Leadership positions in acquisitions, operations, and real-world combat support. Most recently a Designated Ethics Counselor with the Air Force Office of General Counsel, advising and training to senior leadership on Executive Branch and Department ethics laws and regulations. Merit award winner as Acquisition, Ethics, and Fraud Counsel for DoD’s largest combat support agency. Passionate about shaping organizational ethical culture through values-based decision-making. CSU Fresno / Golden Gate University / UDC David A. Clarke School of Law.
Companies shouldn’t be doing digital transformation to people. Instead, they should be working with employees to reach goals. For emerging technologies, including AI, organizations can see tremendous success, according to Nancy Combs of The Cantellus Group. In this episode, Nancy talks about communicating clearly with employees and empowering them for change, improving digital literacy, encouraging and celebrating change, as well as fostering flexibility, adaptability, and a growth mindset.
[00:00:00] KRISTINA PODNAR, host: Change builds resilience, opens us up to new perspectives, and creates opportunities. We never saw it coming, but change can also be uncomfortable and disruptive to our organizations, especially in the area of rapid technological transformation.
[00:00:14] INTRO: Welcome to The Power of Digital Policy, a show that helps digital marketers, online communications directors, and others throughout the organization balance out risks and opportunities created by using digital channels. Here's your host, Kristina Podnar.
[00:00:33] KRISTINA: Welcome back, policy friends, to the Power of Digital Policy. In today's episode, as you may have guests, we will be talking about change. More specifically, we're going to be talking about change management and how we can help our people and our organization adapt to a culture of change that is necessary to harness new technologies with us. Today is a dear colleague, Nancy Combs. Nancy has held leadership positions in acquisition, operations, and real-world combat support. We like to call her the pilot. Most recently, Nancy was the designated ethics counselor with the Air force office of general counsel advising, and she provided training to senior leadership on the executive branch and department ethics, laws, and regulations. I am lucky enough to hang out with Nancy at the can tells group on a semi-regular basis. So welcome today, Nancy, to this new forum.
[00:01:22] NANCY COMBS, guest: Oh, thank you, Kristina. It is so good to be here today.
[00:01:26] KRISTINA: Honestly, Nancy, for a while, I've been wanting to interview you. So, you're making my wish come true. And as we were getting ready for today's conversation, I asked you about your role in artificial intelligence. And what does that look like from changing the way we live and work? What changes are you seeing out?
[00:01:45] NANCY: I think what's really fascinating to me about artificial intelligence is one, it's already here. And the more I learn about it, the more I realize that this is not a big, scary thing in the future, but it's something that we have with us today. With that mind, it's interesting to me how different organizations are approaching AI. And some of them are, seem to be fearful of it. Some of them are hiding until told to do something with it, with respect to regulation and oversight, and some seem to expect it to present answers to them without really thought involved in what the question is that they're asking. So, it's all over the place. And in some respects, I'm reminded of early leadership or management efforts that I've seen throughout my career. I think there's some analogy there between doing things like quality management or other organizational development efforts that have gone on. There's always that same group of people that are early adopters, very excited. There are people that are "I don't want to know anything about it", arms crossed. "I'm not going to do anything with this. You can't make me." And then there's the 80% that are always in the middle that are just looking for direction and leadership. And I think there's a lot of same aspects with AI and operationalizing AI and bringing it in how we're managing it, how we're using it, or how organizations are using it, both internally and as a product or service.
[00:03:39] KRISTINA: I've heard you say before that for AI to pay off organizations, absolutely must pair AI deployments with change management. What does that look like? Or what should people be thinking about even when they're, okay, AI change management, what does that mean? Where do I get started?
[00:03:54] NANCY: Well, my experiences that when change management is [00:04:00] effective, throughout an organization and it's not just thrown over to HR, if it's a human resources issue, or God forbid the attorneys, if it's a legal issue for ethics, always thrown over to the lawyers to handle, it's not a, it's not a program of one functional area. Good change management is baked in throughout an organization and learning how to do change. Management is encouraged and rewarded. You know when you get down to, organizations are a bunch of people, right? And people are only going to change on a behavioral science aspect. People will change behavior at a basic level for one of two reasons, they're either seeking pleasure or avoiding pain. Other than that, us humans are going to pretty much kind of stay within a stasis. So, if you're going to have change management, you've got two ways. It's a classic carrot and stick. You want to look at it that way, but for no organizations do it effectively, keeping people in line with the idea that there is a reward at the end of the day is going to be much more effective and much more efficient and much easier to get change done than if you're going at it from a or being driven to this. This is external. We have no choice in it or the pain, you know, the stick aspect of it.
[00:05:41] KRISTINA: You mentioned HR and you mentioned legal. I'm thinking to myself, whose job is it to either initiate or oversee change management when it comes to AI in an enterprise?
[00:05:54] NANCY: That's a really good question, because I think that's one of the things that organizations are, are struggling with. And if we look to organizations like the world economic forum, even the business round table that are trying to come up with principles and paradigms or frameworks on how to implement change, they don't have a single answer for, okay. That should rest with the C-suite executive in charge of change management. What I read, what I hear, what effective organizations are doing is, yeah, there's somebody who's in charge of it and you could put it in ops or you could put where you want to have it seated, but it has to be deployed horizontally and vertically to use the old terms. You've got to get everybody to realize that that using artificial intelligence, whether internally for business processes, where again, as product or service, it's something that everybody needs to understand and how it impacts their functional area.
[00:07:04] KRISTINA: So how do you best advise organizations to go about making sure that there's commitment and see through when it's a really hard thing, because everybody also has a day job? They have to keep the lights on.
[00:07:17] NANCY: That is so true. I mean, it, yes, collateral duty as other duties, as assigned, as we used to say in the military, you know, that is the classic way that that can happen. And I've been doing some reading into some other areas of human behavior, and I think there's some things that we could crosswalk and help do that. To help get away from the other duties as assigned mentality and getting it as a, oh, this makes me more productive, or this makes our organization better. One of the things is the area of growth mindset. Carol Dweck, out of Stanford has done a lot of pioneering research in this area of how you have fixed mindsets and growth mindsets and how a growth mindset is really how we improve and make change in a personal level. And so, you could apply that into an organization. How do you increase a growth mindset in your folks? That's going to take some effort. You know, I was told years ago, by somebody, I was interviewing an executive. We were looking at big industrial counterparts in non-defense industries to see how we could bring over some best practices into defense. And this was at a fortune 200 company, and I was interviewing the executive and he said, I know that 50% of my training budget is wasted. I just don't know which half. Always that resonated with me because we think let's get this training program in, let's bring this skill set in. Let's try to get our folks to think this way, and we're going to see it at the bottom line. It's darn hard to draw those linkages. It's really difficult to say that if I send Kristina to a class in growth mindset, we're going to see efficiencies in our production process, you just can't draw that string, but we could intuitive it and we can also see it in other ways. Maybe once we start putting people through a growth mindset class, we see, a reduction in absenteeism. Maybe we do see some bumps in our production. Maybe we do see some other manifestations of a positive work environment and we can infer that it's a result of investing in our folks, going to a growth mindset class. So, there's another area that really excites me about artificial intelligence and another area of study. And it's this study of appreciative inquiry. And so, it's AI for AI, if you will, but appreciative inquiry has some real interesting, it's a process of developing. What I say is the beautiful question. We ask the right questions or the questions that we ask or what result in our future. What is the question that we're asking? I laugh about our friends that are in there designing things. And just because you can put a camera in a thermostat doesn't mean you should. And that, it was a perfect opportunity for appreciative inquiry to be used because why, what's the purpose of doing this? What are concerns of doing this and drilling down into those appreciative inquiry aspects, you could come up with a more beautiful question, which could lead to a better understanding of how you're using artificial intelligence. So, growth mindset, appreciative inquiry, two things that you don't think about as necessarily being part of dealing with artificial intelligence, but I think this is the sort of opportunity keen organizations look for. As where do I bring in things that are working well elsewhere? And how can that help me?
[00:11:42] KRISTINA: So, I wonder Nancy, is there a prerequisite thing for organizations to have a certain type of culture already, because it strikes me. What you're talking about is really ensuring that the culture is inquisitive, that people, as they're doing their jobs and going through the motions are also thinking about opportunities that they have the space or the framework, if you will, to create and to innovate without making sure they're kind drive off a cliff, right?
[00:12:09] NANCY: I think you're spot on it's up to the executives and the senior leaders to create an environment of encouraging curiosity and being curious themselves and being humble, and not being afraid to be vulnerable. I know that sounds so squishy, but vulnerability will build trust. If I'm vulnerable with you and admitting that I don't know how this works. I don't, I don't know what the implications are for that application. I'm not sure. Then you will be more willing to come to me and share you're saying doubt and together, then we can try to come up with a definition of what it is that we're really focusing on. What is the discovery? What is the best of what we're doing right now? What might be from that. And I'm stealing from some steps involved in appreciative inquiring process there as I go through this answer. And, but if we ask those sorts of questions and do it in a safe environment and build it with one another and reinforce when somebody's vulnerable. Hey, Kristina, thank you for coming to me with that. Thank you for sharing your concerns, because that's going to make us better as an organization. One way that I've heard, suggested to do that is to take it out of the individual responsibility of, oh, I'm the C-suite executive in charge of this. And therefore, I must have all the answers and frame it around how do we bring people together and framing the question as how do we, that breaks down barriers that provides openness of bringing everyone together as a team. Look at highly functioning teams that are very mission driven, thinking of the Seals, as of, for instance, um, they, they are super vulnerable with one another when it comes time to develop and execute a mission, they, there are no boundaries or no fences between them I'm like, well, this is my lane versus your lane. They realize that to be effective in their high-risk operations and be successful not only effective, successful, and come back alive, they have to have open communication with one another, without fear of censorship or judgment. And so, when we look at those sorts of high functioning teams, that's what a good leader can do. And you know, leadership's done not by a label of where you sit in an organization, but it's done at every level. So whatever the position you might hold in an organization, you, you can affect this kind change and create that kind trust organization where you can have a growth mindset and get to a better decision.
[00:16:08] KRISTINA: But how would you suggest to our listeners, if they go from theory to operations, let's say that we have somebody who's in a director of marketing role. They're in charge of doing marketing. They report to CMO. They have folks on their team that they're trying to keep motivated. AI is all around us already. What can they do today?
[00:16:28] NANCY: There's two things that've on me right there. It's what can I do as an individual in an organization. I can study. I can be, I can develop my own curiosity. I can read. I can look at what other people are doing. I can look for best practices and I can try to adopt some of this stuff and see how I can make it work for me. Nobody shows up right out of the box, ready to affect change. You've you're going to try it. We learn from our mistakes. So one, what can somebody do read and try and apply something, change how you're looking at asking questions at work again, the appreciative inquiry thing, or approach something, but the approach of using appreciative inquiry, I think it really has some potential for helping somebody. Create a change culture. One of the things I think you're hinting at as well is upward mentoring. And if I'm not in the C-suite or I'm not on the board of directors, or I'm not in a titled leadership position, how can I help my bosses get there? Being engaged with them, helping them ask the right questions, asking questions of them, getting them to think beyond where they're seeing right now, trying to take a 30,000 foot view instead of where they might be right now, because they're just faced with the exigencies of day to. This is what we're responsible for. And going back again and again, you know, this is not a one and done, this is a constant dialogue. If I'm going to be in an organization that I'm excited about, that I'm invested in the mission and what we're doing and believe in what we're doing, we're going to talk about it over and over and over again, because that's how effective organizations that's how successful organizations do it. You can go out, read the case, studies on it. That is one of the significant characteristics of organizations that do well is they talk. Yeah, I got to be at the Airbnb headquarters a few years ago and fascinating work environment, completely different from anything I have ever personally been in. But it was amazing to just feel the sense of energy and the communication and the sense of fun that was happening. Of course, this was pre-Covid, everybody was there in place, but there was just a high degree of energy, and you tell that when you walk into an organization, if Hey, people are jazzed to be here, I'll share a story with you. Years ago, one of my first squadron commands, I came into the squadron, and I was going out and doing pickup and delivery driving with one of my troops. Now pick and delivery is not a necessarily intellectually challenging task. It's pretty much what it sounds like: you deliver a box to one location, and you pick up stuff and you take it to another location. You can imagine that it could be hard to keep people motivated doing that because it's, it's kind of isolating and you're not really doing anything but picking up boxes and delivering. So, I'm out there with this young airman, shortly after taking command and he's driving, driving around the base. And about that time, we're on the far side of the flight line. And about that time, a couple of F-15s took off in formation and, uh, they're so gorgeous and big flame coming out the back end and just beautiful aircraft. And we're holding short, watching these aircraft take off and he says, you know what, ma'am? I said, what's that airman? He says, I make those things fly. And I was like, oh my gosh, how do I replicate you? I mean, so this kid had his own internal motivation. He saw that his job of delivering boxes of supplies made those things flies. He got his own linkage to that. And I, I always just think, how do I make more of you? What do I do as your leader to create that environment? And that was upward mentoring on his part. And he didn't even realize it because he had just demonstrated to me that he enjoyed what he was doing. He was jazzed about it. And it was now uncommon upon me to make sure that I provided an environment in which he could thrive. What can we do? It's communication. It's relationship, asking the beautiful question.
[00:21:48] KRISTINA: Do you advise organizations to bring in folks such as yourself to jumpstart this initiative to jumpstart some kind of a change, or is it something that they can do on their own? How do they know?
[00:22:07] NANCY: Coaches can be great assets, whether it's for you personally, as a career coach, or whether it's for an organization to start to engender change or to get a program going. I think there is always value in bringing folks in who can be a third-party neutral, they can come in and help an organization develop that openness of communication, that safe space for vulnerability, for exchange of ideas, the developing some of the tools and techniques. If you've never done an appreciative inquiry exercise, it takes a little bit of effort to go through and it's iterative and recursive process. So if you can I recommend that people, organizations bring folks in, even if whatever the budget will allow for, even if it's only for a little workshop on a Saturday morning or something along that nature, just to get things started. And I think there's value in that. Absolutely.
[00:23:25] KRISTINA: Thanks for coming, hanging out with us today, talking to us about change in a very nonthreatening way. And so really appreciate your insights, sharing your experience and knowledge. And to everybody else who's tuned in today, thank you for being great policy advocates, and until next time be well.
[00:23:42] OUTRO: Thank you for joining the Power of Digital Policy; to sign up for our newsletter, get access to policy checklists, detailed information on policies, and other helpful resources, head over to the power of digital policy.com. If you get a moment, please leave a review on iTunes to help your digital colleagues find out about the podcast.