Flexible Working: Beyond Binary Thinking

The work is where the heart is

If your organisation is only talking about working at home or working in the office, then you are missing the potential productivity and other benefits of flexible working. However, to realise these benefits you will need to move beyond binary thinking and lean into the tension and choices for employees, teams and the organisation.

Flexible working is about…flexibility. The choice for organisations is not a binary one between working at home and working in an office. There are multiple dimensions of work arrangements and patterns that can be leveraged to meet the needs of the work involved, the people and the strategy of the organisation. Escaping the binary of in the office versus at home is essential to an effective strategy.

Before You Begin

Before you even consider the choices for flexible working, there are a few foundations that you and the team need to understand in your organisation. These elements are what shape your approach to flexible working:

  • What is the purpose of the organisation?
  • What culture do you wish to practice?
  • What are your performance management & career development models?
  • What kinds of work does each team and role do to fulfil the organisational strategy?
  • What constraints do you have from a time, security, technical or legal perspective?

You may look at the list and see a lot of work to do to be ready for flexible working. However, this work isn’t preamble. These questions shape what you want work to achieve and how you expect it to happen. The outcome of these questions is a major part of your chosen employee value proposition. If your flexible working strategy does not align to that will fail. A flexibile working strategy fulfils your work and your strategy. It cannot be independently determined.

Any attempt to impose a working model that doesn’t reflect these factors will fail or cause ongoing major issues for employees and the organisation. The better you understand the questions above, the better you can work with leaders and teams to change their work.

A Menu, Not a Compliance Process

Flexible working is flexible. You are designing a menu of choices for individuals and teams. The teams are going to use the menu to fit their work to their needs, the organisations needs, and the outcomes that they need to achieve. If you are designing a watertight step-by-step compliance process, stop you are going the wrong way. Employee and team choices are fundamental.

Choice means tensions. There won’t be a one size fits all. You also won’t make 100% of people happy 100% of the time. Because the flexibility options need to meet so many conditions and also suit both the needs of individuals and teams there will be some need for compromise. Teams and individuals will have to discuss and agree how they balance the work and personal tensions using the choices from the menu.

Your sales director may want to work from the hiking paths of Nepal, but if a major part of that work is engaging clients in Australia, wifi is spotty in Nepalese mountains, and the role involves working with other teams in the organisation, that ambition will likely have to be compromised. Otherwise your sales director needs to find a role that better fits their lifestyle. However, working from home or a regional location for work, client or family reasons might be a better option for all involved.

The Minimum Menu Options

Some work is timebound and must happen at particular times. Let’s call this synchronous work. Other work is able to be done at any time. Let’s call this asynchronous work. Organisations need also to realise that their work is both internal and with external partners. Your flexible working menu should include options to cover the following patterns of work at anywhere and in the office:

  • Synchronous, External Partner Work
  • Asynchronous, External Partner Work
  • Synchronous, Internal Work
  • Asynchronous, Internal Work

All four modes above can be delivered anywhere. There is no location built into those options by design. Much of the asynchronous work can be done anywhere by definition. However, the menu and the choice of your teams will shape where those patterns of work occur.

There are another two dimensions that need to be factored into this menu to cater to the needs of focused individual effort and collaborative creation and problem solving:

  • Individual work
  • Collaborative work

Mixing these together gives us a menu like this:

It is important to recognise that location is only a small part of the menu choices. We obsess over our offices, office design and meeting spaces but they aren’t all of our work choices. Much more important is the infrastructure and tools to support the breadth of work arrangements required. After all only 3 of the 8 triangles might require physical co-location. Even in these 3 we have seen through our recent experiences of lockdown work can go on without physical location.

Requiring physical location is an unnecessary strict standard and one that it is very hard to meet. The hard part about flexibile working is that there are no binding rules, just choices and tensions. Employees, teams and the organisation may choose physical location when not strictly required for social, cultural or other reasons. There is a lot of informal interaction and context sharing in a workplace that is critical for relationship building, alignment and productivity but hard to capture when separated. I’ve long been an advocate for the kinds of tools that we have used in recent months to work remotely. They have for too long been underleveraged by organisations to their detriment. However, every utopia has its underlying dystopia. I also understand that being forced to work remotely is suboptimal for much work and for many many people. The social stresses of recent times highlight that clearly.

Every organisation needs to remember that the entire menu of choices contribute to culture and engagement. Engaging individuals and teams across the organisation in developing a menu and thinking in a detailed way about where to work and for what tasks will help drive new levels of organisational productivity and engagement. Because there are choices and tensions, the best way to make decisions in your organisation will be to involve the employees and teams involved in a detailed consideration of how best to manage the work. That process alone will contribute new productivity ideas and new levels of engagement.

Boundaryless

Storm clouds brewing in the digital fields

Of many one
engaging the ear as if the Pacific

meant its name, as if the edge of
continent contented us with boundary.
Draw a line from A to B. Live there.

Bin Ramke, Curve of Pursuit

2020 was going to be my year of better managing boundaries. Instead all the boundaries came down as we all battled to #WFHIADGP (‘working from home in a deadly global pandemic’). Soon we found that all of life was a digital melange of work mixed with family and friends with voluntary responsibilities and other commitments. Calls blended with chat, texts flew, communities proliferated and emails just kept coming. Overlayed over the top was a mild case of existential dread. We had realised the long sought future of work digital working nirvana overnight, but like any good utopia it was secretly dystopian.

So what did I learn from this experience for the way we work flexibily in organisations going forward:

Boundaries Matter

If boundaries aren’t there because of the need for physical movement to different spaces or because of clear transitions between different time periods, we need to create them. Work days need to end. Time blocks are useful for productivity. Breaks in work matter. Projects and even relationships end. There is a time to switch off, to stop and we don’t have to be always on to work or to live.

Planning for ‘digital commutes’, scheduling a morning and evening walk, finishing a day or a week with social activities are all important parts of signalling transition. It is also important to manage the interruptions that cross boundaries. We don’t have to answer work calls out of hours or in the middle of other tasks and commitments. Email doesn’t have to be read and managed 24×7

It is also important to ensure that in a flexible working environment that projects have begining and ends. It is easy for project tasks to drift on after a project is complete and become a new level of support and work with little reward of achievement and much less return.

Understanding Context Matters More than Knowing with Certainty

For much of 2020 and even into 2021, we didn’t know exactly what was going on. We may never again manage with our usual false senses of certainty, confidence and security. However, we learned that knowing everything was much less important than understanding the context in the bounds of what we had to do.

I could have spent the last year in the many twists and turns of epidemiology, US Politics or any other controversy, especially as a distraction from the here and now of a lockdown, but gradually I turned my attention to understanding my own context more deeply. Drawing clear boundaries within which I need to understand context and letting other things go, helped me manage the complexity a great deal. The goal was not always to achieve perfect certainty on an ever shifting environment within my own narrow bounds, but to pay greater attention to what was going on and how it influenced me. That was a big win and that presence is ongoing work.

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

Bei Dao, The Boundary

No is More Powerful than Yes

I have long known the power of saying no but it became much clearer to me since we started grappling with WFHIADGP. I have a very strong bias to say yes, to do things, to make things work and to stretch for more. I am an enthusiast and I hate missing out.

At the beginning of last year there was a flurry of interest in working from home. I had a lot of interest in my expertise and ideas. I had to work very hard last year to resist that temptation, choosing only the opportunities that I could do and also those to which I added unique value. I also had to accept that this meant ceding the space to others.

I turned down roles and opportunities. I didn’t pursue client engagements. I wound back my social media and social activity. I chose not to do more. I even put my long planned book project on hold as I worked to make all the pieces of my life hang together. No was my boundary enforcer.

It’s a Small World After All

One of the hardest lessons to learn in life is that the narrower our focus the bigger our impact. Small things done well make big changes possible. Instead of dreaming for the biggest changes possible in one step we can benefit from leveraging small changes in nearby adjacencies. We achieve more if we go step-by-step after a clear and narrow goal. We need to manage boundaries to make the most of our impact. Boundaries provider constraints that help focus, make us creative and help us find those evolutionary changes.

I achieved far more last year in a fully flexible environment than I had thought possible. Productivity was increased and importantly my colleagues and contacts adapted well to the need to redesigning work and projects to an asynchronous, virtual flow. There were undoubtedly new work, social and emotional pressures of lockdowns and a pandemic but the one binding boundary constraint of social distance was not a barrier to engaging with people effectively within an organisation, within a city or across the world. All that was required was to explore the small evolutionary steps to improve performance and to evolve the work outcomes towards success. We did that well.

Let’s not talk
about rampages, disasters,
conflicts or coupes that never
ruined a perfectly good year
during which the sun shined
on the moon, the earth,
and six billion who, for once,
got everything right and not
a single thing wrong.

Hayan Charara, Nothing Happened in 1999
Small evolutionary steps to better work together

Wonder

Where will this go?

Wonder is underappreciated, So much of our creative and innovative potential flows from the simple act of wondering ‘what if’.

When I put together the Value Maturity Model of Collaboration, I had worked with people in organisations as they move from using collaboration platforms for communication then to solve their problems and on to creating new problems by asking curly ‘what if’ questions. Employees would ask “what if we did this another way?” or “how could we better meet customer needs?” or even “what if we didn’t do this at all?” The resulting conversations and work built on that wonder and drew others into the complex work to scale and sustain change. The last stage of the model, Innovate, is driven by that curiosity, creativity but above all the power to wonder about what might be.

As children, we have direct drive imaginations that can apply a sense of wonder to anything in our environment and beyond. As adults we don’t loose that capability, we just layer on top of it other pressures – power, social, work and time that make it less commonly applied. The questions are still raised and still there we just don’t as often take the time to share them with others or work on bringing these wondrous ideas to life in community.

Rekindling wonder in the organisation for the benefit of innovation involves engaging with those pressures and giving employees back the time and the freedom to dream a little more, to work a little differently and to come together in the pursuit of a purpose. The Value Maturity Collaboration Model reflects this because it recognises that for employees to feel ready to wonder they need to:

  • Be aligned on shared purpose and feel safe to share their ideas
  • Have the context to understand the organisational capabilities, work, priorities and issues
  • Have the agency and freedom to make choices about their work and their contribution to the organisation
  • Have time and resources to wonder, to collaborate and to create

In our lives, wonder can be prompted by an unusual sky, a dark wood or the site of another person going about their lives. We want that same curiosity in our organisations because that attention, effort and creativity is the heart of great customer service, creative problem solving and the ability of our organisations to adapt sustainably to change. Just as importantly, that wonder is how employees discover their potential and improve their performance by reaching for something not yet achieved or not yet done. In the transactional performance oriented hurly burly of our organisations, we need to invest time and effort to help our colleagues to wonder. We can’t loose the human magic of curiosity and a creative imagination. The rewards are as manifold as the paths that our curiosity and imagination may take.

Ask a ‘what if’ question today and take your colleagues on a journey of adventure, dreams and discovery.

Feeling Good

I have come to a frightening conclusion.

I am the decisive element in the classroom.

It is my personal approach that creates the climate.

It is my daily mood that makes the weather.

As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.

I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.

I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.

In all situations it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or de-humanized.

Haim Ginott, a variant of this is often wrongly attributed to Goethe

Our emotions are complex ambiguous, shaped by many factors and influences. Much of the time we have choices as to how we shape our own and other’s experience of our emotional state. We need to bring presence and emotional intelligence to all our interactions more than ever.

A New Dawn

I was recently reminded of Nina Simone’s Feeling Good. As is so common with Nina Simone’s amazing talent, the song is beautiful, engaging and highly evocative. From its spare ambiguous opening the song ramps to a big band celebration of the potential of ‘a new dawn, a new day and a new life’ to bring the chance to feel good and find new freedom. The listener is taken on a journey as Nina Simone leads us through the discovery that she does indeed feel good and that better times are as real as the natural beauty referenced in the song.

As human beings, our emotional state is influenced by narratives of our own making. We carry emotions from day-to-day and moment-to-moment reinforcing both negative and positive emotions based on the stories we are telling ourselves, telling others and creating as we go. At times, the emotion we experience whether a high or a low can be widely divergent from the circumstances of our situation. As social creatures, we can also be drawn into the contagion of the emotions of those around us.

Those narratives play a major role in our emotions but there are also times we can choose to drop them or swap them. Finding that moment of choice, that new dawn, is often about our ability to find presence and see with new eyes and think with new thoughts.

The House of the Rising Sun

Presence is an opportunity for us to reset our emotional narrative, escape our bubbles and its cascade of self-confirmation. Presence gives us a chance to choose which of our own personal ‘Big Lies’ we continue to carry and which we discard. Remember in emotions we are always both experiencer, giver and receiver. Staying present helps us make choices as to how the ‘decisive element’ of our emotional state plays out for others and ourselves.

Discovery of the emotions lying beneath the narrative can be a powerful learning opportunity. Dissatisfaction can be driven by the power of yearning, as an emotional state that signals to us the need to change, to act and to move toward something new. The emotional energy that comes from new and different conversations can signal more work that can be done and will be productive.

Not everyone gets to choose their emotional state. For those that have the option, we should take care to explore presence and how we can be a constructive influence for our own development and those around us. After all, what we think and feel underneath the imposed stories and unnecessary ones, is one form of agency that can never be taken from us whatever we may be obliged to perform. Finding that also enhances our unflappable power to make change. Our emotional comfort gives others confidence and is often confused with wisdom.

so they wouldn’t do anything except listen to the songs in their
heads which were sad ones like nearly all good songs and watch
this feeling rolling in, sunshine or rain, we don’t know yet,
it’s a good one, it’s the best one, though it has no name.

Emily Berry, No Name

Survival

So much of life, business and management is the art of survival. However, we rarely discuss the importance of hanging in against the odds and outliving the competition. We suffer from a survivorship bias. We are disproportionately focused on the outcomes and methods of those that survive as if they delivered success but rarely consider what actually enabled them to survive long enough to succeed. Survival becomes invisible.

Surviving to the Second Half

Riding off into the sunset

I worked with a leader who constantly reminded his team that “the white hats only win in the second half of the movie”. While that is a neat summation of dramatic narrative, it is also contains a few reminders about life:

  • success is not easy: there will be ups and downs and shocks along the way. There will be moments when it feels like it is over or when the opposition to your success is too much.
  • survival counts: you have to survive to the ‘end’ if you want to be on the winning team. Persistence and resilence matter but so do other survival techniques like husbanding your resources, picking battles and even playing for time. If luck comes occasionally, the more you hang around the luckier you will be.
  • survival isn’t always doing: Survival is mostly being, still being. It can be a matter of who you are, who you know, where you are standing, what you have and so on. Health, networks, wealth and wellbeing can be as important as your strategy for survival. This is what success and privilege have strong correlations – privilege increases the resources to survive.
  • each story is just one part of phase of play: beginnings and ends of movies are chosen for narrative reasons; the most interesting bits of action lie in between. However, there is always a lot that goes on before, after and off screen. Much of that uninteresting stuff is the work of survival and only makes it into the movie version in passing or a quick montage – preparing, accumulating capabilities, learning and practising skills, winning support and waiting. It is also important to remember to leave enough to survive beyond the ‘end’.

Looking Beyond the Frame

I had an insight into the value of survival in the 1990s dot com crash. I was working for an Australian ecommerce player in the lead up to Christmas, the biggest sales period of the year. Our business had capital to survive to the new year and spent it carefully. We watched our two highest profile competitors run out of money in the month up to Christmas spending money aggressively to win. Because of their spending, they needed more capital and investors had become nervous because of a number of high profile global collapses. All of sudden we were the largest remaining player. We had the market almost to ourselves, we had time to adapt and it propelled that business to survive for years afterwards. Our willingness to ‘lose’ the battle for Christmas online was our winning proposition.

When we start to look at the role of survival in success we see other examples where our studies of successful individuals and organisations suffer from a survivorship bias that we rarely consider:

  • The Talent that Leaves: Most successful people benefit from better talent leaving the organisation for better opportunities or because they couldn’t stand the culture. No CEO profile mentions their luck in this regard.
  • Competitor Stumbles: Almost all success stories have examples of competitors who were better placed at some point but stumbled opening an avenue for the survivor. In many cases, that is all the difference between success and failure. Execution matters but it can also be that relative execution is what matters.
  • Survivable Setbacks: Setbacks are not evenly distributed. Some get small setbacks early and big ones later when they are better able to handle the challenges or manage the impact on reputation. Big setbacks early can drive people and competitors out of a game before they get a chance.
  • Adaptation takes time: Successful businesses and people have had the time to recover from setbacks. Others don’t always get the time and space.
  • Risk Avoidance: Many survivors avoid risks but benefit from the risks taken by others to propel them or their organisation forward. You can look like a star just by having your peers crash around you and leveraging their work to propel the organisation to success.
  • Delegating Danger: Leaders who view their teams as expendable and fungible resources will have a tendency to delegate danger to the team or another business to protect themselves. Those who try to save others are rarely as well rewarded for their efforts as they should be and often blamed for their involvement in a problem that they did not create.
  • Study Failure: We can learn from failure, but we rarely deeply consider the drivers of success let alone failure. Our temptation is to quickly adopt a heroic narrative. Once the white hats go on, the outcome was inevitable.

We better understand strategy, success and failure if we seek to understand the role of survival in life and in business. Working out how to hang in there and prepare to survive is an important skills. We can also help to address inequities that are lost in the narrative when we only study survivors.

The Gift of Gratitude

Every Friday morning at 8 o’clock I have a event in my calendar. That event is marked by the word Gratitude. It is a reminder to me before the week ends to reflect on those things for which I am grateful and to express my gratitude to those who have helped, support or inspired me during the week.

That reminder has been in my diary since 2015 and has really helped me find more time to recognise others. Importantly, the consistent reflection and the giving to others also helps my mood. Taking time to find what is going well and is helping matters. Reinforcing that in your key relationships is important. I have been stunned how many people weren’t expecting thanks or did not realise the value of their work to me.

I never have to invent gratitude. When I stop and reflect there is always a lot for which I am grateful. There are always others to whom I owe my thanks. Making sure I tell them is a simple thing.

We don’t go through life alone. Take the time to thank those who are making your life better. That has never been more important.

Gratitude is a simple gesture. Everybody gains. Let’s practice more gratitude in all aspects of our lives.

Performance

The key to success is sincerity. If you can fake that you’ve got it made.

George Burns

Ever considered that we use the same term for delivery of our role expectations and acting? Performance is a big part of our organisations. Are you getting the performance you expect or a show?

I saw a recent post by a thought leader that was advocating leaders focus on authenticity. That post defined authenticity as ‘creating the appearance of transparency, sincerity, and authentic behaviour.’ I thought it was a remarkably authentic definition of the focus of much of the discussion of authenticity in organisations. Instead of being who they are, the goal is to teach people to perform as if they are who they should be. All the rough and inconvenient edges are smoothed away. If you can fake that you’ve got it made.

Playing a role is a major part of any employee’s experience of an organisation. Oddly, that role is rarely defined or even considered in the employee experience. Employees are left to work out that part of the employee experience for themselves. The roles we perform to fit in are usually undiscussable. A great deal of the psychological stress of any organisation is the art of ‘faking it until you make it’, exploring the required performance of the role before you even consider doing what the role requires as achievements.

In Erving Goffman’s work on performance theory he explicitly used a theatre metaphor to examine how people managed the impressions that they created in others. In his work, people seek self-preservation by managing others favourable impressions. These characteristics are not unrelated to the key ‘theories in use’ of behaviour that Argyris describes in Teaching Smart People to Learn. Consider how favourably we view these behaviours:

  • Remaining in control
  • Maximising winning
  • Avoiding emotions
  • Appearing rational

We hire people because they look the part and we let them develop to success because they continue to look the part while the results have not yet arrived. This performance is a major barrier to the career success of diverse candidates who may not look the part or take longer to understand the subtleties of performance due to cultural or other differences in experience. Bear in mind this assessment has nothing to do with talent, potential or delivery on role expectations. We are adjudging performances.

Unreality, illusions and undiscussables are major barriers to achieving real outcomes in organisations and a major barrier to adaptation. The performance dynamic that Goffman discuss and that lie behind the Burns joke are real social human behaviours. Ignoring or banning them won’t help us. Demanding authenticity just increases the art form to another level. Moving beyond this, requires us to make the performance explicit and end the willing suspension of disbelief. We do that by helping employees understand the explicit domains and expectations as openly as possible.

Performance is a part of the employee experience so include it in the handbook. In this experience economy use the tools of theatre to design an experience that explicitly engages performance and guides the employee. This includes:

  • Defining the different situations in the organisation and how each context has different expectations and actions. For example, does your organisation behave differently with clients or in industry functions to internal conversations. It is wise in this process to reassess if these differences are valid or required.
  • Build flexibility into the scenes and acts in those situations to enable employees to improvise and adapt. Help your employees understand that real life is more like improvisational comedy or street theatre than classical theatre of any culture.
  • Make characters, behaviours & successful scripts explicit and shared. If people have to act, at least give them a script and ensure that script is really agreed by the audience who judges the performance. Throw out any outdated behaviours that don’t reflect actual ‘theories in use’ and review the validity of those in operation in the organisation.
  • Create space off-stage and back-stage to enable employees to escape their roles and prepare for the next performance. If there needs to be directors, set designeers, propmasters, dressers, lighting, sound and others to support the performance, include and celebrate these roles.
  • Focus on outcomes, not performance. Reward outcomes and not performance. Review all the systems in your organisation that are performance oriented, like recruitment, talent and promotion to ensure that you aren’t getting those who best fake it.
  • Maintain an open dialog around the effectiveness of the performance to the situations and a low tolerance for the unreal.

Can We Be Saved?

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

WB Yeats, The Second Coming
Somewhere out there

For some it feels as if things are breaking apart or about to do so? The 2020s have shades of the 1920s, but on top of political turmoil, nationalism, economic crises and stock market enthusiasms we have other monsters at the gates too. Can we be saved which in reality means can we find the wherewithal to save ourselves? I am an optimist enough to believe we can but a realist who can see the headwinds.

So what do we do when we are unsure if the world is breaking apart?

We accept the world is always in transition. Grieve the losses. We foster what works better now.

The Headwinds of Change

Economy: once a net, now a handful of holes.
Economy: what a man moves with
when, even in sleep, he is trying to save
all there is left to save.

Sandra Beasley, Economy

There’s a daunting list of the headwinds of change to address the monsters at the gates. Some of these headwinds like information bubbles & misinformation, income inequality and the breakdown of social connection are getting worse. Sectors of society can’t even agree on the utility of wearing a mask, let alone tackling climate change.

However, we must remember that news thrives on bad news. If noting else, humans are adaptable and long term fundamentals, like global lifespans, reduction in global poverty and so on, remain on an upward trend. The challenge is to sustain this into the next generations and give them more time to adapt. The headwinds are why we need to set to work now.

Adaptation

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.

Attributed to Charles Darwin. It is unlikely he said this or would endorse it.

If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.

Jack Welch. Definitely said it but look at GE since his tenure.

The above quotes are extraordinarily common in corporate thought leadership. They suggest that adaptation is the challenge. All an organisation needs to manage is its speed of response and it will survive and likely even prosper. So much work and effort has been invested in speeding up the hamster wheel as a result. That speed, complexity and the disconnections in our system are increasingly issues for organisations. Faster change can also be a faster path to the end, just ask all those clever ideas that rapidly scaled themselves beyond their capital trying to win a planned future raise.

Quoting Darwin brings the illusion of science and particularly evolution, but that quote ignores how evolutionary selection works. In evolutionary selection, everyone dies. It’s just that some mutations in the creation of the next generation enable some of future generations to continue with advantages. Nobody chooses to adapt. Nobody changes themselves. Nature supplies the change and the harsh and deadly selection process. As I have previously pointed out on the latter quote, it is no longer possible to outpace a connected global market.

Adaptation can be important at an individual level and some longlived organisations have undergone long and slow change to survive for generations and even centuries. However, many of our organisations are too big and too wedded to their current practices to adapt. Critically, many will not abandon or destroy their current model of success to do so. They lack the context to understand competition that threatens their overplaying of a past success, reliance on a fundamental process or overdependence on a core historical metric. Many individuals struggle with change for the same lack of perception asking “how can I need to change? I am doing it the way that always worked before”.

Foster What Works Now

There’s nothing to save, now all is lost,
but a tiny core of stillness in the heart
like the eye of a violet

DH Lawrence, Nothing to Save

We all die in the end so what should we do? Grieve for the losses. Foster what works better now.

There is so much that needs to be done it can be overwhelming. However, big solutions aren’t always the answer. We are tempted always to go for Moonshots (or Marshots). Our focus on scale, growth and speed suggests to us that there must be one magical answer that addresses everything. Life is more complicated than that. More importantly, the path forward is unclear enough that it’s not yet time to be boarding the rocket to Mars with any certainty.

Gall’s Law proposes that all complex systems evolved from small systems that work. It comes with the helpful proviso that not all small systems work. We won’t find one action that fixes everything. What we can do is start small, do what works and build forward from there.

If our organisations cannot adapt through these small changes, then at least the work on these transformations will enable us to discover others who think the same and develop an ability to build new organisations to leverage the learning. The Berkana Two Loops Model of Change is a powerful framework for how to consider this kind of large scale change in systems. This model reflects the likely scenario that a new system will grow from something small and replace the current system, instead of adapting the current system to the change.

Things feel uncertain, liminal and transitional at present. What we struggle to see is that the feeling is a good thing. Our world is never settled and secure. It is always changing. We are in a phase where that change is very visible and very needed. We should embrace the uncertainty and focus on the small steps we can each make to bring about a change for the better. Collectively those efforts will discover new paths.

…”What is strength for,
that has endured much, but to endure more?”

Marion Strobel, Growth

All the Feels

All the Feels

Repeat after me: These are not normal times. Be prepared to offer more emotional support to friends, family and colleagues. Consider the emotional context of your work and changes and allow others to share their responses or risk surprises and disappointment.

Not Your Usual

As the Australian summer ends and the work year begins again, I’ve heard a lot of stories that sadly don’t surprise. Many people have had emotionally charged experiences with relatives and friends through Christmas, New Year and the summer. Relationships have been highly emotional even with Australia’s relatively benign conditions for the pandemic, perhaps even because there are relatively benign conditions.

Christmas is an emotionally charged time in families in the best years. Many experience add pressure because it is a time of taking stock, work pressures and financial stress. This year the experience has been supercharged by separation, deferred celebrations and the residual emotional issues of loss, isolation and strained relationships. It’s little surprise that emotions can boil over.

Many others have expressed to me the sense that it is difficult getting back to the normal level of activity and energy. People have lost outlets for leisure and relaxation. Some feel guilt that things have gone well while others struggled. Work is a now major part of family and the home. With major changes in the way we work and its pressures, people are reflecting again on work, its rewards and its challenges. For some there are significant changes to be made that bring stress and risk.

A global pandemic has ways of messing with our life, our work, our hopes and dreams. During that experience, we are focused on just living day to day and getting through it alone and ideally together. For some crisis breeds solidarity and for others a suppression of our emotional options as we focus on survival.

As we move on beyond the crisis phase of the pandemic to live with as an ongoing part of our lives, then new and complex emotions arise. All the moods come all at once.

A Time For EQ

In business we tend to discuss emotional intelligence as an abstract and occasionally useful skill that we use in between or around work. In this time of heightened emotion, emotional intelligence is a core skill in all relationships. Emotional intelligence isn’t a training course. It needs to be a part of every work and social interaction. This is not a time to delegate EQ to HR or the team ‘people person’.

Begin meeting with a check-in for all participants. It is a simple step to give teams a chance to share how they are feeling. It also helps teams identify those who might need more conversations and support especially in remote work scenarios.

This is a time to ask ‘Are you OK?’ and wait to listen actively to the answer. The story may not come out at first but if we take time to understand and invest in our relationships then there will be rewards in the depth of engagement and reduced risks.

Whether coaching, mentoring or management, now is the time for one-on-one discussions with team members. Invest the extra time for regular conversations with your team, your colleagues and other important relationships. Make sure you understand what is going on for these relationships in their important relationships. Family and relationship stress is contagious.

Difficult emotions when unaddressed rarely improve on their own. Annoyance can become resentment and explode into anger. Frustration can grow or subside into lack of engagement and even depression. Even an excess of enthusiasm and a cheery disposition can be a part of a coping mechanism to mask deeper challenges. Earlier conversations are likely to be easier than later ones. Earlier help can be transformational for people struggling with the complexity of emotions at this time. Modern organisations have a lot of support for employees mental and emotional health but too often it goes unused because people don’t feel able to take it up.

All our work and social relationships are with humans. Those carefully chosen people come with talents and potential but they also bring a rich, diverse and complex emotional history. Those emotions may well be at the fore at this time. Ignoring the richness and diversity will cost you in individual and team performance and it will mean you likely fail to realise the potential of people you have carefully chosen in your work and life. If ever there was a time to engage with the moods of your unique collection of humans, it is now.

Walls

The barbarians get through eventually anyway

Be careful where you build walls. They can take on a life of their own defining work, belonging and othering in complex ways. Encouraging teams and organisations to live with permeable and adaptable boundaries gives them a better chance to deliver value and realise their strategy than hard walls.

The Other Side

Humans are tribal. Walls shape the perception of the edge of our tribe, determining things like who belongs, what we believe and who we trust. A wall is a dramatic manifestation of the difference between the in-group who belong and the out-group who don’t.

Put a wall in the wrong place and it can have severe consequences. We are familiar with the battles between silos in our organisations. Those silo walls determine the limits of where power runs, information & resources are shared and who is trusted. Whether marked with glass, plasterboard or invisible lines, those boundaries are fiercely defended. Much of the dysfunction of our organisations occurs when these silo walls rise up between teams or become tall enough to be seen from outside. I suspect some organisations silo walls can be seen from the Moon.

More dangerously, I’ve seen companies that put their customers or suppliers or community on the other side of a wall as untrusted enemies and then wondered why their business struggles and employees make poor decisions. Far too many organisation install a glass wall, a door or a whole separate floor around the senior executives. The world inside those walls soon became its own bubble distinct from the rest of the organisation, customers or anyone else outside. Safety inside a wall can be very dangerous when you no longer understand the world beyond the wall.

From Walls to Permeable Boundaries

Tribalism attaches to even the flimsiest walls. Walls exist to separate and prevent exchange and interaction. Information flow falls, collaboration drops, conflict increases at these hard boundaries of power, resources or information. Before long people who need to work together and interact will see only the Other. Instead of walls we need permeable and adaptable boundaries that shifts with the demands of customers, the work and the changing circumstances.

As our organisations inevitably become more diverse and reflective of a connected global planet, we need to remember that diversity can lie in tension with trust. Difference can be creative but it can also undermine trust and collaboration. New walls can spring up in the organisation around the smallest barriers and differences. The answer is not to be less diverse. Misguided notions of ‘cultural fit’ are a path to failure. The key is to remember that diversity is inevitable and building relationships across an organisation needs to be a full time task.

Restructures are time consuming and destructive of trust and value. Avoiding the commitment to silo walls that will inevitably end up in the wrong place and need to be pulled down is a great saver of time and money. More importantly, encouraging your employees to see boundaries as adaptable where required ensures that internal barriers never get in the way of customers and that the external barriers of the organisation won’t become stultifying or impermeable too.

The simplest way to make your organisational boundaries more permeable is to engage your teams in a shared sense of effort. Building an enterprise-wide sense of community is a key underpinning capability and creates a framework for ongoing adaptation. Alignment to the organisational purpose and strategy provides a context for trust and understanding and a counterweight to unique teams. That same strategy helps define the relationships that matter beyond the organisation as well through suppliers, customers and community.

Relationships built across and through the organisation punch holes in the walls that do exist and enable people to develop the agency to make adaptation happen. Increasing alignment, transparency and purposeful agency drives exponential rewards in organisations far beyond the removal of waste, duplication and dysfunction.