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Trust may be difficult to define. Perhaps it’s true that we can only know it when we see it or that we only know it when it’s gone. Let’s look at some common ways to describe “trust.”

You may have heard “you can always trust a liar,” and it’s true - you can always trust a liar to lie. The downside is that you’re disincentivized to trust them to do much else. It is tempting to use “trust” to mean “I trust you to do what you’ve always done.” However, trusting people to be predictable is usually more a function of your ability to predict, rather than anything to do with their trustworthiness.

There’s a certain amount of truth to defining trust as “walk the walk and talk the talk,” but it’s far too easy to make that statement about your classifications and stereotypes. I attended Texas A&M, and “not walking the talk” was a phrase often applied to being a poor excuse for an Aggie. Fail to live up to someone else’s expectations, and they may brand you as a “two percenter.” You might have had all the values and passions of any other Aggie, but if you left a football game early, then you give other folks cause to assume you only give 2% of your heart to your collegiate identity.

Maybe we can define broken trust much more easily? Think back to a time someone broke your trust. Imagine yourself confronting that person. At some point you probably want to use the phrase, “I trusted you.” Now repeat that same conversation in your head using “I expected you to…” instead. Your expectations are the sort of thing you can’t even live up to, how could anyone else? When people don’t live up to them, it’s far too easy to pretend they’ve broken your trust instead of your unreasonable expectations.

These statements have less to do with trust and more to do with psychic ability, stereotypes, and unclear expectations. So instead, let’s look at trust as a value seen from a position of vulnerability. Let’s give someone something worth breaking.

I’ve been researching love for some time, and I’m pretty confident of one thing - love is fueled by an intense and unquenchable desire to believe the unbelievable.

In this context, trust is the willingness to believe even in the absence of direct evidence.

You might be wondering, “Isn’t that just faith?” Faith is the belief itself - the persistent artifact of loving trust. Trust means I’m willing to believe you’re better than either of us think and capable of more than you’ve done. Faith is the practice of living out that trust - basing my decisions and actions on that belief. It’s relying on you to be the person I believe you can be rather than what I expect you to be. Faith is when I walk your talk.

What does this definition of trust give us?

It provides a clear metric for assessing growth and health of a relationship. Because we can assess it, we can identify factors that correlate with various levels of trust. And because we can relate those factors to “trust,” we can describe ways to move from low-trust correlations to higher. In programming jargon, seeing “trust” as a willingness to believe allows us to assess qualities of trust, identify patterns and smells, and create refactorings.

How can we measure trust?

Imagine today is a regular day. You wake up at your average time, get ready in your normal way. You work on your daily tasks, eat regular meals, and follow your normal evening routine before slipping off to sleep at your regular bedtime. A day full of nothing special.

Tomorrow is exactly like today except for one task. In theory, it’s an easy task, but you’ve never done it before. You’ve done things a bit like it, but this is honestly pretty new.

Let’s say people trust you and they trust you to complete the task. The person who asked for it has reasonable and clear expectations. Folks who have dependencies on your work are ready to work with you to ensure compatibility. The people whose work you depend on have clear documentation and are available to help. You have time free from interruptions to work on the task. And you’ve got a good game plan on what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it, and what “done” and “good enough” should look like in this case.

Let’s say instead people didn’t trust you. Your boss gave you a handful of keywords and a deadline leaving you only half the time you need. The people depending on you are under their deadlines, so they’ve got a hacky temporary solution your work is expected to drop-in replace. The people you depend on have all moved on to other projects and can’t be bothered. And you have to finish the new task while you fulfill all your other responsibilities.

There is some truth in “you know trust when you don’t have it.” We have names for those low-trust situations - friction, redundancy, politics, Tuesday. We have names for the high-trust example too - fantasy, mythology, television, motivational speakers.

We don’t believe in high-trust environments. We expect low-trust environments. Trust, in a sense, feels very untrustworthy.

But if that’s true, how are we supposed to measure it?

Outcome = Strategy x Tactics

You might have seen this formula before, perhaps with different words like “Results,” “Plan,” and “Execution.” The meaning is the same - if you want something done right, you have to commit to how you’re going do it and then follow through to the best of your ability.

But that’s a bit oversimplified. If you have a dozen people, then you have a dozen strategies and a dozen tactics - if you’re lucky. That too is a bit naive. If you have a dozen people, then each person has 11 other people all getting in the way of their plan and execution. In reality, you have the following equation:

Results = Strategy x Tactics / Organizational Friction

Here is how we are going to measure trust - it’s the absence of organizational friction. Trust is the work you don’t have to do and the decisions you don’t have to make because you are willing to believe others are doing that work and making those decisions to the best of their ability. Trust is the freedom to make mistakes and bestowing that freedom on others.

Trust is an organizational lubricant. It keeps the machinery of your company in healthy, working order and provides the slack and buffer for things to realign gently should they fall out of alignment.

Let’s be clear, a complete absence of organizational friction isn’t anarchy, but it’s also not ideal. Your car can’t drive without friction between your tires and the road. But your car will be much more performant if there’s as little friction as possible between your wheels and the hub.

Remove the right friction from the right places, and you’ll get a multiplier effect on your results.

Where should we focus on building trust?

The word “friction” here is no accident. When we say “outcome” what we mean is “cooperative movement.” We want the organization to move from where it is to where we want it to be. That may mean producing 15,000 widgets by the end of the month. It may mean reducing time-to-market from months to minutes. Whatever the goal, there is a need to assess four primary concerns at every level of the organization.

  1. Origin - Where are we?
  2. Strategy - Where are we going?
  3. Tactics - How will we get there?
  4. Outcome - How will we know we’ve arrived?

We are doing this at every level of the organization, which means, we’re doing that for ourselves as well. These questions map cleanly to the four capabilities of trust from The Speed of Trust -

  1. Integrity - Who am I?
  2. Intent - Why do I do what I do?
  3. Capabilities - What am I able to do?
  4. Results - What does what I do look like when I’m done?

We can also map these for questions to after-action language.

  1. Where did we start?
  2. How did we plan to achieve our goal?
  3. What did we do to achieve our goal?
  4. How close did we arrive at our intended goal?

And this is just the OODA loop slightly out of order.

  1. Orient - from where we are, which direction is our goal?
  2. Decide - from the possible paths to take, pick one
  3. Act - move down that path
  4. Observe - where are we now?

We have had this language in several differnt fields for a very long time. I’m not proposing something new or original. However, it still may not be obvious how this relates to removing organizational friction.

Pick a task to work through as an example - something that frustrates you. Currently, I commute between Dallas and Oklahoma City every week, so I’m going to pick driving through construction on I-35. I know where I am, that’s easy. I know where I’m going, that’s easy too. I know what it means to arrive at where I’m going. But how will I get there? Here there be dragons.

The people working on the highway don’t trust me. They’ve put up sizable walls between us. They are willing to inconvenience me for extended periods of time, making me wait without warning so that they can address their concerns. Then the next few weeks they won’t make any progress at all, leaving tons of equipment and material strewn about while I drive in long lines and narrow lanes over uneven roads.

What if everyone on I-45 was commuting between DFW and OKC for the same company? What if that company was the one doing the construction as well? Do you think there’d suddenly be an incentive for that company to change the situation? If it was your organization, would they do anything? If it was up to you, would you do something different?

When you start moving back to organizations, it’s not true that everything is easy aside from the tactics. It’s rare for everyone to agree on where we are. Goals are rarely decomposable; it is impossible to find your place in a grand strategy when you don’t understand where you fit in the grand tactics. And I’ve been an agile consultant long enough to know that no one agrees on the definition of done.

The point is that even in an ideal case where I understand my starting point, planned strategy, and expected outcome, there’s still plenty of room for friction on the tactics. So how much worse will things be if we can’t agree on anything? So how can we come to enough agreement to have a chance?

You can’t. Agreeing isn’t the point. Reducing organizational friction is the point. You don’t have to agree to trust. It doesn’t matter if you trust if you agree. The point of trust is to disagree and commit. The point of trust is to believe that even if we are wrong, we will still find a path that leads near our desired outcome. You will fail if you don’t lubricate the machine. You might succeed even when you shouldn’t if together everyone believes they will.

In a sense, creating trust is giving people something true to believe in, and then doing everything in your power to keep that belief grounded in truth.

The patterns of trust

Any time we set out on a journey together, we are asking many different people to buy into a vision of where we are going and what it will mean for us to get there. We are asking for belief.

Along the four aspects we have outlined earlier, we will inspire that belief in how we communicate, in how we behave, and in how we act. We will have then 12 patterns to follow, with one more core pattern that must be the root of how we communicate, behave and act.

There’s a lot of meat that I’m just glossing over below. If you’re interested, I’d strongly recommend picking up The Speed of Trust. The point of this blog was to address the parts of the book I didn’t agree with, but when it comes to the meaty bits, I’m all in.

  • Where are we? - Creating unity
    • Listen First - Make sure everyone can believe they have a voice
    • Confront Reality - Make sure everyone can believe that we can course-correct
    • Right Wrongs - Make sure everyone can believe they will not be intentionally hurt
  • Where are we going? - Creating vision
    • Talk Straight - Push an agenda of simplicity
    • Create Transparency - Push an agenda of openness
    • Clarify Expectations - Push an agenda of clarity
  • How will we get there? - Creating ecosystems
    • Practice Accountability - Demand feedback
    • Show Loyalty - Demand presence
    • Demonstrate Respect - Demand importance
  • How will we know we’re there? - Creating results
    • Keep Commitments - Alwyas deliver on your word
    • Get Better - Always deliver more with less
    • Deliver Results - Always deliver something
  • What should I do? - Creating belief
    • Extend Trust - Believe in others even in the absence of direct evidence

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