Like many other change agents, I celebrated new social technologies as vehicles of change. We now see the unintended consequences of these changes. The challenge for their advocates is what to do next.
As an economics student, I was fascinated by unintended consequences. So many policy decisions in government and business achieve differing or even opposite outcomes because they fail to account for systemic effects. For example, replace a community managed fisheries licensing regime with a national annual auction process for tradeable licences in an effort to make resource use more equitable and discover that your newly auctioned licences have become part of a portfolio of financial assets, the livelihood of traditional fishing communities is more precarious and the new asset owners have incentives to overfish the resource. Transactional solutions don’t always capture the richness of relationships and systems.
The Hopes for Social Technology
The hopes for social technology were that it would give individuals a voice and connection. That hope led to an assumption that making the world smaller and more connected would increase learning, understanding and community. Others hope that these tools would enable the voiceless and the powerless to make change. In Exit, Voice and Loyalty, Albert O Hirschman had described the potential value of voice inside systems as an alternative to the traditional economic alternatives of exit or loyalty.
From a transactional perspective, these goals have been largely met. Everyone has the ability to have a voice. Global connection is far easier. Information flows are faster. Change has happened by people leveraging these new platforms to connect, organise and advocate.
Unintended Consequences of Economic and Social Systems
This transactional analysis of interactions on a platform assumed a neutral role of the platform itself. When the platform has algorithms and an economic model to sustain, then the platform grows power to shape outcomes to its needs. The platform is not neutral as it is seeking to grow and make money. Transactions occur in the domain of and the influence of platform capitalists. When the platform connects the planet and generates huge revenues, the platform is a power of its own. When voice is controlled, the only tool left is exit, leaving you voiceless.
Human social systems also play a role. Human actors are not neutral economic bots. If everyone has a voice, then there is chatter. With chatter people need filters and social proof becomes an easy way to sort through the chatter. Next thing we know we have power law curves of influence with individuals running away with followership because they are in front. The quest for followership and a way to buy into this social proof system promotes a race to the bottom in the battle for attention. Drama, conflict and hacking traditional channels of attention like the media to build followership becomes the main game.
Connecting everyone means connecting everyone. The traditional arbiters lose their power over discussion and debate contributing to an erosion of trust. Rumours and falsehoods circulate as facts in communities susceptible to their comfort. Connecting everyone also means giving voice to those intent on hurting, harming and humiliating others. Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’ holds, but the arc of the troll is short and it bends towards injustice. Long term change becomes threatened by short term human concerns like fear, pain, self-interest and uncertainty. Instead of drawing individuals out into the world, social interaction increasingly feels like it has become an industry of narcissism, narrow communities and inward-looking discussion. The bubble replaces the globe.
In face of these unintended outcomes, it is no surprise that hope crashes into negativity and despair. Some partisans are now arguing to abandon hope and adopt the tools of those abusing the systems.
Return to the Hope
Changing systems is not impossible. However, transactional solutions won’t be enough. You can’t wish influence, fame-hunters or trolls away with a feature change or an algorithm tweak. Each new transaction change likely leads to new unintended consequences. The time frame won’t be short as we need to learn again into that ‘long arc’.
To create this change, we need to remember the principal issues are issues in human systems. We will need to use all our tools of human and social influence to create change. That includes both the good natured tools of love and the tools of power, as Adam Kahane’s Power and Love reminds us.
Exit from the worst behaved platforms and communities is one part of the puzzle. We will also need a greater focus on community norms. Violation of community norms will need enduring consequences. Shame, ostracism, boycott and exclusion are tools that will be of growing force. Loss of authority and influence is a consequence that will eventually restrain the economic and social returns of misbehaviour. We need a little order to contribute to change for the better. In a game of no rules, the lowest common denominators will win.
We may also need to continue to foster and scale experiments in new better ways. We cannot assume that current systems will lead the changes themselves.
Over the weekend, I saw a letter E.B White wrote in 1973 , a time of much social, economic and political turmoil, reminding us to hold our hope and keep working. That letter reminds us that
As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness…
Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.
Edmund Burke is claimed to have said that ‘the only thing necessary for evil triumph is for good men to do nothing’. Burke’s era is different to ours, but the essence of his and EB White’s advice holds true, our systems will not get better unless men and women engage with them and seek to create change for the better. That will not be by applying one quick fix, but by creating an ongoing and growing community of action and change.
Accelerating the value of collaboration remains the key issue for many organisational leaders. The Value Maturity Model of Collaboration and the extended tools and practices that it has shaped have been a useful guide to adoption practice for leaders and community managers. It has also inspired a range of other applications of the ideas including its use by Swoop Analytics to shape the analytics leaders and teams can use in these networks and a range of extended applications by others, including this recent post by Harold Jarche on its application in leadership.
The model is now approaching its 5th anniversary. As our understanding of collaboration in organisations grows through growing global research and practice, there is value to revisit and update the implications for the models we use to foster adoption and accelerate. This post recaps the high-level themes from my latest work on application of the model and highlights the directions of my future work and research.
Connect: The Rise of Purpose and Psychological Safety
In five years, adoption practice and the related customer success focus of the technology vendors has changed dramatically. ‘Build it and they will come’ is unambiguously dead. Value is now a regular part of the conversation for organisations and adoption is often aligned to strategy. Value to the employee is increasingly an important element of planning.
The core elements of the Connect phase are largely well understood and have matured and begun to be codified into workshops, governance guides, playbooks and roadmaps for new solutions. What remains a challenge is that much of the focus reverts to technology and narrow use cases instead of a focus on people and value creation that people can deliver for the organisations strategy. At senior executive levels, strategic alignment remains a core issue in organisations.
Organisations are increasingly focused on the role of purpose for engagement of employees and as a guide to alignment for value. However, there remains a lot of confusion as to what purpose is and how to leverage it. Just like collaboration, purpose cannot be imposed. Purpose is a process of discovery and alignment for the individuals in any group.
We have discussed since the beginning of the model that the Connect phase is a time for people to find ways in the organisation to connect their personal purpose to the shared purpose of the organisation. The better organisations design the Connect phase to enable people to reflect on and discover connections and alignment around purpose the stronger the foundations are for the community that develops. Collaborative communities can also play a key role in engaging a wider organisation in reflection and discussion around shared purpose.
It would be hard to miss the recent discussion around psychological safety in organisations. The work by Amy Edmondson and others to highlight the importance of psychological safety in teaming and collaboration puts real rigour behind many of the adoption challenges organisations face with these solutions. Five years ago unsafe organisations were full of people asking ‘Why should I share? What are the risks? What happens if I do something wrong’. You find those same questions in the laggards today. If it is unsafe to share or take any risk, employees will not do so, no matter how nicely you ask.
As Dr Jen Frahm recently highlighted our control oriented cultures and cultural uniformity can create real issues for the safety of employees. High performing networks are those with high diversity and where people share more of themselves without the risks of being forced to do so. There is much more work to do to make this commonplace and to enable all leaders in networks with the skills to foster and lead in this diverse environment.
Psychological safety is not something that organisations announce. The culture of the organisation in practice will determine the perception and expectations of safety Creating that practice requires leaders and teams to have active conversations about work, failures and appreciation. Amy Edmondson has highlighted many of those steps in her book, The Fearless Organisation. Collaborative communities are great places to foster this leadership practice and spread it to the wider community.
Share: Working Out Loud in Every Day Work
The principal difference between a network that is solely a tool of employee communications and a productive network is the existence of a consistent practice of working out loud, sharing work in progress with relevant communities to foster learning and collaboration. Working out loud changes the nature of a network. It removes the social media feel and it helps employees find the relevance of the community to their work. It still surprises me how many organisations are focused on collaborative communities but don’t include work in their plans. You can see plenty of consultant’s approaches to social networking that leave work out too.
Many networks have working out loud. I have discussed before that by drawing discussion of work and awareness of work into the network, working out loud enables the transition to the Solve stage. As we have demonstrated through International Working Out Loud Week year on year, working out loud takes many forms and is increasingly practiced around the world.
The best performing networks don’t see working out loud as an extra thing that they do. They don’t have dedicated working out loud processes, groups, tags or feeds. The goal is for everyday work to occur on the network. The organisation exists for the purposeful work and so should the collaborative network. Work is designed to be open, to be narrated, to have input from others and to allow others to contribute to the goals. When that is the case, value creation accelerates quickly and employees quickly understand the value of changing their work to be more collaborative.
Solve: Enabling Degrees of Freedom
All business is about change to create new value. Most traditional organisations are established with so many layers of control, process and policy that change is difficult. Employees and customers are expected to put up with or work around, partial solutions, broken things and poor outcomes. In every senior management conversation, fixing these issues and delivering the efficiency and effectiveness outcomes that follow is a key topic of discussion. Senior managers tear their hair at the silly little issues standing in the way of performance but the culture of fear and lack of freedom to act differently is why these issues persist.
When we import concepts from social media into our organisation collaboration, we can become overly focused on hierarchical power and fame. Organisational collaboration is not a power or game. Organisations don’t need influencers. They don’t need heroes who share their thought leadership or highlight issues for others to solve. They need the work of change to address the real gaps and to solve issues as and when they surface in the flow of work.
We have had a rush of discussion of alternate organisational models, like holacracy, agile and more, many from the start-up world, that endeavour to address these issues by fostering discussion of tensions and accelerating change. However, we have also seen that implementing these models in a traditional organisation meets real challenges. They are often an entirely alien experience of organisational leadership, interactions and decision making. The same managers who talk of the importance of trust also struggle to deal with the vulnerability of trusting.
My recent experience is that we should be focusing instead on the degrees of freedom employees need to realise the organisational strategy, make change and create new value. Degrees of freedom are the magic ingredient in a collaborative community. Instead of adopting an alien culture wholesale, we can enable employees to begin to create agile change one degree of freedom at a time. This is a key theme of my current research and practice.
Leading collaborative networks encourage these degrees of freedom in the themes of discussion that they pursue, in the examples that they set and the leadership that they foster. Organisations release the real or perceived constraints with approaches from a Fix it group to encourage all employees to take ownership of change to Invitations to remove policies. Organisations create more value this way from enabling front line workers to represent the customer to more elaborate innovation programs, collaborative networks should be enabling every employee to contribute to making the organisation better. Organisations enable greater changes by tolerating their rebels and giving them the tools to start movements. That means more than just chatting. It means the freedom to do themselves and experience the personal rewards of influencing others and achieving a better way of work.
Innovate: Scaling Agency and Agile Change
Organisations exist to enable us to realise human potential individually and as a collective. That goal of greater effectiveness is widely demanded by employees but translates in management speak into strategic value creation, innovation, agility and change management. To break free of the innovation labs model of value creation we need to be able to scale employee agency and sustain agile change aligned to strategic outcomes.
We lose sight of this often in our focus on efficiency. We need to escape the Four Horsemen of the Organisational Apocalypse and build organisations that give employees agency, scale that agency into teams, communities and networks and leverage agile models of change. Digital transformation and the competitive environment demand that change but it is a direct challenge to deeply engrained management values and traditional concepts of leadership and power.
When we consider agency and agile change we must recognise that these must be supported by new systems and new capabilities. The freedom to act without the systems or capability to do so is no freedom at all. Organisations that want to realise the potential of employees will need to focus on how they support the development of these capabilities and systemic approaches to capability development that ensure agency results in effective change.
Conclusion: Ongoing Work Accelerating the Value of Collaboration
Almost five years ago, when I wrote the first post on the Value Maturity Model of Collaboration, I thought the challenges of adopting social collaboration would largely be completed over the next two years. Five years on, we have learned a great deal but we still have only begun to scratch the possibilities of realising human potential, working together in better ways and finding new sources of value.
I underestimated the cultural challenges, overestimated the technology and the willingness to change traditional models of management. We have in many cases chosen to put new tools to the service of old values of management. What I have realised in the years since is that the process is one of mastery, not achieving perfection. We are working in the realm of culture, community and people, not technology. That means we will always be learning and coming together to do better. The greatest collaborative communities will be those who accelerate the process to realise more value for participants and the organisation.
Moving to a more digital organisation is about choosing the ways of working that will fulfil your strategy. As tempting as it may seem, there’s little to be gained copying the structures or models you have found elsewhere.
On Friday, I had a conversation with leading HR professionals about their organisations transformation towards more digital ways of working. The conversation was focused on what steps HR professionals can take to help assist this transformation. A key first step was to understand what we meant by a more digital organisation. Digital maturity is an ongoing process.
What are your goals?
Different organisations are competing in different markets and facing a wide range of challenges and opportunities. Becoming a more digital organisation can mean a lot of things: radically transforming to digital only, becoming digital first, adopting services approaches, improving customer focus, speed and agility or even just managing a digital channel team more effectively.
The goals of any change should be to help accelerate or make more effective the organisations creation of value towards its strategic goals. Each organisation has its own strategy and goals.
What does digital mean to you?
An outcome of that strategy will be where the organisation sees digital ways of working:
- the digital team manages a channel to market
- digital interactions are a way to engage and learn from customers and other stakeholders
- We use digital product management approaches to manage digital products and channels
- We use digital product management approaches to manage all products and channels
- We use digital product management approaches to manage customer propositions
- We see our business as a series of digital services and platforms
- We are looking at new digital ways of working across the whole organisation
The model chosen will shape any changes to ways of working.
What are the dimensions of change?
Structure is the most obvious lever that HR can pull to make change in organisations. The temptation is to see the change to digital ways of working as a decision about structure.
While structure may be important for other reasons, particularly signalling changes in power or other elements of culture, there are a wide range of other dimensions that need to be considered in any change to digital organisation models. These dimensions commonly include:
- Strategy alignment and the strategy execution process in the organisation
- Decision making, resource allocation and power
- Work Practices and models
- Cultural elements like psychological safety, autonomy, growth mindset, risk appetites, etc
- Capabilities to support the above
What’s the best model? Your Own
Many HR teams see the transformation to new digital ways of working as finding a different model that has been successful in an organisation and copying that. The broken photocopier model doesn’t work because both:
- the model is rarely copied in full or effectively; and
- the culture and goals of the two organisations differ
Instead of moving from model A to a totally distinct model B. The challenge for HR teams is to start to iterate from model A to model A1.
HR must start to think digital in its ways of working too. HR can run a series of agile experiments to loosen the degrees of freedom on the dimensions above in pursuit of the organisation’s goals. Small iterative steps will deliver a new model that is consistent with the organisations purpose, allows employees to have agency in the changes and evolves the culture in constructive ways. The outcome of the successful experiments will build the organisations own future model.
The global networked economy presents new challenges for our organisations and brings about dramatic changes. We need to be clear that the tools of the past may not serve us well in the future. Four past tools are so deeply engrained in our thinking that they are carried into our organisations without discussion. These four are the four horsemen of the Organisational Apocalypse.
I’ve been following the changing discussion in organisations for some time. I was a passionate supporter of the Responsive Organisation Manifesto. I was at Disrupt Sydney when Adam Pisoni launched the concepts behind the Manifesto. In my own work and own practice I have seen the challenges traditional organisations face when adopting new ways of working to meet the needs of the digital economy. I have also been surprised at how many new practices, like agile, lean startup, design thinking, flat organisations, and so forth, are repurposed to suit the demands of the Four Horsemen of the Organisational Apocalypse.
The four horsemen of the organisational apocalypse are:
- Obsession – Shareholder Value: Shareholder value is a measure of organisational performance. Make it the sole measure of organisational performance and you will have a negative effect on those that the organisation needs to survive: customers, employees and the wider community. Alienating these critical elements of success in the interests of shareholders opens the organisation to all kinds of threats and weakens loyalty and engagement in the networks around the organisation. The focus on shareholder value at all costs sets up organisations for short term thinking and creates the danger they will be disrupted by someone with new measures of success.
- Efficiency – The Machine Mindset: Management has long strived to see the organisation as a machine and to manage it as a machine with a linear process of inputs leading to outputs. That machine focus has made people an uneasy fit and since FW Taylor we have worked to make people fit the machine model. People don’t work like machines. We need our organisations to recognise this and seek to leverage human capability not replace it.
- Reductionism – Oversimplification: Data and Analysis is useful when it leads to new ways of understanding the world. Data and analysis for its own sake or for the the wrong goals creates risks and can limit our ability to understand the world. If we allow our simplification to interfere with a human engagement with our world, then our organisations will be more fragile.
- Control – Hierarchy: Any management model where most of the people have no say, no power and no autonomy and people are divided into silos of goals, information and activity will be suboptimal. Even if the smartest and best people are at the top, a hierarchy will be at risk of being outperformed by the networks around it. The danger is that hierarchical power reinforces itself and reduces the responsiveness to threats.
Individually each of these approaches creates some risk for organisations. Working together they create huge dangers for our organisations. The greatest danger is that when these values become unquestionable the organisations literally cannot see the risks that they create. Take for example shareholder value, how many organisations have dismissed a new competitor on the grounds that they were loss making?
Let’s examine some of these interplays:
- Control + Reductionism: Organisations delivering the emperor’s new clothes of simplistic solutions where everyone has doubts it will work but nobody has the power to stop the project.
- Shareholder Value + Efficiency: Value cost savings over revenue growth. Maximise the extractive nature of the organisation at the expensive of effectiveness, social value and purpose.
- Efficiency + Reductionism: Ignoring systemic effects or wider complexity can cause widescale environment, social or even effectiveness issues. So much corporate policy is counterproductive because it fails to understand and influence systems. These two values are also at the heart of much of our corporate obsession with speed.
- Shareholder Value + Efficiency + Control: Humans are unpredictable because they have the potential to create their own change. Remove humans and replace them with controllable and predictable machines. We may have created corporations to harness the potential of collaboration between humans but for many the goal of the corporation is humanless, but fragile.
- Shareholder Value + Efficiency + Control + Reductionism: Dumb and fragile organisations that are out of touch with their systems and environments and often can’t see their way to a new way of working.
Most digital disruption is not solely the outcome of technology transformation. Most digital disruption is the result of new businesses being created that challenge these values with new business models and new economic models. Not every disruptor challenges every value but increasingly we are seeing new players who look to leverage wider measures of value, effectiveness, distributed leadership and systemic understanding of their organisation, its customers and its business. If you are clinging to the Four Horsemen of the Organisational Apocalypse in a traditional organisation you will not see what is coming. Resilience in a fast-moving digital and global economy requires us to question the values at the heart of our organisations.
Many people treat their organisation culture as a historical legacy or some fixed reality. Your organisational culture isn’t mandated by history or by the present. Culture can be a real constraint to performance but it isn’t fixed or necessarily grounded in reality. Because culture is an expectation, it can definitely be changed when you give the community reasons to change their expectations.
Culture is a series of shared expectations of future behaviour of a member of a community. Expectations create and sustain your culture. These expectations are shaped by observation but they are more likely shaped by narratives, perceptions, biases and the expectations of others in the community. There are plenty of examples in history of where expectations have become widely divorced from the reality of the circumstances.
Expectations aren’t always real or founded in any history or present circumstances. Historical narratives in organisations are often carefully crafted myths that don’t reflect well on what really happened. The history has been developed to reinforce the current expectations, not record reality. In some cases, our assumptions and cognitive biases are so strong that we don’t even see the extent to which the organisational cultural expectations are inconsistent with what is going on right now. How many senior executives relentlessly repeat that ‘people are our greatest asset’ while valuing other things more highly than their people. At times, you can wonder if the public discussion of culture is more performative than normative. That discussion of culture better defines how things should appear to be than how they actually are manifested in behaviours in the organisation. Such a consequence can create an even greater disconnect from the cultural expectation as shared and behaviours as experienced.
The key point is that expectations can change. The people who change those expectations are the community of people in the organisation. Culture cannot be imposed, but it can change as these expectations adapt to different circumstances and to differing cultural values. Nobody is fixed with a culture from history or present circumstances. The right leadership, narratives and conversations will enable new expectations.
If we are to trust, we are vulnerable.
In The Monarchy of Fear, discussing democracy in contrast with monarchy, Martha Nussbaum highlights that with the trust that is required to support an effective democracy comes a vulnerability to others.
Trust means being willing to be exposed, to allow your own future to lie in the hands of your fellow citizens.
Effectiveness in our newer patterns of work is increasingly dependent on greater trust. That also means we must all work at a higher level of vulnerability and dependence on others. That’s not a comfortable place for many people. Vulnerability is not a value that many organisations embrace.
If we don’t explicitly embrace the relationship between vulnerability and trust we are likely to engage in a cycle of counterproductive behaviours. Our rising discomfort at vulnerability leads us to implement systems to remove the discomfort. These systems, because they are controlling, unilateral or misaligned, in turn undermine the trust we are seeking to foster.
How do we grow trust?
To grow mutual trust we must recognised that it is a human characteristic, not a mechanical one. There are many definitions and drivers of trust but each individual makes a trust assessment in each moment individually. They are supported in this by the values of community but they make a decision alone. Some people will never trust others.
If we are to grow trust in our work communities, we must embrace its humanity first. That’s one reason that the Value Maturity Model starts with human trust building actions like connection and sharing. Understanding each other and our shared context is a foundation for trust.
Working out loud can play an important role to build this connection and shared context. It is also a chance to practice the vulnerability of trust.
We must act with reciprocity. Trust is reciprocal. To win trust, we must give it. This is one reason why we must allow degrees of freedom in our work. Command and control is not reciprocal and cannot build trust. It may be predictable, but inequality and control are not signs or facilitators of trust.
We must challenge the systems that undermine trust. This will challenge us to lean into our vulnerabilities and pull down some of the hallmarks of the mechanistic scientific management that we have created. That system is based in hierarchy, fear and control to maximise repeatability and predictability.
Lastly we must have a belief in human potential. We trust because we believe our colleagues have the potential to surprise us on the upside. It won’t be every time and they will often disappoint us. However the gains from the collective human potential of the organisation must outweigh individual achievement or we wouldn’t have an organisation. Our challenge is to trust in that outcome, trust in our peers and manage the balance of risks.
The power of new ways of working are to better leverage human potential. We must embrace trust and its vulnerabilities to achieve that outcome.
Digital technology has enabled business to operate at new levels of speed and deliver new levels of capability to address old challenges. However, it also makes it more important than ever that business understands what it is doing. There is a big difference in outcomes and ongoing costs between choosing a fix, a solution and a service.
Fixes, Solutions and Services are Different
Let’s take the example of a leaky pipe to draw the difference between the three categories:
- A fix is anything that will stop water leaking now: You might be able to block the whole by wrapping the pipe in tape. It is quick and cheap and it will get the job done. There is no guarantee it will last. You can get very wet and spend a lot of time taping pipes if all you rely on is quick fixes.
- A solution is something that addresses the whole problem in a sustainable way: Bring in a plumber to replace the pipe or rethread the join with some plumber’s tape. A solution is usually more expensive and a point in time action. The leak will stop and you have put in place a solution that will deliver no leaks ongoing.
- A service is when you shift from fixing a problem to realising and opportunity by creating a sustainable and systemic solution to the underlying capability: Most of us aren’t experts in plumbing or water delivery. Just because pipes aren’t leaking doesn’t mean they are right. A pipe that doesn’t leak may have restricted flow, be poisoning the water or have other issues. We aren’t sure how best to manage water delivery but we could contract someone to do regular testing, maintain the infrastructure and upgrade as and when needed.
These Differences Have Implications
The differences between a fix, a solution and a service are significant and have important implications:
- Organisations don’t ask themselves what they want between the three choices and what the business case justifies.
- You don’t always need the most expensive or fanciest option: If you know the pipe is in a building that will be demolished next year, what is the point of a fancy solution or service? Tape works fine. You might even prepared to get wet.
- Organisations confuse the cost, durability and outcomes of fixes, solutions and services.
- Many clients buy a solution thinking it is a service, because they have confused the tool and the result. They are then perplexed why the solution has ongoing supplemental services, like adoption, maintenance and other costs.
- Many vendors and the organisation’s internal specialists are unclear whether they are offering a fix, a solution or a service. It is common for them to sell the cheaper and promise the more expensive.
- Most startups fail because what they think is a service is at best a fix or a solution.