Simon Terry

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Society, We Need to Talk

‘The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore one another, to care only about ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility or forgiveness lost their depth and dimension, and for many of us they represented only psychological peculiarities, or they resembled gone- astray greetings from ancient times, a little ridiculous in the era of computers and spaceships. Only a few of us were able to cry out loudly that the powers that be should not be all-powerful‘ Vaclav Havel

A conversation about China’s social credit score and its danger of bureaucratic absurdities, this week reminded me of this quote from Vaclav Havel’s New Year address in just first year as President of Czechoslovakia. Havel became President of Czechslovakia after the collapse of its communist regime in the Velvet Revolution. The contaminated moral environment he describes is a consequence of the totalitarian state and its pressures on citizens to believe falsehoods and to act in compliance with its rules.

We are seeing the threat of this contaminated moral environment widely in civil society. Our political systems are grappling with the challenges of fake news and media that acts as a tool of propaganda channelling information into media bubbles to reinforce opinions. Social media has become less about engagement and more about brand and image resulting in people portraying fake lifestyles on Instagram and acting as thought leaders across a range of channels by expressing uncontroversial platitudes in pursuit of followers and the satisfaction of acceptance.

At the same time, the recent revelations on the role of data in social media have highlighted the extent to which these platforms and all of digital society is creating a data-based surveillance machinery. In Australia the Banking Royal Commission, has highlighted the extent to which organisations espouse one set of values while acting in pursuit of the financial interests of another set of values.

The only path forward to unwind this threat is for us to engage in the real hard conversations of civil society. We need to resist the calls for cheap and easy solutions offered by demagogues. We need to resist the calls for division and pursuit of the one ideologically true way coming from many quarters. We have to discuss real issues in a meaningful and human way. When trust has broken down and people don’t share fundamental context, we can’t start by shouting at each other.

We can create domains to listen, to share, to understand and to begin to explore the connections that make a civil society. Social media can play a role in creating new connections and new conversations but only if we use it not as media, but as the foundation of community. We will have to widen circles, invite different views, encourage others to speak up and then agree on action. The path forward is not one of loyalty and alignment.  The path forward in a civil society must always be participation and inclusion. Only on this foundation will we find the way to come together and act on the changes necessary to reform our moral environment and support the vibrant civil societies we need to succeed into the future.

Part 4 – Leading Discomfort

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That uncomfortable moment when we both wonder ‘who is leading this? I hope it is not me’

The transformation of organisations to adapt to new digital networked economy and to leverage future of work behaviours creates new discomfort for leaders. Leadership is not the art of making things good or having the right answers. Leadership is the art of enabling others to work together through discomfort.

We have examined the role of discomfort in the future of work. We have looked at the personal implications of discomfort and our need to engage with reality. Now let’s look at what this enduring discomfort means for leadership.

Leaders Aren’t Magicians

We can’t expect leaders to be magicians. The world is too complex and too fast paced for hierarchal or any leaders to have all the answers. Our work is increasingly intertwined in systems, stakeholders and interpersonal dynamics. Each of these brings complexity that makes the work of leaders hard and prevents quick fixes and simple patterns of action.

Worse still many employees and many organisations have an outdated expectation that the role of leader is to make a team safe, to make work simple and easy and to provide security and protection. Those expectations are unable to be met in the modern environment of work. Connections to the outside world cannot be cut without imperilling performance. Once we let the network world in to our work it brings change, risk and complexity. For many leaders, the greatest source of discomfort is that the expectations of their power far outweigh their actual influence on people, work and outcomes.

Embrace Discomfort & Enable Others

Leaders need to embrace their own discomfort and help their teams to productively navigate the environment and their emotional states in work. A key first step is for leaders to have honest conversations about the expectations around work, to understand the challenges and to callout that discomfort, like change, is not only likely but inevitable.

When managed in this way, discomfort can be a productive source of energy for change and a unifier of teams and stakeholders. Rather than suppress discomfort, people can leverage discomfort as a trigger for change, as a rationale for action and as pressure for sustaining the work. Focusing attention on the accountability for improvement in a group and helping the group engage with that work is a leader’s work, far more than providing answers.

Leaders need to work to make discomfort feel safe for action and interaction. Creating psychological safety despite the discomfort of work is essential to team performance. Leaders need to encourage employees to embrace a more human approach to work that includes not just their technical expertise but their social and emotional expertise as well.

Great leaders create others who can inspire and enable action and share that capability widely across their organisations and communities. One of the greatest drivers of performance is increasing the number of people who can help others to work through discomfort.

Work Together

When we are uncomfortable, it can seem easier to withdraw to safety. People will pull back into their own domains as if that offers safety. The nature of modern work requires connection and collaboration. Leaders are critical to role model this behaviour and help others see the benefits of working together. Building new capabilities and new practices for connection, sharing and collaboration is essential.

Often we need to work together across the reach of a leader’s authority. Great leaders are those who can find shared interests and help facilitate this wider stretch collaboration. This work is how we gain a shared context and learn together how we address the big problems of our organisations and our societies.

Lastly, leaders can help teams achieve enduring change in their work by changing their relationships across the organisation. Those relationships might be long settled or tied up in cultural expectations that are difficult to adapt. Everyone needs to be encouraged to reflect on these human relationships and how they contribute to better interactions, performance and outcomes.

This post is part of a multi-part series exploring discomfort in the future of work. Future posts will examine how organisations, leaders and individuals can manage this discomfort. These posts are part of a process of working out loud to explore these uncomfortable concepts so feedback is welcome.

Part 1: The Role of Discomfort.

Part 2: The Personal Discomfort

Part 3: Engaging with Reality

Part 3: The Discomfort of Working with Reality

Learning is a common source of discomfort in the future of work. A related source of discomfort is that many future of work practices force us to focus on reality – whether that is the reality inside our organisations, the world of our customers and communities or wider society. We cannot learn to sit with discomfort until we embrace the fact that discomfort is a part of that reality.

Hope is not a Strategy

Embracing discomfort demands we stop the delusion of wishing for change and waiting for something better to come along. We can’t rely on a hope for an improvement. We can’t wish discomfort away. We can’t rely on the actions of others. We can’t wait and see.

Wishful thinking prevent us from being present with our discomfort. Wishful thinking prevents us from learning. It mitigates the prod of discomfort we need to learn and to act differently.

Too often inside the comfortable confines of an organisation, you will hear discussions that reflect wishful thinking that ignores the demands of the uncomfortable reality outside:

  • our customers are different to those of our low-cost digital competitors and will continue to pay a premium for our service
  • our brand, distribution channels, product or approach is unique
  • our strategy is not showing results now but has always delivered in the long run
  • our employees are loyal
  • millennial employees will help us…
  • the customer dissatisfaction or employee disengagement is a flaw in the methodology or a lack of accurate representation of reality
  • community concerns are the work of a vocal minority
  • they just don’t understand and their views will improve if we communicate more

If we are to engage with the reality of the situation we need to start to to address the needs of our organisation, our employees and our communities in a realistic way. Today.

The Passion for Packaged Solutions

Leaders love a quick fix to discomfort. They are often willing to ignore reality to have the sensation of having acted to address the discomfort. Prodded by discomfort, they want to wish it away by immediate action. These actions include:

  • Buy a new piece of technology
  • Launch a program or initiative
  • Hire a new team
  • Implement a new process or methodology; or worse
  • Seek quick wins, which are usually neither quick nor wins but are merely comforting activity for its own sake

In our digital networked world, many of the issues causing discomfort in organisations are systemic or human issues. Pre-packaged solutions may help ameliorate these human or systemic issues at the edges or temporarily, but they do not help create enduring solutions. Organisations and their leaders need to engage in the reality of change over time to tackle this kind of discomfort through building new human capabilities, improving the system through adaptation and through engagement of the participants in the system. If they don’t, we have an ever rotating menu of quick fixes being implemented and failing.

Learning from Inclusion and Diversity

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The value of working out loud is it can help reveal to you blindspot. In the classic 2×2 of a Johari window, a blindspot is those things that are not known to you but a are clearly known to others. Yesterday on twitter, Rachel Happe helped me highlight a blindspot in this discussion of discomfort.

Presenting discomfort as a permanent experience is no surprise to Rachel’s list of those who we have ignored as leaders. There is real capability to lead and influence change in those who have been marginalised by the reality of power structures. I have seen this in my work with Change Agents Worldwide.

My blindspot was I had planned this post from the perspective of an advocate for diversity and inclusion but had not included the perspective of these other voices.  I wanted to write in this post about the importance of diversity and inclusion for organisations as a way to engage with the reality of their world and the reality of the communities around the organisation.

The research is clear that diversity and inclusion improves performance. One potential reason is that it brings new perspectives, new capabilities and new conversations into the organisation to improve learning and adaptation to the world. Those conversations can be uncomfortable. That discomfort is one of the barriers to diversity and inclusion as leaders fall for the illusion that comfort and ‘cultural fit’ in teams improve effectiveness by removing these difficult and at times uncomfortable conversations.

The insight of Rachel’s tweet is that the productive discomfort of diversity and inclusion is not created. That discomfort is a sharing of the existing experience of marginalised who struggle to find authority and to make positive change to better fit the organisation to society. Genuine community engagement is not easy and should not be. A strong civil society or a strong organisation includes all views and manages debate and conflict. Inclusion requires a real sharing of power, voice and agency. Our organisations and our society will be better if we engage with that reality.

The next post will be on the role of leaders in discomfort.

This post is part of a multi-part series exploring discomfort in the future of work. Future posts will examine how organisations, leaders and individuals can manage this discomfort. These posts are part of a process of working out loud to explore these uncomfortable concepts so feedback is welcome.

Part 1: The Role of Discomfort.

Part 2: The Personal Discomfort

Part 2: Personal Discomfort in the #FutureofWork

The Organisation Man, and it was mostly a man, wore a suit, travelled to work each day in the same organisation, had a boss who he looked up to, had meetings, made telephone calls, and pursued the individual task of moving paper from the in-tray to the out-tray. At the end of the day around 5pm the Organisation Man went home. Our vision of this stereotypical 1950s style experience of work is a vision of a comfortable and predictable existence with a steady career escalator to provide the gradual rewards. Many still long for this level of certainty and safety in work, even if they don’t long for the gendered roles.

Our Future of Work Worker isn’t just an employee. They juggle a portfolio career as employee, parent, volunteer, consultant, contractor, entrepreneur, and director. They wake to a flurry of overnight messages, emails and updates. Before breakfast they are taking calls from colleagues and customers. The plan for the day is shattered by the 9am standup and he or she struggles to learn what they need to, know just in time to do what needs to be done all day. Meetings, agendas, locations and more are reshuffled on the run and instant messaging and video calls pepper the interludes. When others leave and the calls and emails start to slow, the worker catches up on missed messages, prepares for the next day, has a late video call, prepares another presentation, solves a crisis or two and juggles a late change. After family and dinner, another part of the portfolio demands attention. Late in the day with a sense that there is more to do, more to know and that progress is elusive, the worker collapses into bed ready to begin again. From bed to bed, comfort is not even a thought.

We have embraced change, complexity and uncertainty as the heart of human work. We have to embrace the discomfort that comes with it.

The Work of Learning

Harold Jarche uses the phrase “Work is learning and learning is the work”. We have optimised so many aspects of work to emphasise the continuous and networked nature of learning. The practices we have embraced as future of work practices all have a shared core of not just learning, but networked collaborative learning: agile, lean startup, design thinking, collaboration, flat organisation structures, transparency and more.

We learn when we are out of our comfort zone. We must accept that the nature of work as we move forwards is primarily outside the comfort zone, in the zone of discomfort where learning is paramount. The comfortable predictable repetitive work is that which is being consumed by lower priced competition – outsourcing, offshoring, and automation.

At a personal level, we must embrace the discomfort and focus on the opportunity to learn and to grow rapidly. As noted in Part 1, we also need to look for work and learning opportunities that deliver the positive characteristics of Flow. The discomfort is not going away. We must at least gather the benefits of learning, growing capabilities and the richness of our new networked interactions with others. Working out loud can play a key role in helping us to manage this transition to a more uncomfortable mode of work and learning.

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Consciously Incompetent

People embracing Working Out Loud like many future of work practices must battle with discomfort. Whatever our level of expertise or the stage of our career, there is a good chance we are competent for the process centred expectations of our work. Recruitment, selection and talent management processes are usually highly effective in delivering process competence. Induction, on boarding and experience in a role tailors this individual capability into unconscious competence in the process of each role.

Adoption of new future of work practices forces a return to conscious incompetence. The practice feels alien. Work seems harder, slower and ineffective at first when the skills in these practices are new. Conscious incompetence is deeply uncomfortable in organisations that place a high emphasis on competence and performance. For many people, this discomfort or the associated fear and distrust become too great a barrier to persist with a new practice. Adaptation is lost when discomfort is avoided.

Worse still most future of work skills come in practices, not processes. The learning process has no end point. Mastery remains a quest. There is no moment when endless comfort returns. We need recognise that in a rapidly changing, complex and uncertain world we will always be a little incompetent. We always have more to learn.

Being Present with Discomfort

Our Future of Work worker must learn to be present with discomfort. Discomfort is not going away. It cannot be stopped. Discomfort can be embraced, leveraged and mitigated.

Managing one’s own discomfort requires the courage to face and accept that discomfort for the benefits it will deliver in learning. Managing discomfort requires some compassion for yourself and for others who are experiencing their own discomfort, because increasing there’s will only increase yours in a networked collaborative world. Compassion also requires you to know your tolerances and when to retreat, relax or protect yourself and others. Managing discomfort requires hope or at least acceptance. Most importantly of all managing discomfort requires a community.

To tackle the continual challenges of learning in the future of work, we need to embrace the reality of our situation and explore the potential of learning, mastery and connection to others to provide the rewards of growth and achievement.  The next post in the series will look at the need to embrace the reality of discomfort individually and collectively.

This post is part of a multi-part series exploring discomfort in the future of work. Future posts will examine how organisations, leaders and individuals can manage this discomfort. These posts are part of a process of working out loud to explore these uncomfortable concepts so feedback is welcome.

Part 1: The Role of Discomfort.

 

 

Part 1: Discomfort in the #FutureofWork

When we talk about the future of work, we talk about managing learning, creativity, uncertainty and complexity as human roles. The processes, the predictable and routine will be automated. What we do not discuss enough is that with this shift comes an explicit embrace of discomfort. We need to value discomfort in our organisations.

The Role of Discomfort

We aren’t always comfortable in a business context to use emotive language. One reason we tend to slip past discussion of discomfort in the future of work is that we tend to use rational logical language like uncertainty and complexity to discuss the work context. These are terms with precise, businesslike and emotionless language. We don’t explicitly pull into view the emotional flip side that comes with a human experience of these states.

  • What does uncertainty feel like: uncomfortable, frightening, doubtful, etc
  • What does complexity feel like: uncomfortable, overwhelming, challenging, etc

The concept of Flow from positive psychology highlights that we can create positive experiences from challenge, but only when we focus, experience our capabilities rising to match the challenge and get feedback on our progress. In many demanding modern workplaces with thousands of electronic daily distractions, these conditions are not being met, while the uncertainty,complexity and pace of change continues to rise.

Many of the practices advocated as part of the future of work attempt to bake an increased level of discomfort into work. The theme generally is that it is better to have a small difficult conversation early rather than suffer a failure or breakdown later. The list of practices that encourage or increase the frequency of uncomfortable conversations is long: purpose, values, agile, lean start-up, holacracy, working out loud, collaboration, transparency, design thinking, etc.

What we need to embrace is the role that discomfort comes with a strong focus on learning. The value of humans in complex and uncertain activities is collaborative learning. Each of us learns when we are out of our comfort zones. When we are out of our comfort zones together, the quality of our interactions becomes critical.

Ending the Parent-Child Relationship of Employee Comfort

Increasing discomfort in the workplace crashes straight into our traditional paternalistic approach to employee engagement. The goal is defined as creating a positive, engaged employee committed to the goals of the organisation and prepared to offer discretionary efforts internally and externally. Uncomfortable thoughts need not apply. The implicit or explicit promise of much employee engagement literature is that the role of the employer (fulfilled by senior management) is to make employees comfortable – provide a clear vision and purpose, simplify processes to make them easier, provide security of benefits and career, provide consistently rewarding work, and lead effectively.

Lead effectively is perhaps the most dangerous phrase in that list because so much of our leadership expectation is hierarchical and modelled on a benevolent parent. Leadership in any human context is not parenting. In a future post we will consider effective leadership for uncertainty and complexity. Without that clarity, we continue to see leaders who feel that their responsibility should be to take away uncertainty, to reduce complexity and to remove discomfort. By taking the work on themselves, these leaders dramatically increase their own discomfort, fail in their roles and fail their employees. Avoiding the work only makes the situation worse for all involved.

We need to accept that discomfort is not going away in our workplaces. The organisation and its leaders cannot take on the responsibility of removing the adverse affects of a changing environment of work. Removing employees entirely would be an easier challenge (and one many employers seem to embrace). Rather than removing discomfort the challenge for any organisation embracing the future of work is how to manage discomfort and how to ensure that it is productive for employees and the organisation.

This post is part of a multi-part series exploring discomfort in the future of work. Future posts will examine how organisations, leaders and individuals can manage this discomfort. These posts are part of a process of working out loud to explore these uncomfortable concepts so feedback is welcome.

Part 2: Personal Discomfort in the Future of Work

Do You Want Power or Entertainment?

I woke up this Sunday and I had a terrible nostalgia for the days where my morning question was not:

“What have the politicians done to entertain us today?”

All around the world politics has become far too similar to a reality television show.  The politicians, the media and our focus is on the daily conflicts, dramas and stupidities. The media environment and the demand of the media audience is far less concerned about leadership (other than the theatre of a leadership contest) than the entertainment of the political show. We have forgotten that the exercise of power for the betterment of society is more important that a following.

Politics is not alone in this confusion. Thought Leadership and other forms of punditry also shows a similar confusion. The accuracy or effectiveness of advice to better society now matters less than the ability to entertain and accumulate an audience. Platitudes and gross simplifications play better than difficult messages or a call to hard work.

Here We Are Now, Entertain Us

Conflict has always entertained humans. Conflict is the key to all our storytelling. Threat based narratives help us understand our tribes and bind together in times of adversity. We can see why politicians and pundits rely on them heavily. Inspirational narratives tend to appeal to our ego, our desire for ease and the uniqueness of our community and suggest the inevitability of our future success as long as we continue to follow the advice of the storyteller. We are suckers for entertainment as the makers of content for our mobile phones are well aware. Politicians, thought leaders, media commentators and even corporate executives are just meeting the market demand.

Increasingly, in the age of mobile devices, entertainment is a solo activity. We have lost much of the collective experience of entertainment that was the standard experience of previous generations. That lack of collective context weakens the foundations of community and hinders collaboration. We need shared context and trust to come together to make change happen. Trust is an outcome of the work and the experiences we share together. If we are each following our own personal entertainment guru, there is a fragmentation of that larger shared community.

As social technology and far better media tools creep into corporate life, we have also seen the rise of the executive as entertainer. Senior management can now engage and cultivate a following internally through collaboration tools and externally through social media and even traditional media roles. For some the dynamic changes from leading to entertaining. Rather than advocating for change and conflict within the organisation, it is easier to demonise an Other, such as a competitor, an external stakeholder or abstraction like errors or waste and demand the attention of a following without pushing people to change themselves. These executives are far less likely to demand challenging change of people themselves for fear that they lose part of their following or that they lose status to someone who promises a more compelling external enemy or an easier life.

We Need Power

We need to do more than meet a market demand for entertainment. We need power to push us beyond the limitations of our own efforts and our own imagination. We need the power to step outside of our individual potential and collaborate with others. The exercise of power in this way is called leadership.

A comment in a recent article on the often hidden role of power in design practice put the issue in a way that helped me see the connection:

The definition of power: the ability to influence an outcome

This quote starkly highlights the connection of power and leadership. We can often confuse power with its past abuses or the privilege that vests it undeservedly or unevenly in others. We can prefer our power to be responsive to the needs of the community. However, as Adam Kahane has pointed out in Power and Love, it is wishful thinking to wish power away or to demand that leaders are only responsive.

Leadership is about influence. Leadership is about achieving outcomes together with and through the work of a community. Without any resulting outcome, all you are doing is entertaining the community with a show. Bringing people together to help address complex social issues is going to take the exercise of power.

We need leadership because we need the action of small self-governing communities of change. That work is the power that matters now. We cannot rely on the politicians, the thought leaders, the senior executives or the experts to deliver us. We will have to do the work of change ourselves.

DDRG Panel: Leadership & Digital Workplaces

A great panel discussion at the Digital Disrupt Research Group of the University of Sydney on Leadership and Digital Workplace, featuring Kai Riemer, Sandra Peter, Euan Semple, Anne Bartlett-Bragg and I.