#ConnectionPGH Talk: “The Loophole: The Key To Doing Your Best Work As A Team” by Nadim Matta

#ConnectionPGH Talk: “The Loophole: The Key To Doing Your Best Work As A Team” by Nadim Matta

About The Speaker:

Nadim is President and founding Board member of the Rapid Results Institute (RRI). He has led teams that introduced RRI’s 100-Day Challenges in Nicaragua, Eritrea, Kenya, Madagascar, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Sudan, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe.

More recently, Nadim’s work focused on veteran, chronic and youth homelessness in the US, and on the integration of social and health care in the UK. The work involved using 100-Day Challenges to nudge community stakeholders towards much higher levels of collaboration, innovation, and execution. Most recently, he helped introduce RRI’s 100-Day Challenges in the UAE, as part of a Government Accelerator program sponsored by the Prime Minister’s Office.

About Connection 2017:

The Connection 2017 experience took place in Pittsburgh, PA. To learn more about the event, click here.

About The Talk:

Above all, change starts with you. In this Connection 2017 talk, Nadim highlights the importance of our mindset, and how we can re-work systems in our workplace and beyond for maximum impact in a short span of time.


So listen, how many of you in the past couple of months have either said, heard, or read this phrase: “we need to bring about system change.” Most everybody. Let’s see, “we need to create impact at scale.” All right. “We need a new way of thinking.” One more, I hope: “we need to be adaptive and agile.”

Yes, yes, great stuff. We’ve all drank the Kool-Aid. The question is how, right?

So, I’m gonna do another kind of quick pop quiz around this organizational chart. I want you to just think for a second, which year, which period is this from? So show of hands, those who think it’s from the 1930s? Not many, not many. Well, a few in the back. 1950s? We’ve got a few more hands. 1980s? And other few. The 2000s? Yeah, we have a few. It’s actually all over the map it seems, right? In fact, it’s hard to tell. This could be last year’s organization chart, it could be a hundred years ago. In fact, this is from 1920s. It’s the railway, New York railway, but the reality is, it’s just really difficult to say when it was from. So the underlying thought here is that the way we describe how we relate to one another in organizations hasn’t changed in over a hundred years. And yet, we are being asked, and we are actually leaping, into changing everything about the way we work, the way we relate to each other, and so on.

So, we’re about bringing system change out there, when systems in here are actually frozen in time. You know, we’re trying to unleash people to do their best work, when maybe we are prisoners ourselves. So something doesn’t add up in this equation. So what do we do? Do we give up? Of course not, right? And I think some of you might be now expecting me to say, “and the stuff that we do, the 100 day challenge thing, is the third way, is the answer.” And full disclosure, I used to believe that, but I don’t anymore.

Don’t get me wrong, the teams we work with on these hundred day challenges do incredible things and generate incredible results. I’ll talk about them in a second, but they do that because of a loophole in the system. We’re not really transforming the system, we’re just wetting the appetite, you know, I’ll tell you what I mean by that.

But first, I know some of you have heard, and you know, in response to the question of what a “100 day challenges” is, some of you even have been a part of this, but just to level the playing field, I’ll give you the cliff notes about the hundred day challenges.

So this kind of the gig that we do is we bring bring teams from different organizations in a community and challenge them to set unreasonably audacious goals that they want to achieve in a hundred days, and provide some support, and more often than not, they actually surprise themselves, as you heard, and actually achieve them.

In fact, the reason Megan invited me to speak today is we have been applying this way of working recently in to the youth youth homelessness space with some pretty interesting results, and I’ll share a couple of them with you. So this is from the three communities who we worked with. First, in LA, awesome. Cleveland, at the end of the hundred days, four hundred thirteen young people had exited homelessness. The next set of communities on the west coast in Washington state, six hundred and fourteen young people were housed in a hundred days.

In fact, we have some people from one of the communities, King County, Seattle, here. Is Ayesha here, by any chance? Ayesha, can you stand up?


So Ayesha was the team leader of the hundred-day team in Seattle, and I was going to ask you to give her a round of applause, but you already did, so there we go. And for her, and for her team, and for King County, I think – by the way, they so far hold the record: 330 in a hundred days that exited homelessness, and again, full disclosure, Seattle, not an easy place to work with, but they came through. All right, so thank you for that, and just so you know, we’ve been doing this work actually in a variety of sectors in 18 countries around the world, and we see similar results coming out of these hundred-day challenges when we do this work. I’m digressing though because I want to come back to the system and the loophole, and I want to do that by telling you a story that I’ve read about a psychiatrist and a broken marriage.

So, this man comes to a psychiatrist and said, “listen, I am just fed up with my marriage, with my wife. She is inattentive, always absorbed in her work, you know, I’ve tried everything possible, it’s just like this there’s nothing there anymore. And you know, I’ve talked to her, I’ve reasoned with her. It’s been years, nothing has changed, I’m really fed up and resentful, in fact, I’m really angry and I want to get back at her, I want to hurt her. I’m gonna ask for a divorce.” So the psychiatrist said, “wait a minute, that may be the worst thing you do, if you want to hurt her. From what you’re describing, if you ask for divorce, she’s gonna be a happy woman. So here’s another strategy: why don’t you pretend for the next two months that you’re the best thing that has happened to her, and you know, be the person of her dreams for two months.” So when she comes home, you ask her about her work, you take over the kitchen duty, you bring her tea in the evening, coffee in the morning, just no arguments, no questions, just be there, and once she begins to warm up to the relationship, then you take your moment and drop the bombshell that you wanna divorce her.

I think you know where I’m heading with this. First month, he went out, he did that, came back to the psychiatrist, and says, “I think I kind of have her where I want her, she’s there, she’s there, you know.” And so the psychiatrist said, “terrific, drop the bombshell, tell are you gonna divorce her.” He says, “why would I do that, I mean like, I’m feeling it, I’m acting this, I’ve been acting, but it’s beginning to be real for me, and something has changed here. I’m gonna give this marriage another chance.”

So by the way, I read this in a book by the son of Stephen Covey, so I didn’t make this up, even though it feels like an unlikely story. I switched the genders on this, just so you know, and the question is, “what does this have to do with 100-day challenges, and with systemic change?”

So let me unpack the story a bit for you. So the first thing is, this story illustrates something I think that’s pretty profound in how our mind works, which is captured by a sentence or phrase: it is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.” Okay, and I didn’t come up with this, by the way, and a lot of people claim it, so I just put “anonymous” there because I don’t know who came up with this. The way this translates for us is that in change efforts, typically what happens is the following: you start with planning, analysis, and work on awareness building, mindset change, in the hope that behavior change follows system change and better results. And in the hundred-day challenge work, we quickly flip this on its head.

We start with the results, commitment to results, that induces your change, and mindset change emerges as part of the process. And mindset change is the basis for system change. So, in hundred-day challenge work, two days into the effort, the team commits. Day three, they start to act, no planning, no ten-year plans, right?

I mean, all of this is good, but we just jump into it, and they start to pivot (just like our data guru told us earlier.) that’s part of the process. So that’s one bit I want to mention. The question is also what do they commit to? And again, we want to go back to our to a wonderful psychiatrist. So what did he ask the man to commit to? He didn’t ask the man to commit to actually loving his wife. The man wasn’t ready for that, right? He actually asked him to commit to getting her to a place where he can hurt her, so the motivation was hurt, right? So I don’t want to suggest that you carry this analogy to the youth homelessness work, but stick with me for a minute. Here, what we what we try and do with this work is start with where the community is ready. And more often than not, we find that, you know, that translates into some form of actually having an impact on the housing situation of youth who are homeless.

So just to share with you an example from one of the five communities we’re working with now, Hennepin County. That’s the goal they set 50 days ago, safely and stably house one hundred fifty youth age 16-24, 75 percent of which will be employed, and they defined what that means.

So, that’s the framing of most of these at this stage in youth homelessness. It doesn’t have to be that way, but we find that rather than asking for commitment for housing first, and rapid rehousing, and hugging each other, and so on, we say let’s commit to something we all can wrap our heads around and feel good about. And typically, it takes a form like this. Now, bear in mind, the number, as important as it is, is not the point. The number is what happens when people strive for these numbers, and the relationships that emerge out of that, and the shifts that happen.

A couple of other quick things I want to mention. In relation to this story, one is a concept that some of you might have heard about in a TED talk by Amy Cuddy. It’s called “Fake It ‘Till You Make It.” If you haven’t seen it it’s worth seeing, thirty four million views, right? And how this translates for us in the hundred-day challenges is, this involves also leaders. These teams typically are frontline teams, but we work with leaders first, and one of things we ask them to do is to step back and really leave the space open for these teams to experiment to make mistakes, to take agency, and you know, some leaders, for them, it comes naturally.

For some others, it doesn’t, and we tell them, “listen, don’t try to rationalize this, just go with the flow, trust us, something good will happen.” And the habits begin to develop over the hundred days in some cases. So it’s really “fake it till you believe it,” okay?

And the other bit is the hundred days. A lot of people ask us about the hundred days, “why a hundred days?” Think of the psychiatrist: if he had asked this man, “go and pretend for a year,” chances are, he wouldn’t have started this whole journey. So if we’re looking at changing behavior and actions, let’s keep it small, and contained, and time-bound, because we avoid, in doing that, what I like to think of as the “tyranny of the forum,” when we’re talking about changing behaviors.

I can go on, talk about other stuff, I notice I’m short on time, so I’m gonna skip the details, but I want to leave you with a thought, or plant a seed, which is: when you see in this work (and hopefully you will see more of this), these types of results, that’s typically what emerges in hundred day challenge work, but keep in mind the bigger picture, that this is really about a shift in relationships, shift in mindset, shift in the power dynamics in the systems that this work takes place.

And that is really what is enduring about this. And this was driven home to me by team leader of one of the hundred day teams that we worked with on veteran homelessness, who was presenting at an event with a number of other team leaders from other cities after the hundred days.

They looked at what they achieved and talked about the learnings, and so she started by talking about her results. And then she showed this picture, here, and it reads: “it’s a form of Japanese art, which is to repair with gold.” It’s the art of repairing pottery with gold or silver lacquer and understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken. And she said the reason I’m showing this is because this tells the story of our team.

When I started the hundred days, we’re sitting at the table, and I wouldn’t look this other team member in the eye, (she was from the VA, this team leader, the other one’s from probably Housing Authority) because we had so much baggage and history.

And that was actually the norm across many of the team members. She led the team in Denver, actually, and she said this was the start of the journey. A week ago, I was meeting with my team to prepare for this effort, or for this event that I’m coming to, and I told my team that I might not be able to make it because my babysitter canceled on me. She had a one-year-old baby. I said, “so maybe, one of you can go in my place.” The same woman who didn’t look her in the eye said, “you know what? You go, I’ll take a day off from work and keep and watch over your daughter.”

That’s healing of the relationship, great and exciting stuff, but I just want to go back to the loophole, which is: have we changed a system here? And my view is not really, not quite. We’re dipping our toes in the water, why? Because the same hundred day team members, after the hundred days, go back into the systems they came from. Organizations where they feel sometimes oppressed by the system that they’re in. Even within the organizations sometimes the hierarchies make it difficult, et cetera, so you end up with the results being sustained, but the experience becomes a distant memory of how work actually could be and should be, you know, fun, engaged, empowered, collaborative, purposeful, transparent, all of the things we aspire for, that unfortunately aren’t the way work is.

So, maybe we are faking it, now, living in this fantasy that of the permanence of the changes we see during the hundred days, that really one day organizations like the ones working on youth homelessness, for example, in the community come together spontaneously, and you know, transcend all the power differentials between them. Under the service provider, and within them, leader, manager, frontline person, that these leaders show up to meetings with their team, and with their peers, and park their ego at the door. That people who are actually close to the work, and being a part of the work, are given truly a feeling, not given, feel the agency themselves, and have the space to do what needs to be done, rather than always being constrained. That when we show up, and commit to the common purpose, that we actually put our agendas aside. It’s a fantasy, so maybe we are faking it, in the hope that one day we will make it. Thank you.