Trust & adjust

Drawing of a multi-band EQ (audio equalizer)
This image by Chris Stone is licensed under CC by 4.0

Chris, no matter how successful you’ve been at crafting process at another company, what you accomplished has never been done before with this collection of people.

- A wise colleague

For the purposes of this article, I want to focus on interpersonal communication. How we work together.

What is “Trust and Adjust”?

It’s a little mantra that came to me in the first days of 2022 when I was catching up with a friend and describing what I’d arrived at for my management style. It’s rooted in a simple approach. For someone to learn and grow they need to be offered clear responsibility paired with an agreement to accountability. Combined, these lead to alignment. Before moving on, here’s how I define those terms in the context of this discussion.

  • Responsibility is being able to arrive at a shared understanding of who is going to do what.
    (Note: I didn’t say that everyone must agree.)
  • Accountability is an act of making a clearly stated written or verbal commitment that specifies when you expect to deliver on the what and that you will raise a hand for help if you get stuck. We do this in order to better understand the reality of the proposed outcome, to discover what additional elements might factor into that assessment shifting as you aim to align and to provide a safe space for giving and receiving feedback. Being accountable requires that you are open to discussing the results of the commitment with an open mind to feedback and reflection upon the assumptions that went into the commitment.

Without clear accountability, that uncertainty will likely contribute negative friction to the desired goal and obscure the understanding of why you were or were not successful. If you don’t know who did what and why it did or did not work, it’s going to be very difficult to identify and extract learning and development insights from the scenario.

Accountability is certainly the more challenging arena because it’s where the “itchy” conversations are likely to happen. After some pointed failures on my part, I’ve learned to employ this direct practice to make those conversations easier for all involved.

Accountability leads to growth. Protect it.

Lead with trust.

When starting to work with new teammates, lead with trust. Bring a confident point of view to the conversation that you can 100% trust the skills and motivations of your teammate(s). To make things simple, just say it. “I trust you to see this through and for you to raise a hand if you need help.” Operating from a place of immediate trust helps to create the space where one party is clearly responsible for agreeing to an act and the other party agrees to not intervene unless absolutely necessary.

Granting trust in each other is an investment in your working relationship. I’m not suggesting that you engage in blind trust. That is irresponsible. I’m suggesting that you are clear about the task at hand and that there is a specific person responsible for driving it to resolution. So, grant them the space to give it a go and for everyone to learn. You can get to an observed pattern after a few cycles and debriefs, which relies on the second part of the mantra once you genuinely entrust responsibility.

Both parties must agree to adjust.

Yes, operating from a place of immediate trust helps to create the space where one person is clearly responsible for agreeing to an act and the other person agrees to not intervene. When things don’t go 100% smoothly, feedback is necessary. In order to productively and safely engage in feedback, bot parties must be willing to quickly adjust based on what you learn from success and failure.

Systems should be seen and designed to serve people.

To this point, I’ve focused on interpersonal relationships. To bring this to a close, I want to note that the “trust and adjust” approach is equally applicable to designing systems and processes that allow people to figure out how to work together, taking the best parts of the system and turfing the rest.

You might more commonly know this as “experimentation” or “piloting” behavior change. As a leader, you can apply the “trust and adjust” POV to anything you put in motion — just tell your teams what friction you’re aiming to address, why it matters to the business, how you arrived at that conclusion, and share your hypothesis about a solution. Then put execution in the hands of your team. Make it clear that it’s an experiment and you expect new information to arise that helps everyone adjust in a beneficial manner. Your team will trust that you have done your research and that you’re not forcing a solution upon the team(s). Rather, you’re putting an informed hypothesis in motion and letting the teams act it out to gather evidence and observe the outcome. From there you all adjust. Simple.

Trust and Adjust.

There you have it. Operate from a place of trust and accountability and let me know what you find! Share your thoughts anytime. Thank you for reading.

Thank you to my kind friends that are always willing to give me the feedback that I need to hear as I figure out how to get these thoughts down. In this case, David Sherwin, Adam Fry-Pierce, and Daniel Cowen. 🙏

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A mandolin-playing dad & husband. I’ve been at the digital product & design game since 2003. This is my story log of the journey.

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Chris Stone

Chris Stone

A mandolin-playing dad & husband. I’ve been at the digital product & design game since 2003. This is my story log of the journey.

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