Pravir Malik is the definition of a Subject Matter Expert. When it comes to complex adaptive systems, he not only wrote the book – he wrote six (among the 21 total publications you can find on his Amazon author page). He has spent a decades-long career consulting for some of the largest companies in the world, helping organizations of all types encourage innovation and mimic successfully resilient natural systems to realize potential at all levels. Today, he’s the Director of Organizational Sciences at Zappos, where he builds tools and structures that support the organization’s famously collaborative culture of Holacracy. We were fortunate to chat with Dr. Malik and ask him about his perspectives on enabling talent, empathetic technology, and the unique culture at Zappos.
Part philosopher, part mathematician, Dr. Malik’s work is built upon the principle that all complex systems, from rainforests to corporations, depend upon each individual component operating and thriving in their unique capacity. He speaks of fractals, a mathematically-backed theoretical framework he developed to describe the potential of innovation that exists at every level of existence. Like a maple seed having the capacity to become a towering tree, the roadmap to greatness lies within everything — if we can only recognize and follow it.
What holds back the average organization from fostering that potential? “Adherence to a strict hierarchy of bureaucracy,” opines Malik. “I think that that gets in the way of freer thinking and being able to make changes quickly.” Silos and internal politics are all too commonplace in many businesses, and though the challenges they bring can feel omnipresent, Malik sees another path forward.
Dr. Malik is an earnest advocate for creating authentic and empathetic environments in the workplace to drive healthier and more innovative practices. Much of the work he does at Zappos concerns providing employees with tools that they can use to process unfavorable emotional states like frustration and anger. “If one sees anger, then nothing else can surface,” he says. “The options are very limited. So essentially that software tool will help people process what might be going on to them if it’s negative, and get into a deeper space. And what we’re trying to do — create environments where we can generally operate from deeper space, where you’re designed to operate in the best way that you possibly can. And that’s essentially what you’re trying to emulate in the Zappos environment.”
Zappos has built not only an incomparable online retail brand, they’ve built a corporate cultural brand as well. They offer consults and training to showcase how a more connected culture can lead to better client experiences and better business outcomes. And what is their secret sauce, from Malik’s perspective? “I began to consult for Zappos, and I was so fascinated by the culture that I became an employee about a year and a half ago. I consulted with them for about three and a half years prior, and one of the things that I can genuinely say about Zappos is that it truly is as close to a family environment as you can get, in a positive sense of the word.”
A lot of companies talk about being a “family,” but these claims can ring hollow to employees who endure day-to-day bureaucracy and traditional hierarchies. Zappos has eliminated conventional reporting structures in favor of holacracy and self-management, which they credit with an increase in innovation, employee engagement, and creative problem-solving.
Not every organization may be ready to embrace such a dramatic structural shift, but there are still ways to encourage collaboration and growth within a typical corporate structure. That’s why Malik stresses the importance of transparency to keep team members informed about the evolving composition of the workforce and the players that they can connect with to move the business forward. “Then you know it’s not just lip service,” he says. “You know you can actually go in and make things different and make change happen.”
Zappos has home-grown software tools that team members can use to navigate the organization and visualize the “circles” that form and change as projects organize and evolve. This allows each individual to navigate the organization and understand the arrangements of players that drive the business forward. Malik suggests that organizations of all stripes can and should experiment with systems and tools enable transparency and connections. The idea is to encourage each individual to flourish, meaning they can not only operate at their ideal capacity themselves but can also strategically link up with other players to multiply their magic. Not only is there a strong business incentive to foster innovation and organic collaborative practices, but Malik has also observed a growing need for human connections in the workplace.
“People are really changing. I think they want something deeper, or even to experience collectivity and community in a more powerful way. All the standards that we grew up with, and even things that were taught in business school are rapidly becoming imbalanced. And there’s something different that’s emerging everywhere that wants to emerge everywhere. And there’s a degree that we can create environments that allow that to happen to kind of naturally emerge.”
Interested in advancing the potential of your entire organization? Let’s talk about how Sift can enable better connections, collaboration, and culture at your organization.