The Game of Thought Leadership

What if thought leadership is just a game played for the experience and the attention?

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Last week on Twitter, I came across a discussion of NFTs as a potential online game. That discussion led to an intriguing analysis of the Qanon phenomenon in the US from a game designer. Reading the latter piece I could not miss the similarities to the practice of thought leadership.

https://podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/simon-terry-thoughts-arent-leadership/id1465071720?i=1000544128526

I am critical of thought leadership as an abstract practice of influence. As I note in Mark LeBusque’s Simply Pratically Human podcast, much of that thought leadership has a bubblegum flavour, sweet and satisfying at first but ultimately bland and discarded. Thought leadership when practised at its most viral feels like a game. We see the characteristics of a game replicated in some of the common experiences of the genre.

Apophonia

So much of thought leadership depends on the connection between random things to build narratives of meaning. All the ex-post facto expositions of the value of strategies and actions that weren’t used are examples of this. Importantly, highly effective thought leadership often works because it sends people out in the world to make connections that aren’t there.

Eureka Effect

One reason that thought leaders rely so heavily on platitudes is that they want people to have the warm comfortable glow of recognition. Plus as you take your platitude out into the world you will discover lots of people that endorse it. Social proof is comforting.

Looking at the World Differently

If a thought leader can get you to see the world through their lens, then their influence grows. You will confirm the value of their vision as you go forward checking the world against their tests. Confirmation bias is real so there’s a great chance you will find what you looking for.

Proving what doesn’t exist

Pop psychology may have a reproduction crisis, but most good thought leadership is unfalsifiable. Try proving that it doesn’t work. The tests are either impossible or too complicated for the average person to be able to check.

A Knowing Inside Community in an Outside World

Thought leaders gain influence as the gain acolytes. It is therefore essential to distinguish the knowing inner community of followers from the wide world that has not yet realised the value of the thought leadership. The greater this distinction the more compelling the thought leader’s influence and the greater their ability to sustain a following. Stepping into some of the discussions from followers of common thought gurus can be an alienating experience. Harold Jarche has highlighted this in his discussion of ‘knights and mooks’.

The Payoff

Games have their rewards. For thought leaders the payoff is the ability to monetise their influence with a community of followers. There is always another book to sell, a course, a membership, or some next level of monetisation.

For that community, it can be an experience, a feeling of belonging, a sense of superiority or a degree of comfort that the world is more easily knowable and that success is more easily attainable. In large part the payoffs for followers are illusions, comforting illusions, but illusions nonetheless. What drives and sustains thought leadership industry is the returns to the thought leader and their facilitators.

Leading More than Thoughts

In a world that infinite scrolls on digital devices, it can feel comforting to be absorbed in compelling thoughts. Sharing these thoughts can reflect positively in one’s reputation and influence. However, leadership in our world demands more than thoughts. We need action and we need action at a collective scale. Entertainment will never take the place of real agency.

We are in desperate need of moving beyond stages, audiences, acclaim and all the other games. Let’s go and make changes to make this world a better place.

Crazy Brave

Most strategy fails for want of execution. However, under that lack of execution there are two related root causes, lack of differentiation and lack of focus. If your strategy does not feel crazy brave, you have to question hard whether you have one at all.

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Differentiated

No organisation starts in the same poisition as another. Capabilities, funding, customers and markets all differ. Yet, so much of our strategic conversation is about following best practices, copying competitors and trying to match historical success stories from wildly unrelated circumstances.

None of this works. What works is a differentiated strategy that takes advantage of your unique organisation and its strengths. The real lesson of all those strategic case studies is that successful organisations developed their own path and relentless executed against that even when everyone thought they were wrong.

If you are doing the commonly accepted thing in your industry to succeed, then you aren’t trying hard enough. Attackers need different strategies. Copying the leader is just ensuring you end in second place.

Focused

Too many strategies I see have the nub of something differentiated but then they hedge their bets. Instead of focus on what would make them unique, the organisation throws in what everyone else does just in case.

Every minute you aren’t executing against your unique strategic advantage you are losing. You are playing someone else’s game and that’s exactly what they want.

If the difference is between losing in 2 years trying your own strategy and losing in 4 years hedging your bets was it worthwhile? You have just taken longer to learn what does not work.

Crazy Brave

Differentiated and focused strategies work. They work because they are unique and clear enough to drive unusual levels of engagement in employees. They are unique and clear enough that people can decide what to do and what not to do. What not to do is as important to strategic success as what to do. Unique and clear strategies attract those employees who want to make a difference in the ways you want to make a difference. These things get lost in strategies that are all encompassing and me too.

The best differentiated and focused strategies are seen by others as likely to fail. If your industry thinks what you are doing is crazy brave, then it is a really good signal. Nobody will be copying your plans until it is too late. Most likely it means that others can’t see your advantages or understand how you can execute them to advantage. Often it means your measures of performance success aren’t on their radar deepening your competitive advantages.

If your strategy is risk free, then are you differentiated or focused enough to succeed? If you can’t see the risk, you will lack the energy and the decision making to consistently deliver execution that differentiates your performance.

Ten Counterintuitive Principles for Change Agents

Change agents often struggle during the process of bringing about transformation. The process of facilitating change is one that requires a great deal of individuals and ongoing effort across a wide range of stakeholders.

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What makes this process hard is that many principles of change sit in contrast to change agent’s initial naïve enthusiasm and some of the key principles of change thought leadership. Things just don’t work the way you expect. From the battlefields of my career in change, here are my somewhat counterintuitive principles.

  1. Every time you want someone else to change check that you don’t need to change yourself first: Some times change isn’t required. You might be the issue. Some systems won’t change you might need to move systems. Some times you need to be the first person to change.
  2. Those aren’t flaws. The system is working as intended: It is obvious to you that this is wrong and things need to change. That’s not the case for everyone. The errors and flaws you see aren’t accidents. People choose to let those things happen. Some are even deliberate trade-offs.
  3. The change wouldn’t be possible without you but you are much less important than you think to the change required: You might have spotted the need for change. You might be the champion of the need for change. Despite all that others need to join you to make the change come to life. Your contributions and your ego aren’t at all important in the end.
  4. Some change is better than no change: You are so excited about the potential. You have worked so hard. Get something for your efforts even if it is soul crushingly disappointing. Some times real change takes multiple efforts of incremental change.
  5. No change happens in meetings, PowerPoint, change templates or the mind of leaders: The path of many change initiatives is very familiar. You can see it in Kotter’s 8 steps. Those domains might be where you need to do a lot of work to be allowed to make change. That is not where the change happens. Change happens when people do things differently.
  6. You have to meet every standard. Your opponents have to meet none and need to find only one flaw. You won’t be perfect: Opponents of change have an easy job. They just need to delay. They don’t have to meet the standards you meet. They don’t have to act or respond or work at anything. They just delay. You will be delayed.
  7. Resistance is Success: You want people to push back. You need people to push back. Tension helps change. If nobody pushes back then nothing is changing. Resistance tells you that the change is biting and also what you need to do next.
  8. You need a perfect rational case for change but it is your emotional case that matters: The people asking you for a business case or a risk assessment haven’t bought in emotionally yet. If they had, they would wave you through.
  9. You can’t do it alone, but you can’t do it with everyone either: If you want to be loved do something else. Not everyone will get on board. You don’t need everyone (see Resistance above) and that might well include the CEO or the Executive team. You need enough of the right people to change behaviours.
  10. You don’t understand the change until someone else describes to you the simple different behaviours after the change: Your nose is pinned to the pane of glass. You can see the glory on the other side. You are too close to the problem, too deep in the change and its worst exponent. Your glorious communication documents and your high falutin’ concepts are in your way. You need someone to tell you the simple behaviours after. When you have that change can start.
  11. Bonus general life principle: Failure is a Success: It is. They get to choose. You get to learn.

I hope this list helps one other person survive, foster, accelerate or even develop their change. I hope some of these principles help unravel the confusion and sustain resilience. Change is hard but incredibly worthwhile. Making a difference as a change agent is incredibly rewarding.

Living life in flux again

Life has lived us for the last two years. Now we need to live our lives again. We will face and embrace new uncertainties.

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At the end of last year’s series of lockdowns in Melbourne, I wrote a post about how we need to take up the mantle of creating our own change as we emerge from our liminal state. We need to reconsider our five boundaries as we set our projects for the years ahead.

You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters are continually flowing on.

Heraclitus

We now move out of lockdown again and we find that we can’t step back into our old rivers of activities. The world has changed through time and new challenges. We cannot even go back to who we are.

A Changed River

Many friends and colleagues are reporting a strange mix of emotions as we return to the world in flux. First, it feels as if our social skills have atrophied. We need to learn again to manage our many and diverse relationships, including the most challenging of all, the casual contacts that vanished from our lives over the last two years. Second, we have the shifting sands of what spaces and places that feel comfortable and safe. We move through the world with new and different practices and anxieties.

Lastly, our work, life and adventures is back, bigger, bolder and more challenging than ever as we race to the end of the year, unravel the losses of the last two years and adjust to the ever changing world. We have old habits and practices to restore and some better habits and practices of the last two years to sustain. The flux of life brings forth new choices and adventures even when we may not want any choice all.

when I am perfect, undone
by hope when hope will not
listen, the moon wasting
to where I need not worry

Afaa Michael Weaver, Flux

A New Us

Clumsy at first, fitting together
the years we have been apart,
and the ways.

Wendell Berry, Kentucky River Junction

The hardest part to grapple with in all this new flux is that we have changed. Every one of us is someone new in this time. Normally change happens gradually and we don’t notice the flux. However, the boundary between lockdown and not lockdown makes the point of transition more dramatic. This moment of reassessment, on top of far too much time for reflection, makes this point of change more evident.

Reassessment has become a theme with people discussing the Great Resignation or perhaps the Great Opportunity. At a personal level the world presents us more choices. We are confronted more often with a chance to exercise our agency.

We don’t often like to consider our agency, our personality and identity in flux. Many people go out of their way to avoid that experience in a lifetime. Perhaps we can find in our many current social ructions push back against even the possibility of flux.

Flux is not going away at a societal or a personal level. The river moves on and moves ever faster. We can only embrace the uncertainties and the discomfort. We need to support each other through these challenges of adaptation to flux. Most importantly of all we need to understand these are our choices, our actions and our communities. The work is making rafts in the flow of the river, piloting our way through the stream and building community as we travel along.

So we need to let go of old questions like “How can I get back to where I was?” and “When are you coming back?” and lean into newer more challenging questions like “What’s the right thing to do next?”. “Who do I need helping now?” and “How do we make a difference that matters?”

The light

above a neighbor’s porch
will be a test of how we tolerate
the half-illumination

of uncertainty, a glow
that’s argument to shadow.
Or if not that, we’ll write an essay

on the stutter of the bulb,
the little glimmering that goes
before the absolute of night.

Jehanne Dubrow, Syllabus for the Dark Ahead

Passion

The Shepherds’ Swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May-morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me, and be my love.

Christopher Marlowe, The Passionate Shepherd to his love.

We don’t want work. Work is the compromise to pursue our true passions. Some times that compromise is small. Mostly, our compromises overwhelm us.

Our lives, our careers and our financial position are often centred and dominated by work. We pretend for furtherance of that work and its consequences that the work is what we love. Actually, we don’t. We want to be happy and love what we do every day. That is a passion, not work.

Passions aren’t defined by the role purpose statement, the performance scorecard or the benefits package. Passions are defined by different characteristics: Love, Purpose, Generosity, Creation, Exploration, Discovery, Community, Hope and much more. Passions are big bold abstract ideas with a meaning in real definable human relationships.

Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Philip Larkin, Aubade

Passions aren’t offered to us. They come from within and lead us without. We discover and nurture them so that we can take them out into the world to others. The rewards of our passions come back to us from all the others they embrace. Passions fill us up with emotions, address our yearnings, and make us complete.

Passions aren’t written on pieces of paper. They mean something to us and to the others who matter to us. Something from nothing. Something bigger than us. Something for others. Something enduring. Something we can share.

Now that I know
How passion warms little
Of flesh in the mould,
And treasure is brittle,—

I’ll lie here and learn
How, over their ground,
Trees make a long shadow
And a light sound.

Louise Bogan, Knowledge

Passions don’t fit the mould. They don’t fit in boxes or org charts or neat process diagrams. Taking energy and making energy, they are messy and combustible. Passions grow and fail. Passions suck others in or send them spinning away out into the world. Whatever they are, we can’t sit still in their grip or we fail the test of purposeful positive urgency that defines them.

Passions are precious. We may not find them often. When we do, we must cling tight and invite others to share them. There is nothing sadder than abandoning a passion before its course is run.

Work will always be at best a proxy for our passions. For many work is a distraction from what matters to their heart. We need to find ways to let passions run in and through our work. Before work takes over everything else.

And what of the dead? They lie without shoes
in their stone boats. They are more like stone
than the sea would be if it stopped. They refuse
to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.

Anne Sexton, The Truth the Dead Know

Why the Future of Work Won’t Come Without Work

This was because the classic texts, whatever their intrinsic worth, supplied the higher strata of the ruling class with a system of references for the forms of their own idealized behaviour…

…They did not need to stimulate the imagination. If they had, they would have served their purpose less well. Their purpose was not to transport their spectator-owners into new experiences, but to embellish such experience as they already possessed.

John Berger, Ways of Seeing (speaking of the value of the study of classics)
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The Undiscussable Gap

I have many management books. My desire to learn means that I am always tempted by the latest contributions to the literature. Throughout the year management books often pile up unread. Once or twice a year, I reduce the height of the pile in a burst of reading.

Quite depressingly, all too often I find I can read faster and faster as I work my way through the pile. The insights shared are pedestrian. The examples used are often routinely quoted or misleading as an ex-post interpretation of a theory or practice. It is little surprise I often get greater insights in other areas of literature to inspire my work. Beyond management literature the reward is for challenging the paradigm, not making people comfortable with received wisdom.

Far too much of management literature exists not to challenge the experience of managers but to reinforce their comfort in their positions. We can all cite the comfortable phrases that are mantras of the grace and wisdom of management. Their practice is much less consistent and uniform:

  • Our people are our greatest asset
  • Start with the customer need
  • Align people with shared purpose
  • Encourage creativity, autonomy and continuous learning
  • Look beyond the bottom line and consider wider stakeholder interests
  • and many more

Whether or not these are falsifiable, these platitudes are the bread and butter of thought leaders, the jesters of modern management, entertaining the powerful but not challenging their world. How else would they consistently receive consistent invitations to the stages of global conferences and private boardrooms? These platitudes form the right answers to the right questions in interviews and across the work context, leaving only the gap between ideal and action. In that gap, lies the undiscussable in the workplace, the power that flows from status, wealth and privilege.

The Eternal Future of Work

The gap between what publicity actually offers and the future it promises corresponds with the gap between what the spectator-buyer feels himself to be and what he would like to be. The two gaps become one; and instead of the single gap being bridged by action or lived experience, it is filled with glamorous day-dreams.

The process is also reinforced by working conditions.

The interminable present of meaning working hours is ‘balanced’ by a dreamt future in which imaginary activity replaces the passivity of the moment.

John Berger, Ways of Seeing

I have contributed a great deal of literature to the ‘future of work’ discussions and even once between rated as an influencer in that domain. Of course, by ‘influencer’ that survey meant my work was shared, more than read and much more than acted upon. I wonder some times how much all the time sharing that work has just been another contribution to the ‘passivity of the moment’ by contributing to the distractions and appeal of a better future that is coming.

Real sustainable change comes not from trite phrases, pretty writing, or influencer lists. Change comes when the circumstances are so uncomfortable and that discomfort is sustained long enough to overcome our natural inertia.

The dynamics of workplaces have changed through the enforced hybrid working of Covid times. The pressures of a pandemic were serious and sustained enough to overcome decades of resistance to change. Those same pressures now flow on into reconsideration of the goals, benefits and manner of work for many employees. The so called Great Resignation is not a mark of the unreasonableness of employees granted a little leeway. Employees have realised that a better future is in their grasp if they make decisions to change now. The question for managers is whether they want to start to live in that gap between ideal and action and address employee frustrations.

A better future for all in our workplaces will remain a distant wish if all we do is daydream in comfortable home offices, letting the undiscussable become doubly difficult by becoming invisible as well. If we want to make a better future of work we will need to actively engage all our organisations in discussions of issues of power and make real difficult changes to the patterns of our work. All learning and growth demands some discomfort. Be wary of the advice that slides easily into your working world.

The Other Hybrid Work Collaboration Patterns

Getting the help you need in a hybrid work world can be overwhelming if you don’t have the right collaboration patterns
(Photo by Tara Winstead on Pexels.com)

Adoption of collaboration patterns is easier and more. Most organisations have settled on one or two patterns alone. To realise the full value of hybrid work and to mitigate its challenges we need to find and share more patterns that work.

In my recent post on Microsoft Loop, I noted that collaboration technology adoption is often easier when people can match the pattern of work to an existing experience in their working lives. We see that people can make this jumps relatively easily because it offers a simple what to do when:

  • For phone calls, use audio in Microsoft Teams or Zoom or similar
  • For meetings, use a videoconference solution like Microsoft Teams or Zoom or similar
  • For chat, use a chat platform like Microsoft Teams or Slack or similar
  • For document storage, use SharePoint or OneDrive or similar

Adoption in these situations is easier because the pattern of work is understood and the change is just how it is delivered. We still need to demonstrate value to the user and the organisation but we have a foundation on which to build.

Underappreciated Collaboration

Adoption is more complicated when we are considering forms of collaboration that are less well understood. We need to understand the differences between chat, conversations and collaboration. The latter two also take place in many varied forms but are where the more valuable outcomes appear.

Much of the everyday collaboration in organisations is informal, unstructured and flowing. We tend not to appreciate or perceive this activity. It is the work we most miss when we are working in a distributed way because we may not appreciate it when it happens around us in the office. I remember a senior manager on a collaboration adoption engagement telling me that “we don’t collaborate” while over his shoulder I could see a small group of employees standing around a table commenting on a piece of work. We need to understand all the rich patterns of collaboration to support the productivity of all work.

Let’s examine are some underappreciated everyday patterns of collaborative work that we can add to the mix for our employees:

Working on a Joint Draft: Document Collaboration

Now that working from home is commonplace, it should be the case that document collaboration is equally commonplace. We can control access, manage comments in chat in the sidebar, track and reverse changes, sort out issues in the document and develop a piece collaboratively. Instead emails still carry document drafts around, tracking and version control issues abound. The power of document collaboration is that it spans so many of the modes and interactions. It can be synchronous and asynchronous. It can involve many people or a few. For reasons of access though it is usually only with known partners. Almost every organisation can benefit from helping its employees better manage the tools and features of document collaboration. Creating documents together is everyday work and the challenges of the process take up valuable time.

Whiteboarding Together: Creation

In an office it is commonplace to answer a question, solve a problem or work something out in a group with a drawing or diagram on a whiteboard. Whiteboarding tools exist, even embedded in other collaboration applications, and are becoming richer in features. White boarding is a great way to engage many or a few known people. Mostly this work is synchronous because it is both the diagram and the conversation, but some modern tools allow for the shaping of a structured interaction in the whiteboard which enables asynchronous contributions too.

Workshopping: Group Conversation

A workshop is a structured and facilitations conversation or collaboration to a particular end. It usually involves many people contributing at the same time. We have learned during that pandemic that throwing everyone together on a video conference call does not replicate the workshop opportunity despite the improvement in breakout room features and the better controls for hosts. They key to filling this gap in our digital collaboration practice is training the leaders of these discussions in digital facilitation skills and considering how you support the social connection that otherwise comes from workshops.

Getting Help from Someone who knows: Queries

If you know who knows the answer, you can ask them. The challenge in the context of hybrid work is not knowing who knows the answer. You might have to search many teams and channels to find someone who knows and it assumes that you are able to access and navigate this yourself. The openness of enterprise social networks and open collaboration platforms like Yammer provides opportunities for people to post questions to a wider community and connect to experts or answers. Therese also the benefit of finding answers that others have already provided through search on these platforms.

Learning what you don’t know: Mentoring and Coaching

Much of the anxiety in digital working over the last two years has been from employees who felt that they were missing the informal opportunities for mentoring and coaching in the physical workplace. Not every organisation is structured to support employees with proactive coaching and mentoring opportunities are usually left to employees to manage. Filling these gaps in the hybrid work is again not about the tool, but building the awareness, leadership practices and the skills to foster this collaboration across the organisation informally and formally.

Learning by Observation: Working Out Loud

We learn a lot by the work of others around us. Without working out loud, we miss this opportunity in our digital work. Organisations will need to overindex on working out loud in hybrid work situations. Employees working in the office often find they need to narrate more just so that those at home can follow a meeting for example. The openness of working out loud is an antidote to the home-shaped cubicles employees now inhabit more often.

Bumping into the Answer: Weak tie connections

Research consistently tells us that weak-tie connections in organisational and social networks are the source of insights, unusual connections and innovation. Weak ties can be suppressed significantly in organisations that rely to heavily on email and digital groups with limited access. Opening up the opportunities for weak tie connections should be part of the design of the organisation, work interactions and social interactions. A culture of clear accountabilities, open doors and open information makes this process easier for employees to make connections and to found those connections in useful and creative conversations.

Serendipitous Discovery: Search, Browsing and Discovery

If we want people to be able to search, browse and discover people and information we need to make it open and findable. Indexing, knowledge management practices and openness to support search is important. You also need to move beyond a knowledge is power culture because threatening the power of another makes searching unsafe. This process is all about making the unknown known to as many as possible. Having consistent practices on the use of document storage, documentation and procedures is more important than ever in this world of hybrid work.

We can’t assume every employee understands all the ways that they might chat, converse and collaborate with their colleagues in the process of doing their work in a digital and hybrid environment. The power of investment in adoption is spreading the commonplace metaphors and increasing the number of champions who are able to facilitate and help others to learn how better to work with the tools. Supporting the right tools is only part of the challenge in creating a rich collaboration culture. Many of the workplace collaboration tools support more than one of these patterns which has always been the limitation of ‘which tools when’ models. Collaboration is fluid and complex help your teams to leverage the diversity of these opportunities.

So what collaborations patterns would you add to this list?

List 100 Amazing Things that Makes Someone Special

Tell someone one hundred great things that they do. Put you mind to sharing the positives that they may not know you know.

One hundred seems a lot, but you will find it isn’t that much when you put your mind to it. The point is to make you deeply consider what someone does that is special, amazing, unique, admirable or just appreciated. One hundred also pushes you to go well past what they expect you can do.

The first quarter will be easy. The middle half forces you to deepen your thinking and consider the other person’s contributions more widely. The last quarter will flow and it’s unlikely you will be unable to stop at #100.

The final list will end up including:

  • widely acknowledged great talents,
  • talents they thought were hidden,
  • things they don’t appreciate, and
  • mutual surprises.

This is a process of appreciation, but also one of mutual discovery and learning. Use this process to deepen a relationship or refresh the value of a friendship. Use the process to make another feel seen or to help them in a darker moment. We can be uncomfortable to own our strengths. Hearing them from others in such volume provides recognition, a boost of confidence and a great fillip to the mood. This helps restore the context that only others can provide.

As impressive as delivering all this praise at once maybe you can also spread it out. One item of praise at a time or five, ten, or twenty at a time will stretch out the sharing and reflection. Make it an experience, an ongoing confidence boost or the basis of a conversation. You could even make a physical record, ritual, or gift part of the giving of praise.

Number every single moment of praise. It allows you both to track progress, to feel the weight of the appreciation and to build anticipation. Numbers will help you prevent duplication and also to appreciate that this is a particular list for an unique person. The numbers too can be a new shared language to reinforce the praise.

We can change the lives of others with small big things. Recognition, care, praise and support are small big things. They make a huge difference to others.

Fear and Foreboding

Is that a dark cloud on the horizon? Is that even the horizon? Photo by Kat Smith on Pexels.com

Why never a warning, either by speech or look,
That love you cruelly gave me could not last?
Already it was too late: the bait swallowed,
The hook fast.

Robert Graves, The Foreboding

We have been through fatigue. We have faced languishing. After all that we feel unsettled and unsure. Now our hybrid lives have left us with fear and foreboding. The challenge now is not the threat of death from a pandemic. The challenge is that our work systems have not adapted to flexibility, adaptation and distributed work. We are in fear of the systems that have us in their thrall because we know the system limitations bring forebodings.

Those system limitations are the legacy of hundreds of years of management, particularly that with a machine metaphor and a narrow focus on atomising and individualising performance. Moving beyond the fear and foreboding in the future evolution of digital work will demand greater change in the ways we work, not just the communications technology that connects us.

Narrow Ruts of Autonomy

I don’t cut that one.
I don’t cut the others either.
Suddenly, in every tree,   
an unseen nest
where a mountain   
would be.

Tess Gallager, Choices

Work is defined by roles. Those roles are attached to process steps in processes. The roles are wrapped in hierarchy and limited decision-making. We can increase the autonomy of people in their limited roles and processes but it is rare that an organisation gives every employee the capacity to stop and change the whole production system.

Transformational change in work demands more than delivering a better outcome in a narrow rut of autonomy. We feel fear and foreboding because we can see what needs to change around us in the system and we aren’t able to make that change happen.

Just Out of Time

The pandemic has shown the limitations of our global just-in-time logistic systems. We have ruthlessly squeezed the waste from our organisational systems too. This means employees are doing more with less and that means that the pressure increasingly falls on the isolated individual to bridge the gaps.

Capacity is essential for adaptation. Without capacity in our system we face challenges in adapting and resilience to shocks breaks down. Employees have no time to flex and adapt. Running from meeting to meeting, coping with messaging overload they focus instead on following the rut and avoiding the scythe of fear as best they can.

Fear as an Organizing System

So many of our organisational systems are founded in fear. We elaborately prepare to manage risks and their consequences. We drown organisations in policies and procedures against the fear of isolated incidents of malpractice or the rare errors.

We manage performance with consequences that range from exile (loss of employment) through to penalty (loss of income). Many employees spend much of their working life in the thrall of targets that are externally imposed, arbitrary and often even meaningless. The only meaning that achieving that target offers is an end to the fear of missing them.

When beating your head against the wall, it can feel good to stop. Why do we need to create a culture of fear and support it with so many systems?

You can call
It a fear of heights, a horror of the deep;
But it isn’t the unfathomable fall
That makes me giddy, makes my stomach lurch,
It’s that the ledge itself invents the leap.

A E Stallings, Fear of Happiness

Flexibly Inflexible Systems

I began the pandemic talking about Monsters at the Gates, big systemic changes that surround our organisations and demand us to consider how we will contribute our agency to change. Now we can see that the flexible work systems of our organisations are inflexible. Moving back to back meetings to back to back videoconference calls does nothing to improve the flexibility of the system. Allowing narrow autonomy can even create a dynamic where less change is possible given the interconnectedness of work and modern systems. We are better at flexibility of where we do what we do but most importantly we have not allowed for the flexibility of what we do, how we do it and with whom we do it.

Importantly, we do not allow the flexibility to avoid an ever present experience of fear and foreboding. If we have work to do in 2022 to repair and prepare for what comes next, it is applying our agency to these challenges which stretch far beyond releasing people from isolation and providing psychological safety. Ultimately, the roadmap we need leads to scaling systemic change, accelerating shared learning and realising the potential of growing individual agency.

Without drama,
what is ritual? I look for omens everywhere, because they are everywhere
to be found. They come to me like strays, like the damaged,
something that could know better, and should, therefore—but does not:
a form of faith, you’ve said

Carl Phillips, Custom

Reflections on Microsoft Loop

This week is Microsoft Ignite. As many followers of this blog know I usually look forward to the insights that Microsoft Ignite brings into the roadmap for the key collaboration tools in the Office365 stack. This week I was looking forward to updates on Microsoft Teams, Yammer and the evolution of Microsoft Viva, the new employee experience platform that is absorbing many of Yammer’s capabilities and bringing them to the enterprise in new ways. Intriguingly, much of the early discussion coming out of Ignite is on the announcements related to the new Microsoft Loop.

Loops. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

What is Microsoft Loop?

Microsoft Loop is a new collaboration canvas tool that also offers modules that can be carried across the Office ecosystem to enable synchronised collaboration in the flow of work. Building of work on Microsoft Fluid, the new product similarly combines components, pages and workspaces that can be brought together or spread apart, remixed, personalised, and still all keep in synch as other contribute using the magic of the stack. This flexibility comes from the vision of Microsoft Loop as an ‘atomic collaboration app’. These various components will begin to roll out into Microsoft Teams, One Note and Outlook. We can expect further evolution in this space over time including integration into many other Office apps.

The initial response of the market has been mixed as always with a Microsoft launch (more why this happens in a minute). On the positive front, many people are excited that the work on Fluid is coming to fruition. The next big thing in productivity and collaboration is much needed now as we address the new challenges of digital work and the extent to which traditional document centric or meeting centric models have limitations. There is undoubted power in the collaboration canvas model. Loop has been much compared to Notion, but the pandemic has seen tools like Miro and other collaborative canvases expand rapidly. Even Canva the design toolset is promoting its team collaboration capabilities. As we increasingly work from the one-person silos of home, seamless, liberating and powerful collaboration is the next horizon of potential. We have so many more demands to work together virtually now, perhaps it is time for a richer toolset.

I have always argued that the potential is exponential, if collaboration can be enabled across our work in organisations. This is why I have been a passionate explorer of the history of tools in this space including Lotus Notes, Groove, Google Wave, Google Suite, Yammer in all its various incarnations, Slack, Workplace by Facebook, Microsoft Teams and many more. Each generation of this capability has moved us forward to a more seamless flow of work and richer more diverse set of collaborative use cases. This diversity and richness is needed because we don’t do one thing in one way with everyone at work. We do lots of different things with different people at different times and for different goals to connect, share, solve and innovate. That’s why there needs to be a richness of modes of collaboration and that’s why Microsoft Loop is coming with new flexibility.

The Downside of Innovation in the Microsoft Ecosystem

I really feel for the product managers who bring new products and features to market in the Microsoft ecosystem. Sure life is easier when you are working for an corporation that can tackle visionary change and invest for decades in the next big thing in collaboration, acquiring new ideas and talents along the way. How exciting to deploy your new ideas to a global potential user base in the millions with all the greatest corporations already your customers.

However, that scale and the richness of the existing Microsoft stack brings its own pain. The negative feedback on Loop has been predictably from some of those most close to and most passionate about Microsoft. This feedback follows patterns that Yammer and Microsoft Teams have had to encounter in due course. This feedback goes along these lines:

  • You have been talking about this for a while why isn’t it here now complete in its final state – some people haven’t yet adjusted to software as a service business models and that market use by customers will shape the evolution of a product like this. We can’t expect product teams to predict every need.
  • Why doesn’t it integrate with everything everywhere in every use case immediately? – As above, minimum products grow with additional investment to reach the richness of the current major Microsoft applications.
  • This adds to the complexity of collaboration. I can’t abandon Outlook/Teams/Yammer and use only one thing. – collaboration is complex and what’s with the ‘one app to rule them all’ obsession. Many who have been placing their one things hopes on Microsoft Teams see this as a crack in the single pane of glass. Sure one app in one box looks good on an architectural diagram or a ‘what to use when’ chart but it doesn’t reflect how we work.
  • Useless. I can’t role this out to my global employee base today for every use case. – yes, but you can explore their needs and find the use cases where this fits to the detriment of all the other micro apps that your team wants because they are trendy.
  • Sounds complex. It will require adoption work. I’ll stick with Outlook Distribution Lists for collaboration – work is complex (and so are your employees) which means collaboration can’t be a one size fits all challenge. Collaboration is about the breadth of ways your organisation connects, shares, solves and innovates. That’s going to demand some agility and flexibility and even, dare I say it, user adoption and use case configuration
  • I didn’t ask for this. Why didn’t you build my request for X instead? – not every customer is alike.

The familiarity of these complaints is a reminder that with scale comes a legacy, an installed base and expectations. If someone had deployed Microsoft Loop outside of Microsoft as a standalone app, it wouldn’t be judged to this standard. Limited launch capabilities would be the expectation. Users would be asking for integration with Outlook, Teams and so on. The independent Loop would respond with a wave of the hand and suggest a future product roadmap.

Judge Microsoft Loop by the Work. Trust the humans to decide.

As noted above, the potential of new model of collaboration has been a long-hyped thing. Atomic collaboration is just the latest variation from all in one apps, to real-time synchronisation, to document collaboration, to collaboration on the graph, in the workspace, in the channel or on a single pane of glass. Whether atomic collaboration blows everything else away will be determined in user’s hands. For that to happen, it will come down to the value that it delivers to do work better, faster, safer and easier.

Most new collaboration apps fail because they get the model of work wrong. The engineers of these apps often work out from “What can we build, what might people do and where can we deploy it?” Sadly, that produces outcomes that are a world away from “What are users trying to achieve and what do you actually need to work together better in a real human way?” Finding new ways to enable collaboration in the flow of work demands a deep understanding of work and what employees and the collaborators are seeking to achieve.

Often these apps fail because they ask for changes in use case or work metaphor that are too unfamiliar to users and the bridge to the future is too great for adoption. We mostly understand document storage, document collaboration, meetings, calls and team chat as forum for collaboration, but we are always learning new and better ways to do each. These are not the only formats of collaboration, they are just the most obvious ones. Tools like Miro challenge us to consider collaboration at the whiteboard, with sticky notes and in a workshop. Each new tool opens up a wider array of opportunities for us.

New models require users to learn new patterns of work and to see the value to them and the organisation. The latter is why so many still query the value of enterprise collaboration in Yammer – talking to an unknown anyone hidden in everyone in the organisation to support work through connecting, sharing, solving or innovating is still not in everyone’s paradigm of work.

Creating the future patterns for connecting, sharing, solving and innovating together using Microsoft Loop will be the outcome of the interplay between the champions and change agents in organisations looking for better ways of working and the Microsoft product team who keeps up the innovations to support the growth of the product. At the same time, the flexibility will inspire others in the market. The challenge always is avoiding choice paralysis from too many options and too much complexity but this early in the product lifecycle, let the humans decide what works best. I can’t wait to give it a try and see what new capabilities it brings to my work.