressed the natural tendency to silo? Is more meetings the answer?
When we fail to lead a company as a system, we tend to suboptimize (for example, by giving incentives to VPs for optimizing their individual departments, which causes all sorts of problems). When we start to see the company as a system we start to think about suppliers and customers at all levels. If we all want the system to function optimally, we start to break down walls between departments and encourage direct communication. More meetings isn’t necessarily the answer, but having meetings where the right people are there becomes critical. Instead of working to please your boss, why not work to please your customer? That could be someone in a different department.
Deming’s 14 points can be viewed as a framework for cultural transformation. Do you disagree with any of them? If so, which ones and why?
I think all of Deming’s 14 points are important, and I agree with all of them. They reinforce one another.
Back to the 14 points. Why is it so difficult for companies to adopt all of them?
Many of the points, if adopted in isolation, could fail spectacularly. For example, if you have a typical unhealthy western culture and you dropped incentive pay, you’ll likely lose some of your workforce if you don’t also adopt the other points and create a healthy culture where people are intrinsically motivated and love coming to work each day. Adopting Deming’s model of management is not a piecemeal thing – you have to drastically change the hearts and minds of management so they start to lead and start to develop trust within their teams. As Simon Sinek points out in his book Leaders Eat Last, the leader is the one who sacrifices first, and it’s often hard to convince managers that this is a solid long term strategy for success.
Pluralsight is a young company, with about 100 or so employees and is early in its cultural transformation. What advice would you have for others that are just beginning their journey in becoming less command and control and more in line with Deming’s teachings?
We’re over 200 employees and growing 😉
You’ve got to experiment with it to really get it. I remember the visceral sense of enthusiasm and ownership that my development team showed when I experimented with dropping command and control in favor of consensus-based decision making. When it’s their idea, they are going to own it, feel tremendous responsibility for it, and feel tremendous pride when they succeed. So much more than if they were simply implementing your idea – then they are more likely to want your job 😉
A couple weeks after the experiment with my development team, I shared my experience during a one-on-one with my leader, the CEO. That one-on-one was in the morning, and later that afternoon during a leadership team meeting, he tried the same thing on us. Suddenly instead of being the “decider” he wanted to hear what we thought, and he wanted us to vote on stuff. I remember feeling a huge weight lift off my chest during that meeting.
So I got a chance to experience leadership without command and control both as a leader myself and as a team member, all within one month. This forever changed my attitude.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with my audience?
I’ve learned over the last year that in so many things, focusing directly on what it is you want is not often the most effective long-term strategy.
You want to be happy? Focusing directly on your own happiness will often lead you into short-term strategies that will (ironically) make you less happy in the long term. There’s usually something else that’s more important to focus on in order to get what you want. Want to really be happy in the long term? Spend less time thinking about yourself and more time thinking about others. Give more. Love more. You’ll find a much more meaningful happiness that lasts by focusing on the right things.
You want a profitable company? Focusing directly on the numbers and incenting people to make them better may work in the short term, but you won’t get the big gains that you could get if you instead focused on creating a work environment where employees love to be.
Want happy employees? A pool table might give some immediate gratification, but changing the hearts and minds of managers and helping them become leaders, unhooking from command and control, removing demotivators like “employee of the month” would have a much better long term impact.
About Keith Sparkjoy
Keith is a cofounder and Culture Coach of Pluralsight, the leader in hardcore developer training. With Keith’s help, Pluralsight launched in 2004 with a small team of world-renowned software development authorities to provide professional training for developers throughout the world. The company launched a proprietary process whereby it publishes high-quality training videos through an unmatched online learning experience.
As Culture Coach, Keith is constantly challenging the leadership at Pluralsight to improve its culture. Leaning heavily on Deming’s teachings, we want to build a company where people find joy in their work and are intrinsically motivated to help us democratize professional tech training, making a great tech education available to anyone in the world who wants it, at an affordable price.
With a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of California, Irvine, Keith quickly migrated into the world of programming once graduating. After a few years in the industry, and after mastering a particularly daunting software technology called “COM”, Keith wanted to share his learnings and started teaching a course at the UCI extension. This quickly grew into a passion for research and teaching that led to Keith joining DevelopMentor for a 7 year stint of teaching and researching, where his focus was on security. During that time, Keith became the security columnist for MSJ and MSDN magazines, a column he wrote for 8 years. Keith was also a Microsoft MVP for many years.
In 2004, along with cofounders Aaron Skonnard and Fritz Onion, Keith helped form Pluralsight, where he’s refocused his efforts on software craftsmanship and quality. Keith helped build a team of incredibly capable craftsmen to build the next generation of online learning platform: pluralsight.com
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