Resignation

A strength overdone becomes a weakness. Too much resilience can make us fragile. Maybe instead of breaking, it is time to talk.

Winning does not tempt him.
His growth is: to be the deeply defeated
by ever greater things.

Rainer Maria Rilke (tr. Edward Snow).

The Great Resignation

Tempers are wearing thin. Frustrations are running high. Purpose and passion feel distant as the days roll on relentlessly similar.

I’m frustrated by discussion of the Great Resignation, an anticipated wave of coming resignations. Employers are presented as the victims of this Covid inspired act of their employees. What if there was something we could do to change the inevitable? Would you be prepared to discuss it?

Covid lockdowns and changing work might be a catalyst but it is unlikely to be the reason. People are resigning or planning to resign because many businesses have handled a crisis environment poorly. In particular, they have ignored it and stiffled discussion of how to better address the challenges. Action to make needed change has not been prompt enough.

Too many people I know felt that pressures increased and work expanded into their life through the Covid period. Because business was hard and stressful, interpersonal and business pressures increased. Too few organisations even considered these implications, let alone open up conversations on how work can be more rewarding and sustainable. Where change is needed, it is not coming fast enough. Relying on resilience alone made these work relationships brittle.

My door
opened on the new unknown
I threw stones

At the houses of starlets,
then ran off, colorless
into the shadows.

Jon Anderson, The Monument to Resignation

After delivering the capability to work from home, many organisations went back to focusing on when furloughs should be triggered, whether bonuses be cancelled and how else the bottom line could be improved. Those managers who had partners to provide care or older children gave little consideration to those employees struggling with younger children, those coping with grief, caring obligations or illness and those alone. Employees are not considering resignation because of their disloyalty.

We have stretched the resilience of our people by not discussing the real manifold pressures. My personal realisation came this week at the end of yet another busy day interrupted by a 5.9 earthquake. As the stress responses welled up and overcame me at the end of that day I realised that perhaps I had been unwise to roll on resiliently. I hadn’t listened to my own body until late in the day.

Dear Colleagues, now these years are filed
in the infinite oceans of bureaucracy.
Everything bleaches or fades. In other words,
goodbye. Sometimes it’s possible to walk,
although you’ve been told inside the oyster
shell of your heart there is no soul.

Jehane Dubrow, Fairytale with Laryngitis and a Resignation Letter

Exit, Voice and Loyalty

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked. 
“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually, then suddenly.”

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

These pressures in our organisations are not new. Engagement has been an issue for years. We have ignored the pressures and responded with resilience training, mindfulness and more employee communication. We pushed the breaking point a little further out. A pandemic has pushed us beyond that new marker. We pushed ourselves into Hemingway’s realm of “gradually, then suddenly”.

Albert O Hirschmann’s classic treatise, Exit, Voice and Loyalty, examines a range of consumer, employee and political relationships from an economic and political perspective. Hirschmann’s point is that exit (not purchasing, quitting or resigning) and voice (as exemplified by speaking up to provide feedback or make change) are alternatives. If we want to reduce the number of consumers, employees and others leaving, we need new conversations to hear their issues and we need new action as a result of those conversations. Community can be a key part of coping.

For many years, I have been a passionate advocate of enterprise social media because it both enables employee voice and employees ability to solve their own challenges collaboratively. Platforms like Yammer or Facebook at Work can create open enterprise wide conversations from the bottom-up, from the quiet corners and from the agitator to start change for the better. These platforms themselves are not enough, politics, power, decision making, inclusion and the allocation of resources (ie all the forms of power) within organisations will be incredibly influential countervailing forces. Hence the need to consider psychological safety, engagement, participation, respect, ability to make change and other elements in the implementation of any social network in an organisational context.

In recent years, these platforms have been captured to some degree by organisational communicators looking to refresh the declining influence of traditional broadcast channels like email, video an the intranet in new ways. The products seeing new markets have focused on this top-down opportunity and the endorsement it brings. Often, this official endorsement comes with a desire to discourage the messiness and dissent of the bottom-up voice and to ensure that employee action remains within the tightly constrained world of the organisation chart. Power does what power does. At the same time the rise of chat channels like Slack and Microsoft Teams has returned the focus to the immediate, the urgent and the private group discussions within teams, rather than across the breadth of our organisations. We have started to lose the domain of the voices for change.

Our new world of work in a pandemic pushes employees beyond the organisation chart. They are working harder than ever in more roles than ever. Give them the voice and the tools to make change. Provide employees with the support to make work better. The alternative is to wish them well in their next roles.

Sliding Doors

Moments matter. Our smallest decisions have long tails. Still we live only one day and move step by step

Photo by Elena Saharova on Pexels.com

he sees me, we are strangers again,   
and a rending music of desire and loss—
I don’t know him—courses through me,

Susan Browne, Chance Meeting

Looking Back

The film Sliding Doors wasn’t particularly good but it had a compelling idea at its heart, that certain moments shape our lives in ways we can’t predict. With twenty-twenty hindsight, last week I stumbled across perspectives on two sliding doors moments in my own life.

One of these moments was a business and the other a personal matter. The details of both are largely irrelevant. Like the train doors, that change a life in Sliding Doors, it was not the events but their consequences that shaped the potentially different paths. The decisions we make do not matter themselves so much in the moment. It is what we do with them day-by-day thereafter that matter more. Some decisions we let define us and others we do not give the requisite support.

Soren Kierkegaard made the point:

Life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards

Soren Kierkegaard

Only with the distance of years do we appreciate the consequences of moments in our life. Yet those insights give us little more than guidance as to how to act into the future. We cannot change what was. We need not fear or worry about it. The past is done. We can only move on.

Living Forwards

If you asked me for the lessons from my two sliding doors moments last week, the conclusions are simple:

  • Don’t defer decisions: make them quickly and move on. Nothing is gained in the middle ground of indecision.
  • Invest behind the decisions you make: a decision alone is not enough.
  • Don’t push for perfect: A workable decision today is better than a perfect decision at some point in the future that may never come.
  • Start and then adapt

Our lives are busy, messy and disorganised. Life comes at us fast and we can’t always perceive the consequences of our decisions and our choices. We need to live forwards to our goals and from time to time take the moment to understand what has gone before, not to change it but to learn a little for the future.

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

Ferris Bueller, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

A global pandemic that has reshaped so much of our lives can feel like a moment of loss. We are grappling with fatigue, isolation, and all kinds of crises. There is no freedom from consequences. We have to embrace the now and live with it as unattractive as that may be. Importantly, as my lessons this week taught me, it may not be the big moments that act as sliding doors in our lives. Some times it is the smallest actions which play out with the biggest consequences. We can’t tell in advance what matters. We can only do what is best in each moment.

Let go of some of the stress that these moments are changing our lives. Of course, they are. Don’t focus too much on circumstances. Focus instead on backing your decisions. All we can do is make the best decisions each day and move step-by-step towards our goals as we understand them.

Or how a face, long lost, appears on a street swimming up out of a crowd, as if from a foreign element. What if not chance holds all these fast in its grip? The moment – great abyss of now: bearing the fruits of all moments before, ripe with disorganized creation

Ellen Hinsley, On a Short History of Chance

Embrace The Need For Difference

Our media environment creates a relentless pressure to be the same. Embrace the need for difference.

Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

Same Same

In my neighbourhood, the four major banks have now all moved their branches together. While geographic distribution to meet different customer traffic and communities might seem attractive. They have settled in four shops in a row, with a few regional banks nearby. Harold Hotelling, a statistician and economist, was one of the first to explain this clustering behaviour as a response to risk. By choosing the same location and using the competitors proof of demand they split the market. Further away there is a risk of a geographic preference favouring one or another. Businesses give up strategic differences for safety given uncertainty.

Hotelling’s logic on clustering of location has also been extended to product similarities. We see a profusion of near identical products differentiated by price and often an invisible quality difference. So many organisations benchmark their product strategy by what others or the market are doing. Industry conferences are full of the same advice, the same consultants and the same case studies just with different brands attached. There is safety in the herd.

Spend a day in social media and you will see the same advice on business, strategy, careers and life recycled again and again. Much of what is called thought leadership is repeating well-worn platitudes. There is safety in this advice. It will not offend. Others have proved the market. You don’t take a risk and can capture your share of a proven demand for ‘5 no-fail tips on something.”

Don’t get me started on the universal sameness of ‘good’ images on social media and their implications for mental health, body image and more. We are surrounded by a sameness so extreme that I recently saw a post putting together halves of faces of different Hollywood actors. The mega hits are remakes and known franchises. Not surprisingly when the risk of a film is measured in tens of millions, there is safety in similarity.

But Different

All this sameness can be alienating and depressing for those who might not fit the perfect stereotype. At times the lack of context on all this success advice reminds me of an old joke about asking directions where the punchline is “If you want to go there, you’d be best not to start from here”. We are telling people to go the same place and some don’t feel like they are ever going to make it. In all our focus on proven safety we forget that we crave difference and that difference is what makes true success.

For all the people writing case studies of Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook now, we need to recognise when they started they were different, deliberately so. Many of them were so different as to be unsafe, predicted to fail or doomed to a minor market share. Each has changed its category and then changed category so much that the initial risks and departures are lost in time.

As uncomfortable as it may be and as hard and long as the path may be, difference is what wins out. The point of segmentation is not to divide the market the way your competitors do so as to better deliver your competitors strategy. The point of segmentation is to find your own group of customers and to do something different valued only by them. Kevin Kelly talks about the power of winning the support of a thousand fans. It’s more than enough support for most businesses and people and the path to greater things. Do something different and valued by your chosen group.

In my strategy work, I use Lafley and Martin’s Playing to Win regularly as a simple and effective guide to the questions that should be addressed in market positioning. One reason is that it is explicitly focused on the choices and dynamics of differentiation. Most importantly it explicitly asks “How will we win?”. That is a question that is oddly left unaddressed in many strategies that just point out that what is to be done is already being done by others.

Choosing to stand alone feels scary. People will point out that the herd is safer and that others are doing better in the pack. Choose to stand different and go looking for the community that will support you to succeed as you choose to succeed. As they come over time, your own community will be the safety net for your difference.

Choose to be different. Embrace your own way to win. Find your own community to support that journey. Over time your difference will be the foundation of your position and success.

The Work Effectiveness Conversation

Recently I joined a conversation about the role of cameras in our work meetings with Rebecca Jackson, Benjamin Elias and Kerrie Hawkins for Regarding 365. This is a short conversation with some great insights on why cameras are not necessarily an ‘always on’ proposition in our work meetings.

A key theme of this conversation is make meeting effectiveness a discussion for each meeting and work ongoing. For those who have followed this blog for a while, this is a major theme of my work. How people work effectively varies for a variety of reasons from the people, to the work, and to the circumstances.

The temptation to require particular patterns of work comes from our history of manufacturing as a model of work. Many organisations have not moved far from procedures and process dictating how everything should be done, even if the work of these organisations are increasingly knowledge work.. You can’t mandate people must use internal social media. It needs to be a decision of employees to choose how they connect, share, solve and innovate. You can’t mandate the best way for people to work. People need to make choices that work best for each team and each circumstance.

The cost of mandating ‘best practices’ is that you lose engagement of those for whom the mandated approach doesn’t work well, whether that is cameras on, meetings all day, agile practices, social tools or other processes. The mandate also reduces the opportunity for employees to make their work more productive for them and their colleagues. Arguing with a mandate is not worth the effort for many and you will lose their views and input.

The most effective workplaces are ones where employees are engaged. That also means they are the work places where employees are engaged in a continuous discussion about the better ways to deliver their work. Whether it is the use of cameras or another work practice you can start these discussions in your workplace by asking employees to share their views, experiment with different approaches and debate the best ways to manage work.

We have much more change and disruption to come in our work. We should look forward to the conversations about work that will help us all manage that change and improve effectiveness as we do so.

Jumping OVER

Jumping the fence out into something new. Photo by Mary Taylor on Pexels.com

We are enthusiastic about the potential to jump boundaries. The process of crossing boundaries is a difficult one. It can be hard to know if we are jumping in or out.

I want to go to the other bank

In the trees on the other bank
a solitary startled wood pigeon
flies towards me

Bei Dao, The Boundary tr. Bonnie S MacDougall

New Boundaries

Before the pandemic arrived in 2020, I had started working on better understanding and shaping some boundaries around my work and life. The last 18 months have reshaped that quest radically.

The boundaries have never been narrower. We have adapted to working remotely, but I think we are only just starting to proactively manage the implications for our organisations ongoing. These changes to work have social implications that are yet to play our. I wonder if the “Great Resignation” themes we are seeing promoted in the business media are not the outcome of constraining people and making them focus on the narrowness of their work undistracted by travel, busyness and other social distractions.

Near And Far

Effective individuals and organisations will not be constrained by the boundaries set by spaces. They will shape the boundaries of the networks that are necessary to succeed in their work. Focusing on network, rather than physical space, changes our view of near and far. A surprising percentage of our work interactions in a typical office and even common electronic communications are shaped by the ’50 meter’ rule. Such an arbitrary measure can’t be an outcome of effectiveness.

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

ee cummings, somewhere i have never travelled

We need to teach our employees to navigate new networks and to cross boundaries, near and far. This process is not always an easy one. We need different skills to navigate networks. We will discover terrritories marked only on the map as ‘Here be Monsters’. Much of what we will encounter will be diverse, strange and uncomfortable. Success in these new environments will take different skills and learning.

Boundaries work in two ways. As much as they define ‘out’, they also define a new ‘in’. It is worthwhile for us to remember this. For every thing we grieve as we cross a boundary, we discover new and often more productive outcomes. Jumping out can be just jumping into a new context. The challenge is to ensure that the new context is better, more rewarding and more productive. Jumping boundaries to find a new hamster wheel is for hamsters.

As our physical interactions are constrained, we need to learn to jump new boundaries into better more productive ways of work. That process won’t always be comfortable at first. However, it may be the case that without leaving your space, you are jumping out into something new and better.

Allow me to stay in my room
and weave my rainbows.

Chungmi Kim, Allow Me

Rope-a-dope

Sometimes you need to hang on long enough for things to turn in your favour. Wait until you can play to your strengths.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.com

Rope-a-dope

The phrase Rope-a-dope comes from the Muhammed Ali-George Foreman heavyweight title fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, in 1974, known as ‘The Rumble in the Jungle‘. A 32 year-old Muhammed Ali was the underdog against the young and powerful title holder George Foreman. While Ali was know for his speed and reflexes, but after the first round rather than engage the fearsome Foreman, Ali set to wear him down. Ali ducked and weaved but mostly just covered up on the ropes allowing Foreman to hit him repeatedly but also to tire himself out. As Foreman tired, Ali was able to regain the offensive and the fight was stopped in the 8th round with Ali the surprise winner.

If a boxing analogy is not to your taste, recognise that the same strategy has been applied in many other contexts. Sailors sheet their sails or even take shelter in port during a fierce storm to preserve their vessels. Animals hibernate to escape the harshest of the winter. Surviving is a strategy because those who are destroyed by a fierce foe don’t win.

Some times success demands that we change our tactics. More importantly, success can depend on our ability to wait for the timing to swing to our advantage. We may even have to take a lot of punishment while we wait for the right time.

The Right Time

Our always-on fast charging world has led us to believe that the right time is always now. That we must relentless seek to chase success and lead from the front. First-mover advantages are constantly touted, even if they are rarely real. Many people become dejected when success takes time, feeling that it has taken too long or they have missed their chance.

It is a common experience that most ‘overnight successes’ have taken seven to ten years of waiting for the capabilities, the opportunity and timing to be in place. Much luck is carefully constructed and more about time than anything else. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a whole book, Outliers, on the importance of timing in success.

Overlay the frustrations of a global pandemic and all its public safety measures and many people are dejected that ‘their time’ is being lost. If you can succeed in this environment, then congratulations and no doubt it is because of the work and capability you have put together to meet the needs of this time.

It is important to note though that faced with as virulent and strong a foe as a global pandemic, a rope-a-dope strategy is perfectly viable. Hunker down. Sheet the sails. Adapt. Stay present. Go step-by-step. Plan to come back stronger at a better time.

Recognise that this is a perfectly valid plan. Forgive yourself the feeling that you should be doing more. Plan to support yourself as you get buffeted on the rope. If you choose to wait out the storm of blows, you need to be able to survive to the end. Focus on that survival and you will be ready for the opportunities that come to win later. Remember that a time that you can show your strengths is the right time to succeed. If the timing is wrong, that’s not about you or your strengths.

Rope-a-dope is OK. It might even be the perfect strategy for now.

Nostalgia

The 1980s never looked this good – Photo by Ron Lach on Pexels.com

Nostalgia sells. We are therefore caught in its grip. What we don’t always perceive is how it is holding us back.

Hoping to live days of greater happiness, I forget that days of less happiness are passing by.

Elizabeth Bishop

Nostalgia is a ‘sentimental longing or wistful affection for a time in the past’. It is a yearning for things and times lost to the ages. Nostalgia provokes us to remember the great experiences of our past and to see them as long gone and distant. Nostalgia in this way is a barrier to us seeing that those moments have made us and are still with us. There are no ‘halcyon days’. The past had its awful moments, more than today, but we have edited out the negatives from our memories.

Like any emotional connection, it will be exploited by marketers, trend setters and culture creators. The waves of ’80s themed music, movies and other experiences is just an effort to leverage our nostalgia for commercial success. We can have fun and enjoy nostalgia but there is a real danger if we become stuck there.

In exploring the many arguments of the lockdown vs let it rip debates gripping Australia and other markets through this pandemic, I have been struck how both sides are in the grip of nostalgia. The ‘let it rip’ advocates often explicitly say they want to ‘get back to their lives’. More subtly the strongest advocates of remaining locked down argue that we need to remain so ‘until this passes (& we can get back to our lives).’ We see the same dynamics in many similar debates in this time – working from home vs returning to the office, how schooling should be conducted, what leadership is, how we communicate, and more. Instead of building our future from what was, we need to build a future around what we need and what works.

I love the nostalgia of the typewriter. I own a few. I don’t write on them. Photo by Dominika Roseclay on Pexels.com

Nostalgia is a barrier to constructive change when it provokes the emotions that make us look back to solutions that no longer suit our lives, our times or our place. Our politics is full of people on both sides evoking the past as a productive way forward when our challenges are new and our society has changed. If we make the past, the standard by which all solutions are judged, we will miss the solutions that promise real and effective change.

I love an 1980s dance tune as much as the next person who lived through that era. I don’t for a minute want to go back to my awkward teenage years. I learned what I learned from that time and I have lived a life since. The potential to use those life lessons is much more important to me that any longing for any particular time, place or era.

When things are gone, we can’t bring them back with wishing. We need to grieve and move on in the here and now. Nostalgia can be an enjoyable escape. It is a major barrier to the effective change we need in our lives, work and society.

As usual, I was thinking about the moments of the past,
letting my memory rush over them like water
rushing over the stones on the bottom of a stream.
I was even thinking a little about the future, that place
where people are doing a dance we cannot imagine,
a dance whose name we can only guess.

Billy Collins, Nostalgia

PS For the ultimate nostalgia blast, Abba have a new song, ‘I still have faith in you’

Relationships

The moment has been coming for some time. Transactions are great. We long for relationships.

Relationships are two-way. Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

Digital transformation atomised much of our economic exchange. With global markets on global platforms, it became easy to ignore relationships and focus on the transaction. Outsourcing, fragile transactional supply chains, gig economy exploitation, and more atomisation of our work and markets followed.

As we start to consider the impact of the last two years of major global shocks, its not so clear that the low cost transaction route is always the best outcome. Transactions are fine if you are trading commodities of know quantity at a moment and are done. Despite our best efforts we can’t reduce every interaction to a point in time transaction. Risks are more flexibly and sustainably managed in relationships.

This transaction feels so much like a relationship. Photo by Kampus Production on Pexels.com

Supply chains are chains. They are formed of relationships in many cases. The value of optimising businesses for real-time just-in-time work means that the transactions flow in chains of relationships need to be finely tuned to perform. Disruption of those relationships because of a pandemic, Brexit or other trade wars, a shortage of drivers, weather or fire emergencies can cause massive business disruption. The global automobile industry is disrupted because we are lacking enough chips and chip manufacturing is not an on and off again supply of a commodity.

If your model is trustless, transactional and about self-interest, you can mimic features of relationship. However, you won’t create the value of enduring relationships. Users will be left to craft their own connections in and around your platform. On reason blockchain won’t ever fully replace the world of contracts is most contracts are relationships and not transactions. The clauses work to shape some but not all of the risk allocation. It is too costly, too time-consuming and usually nearly impossible to specify everything. The parts that aren’t self-executing are managed by trust and relationships.

We are also seeing a great deal of questioning of the transactional approach to these markets. In Melbourne, restaurant entrepreneurs got together to launch Providoor to strike a more equitable relationship with the delivery services that are trying to reshape fine food. Local bookstores, small scale craft providers and other specialist practitioners are pushing hard to build their customer relationships when the big and the bold and the extractive look as bland and as out of touch as ever. Many of the entrepreneurs in healthcare consistently fail because they try to turn specialist relationships of service into transactions that neither side of their platform value.

Relationships take investment, but they also deliver exceptional returns from trust, from alignment and from mutual interest. A win-win repeated over time will always outperform a single moment of extraction. Relationships are two-way experiences where we need to show as much care for the interest of others as we do for our own. No matter how hard transaction platforms work to imitate relationships they won’t deliver that enduring two-way engagement.

If we have learned anything from the last 24 months, it should be that we can’t win alone and that others in our lives and our community matter too.

Seeing Stars

We are all in the gutter, but some us are looking at the stars

Oscar Wilde, Lady Windemere’s Fan
Photo by Aviv Perets on Pexels.com

We have our present trials. That can’t be changed. What matters is the light of our hope. The stars that guide us inspire the work we do today on change.

We have no shortage of existential dread. We are in Wilde’s gutter together and it is most definitely raining. No amount of hand-wringing, blame-shifting or delusion is going to keep us dry.

The challenge for each of us is to find, to cling to and to fight for our hope, that glimmer of light in the distant stars. We need to ‘live right in it, under its roof’.

The very least you do in your life
is figure out what you hope for.

And the most you can do is live inside that hope.

Not admire it from a distance
but live right in it, under its roof.

Barbara Kingsolver

Living Kingsolver’s admonition involves finding a way each day to work towards that distant star. The progress may be minute but step by step we will get there.

Knowing that hope and navigating by its distant star, there will come progress. That hope will pick you up and carry you through the times when the gutter becomes a drain and the drain feels like a storm water carrying you out to sea. Keep working towards the star. Effort and time accumulate and can shift the centre of your challenges to suit you.

As long as you stay put year after year,
eventually you will find a world
beginning to revolve around you.

Ha Jin, A Center

When it feels darkest and most doubtful, remind yourself of what brings you hope. There is purpose, protection and comfort in working to that distant goal.