Business Transformation: How to Tame the Unknowns?

Join Atif Rafiq on CXOTalk episode 790 as he unveils insights from 'Decision Sprint' on mastering business transformation with upstream work, inclusive thinking, and a structured approach. Perfect for C-suite leaders and innovators.


Jun 02, 2023

Watch CXOTalk episode 790 for a discussion with Atif Rafiq, the author of 'Decision Sprint,' and former President of MGM Resorts International. 

Atif explains how to manage business transformation and innovation in the face of uncertainty. The book emphasizes the importance of "upstream work" - a structured initial phase that addresses unknowns in innovation projects - and outlines a three-step approach comprising Exploration, Alignment, and Decision-making. Rafiq’s methodology distinguishes itself by emphasizing purposefulness and inclusiveness.

The conversation includes these topics:

Atif Rafiq has blazed trails in Silicon Valley and the Fortune 500 for over 25 years. After rising through digital native companies like Amazon, Yahoo!, and AOL, Atif held C-suite roles at McDonald’s, Volvo, and MGM Resorts. He oversaw thousands of employees as a global P&L, transformation, and innovation leader.

Atif has built a large following as one of today’s top management thinkers. Over half a million people follow his ideas about management and leadership on LinkedIn, where he is a Top Voice, and his newsletter Re:wire has over 100,000 subscribers.

Atif is passionate about helping companies push boldly into the future.  He accomplishes this through Ritual, a software app revolutionizing how teams innovate and problem-solve, and through his work as keynote speaker, board member, and CEO advisor.


Michael Krigsman: Today on Episode #790 of CXOTalk, we're discussing business transformation and secrets of the unknown. Our guest is Atif Rafiq. He's the former president of MGM Resorts International, and he's had an extraordinary career.

Atif Rafiq: I really came up through digital media and tech companies. I've been part of startups as well as tech giants. I rose to GM level at Amazon. I ran a fairly sizeable business unit. 

In 2013, many industries began to see that technology would reshape how those industries work, and there began to be more technology-focused roles in more traditional companies outside tech. I then went on a ten-year run starting as a chief digital officer for McDonald's.

Over that ten-year period, I rose to the president level, in this case at a large global company called MGM Resorts. I've kind of been in pure Silicon Valley culture and also in the traditional culture of other large businesses.

About Atif Rafiq’s book, Decision Sprint

Michael Krigsman: Atif, you wrote this book. It's called Decision Sprint. Tell us about that.

Atif Rafiq: The soundbite is a lot of people are calling Decision Sprint atomic habits for innovation. The reason why they say that is because it is very focused on innovation. But what's different about it is looking at innovation and looking at the specific building blocks of how innovation works, what the pitfalls are and how to avoid them, so that you can get a higher hit rate on your innovation, so more quality, but also move faster with more velocity, which is something I think every company in any industry is looking for.

To be a little bit more specific, the book helps you make the leap from ideas to action by confronting the unknowns. I've really chosen to focus on what I believe is the hardest part of turning ideas into action, which is embracing the unknowns.

In the book, I introduce the notion of upstream work, which is where promising ideas face more questions than answers. That's in contrast to downstream, which is the execution part of an initiative. 

There's an upstream part that I feel hasn't really been elaborated on in enough detail, and so I focused on that. I walk through the hidden structure of upstream work and introduce the methods that any team can use to apply it to a specific thing that they're working on. 

Upstream work: Challenges of business transformation

Michael Krigsman: When you talk about upstream work, can you be a little bit more specific so that we have a clearer picture of what that actually is?

Atif Rafiq: The first thing you realize after having a bright idea is that there are more questions than answers. One typical response to that is essentially trying to build a plan and moving on to start to build something based on the things that are known inside the company. What do we know about this problem we're trying to solve? 

But what typically happens is that, along the way, you realize there are blind spots. There are unknowns that come up. And they are very disruptive to moving the idea forward because these blind spots make us have to basically go back to the start and start again from scratch.

When I talk about upstream work, I'm talking about the process of actually servicing all the important unknowns and knowns (at the beginning) and getting to the bottom of them in some structured way, so making the unknowns actionable. It could be as simple as developing a great question list organized by subject matter and giving the team space, a week or two to run an exploration, which is essentially a discovery process around the key questions and developing something like an FAQ. 

This is a very common practice at Amazon, for example, in every single initiative that they work on. On the basis of that high quality detective work, that's when they move on to alignment. They don't move on to—

They suspend judgement on what's the right course of action or strategic direction. They spend time on exploration and discovery. They do a really great job of it, and then they move on to alignment.

Then when people start nodding their heads because they're standing on a high quality understanding of the problem, they're ready to move on to execution. And so, there is a little bit of a sequence and a structure to how you go from the ambiguity of a great idea (however great it is) to being able to get a company to commit resources and be confident enough to move on to execution.

Reframing approaches to risk management

Michael Krigsman: How is this different from traditional approaches? I think anybody who is running a project of any type will look across the landscape and come up with some type of list of what we don't know or what the uncertainties are or the risks. How is this different from that? 

Atif Rafiq: I think it's really two main differences. The first is making innovation more purposeful, and the second is making it more inclusive but without being slow. Let me walk through each one.

A lot of times when we have a bright idea, we rush ahead to developing a plan to realize it and start building it. But instead, we might start with a problem statement and really getting a lot of clarity around the problem that we're trying to solve.

If you take an example in the world today – let's say you're Netflix and you have a problem with password sharing – if you define the problem in one way versus another, you're going to get a very different recommendation that the team puts on the table. If I say the problem for Netflix is to crack down on password sharing, that's very different than saying the problem is trying to find a balance between the needs of the user and the commercial needs of Netflix and trying to find the fairness within that space.

If we start out with the right problem statement, the team is going to produce very different work along the way. So, I think, when we look at innovation, it's not just having a bright idea and moving on to start building a prototype. We need to, for example, make it more purposeful by anchoring it in the right problem statement and then running our exploration against that problem statement. 

Complex business problems require inclusive thinking

Now that leads me to my second point around more inclusive because it's my belief that the kinds of problems we're solving in business today are complex, meaning you cannot solve them in one corner of a company. And so, when I talk about being inclusive, I mean really getting enough of the right brains of the company around the problem we're trying to solve.

This doesn't happen enough in business because we think innovation is the job of one corner of the company. But when we do that, what happens is that the idea moves forward a bit. But then it runs into roadblocks before of some missed items or some blind spots. Then the project experiences some fits and starts because people are not confident because they could poke holes. 

I'm providing a workflow and a methodology where you could be purposeful and more inclusive but not slow and bureaucratic. I think that's the sweet spot of innovation that we need in this era.

Three stages of strategic development: Exploration, alignment, decision-making

Michael Krigsman: Give us some examples of how this works in practice because I think the goal that you have or the goals, I should say, that you've set out, which is to be very clear, to be thoughtful and inclusive around where you're headed, again, everybody would kind of take that as motherhood and apple pie. What is the difference, and how do you address this challenge, because it is such a profound challenge for many organizations?

Atif Rafiq: Well, let's say you form the team around a strategic initiative here at the start. You don't have to be at the start, but let's say you are. 

What happens in companies? Well, teams spend weeks and months, and they go through a process of putting recommendations on the table, socializing those recommendations, and if those things look good, then they move on to decision-making where the company commits to the necessary actions.

Now this entire process takes weeks and months. What I'm suggesting is that we break it into three main stages. 

The first is exploration. Exploration is a concerted effort to surface the right considerations, especially the unknowns, and get to the bottom of them.

Now, when you do exploration, it's a very neutral process, so you're not leaning one way or the other, you know, "This idea is too crazy," "It's too small," "It's the right direction," "It's not the right direction." It's a more neutral exercise around surfacing the important considerations (especially the unknowns, but also the knowns), and developing enough of a high quality ground to then move on to the next phase, which is alignment. 

Alignment is about bringing together what's been explored to draw conclusions. Now, this is an important point because, in my book, I write about a mistake I made where I banned the word "alignment" in companies. Being in the C-suite managing thousands of people, that was a big decision.

The reason I banned it is because I was reacting to the tendency in companies to align before they explore. That led to very small thinking because if you don't explore, then you don't know if something is really risky or hard to pull off. It may be very achievable. But if you rush ahead to align on the known commodities, you generally align on very small thinking and produce small outcomes, which I didn't want. 

I write about, in the book, how I reframed my thinking. It wasn't about banning alignment. That wasn't the right move. It's about reframing alignment so that you do exploration before alignment. 

I've started to preach the mantra of explore then align. And so, teams got that. I gave them the space to do their exploration. 

But the second phase of alignment is about drawing conclusions. But you need to do that based on a really good process of exploration and discovery. 

When you do that, you tend to get very easy alignment in companies because people tend to nod their heads because they can't poke holes. The blind spots are covered.

They can see how you got to the recommendations. They can draw the red thread between what you're recommending and how you got there, which is very essential but not as common as you would like in companies.

Once you have alignment, your third phase is decision-making, which is identifying the necessary actions – and those are usually very layered – that you need to begin executing. If you bring this together into a flow, it becomes very, very powerful. Today it's very unstructured.

How to cultivate “input obsession” to develop robust ideas

Michael Krigsman: It sounds like you're fundamentally driving a culture change based on a shifting mindset, shifting away from structure first and decisions first in order to reduce the ambiguity. Instead, you're saying let's have an open field at first, and let's narrow down from there based on our initial goals. Is that a correct way of looking at this? 

Atif Rafiq: Yeah, in fact, I refer to it as input obsession. You want to be obsessed to get inputs, especially upfront in that upstream stage because that's really going to save a lot of pain down the road. 

When I talk about input, I mean things like what do we know, what do we not know, what could go wrong, what do we need to get right? You should be hungry for those inputs at the start because they're not casting judgment on your idea. They're just trying to help you develop and mature that idea and make it super strong. 

In a company, it's not one corner of a company that has enough of these inputs. This is a big problem today because if you look back at the last 25 years of innovation, you have different models where you say, "Okay, let's have an autonomous team that's doing innovation."

There's nothing wrong with that to start. But eventually, you need to get input from the center of a company or the core of a company in order to see, "Hey, how can you contribute to our exploration? What should we be thinking about?"

I'm trying to find the sweet spot where the core of the company is not going to crush the idea because that happens a lot and that's not good. But also, we're not doing autonomous, isolated innovation that eventually fails to scale because it missed a whole traunch of considerations that it didn't build into how it thought through the idea – if that makes sense. 

There is a sweet spot to leverage the collective intelligence of the organization but do that upfront so that as you're developing and maturing the idea, putting the recommendations on the table, it just feels like it really holds together and that's where people start to nod their heads, provide their support, and the idea get momentum. That's what I'm trying to propose.

I think if you look back, the pendulum always swings in companies between autonomous innovation and sort of doing innovation in the core. I think neither is exactly right, so I'm trying to offer an alternative.

Use collective intelligence to hack the corporate culture for innovation

Michael Krigsman: The problem that you've just described is so endemic. We hear the term anti-innovation antibodies (in some cases) that when a business wants to go down a new or a changing or a different path, you have the entire weight of existing processes and compensation plans and incentives and many, many, many different kinds of reasons to keep going with what we're doing, especially if we're successful. What you're describing seems like a really big, almost unattainable kind of goal for many large organizations.

Atif Rafiq: It is hacking the system. That's for sure. 

I have a chapter on how to hack a company's culture, and I have a chapter on personas related to innovation. The reason I put in the personas, Michael, is because, in my view, you can take advantage of the skeptics in an organization. 

Actually, you can flip the script. The way to do that is to take their input, actually. Not to ignore them, but to take their input and take it as neutral input in the form of a question. 

If I have a bright idea, I'm at the start, and I have a question, I can do something about it. I can make that question actionable. I can get to the bottom of it. 

I can say, "We looked at it and it's not as big a barrier as we thought," or "Thank you so much. That actually made our idea stronger."

However, if that question comes up downstream when we have the big meeting with the recommendation and the ask, then that question turns into questioning the idea itself. It's very different. 

The reason I'm obsessed with this idea of upstream work is that if you get that input upfront and make it actionable, you can do something about it. You can hack the organization. Even skeptics, actually.

I do look at all roles in the company as being contributors to innovation. People who are more skeptical about ideas, fine. Let's neutralize their input and take it. Let's build it into our question list. People who are visionary, who get it, and who are living in the future, great. Let them take advantage of that input to make their ideas stronger and more sound.

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Practical examples: Amazon and Volvo

Can you give us an example of where you took a situation in any one of your various, really interesting positions that you've had and applied these principles? 

Atif Rafiq: There are many examples in the book. I'll share two real quick.

At Amazon, which is very forward-looking ant open to new ideas and pushing new territory, so culturally, it's aligned. But it does face hard problems where it doesn't always know the answer.

When I was running a part of the Kindle business where we allow authors to independently publish their books without a publisher (for example), we wanted to introduce an exclusivity program where we would incentivize them to only publish with Amazon, which would really help the company quite a bit, and we would give them more royalty. It sounded like a good idea that we could probably pull off, but the challenge is it's Amazon. It's a behemoth, and so you don't want to do things where you're already strengthening your already strong position in the marketplace. You have to be very careful and sensitive.

When it comes to things like making sure people honor their commitments in this exclusivity program and compliance and monitoring and governance and all that stuff, it wasn't easy stuff in terms of how you enforce the policies. We definitely had a lot of ambiguity around that, so looking at the stance we should take when someone violates a policy, like, should we be directly enforcing it; how strong should we be? 

We use the idea of surfacing the things that could go wrong and developing the right questions to come to the right sweet spot of finding that balance between enforcement and not trying to be an overbearing giant of sorts. That's one example.

At Volvo Cars, something where I wasn't necessarily directing but I think is very relevant, you know Volvo is big on the idea of sustainability. A bright person in the company had an idea, which was about the interiors of the cars. 

The idea was vegan leather. If cows have a lot of emissions, how about producing a leather that's from sustainable resources?

It was a bright idea. I think it's part of the sustainability positioning of the company. But is it something that the company should act on? 

There are a lot of questions. Is it feasible to get enough materials for vegan leather? What kind of customers would--? Would customers pay more for it, for example? Could you even trace back the materials and verify that they're actually from sustainable sources? Could we get enough volume for the amount of cars we're going to produce?

A lot of questions before, "Hey, this is a good idea," or not. Embracing those questions at the start and making those questions something you get to the bottom of before you draw conclusions or have a strong opinion, that is something that was helpful to the company in that case. 

The innovation pipeline: Breaking down silos and unifying goals in digital transformation

Michael Krigsman: We have a really interesting question from Twitter from Arsalan Khan. Arsalan is a regular listener, and he always asks these very thought-provoking questions. He says this. I'm going to ask his question and then broaden it slightly. Okay?

He says, "Digital transformation is an enterprise-wide effort. Not everyone is interested in doing it." Now here is his question. He says, "How do you create a pipeline of innovation that is not only done by the R&D department?" 

Then I want to broaden it to the larger issue of: You spoke about alignment earlier. And inside any large organization, you have so many conflicts of interest and different goals and silos. As I said before, compensation incentive plans that produce certain outcomes that are entirely at odds with this unified approach that you're describing. Building on Arsalan's question, how do we bring the pieces together?

Atif Rafiq: Every company needs a North Star and some strategic pillars. I find companies are generally pretty good at that. 

To use an example, when I arrived at McDonald's – and we can talk about my transition from Amazon to McDonald's – the idea was, okay, digital transformation. But people didn't know what that was, so I didn't really use that term. 

I talked about convenience because, in my mind, McDonald's (for over 60 years) has been about three things: taste, value, and convenience. I got a lot of nodding heads when I spoke in that way.

Then I talked about reimagining convenience and new ways to use McDonald's because there were a couple of ways to get your food from McDonald's. How about we invent a couple more? 

We've been so successful; we invented a couple more compelling, easy, convenient ways to use McDonald's. Could we grow the company? People understood that line of thinking. 

The first point, I think, is a company needs a North Star. It needs some strategic pillars. It needs to be in familiar language. 

It's not about lingo. It's more about the heritage of the company but reimagining it in the modern sense – if that makes sense. 

I doubled down on convenience, and then I could talk in detail about more lingo, like we need two new service models. These service models need to be technology enabled. They will be digital experiences for the customer. 

In the process of providing this next-level convenience through digital experiences, we're going to be come a direct to consumer company. We're going to have a lot of profiles and data and be able to personalized with each customer. 

That's sort of a business model shift as well, so the digital experience for the customers, shifting to a different way of looking at the business. Now you have a cohesive sort of strategic frame.

Now that part, within my arrival at McDonald's, that took me about 45 days to put that together. The rest of the years were about making it real. 

That's where we come to the actual transformations that are a part of this question, which is essentially that, any given idea: Okay, the curbside pickup at McDonald's. You just drive into a parking spot. Your food is brought out to you. Or let's say table service, which is basically you order at a kiosk, take a seat, and we bring the tray to you.

Two new ways to use McDonald's didn't exist before. There are a lot of hairy things that need to be thought through, so it's not easy to know exactly what the execution plan would be. That's where this idea of upstream work creates the space for teams. 

It's okay for them not to know the answers to questions in the beginning as long as they know the right questions they should be exploring. Then if they drive that through a method of exploration and discovery where we can have them draw the right conclusions and be convinced about the things they're recommending. That's the way to make the glue.

Of course, when it comes to corners of the company, some folks are more on the day-to-day. But they also need to contribute because they have good input. So, I would recommend saying, "Hey, a percentage of your time goes to helping us innovate," because innovation, in some respects, everyone can contribute to it.

Create clear and simple goals to align the organization

Michael Krigsman: We hear people talk about clarity of goals, and you spoke about that earlier. Would it be accurate to say, based on your comments, that simplicity of goal is also crucially important here? 

Atif Rafiq: I think, 100%. It needs to be conversational, so if I walk in an elevator with a normal person who is not in the company, I can explain where our organization is headed.

That could be, like I said, convenience in the case of McDonald's. It could be, in the case of Volvo, that all the tech in the car (from the safety systems to the infotainment to the cloud controlling my car through my app) needs to be easy to use and simplify your life. You need to be able to explain that, the high-level direction, with simplicity.

I had one point to make around goals, which is that companies are pretty good at setting goals and objectives. You have ideas like OKRs. But those are incomplete because, if you look at an OKR, you have the O, which is the objective, and then the result, which is all the way down here. But in the middle, it's a lot of hard work. 

Teams spend weeks and months figuring out how do you convert this objective into a concrete initiative, and what's the nature of that initiative and all of the contours of that initiative? What are we actually going to execute in order to achieve that result? That's where I focus.

I guess my overall point is that that is where we need not just the clarity of the goal but we need the clarity of thinking and the clarity of thought. How do we actually develop this idea in every different contour of this idea? That's the hard part, in my view.

Michael Krigsman: But when we talk about the goals and simple goals and conversational goals – and that's just great advice for anybody and really, really hard to do, to distill down, and come up with the concept, the right concept, the simple concept, and then the right words, the simple conversational words around that – in a large company, even getting folks to agree on the goal is sometimes an almost impossible feat to accomplish. In your experience, you've had these very diverse set of senior management positions. How did you do that? How did you herd these cats?

Atif Rafiq: It's my view that you have a very hard time getting people to agree on the solution. Generally, they agree with the North Star.

Let's say you're MGM Resorts, and you do a great job of catering to people who gamble. But then you realize, well, there are a lot of people who open up the wallet and they don't gamble. 

They go and attend shows. They spend a lot on very nice restaurants. They buy suites in hotels. There's a lot of big ticket spending going on, but those people don't gamble, and we don't do a great job. 

I'm just rolling back a couple of years ago. The company has progressed a lot. But we weren't doing a great job of being customer-oriented, treating them better, recognizing them, generating loyalty and rewards for them, for example. 

Generally, I think people agree that, "Oh, that's the gap. That's where the growth is going to be. The objective is to really grow that part of the business." Okay. Fine. 

The solution is where people, you know, "Well, this won't work," or "That's too hard," or "This is the right solution," et cetera. That I think is very hard in companies.

The way to herd the cats is, I think, really what I'm pushing is the idea of suspending judgement, creating a space, an actual space and an actual workflow, to do something like exploration. 

In my case, if a team came to me and said, "We have the big idea. We don't know what the solution or the recommendation is yet. We don't have the plan to execute yet. But we're going to spend one or two weeks, and we're going to build an exploration. We're going to get input from the right brains in the company. We're going to make a list of all the right questions, and we're going to start with these questions. At the end of this week or two, we're going to deliver to you an FAQ," that's really going to help us begin to kind of converge our thinking on, "Hmm. What actually makes sense in terms of the solution we need to go after?"

I would say that's a really good use of time, and I would support them. That's why I'm advising, generally speaking, is that we create a space to build and run explorations to feed the alignment that is necessary in companies in order for something to actually happen. 

Start with questions and an open mind

Michael Krigsman: To be explicit at the outside that there are things we don't know and stop the posturing and the assumptions that we are the masters of the universe who know everything, to be explicit about that, and build that time and capability in, essentially, is what you're saying.

Atif Rafiq: One hundred percent, and I think we're all a part of the problem is my overall point because we like to blame the person who says, "I've been here 30 years, and I know that won't work," and we know that's not the right answer either. But as a very innovative person or the person brought in to help the company innovate, I've been part of the problem too because I've said, "Well, no."

I've said the opposite. I said, "No, that's a wonderful idea. Let's start concepting and prototyping, and let's get ten people on this right now and start to test it and experiment. Let's just get going."

Sometimes that's not also the right answer because you need to be explicit around, more purposeful around what you're experimenting around. It's not just about getting started with the prototyping and the experimentation. It's about what do we need to learn and making the experiments based on the gaps and the unknowns that would help us be much smarter about things. I think, whether you lean towards innovation or you learn towards business as usual, we need a way that's kind of mitigating some of the downside of both approaches.

Focus on inputs from across the organization

Michael Krigsman: Arsalan Khan comes back with another great question. Arsalan listens a lot, and I'm afraid that our two minds are sort of becoming very similar because I love the questions he asks. Sometimes it's like, "Oh, yeah. I should be asking that."

Okay. He says this – a great question – "Why should a frontline employee be involved in innovation? After all, they don't get incentivized, nor are they paid enough to do this. Executives might care about innovation because, ultimately, that's going to be connected to their performance and their compensation. But why should front-line employees care about this at all?"

It's like, I'm serving hamburgers or whatever it is that I'm doing. Just leave me alone so I can do my job. 

Atif Rafiq: Usually, we have interfaces to the frontline workers. It's not like you put a frontline worker in your innovation squad or your strategic initiative team or anything like that. You typically have some field level managerial people who are listening and have a pulse of what the front-line worker is seeing with customers. That's what I'm assuming.

Really, my book and my ideas (and my background, quite frankly) is really more for knowledge workers in different corners of the company. They could in corporate, they could be in the field, but they're generally knowledge workers who are trying to figure out what makes sense for the business and for customers. 

I'm not suggesting that the frontline worker be part of the innovation squad here presenting to the CEO. But of course, you will see some patterns in what they're sharing, and I think those things obviously need to feed into things. 

I like the question because I think too often if you had a project in a company, what happens? Well, it's the same three or four people that you're meeting with every week or every month about the idea. Then you think, well, this organization has 40,000 people, or 10,000 people, or 2,000 people. There's got to be more input than just these three or four people.

I think that's important in companies is finding a way to say, "Okay, what are we not seeing that someone in this company might be seeing?" There has to be a way to do that.

I think a way to encourage getting that input is curiosity, is an obsession for input. If you set that as an expectation, then there are probably ways to kind of get your hands on it.

Michael Krigsman: It strikes me, and maybe this is an obvious point, but it strikes me that to do what you're describing requires the senior leaders to actually have an interest in change, in this kind of exploration. 

Atif Rafiq: It helps a lot, but it's not required, and here is why it's not required. Because typically the interaction with senior executives is on some cadence, you know, a biweekly check-in or, "Hey, we gave you the assignment for the big idea. Come back in a month and tell us how we should be thinking about this, you know, what you're recommending."

The senior executives probably are not involved in the brainstorms, the deep dives, the work, the team-level work. What I'm suggesting – and I write about this in the book – is that teams, as opposed to having unstructured deep dives and brainstorms and then it's three days before the meeting and we're not really clear what we're going to put on the table, bring some approach to it like decision sprint. 

Now, in the end, what the executives will see is the content, which is essentially, "Hmm. I'm able to follow where you started, what you investigated, the conclusions you drew, the recommendations you're putting on the table. Based on those recommendations, here are the commitments and actions the company needs to take on." Whether that's great or not great, I think they'd be able to follow it. 

The way you drive change from a team level up, bottom up, is by just producing that better, having that better interaction, that better content. Then what happens is the executives say, "Hmm. This is so much more streamlined than my last meeting. What did this team do different?"

They'll say, "We have a different methodology. We actually have brought some method to the chaos."

Executives will be like, "Wait. We should apply that to other things we're working on." So, that's a way to help drive change in a company. I believe that change can absolutely be bottom up.

Demonstrate quick wins to gain the confidence of senior leadership

Michael Krigsman: The senior leadership is really interested in seeing results. And if you can demonstrate any kind of result, interim results included, then a smart senior leader is going to take that ball and carry it, or suggest that you take that ball and run with it further.

Atif Rafiq: If we define result as basically your work product is easier to follow and allows for confidence decision-making, you're making the life of an executive so much easier because the job is very hard. The decisions are very hard to make. We cannot predict the future, but if you can help the organization stand on much higher quality ground of information or confident decision-making, you've really, really helped your company.

A good executive will say, "How are you approaching that, and how can we scale that across more of the organization?" 

Then also, it shifts the role of the executive. The executives tend to then give space and release a control orientation and move to what I call calibration over control.

What I mean by that is he'll become a thought partner in your work. They don't tell you what to do, and they're much better listeners. They help calibrate your thinking to improve it, but they don't go back and regress to the tendency of saying, "This is what I want the answer to be," because that's always going to be very risky.

Even if someone is senior in a company, for one person to be saying, "This is the right answer," is very dangerous. That's why we have teams.

Advice to Chief Information Officers 

Michael Krigsman: Atif, we are almost out of time. Can you share advice, maybe specifically for a few different roles, starting with the CIO? You were a chief information officer, so you understand that role, certainly. Can you share your advice, given all of this, for CIOs?

Atif Rafiq: As a CIO, once one of my roles, I always shifted the conversation to be not just having the IT organization. I rebranded IT as enterprise digital. It's not just be an order-taker. Be like a true modified partner in thinking things through.

But for any role in an organization, I think what good looks like to me is basically the engine behind the work and embracing the idea of exploration before alignment, getting people to postpone judgement, not rush ahead to saying, "This is the answer," or "This is the solution," and to really invite people to do the upfront discovery around what could go wrong, what are the right questions, how do we get teams space (just a week or two) to get to the bottom of these questions. Then use something like even FAQs to help drive some common understanding of the strategic direction.

Whether it's a CIO or any other role, I think that's really what being a senior leader is all about is being able to direct the collective intelligence of the team, form the right kind of brain trust, and give them the space to do these things and then help calibrate their ideas because you probably see more information in your higher level role – if that makes sense. It's more of the workflow. 

I like to think of the next big role in the company (and in fact, the role of the CEO) in the future is the chief workflow officer because if you can get the workflow right around how people progress ideas into plans and actions, then you are really, really helping the company.

Advice to CEOs on leading the challenge of upstream work

Michael Krigsman: Why don't we finish up with advice to CEOs on managing, being aware of, encouraging this upstream work? 

Atif Rafiq: The CEO, basically, you have the North Star. You have the strategic pillars. You're putting this in front of Wall Street. It's in all your board decks. We get it.

But we all know that, inside the four walls of the company, these initiatives are very hard, they're very complex, and it's not obvious what needs to be done. And so, if we want momentum, the idea of building a sequence. 

If you have a big initiative, meet with your team in three steps. The first meeting is the messiness. You mentioned Scott's book. 

Okay. Share with me all the messiness. I don't need any answers. We're not deciding anything. That's going to come later. Show me you did a good job of canvasing the messiness. That's progress in and of itself. 

Your second meeting, you got to the bottom of the messiness. Did you make sense of it? Give me one or two or three or four conclusions you're drawing from having gone deep into this messiness on the deep end. 

Then number three, now what is the solution? What is the direction? Because if orchestrate it in that way, you have fewer blind spots, fewer surprises.

You've done the best job you can because, as executives, we are responsible to be on top of the knowns and the known unknowns. If there's anything else, we don't predict the future. But those first two, we've got to get them right. We have to be on top of them. And we have to be able to connect them to the actions the company is going to proceed with. I think these three steps could be a good use of time for everybody.

Michael Krigsman: Great. Thank you for the insightful advice. With that, we're out of time, so I want to say a huge thank you to Atif Rafiq. Thank you for being with us today. I really appreciate it.

Atif Rafiq: It's been a pleasure being with you, Michael. Thank you so much.

Michael Krigsman: A huge thanks to everybody who watched. You guys are a great audience. And don't forget; please subscribe to our newsletter. Hit the subscribe button our website, and you can subscribe to our YouTube channel.

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Thanks so much, everybody. I hope you have a great day, and we'll see you again next time, next week.

Published Date: Jun 02, 2023

Author: Michael Krigsman

Episode ID: 790