Leading by Learning with Amy Edmondson
This week’s World Reimagined podcast explores the importance of creating a culture of learning and psychological safety within teams. Listen wherever you get your podcasts.
Effective communication and meaningful candor are the backbone of success for most teams, but they don’t come naturally – these skills have to be learned. In order to drive this success, leaders must create a culture of learning within their organizations. What are the tactics leaders can implement to achieve that learning culture? How can you become a leader that cultivates an environment of open feedback?
In this episode, host Gautam Mukunda speaks with Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School’s Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management, about how and why leaders should strive to create a culture of psychological safety in the workplace.
You're trying to create an environment where people are able and aware to keep learning. That that's just recognized as essential…I think we're very much in a culture of knowing rather than a culture of learning.Amy Edmondson
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Guest information for Leading by Learning:
Amy C. Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, a chair established to support the study of human interactions that lead to the creation of successful enterprises that contribute to the betterment of society.
She is the author of 7 books and over 60 scholarly papers, published in academic and management outlets, such as Administrative Science Quarterly, Academy of Management Journal, and Harvard Business Review. She is a sought-after keynote speaker with a worldwide following.
Speaker 1 (00:00):
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Gautam Mukunda (00:16):
Leaders like to say, "You can tell me anything," but what if someone needs to tell you that you're wrong?
Amy Edmondson (00:25):
The basic human challenge is this: it's very hard to learn when you already know. If I could keep reminding myself that I don't know then I open myself up to learning. If you want people to commit, heart and soul, to working in your organization you better be listening to them.
Speaker 2 (00:45):
World Reimagined with Gautam Mukunda, a leadership podcast for a changing world. An original podcast from Nasdaq.
Amy Edmondson (00:53):
We want your thoughts, we want your ingenuity, we want your ideas. And we just don't necessarily do or say the right things to make that a reality.
Gautam Mukunda (01:13):
Even before the patient started counting backwards from 10 every single person in this room knew that they had a critical job to do. The interventional radiologist is here to monitor blood flow, making sure the stent in the patient's heart is placed correctly. The nurse anesthetist is making sure the vital signs stay exactly where they're supposed to be. The scrub technicians are assisting with supplies and ensuring everything stays orderly. And the resident is there to observe, so that one day they too can take part in this lifesaving procedure.
Speaker 3 (01:47):
Gautam Mukunda (01:50):
And then, of course, there's the surgeon. It's her job to make sure everything goes as planned. She'll need to deploy her countless hours of practice, training, and study, not only in the realm of medicine but in building and leading a team she can count on. To save this patient's life she has to rely on her team to be quick, competent, and to have her back no matter what. But can her team count on her to do the same? Because the ultimate success of this procedure might not depend as much on her expertise as on something else all together.
Amy Edmondson (02:27):
It wasn't how experienced, or how expert, or how respected, or well published, et cetera, the surgeon was. It was the degree to which the team could coordinate well.
Gautam Mukunda (02:40):
In the early 2000 Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, was researching surgical teams when she made a significant discovery. The teams that performed the best were the ones that communicated the best. Her groundbreaking research on teams has been cited in business classes, textbooks, and a handful of podcasts; and centers around helping teams to coordinate better, both among themselves and, crucially, with their leader.
Amy Edmondson (03:12):
Now this was a particular kind of surgery. It was a minimally invasive procedure for cardiac surgery, which meant that the team was more interdependent than they would be in the routine cardiac surgery procedure. And their ability to learn fast, brand new innovation, was very much dependent on two things. One, the degree to which they kept the same team together for a handful of procedures. And, two, the degree to which they could all speak up quickly and openly with observations that might or might not be relevant but they just had to feel comfortable jumping in and saying them.
Gautam Mukunda (03:53):
So, I mean, I think for most of this for the popular image of the surgery the superhero surgeon, as it were, who maybe is often not the most humble person on the planet, this is sort of profoundly counterintuitive. So I guess I would take this in two ways. One is to people who aren't familiar with that sort of team dynamic why is this so much more important than the individual surgeon?
Amy Edmondson (04:12):
Well let me be honest here, the surgeon is still doing the highly specialized, very challenging, important work of the surgical repair and the surgeon is utterly dependent, in this minimally invasive procedure, for others to speak up about data, I guess is the best way to put it. So if the pressures drop a little bit they need to be saying something quickly. If the interior clamp that's keeping the blood supply held back moves at all they need to speak up quickly. Now that would seem sort of self-evident, of course you'd speak up. But for the reasons you just said it actually isn't that easy. It's the surgeon as god, right? The surgeon as top-down, the guy who yells and all those mental models which come from a place of experience and fact, make it hard for people to just feel that comfortable.
Amy Edmondson (05:09):
Now in this study not all the teams kept going with the innovation, right? Some of them gave up early on. They just, "This is just ... It's too different. It's too hard. It doesn't work." It didn't work for their kinds of norms that you just described. So it was only the teams that really could change their norms to insist on voice from anyone in the room and in the team that would allow ... You could call it the ancillary tasks around the surgical repair, those were quite interdependent. It's important to say the surgical repair itself is just that, it's done generally by a single person doing that very specialized work.
Gautam Mukunda (05:51):
So the way I think about it is that you cannot do without the highly skilled surgeon but you can't do it without the rest of the team either?
Amy Edmondson (05:57):
Gautam Mukunda (06:01):
The experience of the surgeon is critical to the success of the procedure, of course. The surprising thing is that the experience of the team and, critically, that team's willingness to use their experience to speak up when they need to are just as important. Amy's research shows that this holds true across many different fields and that the more complex the task at hand is the more ultimate success rests on the team's ability to communicate effectively. And, when necessary, to voice their objections. This discovery has perhaps been best implemented in the world of aviation, with one very interesting side effect.
Amy Edmondson (06:39):
It's somewhat like flying an airplane, right? You want a very skilled pilot. You also want everyone else in the cockpit, and the rest of the flight crew, to be willing to speak up if they see the pilot doing something wrong or if they see a signal of some risk that got missed, which because the pilot is a fallible human being, like all the rest of us, can and does happen all the time.
Amy Edmondson (07:05):
You know, in fact, some of the early research in aviation safety found that when the senior pilot was at the helm the crashes that happened were more likely to have been when the senior pilot was at the helm than when the junior pilot was at the helm. And you say, "Wait a minute, that doesn't make sense. The senior pilot's a better pilot, more flight hours, more experience." But, you can easily see where I'm going, when they senior pilot was at the helm the junior pilot just couldn't speak up. Whereas, vice-a-versa, the senior pilot had no trouble telling the junior pilot, "Hey, you just missed something." So once they realized that, and that was back in the '70s, they took great care to retrain pilots in what's called cockpit resource management or crew resource management. Where speaking up became a huge emphasis in the training.
Gautam Mukunda (07:54):
So aviation and it's willingness to integrate these fine [inaudible 00:07:58] practices is, I would think, not just a success story but maybe the success story?
Amy Edmondson (08:01):
Gautam Mukunda (08:02):
Flying in an airplane is ... I think I once did the math to work it out, per distance traveled it's actually safer than walking.
Amy Edmondson (08:10):
We all know it's safer than driving, right? I mean, we've heard that statistic, which is at least initially surprising, but safer than walking? That's brilliant.
Gautam Mukunda (08:19):
Right. So I think aviation has sort of onboarded this about as well as we could ask any institution to do so. Most others probably haven't?
Amy Edmondson (08:27):
Gautam Mukunda (08:27):
So how did you, for example, find the medical establishment ... How receptive were they to this finding? And then the second half is what can we do to help institutions incorporate this in the same way that the FAA has?
Amy Edmondson (08:37):
Well when you say the medical establishment what comes to mind ... That almost implies a rigidity and a lack of willingness to change. And my experience has been anything but. I think leading physicians are very interested in data. They're very interested in the latest and greatest research. And so there is, at least at sort of the top of the field ...
Amy Edmondson (09:03):
So there is at least, at the top of the field, a deep interest in how do we get better every day. And as you can imagine, the ordinary rank and file can easily get attached to the idea that I'm right, and I'm knowledgeable, and do my thing, and leave me alone. So I think there is a challenge here.
Amy Edmondson (09:21):
And where aviation gets an advantage is the stakes are so high. Now you might say, "Well, wait, the stakes are high in medicine too." They are, but usually one at a time. There's one patient at a time. And in commercial air travel, we understand that there are 200 souls on board. And the devastation that is experienced when there is one of those very, very rare crashes is tremendously motivating. And an awful lot of work went into, and still goes into, understanding what happened, and making whatever changes one can.
Amy Edmondson (09:56):
But I think because, historically in medicine, when things went wrong, it's a one off. It's often the people involved can either think it was their fault or think it wasn't their fault. They can think, oh, this patient just couldn't be saved or they can think it's their fault and just feel so deeply ashamed and guilty, kind of bury it. So for all of these basic reasons, there wasn't the same pressure felt on a day to day basis that we got to fix this thing.
Amy Edmondson (10:27):
But by the 90s, there started being a great deal more awareness, great deal more research on a search on the fact that patient safety wasn't what it could be. And then I think medicine really did try to take a page out of the aviation playbook and say, let's understand this, let's train people better. And I think they have done a tremendous job of driving fear out of medicine or driving interpersonal fear. It's okay to be afraid. It's okay to be afraid of getting it wrong. It's okay to be afraid that your skills might not be up to the task, because that leads you to ask for help or that leads you to speak up, but it's not okay to be afraid of the surgeon or to be afraid of the attending physician.
Gautam Mukunda (11:12):
John F. Kennedy once said, "Success has a thousand fathers while failure is an orphan." And he said it after perhaps the single most disastrous moment of his political career. In 1961, Kennedy's administration executed a plan that had been formulated, but not approved, by his predecessor to train, arm, and deploy Cuban exiles in an attempt to overthrow Castro. The Bay of Pigs Invasion, as it came to be known, was a fiasco so much so that JFK accepted complete responsibility for the very high profile black eye on his newly minted presidency.
Gautam Mukunda (11:55):
The political scientist, Irving Janis investigated why the administration made such a disastrous misjudgment and dubbed the culprit, Group Think. Kennedy's team on the national security council felt tacit pressure to agree with one another rather than dissent. And even though many members had private doubts, those conflicting views were never aired. Had they felt safe to speak up, the entire debacle would almost certainly never have happened. But Kennedy learned from that experience and made sure that it didn't happen again. Because of that, his same national security team performed masterfully during the Cuban Missile Crisis, averting a nuclear exchange and diffusing the single most dangerous moment of the Cold War.
Gautam Mukunda (12:41):
Every leader at some point in their career is going to need to hear people who disagree with them. And if they want to react correctly, it's critical that they get the complete picture, warts and all. Perhaps the single most important finding from Amy's research is that leaders only get this kind of information, and teams only function at their best, when they have what she calls psychological safety.
Amy Edmondson (13:05):
Psychological safety is a sense of permission for candor. And if we wanted to flesh that out a little, it's the belief that you can take interpersonal risks. And I generally study this, and think about this, and worry about this in work environments. So imagine a work environment where you don't feel any hesitation in speaking up with a dissenting view or asking for help, or admitting an error. That's a psychologically safe work environment.
Gautam Mukunda (13:34):
So your work and that of others is demonstrated, I would say beyond any empirical question, that if there is one thing that's more important than any other in team success, it's this concept of psychological safety. So if we know it, why do so many teams lack it?And why is it so hard to create teams that have?
Amy Edmondson (13:52):
Well, it actually is a very good question, but I think there's also a very good answer. And part of the answer is that psychological safety isn't a lever. It isn't something you can say, "Oh, now that we read the research and know that we need it, we'll just implement it and good to go." psychological safety is in fact, an emergent property of a group. It's something that happens when probably a handful of other things have been done well. And that handful of other things are not natural or spontaneous. They aren't things that people just typically do. But if they're not good managers or not good team members, they fail to do. It's actually more rare than you'd think to spontaneously do the things you need to do to create a psychologically safe environment.
Amy Edmondson (14:43):
And maybe another way to talk about this is you're trying to create a learning environment. You're trying to create an environment where people are able and aware to keep learning. That that's just recognized as essential. And because I think we're very much in a culture of knowing rather than a culture of learning, we fail to do that little handful of things very often.
Gautam Mukunda (15:08):
So, I mean that handful of things that are so critical, for a lot of our audience, I hear from feedback, are leaders who are trying to create environments. Exactly what you're describing. So what are those handful of things? What would you tell a leader who's trying to create it to do?
Amy Edmondson (15:24):
I put them into three categories, the handful of things. And category one, you could think of the categories as before, during, after, but that's an oversimplification, but the category before I call framing the work or setting the stage, and that is just the routine utterance of things that remind us that were fallible and vulnerable, and confronted by uncertainty or novelty. And so it's just those little reminders that the nature of the work we do requires us to speak up, requires us to kind of get over ourselves and be more interested in the work and the goal, and feel excited about it and less worried about how we look, if you will.
Amy Edmondson (16:14):
And I interviewed a pilot recently, who's also an expert in aviation safety. His name is Ben Berman. And he told me this wonderful anecdote, it's actually a routine that he has, and it's a brilliant example of what I'm talking about. His routine, anytime, well, every time he's about to launch a new cockpit team, which is daily, if you're a working pilot, because you rarely fly with the same person twice, he always starts out by saying, introduces himself, and then he says, "I've never flown a perfect flight and I'm not going to do it today either." And why is he saying that? That seems a strange way for a very expert, very thoughtful, educated person to start the flight. But he's saying, you have an invitation to speak up. I need you.
Amy Edmondson (17:02):
So that's just a beautiful example of what I call framing the work. He's reminding them, this isn't routine work. This isn't just plug and play. This is work where an awful lot of it might look quite routine and anything can happen, and the stakes are high. So there's just this non-normal, non-typical behavior that he engages in because he's an expert in aviation safety and understands that this is necessary to draw people in.
Gautam Mukunda (17:33):
That sounds like that's a critical component of team launch. And it reminds me of something. When I work with CEOs and coaches and things like that, the ones who I feel are the ones in most trouble, I often end up saying to them, "Do you want to feel right or be right?"
Amy Edmondson (17:49):
Right. I like to say that the basic human challenge is this. It's very hard to learn when you already know. And we are wired to have that feeling of knowing.
Amy Edmondson (18:03):
... wired to have that feeling of knowing. I look around... Even right now, I look around and I have the experience of knowing. I have the experience of seeing reality as if I had direct access to truth itself, rather than a biased view of everything filtered through my expertise, my background, my experiences. If I could keep reminding myself that I don't know, then I open myself up to learning.
Gautam Mukunda (18:27):
Why is that so hard?
Amy Edmondson (18:28):
Well, I do think it's partly biology. I think it's partly our wiring and I think it's also very much influenced by our culture and a culture that privileges being right, and knowing, and expertise above curiosity, and learning, and wondering. We get trained by late elementary school to feel that the valuable people, the smart kids are the ones who get everything right. Then you don't want to stand out for getting something wrong and this just becomes part of our programming that I think reinforces some of the biology. Again, that biology that gives us that sense of seeing reality itself.
Speaker 4 (19:11):
This is World Reimagined with Gautum Mukunda.
Speaker 5 (19:21):
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Gautam Mukunda (19:55):
It's hard to create teams where people feel free to voice their disagreements, even in an organization that's supposedly dedicated to it. When I joined McKinsey and Company 20 years ago, it was famous for its cultivation of intellectual independence. This was founded on a message given to every single new hire their first day on the job, that you have an obligation to dissent. Not a right to dissent, an obligation. In other words, if you disagreed with a group consensus and didn't speak up, you had failed at your job, which may sound a little extreme, but then laying the groundwork for a psychologically safe workspace where people feel comfortable speaking up isn't easy and sometimes requiring them to do so is what it takes, but creating a safe space for your team to tell you that you are wrong, or even simply that you're human is only one piece of the puzzle. Once you've created that environment, you also have to inhabit it.
Amy Edmondson (20:57):
Step one is setting that stage. Step two is overtly inviting engagement, overtly inviting voice. A simple example of that is ask good questions. You're doing that right now. You asked me a question. It's a good question. It's a question that it feels that I need to think and answer it well, if I can, but by asking a question, you make it awkward not to speak. If someone asks you a direct question, try sitting there quietly. It's pretty hard. You also demonstrate that you care, that you're interested in what someone else is thinking or seeing. I feel embarrassed even saying this. I've been doing research for 30 years and I'm telling you ask a question. Yes. Ask a question. It's a direct lowering of the threshold for speaking up. You just make it easy.
Amy Edmondson (21:53):
There's other ways to invite engagement. If you're in a team, if you're leading a team, do rounds, go around. Where we have a particular issue on the table, let's all say what we know about it, what we don't know, what we're thinking about. Let's just make sure every voice is heard, for example. I'm not saying you have to do that every time, I'm saying that's another device for explicitly seeking voice.
Gautam Mukunda (22:16):
You've done this. You've asked your questions. You've heard people back. How do you counsel a leader when they hear something that they don't agree with that they didn't want to hear?
Amy Edmondson (22:25):
I think there's two magic ingredients to answer that question. Your natural human response might be frustration or emotionality of some kind. I think leaders have to train themselves to have what I'll call a productive response. The two simple ingredients are appreciative and forward-looking. Appreciative means, "Thanks for bringing that to my attention," or "Thanks for that clear line of sight. I'm so glad you told me." Just those little moments that say appreciation. Forward-looking is what ideas do you have? Where do we go from here? How can I help? Anything that says what really matters is where we go next, rather than your, I think mostly spontaneous reaction, which would be how the heck did that happen, or who did it, or you know, et cetera. Important later on, perhaps, to look backwards and say how did that failure occur so that we can prevent it from happening again? But the initial response, I believe, needs to be appreciative and forward-looking, mainly because you care about the future. You care about making sure people come to you and each other again with the bad news, the dissenting view. It's so natural not to do that, to, "Oh, I'll wait and see. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'll just fix it and never have to talk about it."
Gautam Mukunda (23:52):
If I wait, it'll get better.
Amy Edmondson (23:53):
Right. If I wait, it'll get better, where we of course know that doesn't really work and time matters. Time is money, the old saying goes, but time is... Most problems don't get better with age.
Gautam Mukunda (24:06):
And step three?
Amy Edmondson (24:07):
That's it. I mean, step three is the productive response.
Gautam Mukunda (24:10):
Amy Edmondson (24:11):
See, it's the after, the before, during and after, but I think you have to practice the pause because, again, your natural response won't be productive usually. Practice at least that deep breath where you stop to think how might I want someone to respond to me or I in their shoes?
Gautam Mukunda (24:34):
Performing a procedure like this requires keeping a watchful eye on any number of things, the patient's heart rate, internal temperature, the ongoing x-ray tracking blood flow, but the surgeon, of course, needs to be laser focused on the actual operation itself. To be a successful doctor, she needs everyone else in the room to look after all the other details, but to be a successful leader, she needs to empower them to think for themselves and then speak up when the moment calls for it. There are, assembled in this operating theater, tens of thousands of hours of combined medical expertise and a great leader will find a way to make good use of every last minute.
Amy Edmondson (25:20):
Henry Ford is supposed to have said, "I want them to leave their brains at the door." I don't think he really said that, but we know the idea. I guess, of course, the idea there was the work is utterly standardized. We don't want you thinking, we want you doing. Nobody would say that today. Nobody in any industry would say that today. We now know, and I think believe in a very deep way, that we want your brains. We want your thoughts. We want your ingenuity. We want your ideas and we just don't necessarily do or say the right things to make that a reality.
Gautam Mukunda (25:56):
It's interesting. I once taught a class about the self-managed teams at the GE turbine plant in Massachusetts and what I will never, ever forget is one of the shop floor workers who had just retired turning to his former supervisor and saying, "You paid for my hands for 35 years. You could have had my brain for free and you never asked for it."
Amy Edmondson (26:13):
Gautam Mukunda (26:14):
Amy Edmondson (26:16):
I guess it wasn't a very successful self-managed team.
Gautam Mukunda (26:19):
Well, I think they were just starting the transition.
Amy Edmondson (26:21):
Okay. I see. That would be part of the reason why, that recognition because people closest to the tasks are going to have the best ideas for how to improve them.
Gautam Mukunda (26:32):
Today, we see the tightest labor market any of us can remember, things like that. As the balance of power shifts towards workers, away from employers for however long that shift lasts, how is this going to play out with these sorts of factors?
Amy Edmondson (26:48):
It's a great question. I do think that there's an important role for psychologically safe learning environment in wrestling with the future of work, future of the workforce issues and...
Amy Edmondson (27:03):
... the future of work, future of the workforce issues. And whether we have a talent shortage or not, right, depending on which year you're in, you still want very much to get the most out of the talent you have, right? It's this illogical thing of sort of working incredibly hard to hire the best people, and then not listening to them, or not creating the conditions where they can do their best work, and do their best work with each other.
Amy Edmondson (27:29):
But I suspect the best way to think about this right now is, if you want people to commit heart and soul to working in your organization, you better be listening to them and listening to their ideas about the substance of the work, but also listening to their concerns about the work environment or the organization. They can be your best asset, right? They can be the people who help you make the value proposition for them the best that it can be.
Amy Edmondson (28:01):
And I think many times employers are reluctant to do that, because they just imagine somehow that'll just be, "Oh, I want more money and less time." And I don't think that has to be the case. I think people want to be a part of something that matters. They want to be used well for their skills, to accomplish shared aims that they believe in.
Gautam Mukunda (28:27):
Leading a successful team means creating an environment where all of your team members can feel safe. And so, I wanted to ask Amy who had empowered her to speak up when the moment called for it. Who had most impressed her and why?
Amy Edmondson (28:43):
Oh, so many, and I have been so fortunate to meet all sorts of interesting people. I could give you five different responses and they'd all be legitimate, but maybe the best one for today is Chris Argyris, because a number of people really changed my life and changed my thinking, Buckminster Fuller was one of them. But Chris Argyris is, to me, the unsung hero of the learning organization. And he kind of decoded some of our interpersonal codes, our wiring, that lead us to behave in non-learning ways. I mean, I think he and his colleague, Don Schön, who was also very impressive, really had fundamental insight about how the way we interact with each other, our sort of basic social norms, get in the way of learning.
Amy Edmondson (29:44):
And he spent his entire career trying to help us overcome that. And his insights, I think, were very profound. His faith in our ability to overcome them through rational hard work, I think was misplaced. In fact, I think companies and leaders have to do more to create the environments where people can relax their guard and then overcome some of this programming. But Chris also, I mean, I think his work was quite profound. And then, he changed me and my work, my life, really, by saying to me, when I handed him my dissertation proposal, he read it, he got right back to me. He said, "This is a very competent proposal."
Amy Edmondson (30:33):
And then he said, "I don't see Amy in it," which blew me away, because until that moment, and I was going to be a fourth-year PhD student, until that moment, I didn't really fully understand that Amy was allowed in it. Right? In a sense, that my voice and who I really am, what I really cared about was welcome here. Right? It was like I was leaving that at the door and saying, "Okay, how can I be a good scholar? Can I learn the rules? Can I learn the methods? Can I write some of those arcane papers that seem to be necessary around here?" And in that moment, I thought, "I didn't realize he saw me let alone that I was invited to be myself in this field."
Gautam Mukunda (31:20):
Wow. I have to wonder how many of your students have benefited from that.
Amy Edmondson (31:27):
I hope one or two.
Gautam Mukunda (31:35):
All doctors famously take an oath to do no harm. It's their job to keep their patients healthy, protected, and safe. But in order to do that, they need to make sure that their team feels safe as well. Safe to speak up when they see something dangerous, safe to criticize a decision they disagree with, and safe that they'll be listened to respectfully whenever they do, because our stereotypical image of the successful leader, the decisive, commanding figure who makes tough calls, who sticks to his guns and who never ever needs advice, it's profoundly wrong.
Gautam Mukunda (32:15):
Instead, it's the leader who listens, who makes sure everyone gets a chance to speak, who empowers their team to show up every day, ready to make a difference. In this surgeon's case, that means protecting patients, often, quite literally, saving their lives. And she does that by protecting her team, and it's right to disagree.
Gautam Mukunda (32:42):
World Reimagined with Gautam Mukunda, a leadership podcast for a changing world, an original podcast from Nasdaq. Visit the World Reimagined website at nasdaq.com/worldreimaginedpodcast.
Gautam Mukunda (32:55):
Gautam Mukunda does not speak on behalf of Rose Park Advisors, LLC, or any of its affiliates, and is not soliciting investments or providing investment advice.