We are deep enough into the wide scale adoption of hybrid-working, chat tools and video conferencing to draw some conclusions. One thing is now becoming abundantly clear: 24×7 access to high-bandwidth and high velocity communication is not going to deliver collaboration.
Two and a half years on from the beginnings of the Covid pandemic, our workplaces are multi-dimensional hybrids – days, hours, locations, working styles and more. The tools of digital work that had long existed are now in widespread adoption with most organisations combining the traditional email and telephony with chat, video and other tools of digital work. Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Slack have been household names and there is a long list of competitors in use, but little revolutionary.
Before the pandemic, it was important to remind organisations looking at a digital workplace project that there was a difference between communication tools and effective collaboration between employees. The last two years have confirmed this experience. The rush to supply tools to meet, to stay connected and to do work does not guarantee collaboration.
There are many reasons why complaints about colleagues and collaboration in organisations are on the rise. We have lost some social muscles in the last years and the fragmentation, smaller bubbles and algorithmic information mean connection is harder. There are also real stress, trauma and mental health issues flowing from our recent experiences.
Three issues are most problematic in my experience:
Clarity: Are your teams really aligned to the same goals? Do they express those goals in measures and rich stories that everyone understands? You can’t collaborate without shared or aligned goals at least in part. Minor misalignments where people think they understand fast moving communication are far too common
Context: Do your teams share the same context of information in their work? In the volume of communication, it is easy to lose the context of information. For example, I was invited to join a regular meeting, there was a clear logic to each meeting but I couldn’t ever quite predict it. It took far too long for me to realise an agenda and documents were shared in a Team in Microsoft Team that nobody ever mentioned. Lacking context can mean you cannot understand other’s work or communications. Context was always going to be an issue at this time.
Cohesion: Relationships and moods post pandemic are brittle. Bringing people together, holding people together and striking compromises is harder than it seemed before. We have lost social muscles.
Complexity: Agile, iterative, parallel, hybrid, distributed, global, connected, faster, more data-driven, digital, automated – all the adjectives we use to describe our world of work make it more complex, not less. These elements can make even the simplest collaboration into a complex systemic change exercise.
Communication is the vehicle. Collaboration is the work. Don’t confuse the two. The first is possible if you have the right media. The second depends on culture, people and practices. The reason organisations consistently need change and adoption to support their collaboration goals is not because the communication tech is hard. The hard but most rewarding part is always the people in the teams.
The System is designed to beat any individual, however heroic.
You don’t always need to change the System. You might just need wiggle room.
Change in the System takes a team, stakeholders and influencers. You cannot succeed alone.
Be clear on what your goals are in seeking change. Don’t assume the system is broken or that others share your goals. Build a coalition of supporters and teammates. Seek only the change you need for your goal. Be kind to yourself.
You need a change. Nobody needs heroes. Nobody wants to become a martyr to their change.
The true artist is not proud. He unfortunately sees that art has no limits; he feels darkly how far he is from the goal; and though he may be admired by others, he is sad not to have reached that point to which his better genius appears as a distant guiding sun.
Beethoven, letter to a young pianist, 17 July 1812
No matter how hard we work the distance to our potential remains. Mastery is not the pursuit of an end but merely a race after an ever vanishing star.
There is an old joke of a man who stops a stranger in New York and asks ‘How do I get to Carnegie Hall?’ The stranger’s reply is ‘Practice. Practice. Practice.’ However, it is often the case that even with carefully considered practice we never reach our destination.
Practice reveals new levels of performance, artistry and mastery that are yet to be attained. Ancient cultures, religions and professional guilds often work on opening up new levels of knowledge to practitioners as expertise developed. Reaching too far ahead could become daunting or dangerous by not having built the right experiences or foundations. The learning experience was mediated through a gradual opening of knowledge and practice.
In our modern impatience, we may have jettisoned the idea that all knowledge and experience must come in time through practice. Aren’t we just one Youtube video away from perfection? Yet, knowledge and experience is not all transferred digitally and instantly. Mastery demands practice and experiential learning. New levels of practice still open new vistas of potential.
We may not all have the genius of Beethoven. We can share and recognise his frustrations. We can all pursue that ever-distant guiding sun.
Talking yourself out of success is easy. We have thousands of thoughts of our shortcomings ready for the purpose. Talking yourself into action on the key steps to your goals is much harder.
As we go about our days, we think about our work and judge our actions. At times this can be part of a constructive and reinforcing learning dialogue. Too often though we are lost in negative self-talk. In an increasingly digital world we can get lost in our own heads.
We project how hard things are or will be. We turn out behaviours, changeable on a whim, and make them immutable characteristics that mean we cannot succeed – cautious consideration becomes a lack of ambition, a reticence to promote oneself becomes shyness, a lack of energy becomes laziness and so on.
Our self-talk shapes our efforts and our resilience in pursuing success. I have talked myself out of great opportunities because self-talk shattered my confidence. Knowing how to pick the moments that you are undermining yourself and change the dialogue is key. Friends and colleagues play a key role in helping us test our self-talk against reality and in resetting our efforts.
Nobody needs a permanent critic that they can’t shake. Self-criticism can be a healthy part of learning. Make sure it is measured and that you are providing yourself with constructive and realistic feedback.
Great organisations align responsibilities, accountabilities and outcomes. Your issues with accountability might be about lack of clarity of responsibility and lack of alignment to outcomes instead.
Every time I see a RACI matrix, that artefact of complicated organisations, i have to remind myself the difference between Responsibility (who does the work) and Accountability (who is on the hook and makes the decisions) in those tables. One reason that these concepts sit poorly with me is that they don’t seem to make sense. Why don’t the people doing the work get to make the decisions? Hang on we usually hold the people doing the work to account.
Great work occurs when responsibility and accountability are aligned and when the teams doing the work take ownership of not just the work but the outcomes. Great work occurs when people care.
For years, I resisted ownership as a concept at work because I had seen the concept abused far too often. Ownership of customers does not exist. Ownership of resources should not be used to block others. Ownership of projects must not used to resist collaboration and stakeholder inputs to the detriment of the work. However, a sense of deep commitment and ownership of the outcomes of work, lightly held to allow for changes, is a much more important part of success.
Organisations love accountability. Usually, in the manner of pushing accountability down the hierarchy. They hold those responsible for the work accountable while letting those accountable escape review. Power is like that. Uniting accountability and responsibility lays the foundation for genuine mutual accountability, not as parent-child in a hierarchy of power but as peers.
When organisations describe their accountability problem, it usually traces back to a few causes. Many can’t move passed an unwillingness to have hard conversations, an all too common problem. Much more commonly what is described as an accountability is a lack of clarity and alignment between accountability and responsibility and a genuine alignment to outcomes.
Bureaucracy was the solution to an evil. The Bureau was a procedural solution to the untrammelled corruption and abuses of the autocratic state. We have restrained the world with prolicy, process and procedure. We have also created a new evil to fight, particularly as we enter more procedures into digital systems.
This procedural mindset is not constrained to renegade pariah states like Russia. A key message of the Australian Institute of Company Directors in recent years after many corporate scandals has been to remind boards that the critical question is not ‘what can we do?’. The key question is ‘What should we do?’. Too many organisations have so deified procedure that they lose the ethics of the actions in rote following of procedure. We need to act with greater care.
As we moving into an increasingly digital economy, the danger of pure proceduralism is something all organisations must consider. Just because you can build a purely digital exception free process does not mean that it is wise or ethical. Examples abound where such processes either fail customers completely, fail to provide equality of access or produce absurd and inequitable results.
Digital systems are not always as transparent as they should be and without human feedback poor interactions can continue endlessly. I tire of websites that force logins but don’t realise their login procedures don’t always work. These sites get in their own way ejecting eager customers and mostly seem unmoved by the ongoing poor experience. They clearly aren’t aware of what their data could tell them.
This digital bureaucracy is particularly the case in organisations where policy and procedure has accumulated over generations in response to breakdowns and exceptions. The byzantine nature of these processes makes any human progress nearly impossible and create huge costs for digital systems and their users. Far better to provide a human with discretion to apply sense in pursuit of sensible goals.
Bureaucracy is a human tool. Bureaucracy is a tool we should deploy to human ends. When it breaks down we should allow ways to fix it or improve it or stop all together. Keeping sight of our goals and choosing the right amount of policy and procedure is an important management task. More policy and procedure is not always the best option.
Care. It is a simple admonition. One that may seem odd to need to reinforce. However the nature of our work and our organisations have so many ways to erode our care and concern for ourselves, our work and others. We need to engage the heart again and care.
At the easy end of the spectrum is caring for others. Organisational processes and policies have a habit of generalising people, de-individualising them and alienating us from the specific human colleague. This mechanical processing that treats people like widgets is an outcome of our bureaucratic preferences. Bringing care to each individual interaction, each decision and each action is a start of allowing the human back into our lives. We need to see the individual and address the individual needs to truly care for others.
At the mid point of difficulty is retaining care for our goals, purposes and concerns. These goals must be to deliver for others to have enduring meaning and to reinforce our concern for others. Building this intrinsic motivation is far more powerful than external rewards. Organisations put so many barriers and distractions between us and our concern to make a difference for others. We need to strip back our concerns and focus our care for what we can collectively achieve for others.
So many people to whom I speak are exhausted. We need to care for ourselves. I have listed this last because it is what we think of last, but it should come first. To be of value and care for others, we need to ‘put on our own mask first, before attending to others’ in the words of the inflight warning. Taking time to assess, understand and address our concerns must be part of our everyday routine.
Care often feels like the part of our working life that is easiest to let go. Great teams work to care for themselves, own their goals to benefit others and show deep care for all around them in every interaction. Letting go of care when things get difficult is a mistake. We are better to double down on our care and concern and work through that to better times.
And none could say what difference it made that she came lacy-aproned every day to raise a pale arm and wand away those unseen motes from a window shade, or stroke the rigid backs of certain books with a soft cloth, and others with soft looks.
Every profession has its secrets of success, the rules of success that are rarely discussed. These rules are obvious if your family has always worked in that occupation. If you are new to an industry or profession and don’t have family of friends to help out with guidance, it can take years to understand what is required to be done for sustained success.
Ever worked away hard at something and wondered why success doesn’t follow. Often you discover later that others had insights into better ways to work or a better understanding of success. In our professions and our organisations, the unspoken rules of success can be hard to glean. We rely heavily of insights from relatives, friends, mentors and bosses to separate out the rules.
Law firms tell young lawyers that the secret to success is billing. Busy young lawyers working for senior parntners is good for their wallets. It’s not your secret to success which is build your own practice with clients and particularly the ability to win clients, to make rain. Winning clients demands unbillable time making connections, building profile and promoting yourself. Many young lawyers who bill a lot for others only discover the importance of winning clients later when they start to go for partnership. What you are told and what you should do to succeed can be very different.
In one large organisation, you couldn’t succeed unless you were a mate of the big boss. Nobody discussed it but it became obvious over years. In another organisation, there were critical roles you needed on your resume to be promoted. Heaven help you if you were a lateral hire. It wasn’t discussed, but if you made enough friend they would let you into the secret eventually. In another organisation, everything was factional. Joining the right faction at the right time was all that mattered.
Organisations relentlessly tell us that they are meritocratic and that performance is the path to career success. However, our organisations are filled with humans, rich in society, culture, bias and prejudice. Merit Is mitigated by all kinds of secret rules.
Cracking secret rules can be hard if you aren’t born into the knowledge or invited it. Networks play a key role in unraveling these secrets. Take the time to ask people about their career paths. Ask people what you should do to get ahead and what they are doing. Focus on why. Mentors can play a key role in revealing the hidden paths of power and success.
We like to think we have control, that we can plan and that our plans are executed. Nothing is further than the reality of our lives at work and at home. We are stuck living in an interplay of forces. Rather than cling to an illusion of control we need to embrace the work of play.
Management gurus specialised in simple catchy easy to execute recommendations, Five key steps or the One Thing you need to do. These ideas look great in a book, an infographic or a Ted Talk. Yet they never quite work out. In a networked world of real humans we live in a series of nested ‘if then’ statements. We don’t act. We react. Our first intentions rarely hold beyond the first ‘punch in the mouth’.
Throw away the lights, the definitions, And say of what you see in the dark
That it is this or that it is that, But do not use the rotted names.
We can try to fight for our sense of control with ever more elaborate plans. We still lose out consistently to the dynamic, fickle, and emotional world of people. Only when we embrace that we are dealing with humans do we begin to understand that everything is interplay. The forces are many and varied. We should plan for open options and the creativity of our response. The better we respect and react to a context, a conversation or a curiosity the better we will perform. Paths outperform plans. Options have value. Conversations communicate and inform us.
Because we accept interplay, we can start to see the power of play. What you set out to achieve in a complex networked and dynamic world of humans is far less than is possible. The worst you could possibly do is achieve it alone. Embracing play brings forth the creative potential of people pushing against each other. By playing in the moment with another we must respect their intentions, contributions and their efforts as peers. The game demands it.
So much of the richness of life and relationships comes from the power to surprise, the interplay of forces beyond our control to create the unexpected. By accepting that our human peers are not inert widgets we can leverage all their contributions. We can explore the new options created and surfaced through interplay. Lean into the play and enjoy the messy beauty of what might be.
Where is our new renaissance? A recent comment by Helen Blunden on my post on the hidden damage of the pandemic reminded me of our overdue post-pandemic renaissance. We have the inequity, the warfare and the monsters of Harry Lime’s quote, what will it take to bring on the new renaissance?
Talk of a new renaissance is not new. I remember the early days of the pandemic and discussion of Isaac Newton’s plague years and his breakthroughs in optics, gravity and calculus. We also had the optimistic forecasts of renewal of our cities and economies, even the contribution of lockdowns to the recovery of nature, mitigation of global warming and reductions in pollution. Our embrace of working from home, delivery services and digital life was a transformative breakthrough.
The disappointment that these have not generated a radical change yet ignores both the shortness of the time since 2020 in terms of cultural changes and that the adjustment to the pandemic is very much ongoing. As much as our world is globalised and rapid in change now, change in worldview still takes time. The Renaissance was not a Davos-style conference that changed the world in a few days or weeks. The influence developed across generations, disciplines, and multiple countries. Perhaps one could argue that its significance is more for the influence it had on the subsequent secular Enlightenment and its consequences in revolution and societal liberation. The humanism of the Renaissance and the rise of scientific methods helped set the stage in a religious society.
It is new, always, no matter what it says above the doorway, cracked by the usual irony; it’s new anyway.
The Renaissance was also inspired by the rediscovery of ancient ideas enhanced and developed through the Arab world. Translating ancient classical works lost to Europe back from Eastern sources inspired changes, as did the healthy borrowing from the development of those ideas by Oriental philosophers, mathematicians, scientists and society as a whole.
Willingness to challenge the prevailing cultural ideas did not arise simply because of the existence of new ideas. Those ideas needed to land in fertile minds exploring changes under the sponsorship of wealthy and powerful city states and political rulers seeking to use soft power as part of wider political, economic and even military power battles. One needs only to consider the ongoing debates about Machiavelli’s meaning, intent and influence in writing The Prince to see the complexity of the time. Massive wealth, absolute power, religious absolutism, a lack of social mobility, violence, and incredible inequity provided the prevailing cultural environment in which the seeds of the Renaissance took root.
Today we tend to treat those concepts like abstract nouns capitalised for our amusement. In past eras, they had deadly and specific meanings that were unchallengeable by most. The miracle of the Renaissance and the subsequent Enlightenment is that they happened at all. Forces today still fight for their repeal.
Our governments today are hardly havens of social change or funding new research and ideas. The great contest of ideas seems largely abandoned post the ‘End of History’. Governments are trapped between neoliberalism and resurgent neo-fascism while trying to survive a daily news cycle. Our extraordinarily wealthy billionaires seek political influence and for a few male billionaires their scientific research funding is mostly funding a phallic space race as a way for themselves off a dying planet. The expenditure of their wealth as patrons for social purposes, arts and sciences come predominantly from the efforts of their partners, ex-wives and widows. Our intellectuals and elites have lost the credibility and connection to the world to advocate for new ideas and to drive change. Thought leaders, charlatans, and mob leaders are not a path to a better world. Many work tirelessly as a force for good but they feel isolated and unsupported. There is too much to do for the few.
What Needs to be New?
In this vexed context, the question arises as to what needs to be new, renewed, or newly embraced to found our new renaissance? The Renaissance offered a dazzling escape from stultifying cultural and religious uniformity in the pursuit of new ways of seeing the world. For us in this time, it is unclear to many that anything is agreed enough to be a restraint on our ways of seeing the world. Our problem is not a unifying ideology but a hyper-personalisation of reality and an abdication of the idea that government and economic society will benefit the individual.
Late stage capitalism has no obvious competitor, despite its inequities. It is hardly collapsing, even facing a harsh climate reality, and the contradictions lie with its foes. Democratic government has absorbed the themes and recommendations of its competitors. Both fit the model of being ‘the worst form but better than everything else that has been tried.’ There are no easy alternative .
I have no personal answer or I would not be exploring my thinking in this post. I doubt that there are a simple set of steps, a single rallying cry, or a piece of magical science or technology. The disappointment of much recent innovation has been its focus on getting rich quick or simply capturing attention for advertising. Where is the work to meet the world’s challenges?
Over and over again Wittgenstein frets the problem of translucence.
Why is there no clear white?
He wants to see the world through white-tinted glasses,
The frustrations of our time call for new sense making. We need to look beyond the mainstream and seek novelties and innovations growing shoots at the edges. Just as the Renaissance found ideas beyond its historical sources so can we. The Renaissance was a specifically narrow European phenomenon. My concerns and perspectives may be to large extent shaped by a similar narrowness of context. Innovations are out there in a diverse world and we need to embrace that capacity to make sense and innovate.
I may not have the answer, but I have faith in the creative potential of people supported and liberated to make change in systems for the betterment of all. I have faith that on a diverse planet we can come together around better ideas and better ways. Two and a half years ago when a pandemic loomed I called for focus on our need to foster and build our agency to tackle the challenges confronting us. Two and a half years later, we still need work on those challenges but there are promising signs that change can occur when people come together to work for something better.
More recently Power and Love have risen to the forefront of my consideration. We need more time examining and discussing power dynamics and our capacity to support others to achieve. Many of the great themes of our working life from engagement, to inclusion, to collaboration, innovation and performance fall in those considerations. Perhaps the next political and social revolution lies beyond these considerations.
If I add anything to our next Renaissance it is our sense of shared Belonging. In many dimensions our society, our organisations and our lives are fractured. We have lost a widely shared sense of belonging. Nationalism threatens even a shared global community. We can find our own small cliques and engage more intensely than ever. Is our lost belonging the result of fifty years or more of ‘bowling alone’?
If we are seeking a new Renaissance in agency, love, power and belonging then it feels to me that we are seeking a renaissance of civil society. Civil society defines our relations and how we come together as a society, a community and a nation. Perhaps that is where we must focus our new revival.
This post remains an exploration. Let me know your ideas and thoughts.