The Struggle of Work

In ancient Greek myth, Sisyphus was condemned by Hades to the eternal task of rolling a boulder to the top of a hill each day for it to roll down each time it neared the top. Oddly, the boulder is often represented in art as round. If you were a god assigning this daily struggle, wouldn’t you make the boulder misshapen? Work is a greater struggle when it is precarious, volatile and uncertain.

The Struggle

Yesterday, I discussed that uncertainty is the work. Today, let’s look at what that means for the worker.

Many of us have had Gianpiero Petriglieri’s experience in recent months. Work can feel like it is disappearing due to our crisis and expanding at the same time. We have been exposed to the struggle of precarious, uncertain and volatile work. There has been lots of change, much ambiguity, and a need for continuing adaptation to cope with the evolving situation. We are faced with constant effort to understand, to learn, to change and to adapt. The unthinking rote activities of work have been replaced with reflection and mental effort.

This experience scales as organisations understand that uncertainty is the work. As our organisations grapple with greater uncertainty that flows onto individual work. The precarity, volatility and uncertainty that is often reserved for freelance workers, partners and contractors becomes a more common part of our experience. In addition to doing the flow of mechanical work, we become increasingly enagaged in the complex struggle of managing work: understanding context, creating demand, managing changing, resolving issues and all the related interpersonal relationships. Stable predictable process work requires effort but less of this demanding struggle.

As we have this new volatility in our work, we experience more time on ‘balcony and dance floor’ to borrow from Heifetz and Linsky’s work on adaptive leadership. We are taken out of our normal busy lives and asked to reflect on the overall system, relationships and circumstances of our work. This is new work for some and demanding work for all.

Why should I do it if it ain’t easy?

One challenge future of work advocates have faced in recommending new work practices to manage uncertainty, learning and adaptation to the managers in organisations is that the managers understand these struggles. They know that there is comfort and security in stable, predictable processes with clearly defined goals. Anything precarious, uncertain and volatile is a struggle to be avoided, allocated to others or assumed away. Constantly changing, learning and adapting is a struggle as a leader and a challenge to lead in a team.

Sir Richard Hicks said ‘the best of all monopoly profits is a quiet life’. Organisations have taken this to heart allowing teams monopoly power over processes to their own comfort and weakening adaptation externally. Struggle was outsourced to the edges of the organisation where sales teams and customer contact teams managed adaptation as best they can and experienced higher performance expectations and turnover.

The expansion of global demand in the 19th and 20th Centuries lulled us into the security of stability. For a traditional organisation focused on uncertain demand, the global growth in markets made demand a forecasting challenge. We can no longer separate stable processes for making products from the customer engagement, marketing, distribution and servicing. We need change, learning and adaptation along the entire value chain. We need to bring struggle into the heart of all our work.

Leading organisations are building the leadership capabilities, the skills and the cultures that enable their people to adapt to this new struggle. They are addressing the real anxieties of middle managers and employees about these new ways of working. The outcome is to build the resilence and the capability of both the organisation and its people. Traditional organisations are stable until they are not and the consequence for employees was usually that they would be ejected from comfortable stability to new precarity through layoffs, restructures or other changes.

You may not make this struggle go away, but we can be explicit that the struggle is part of work and skill people to succeed in managing work in new adaptive ways. Leaders will need to embrace different approaches and model the new practices. You can help people to smooth the edges of the boulder with new work practices and approaches. Until we do so, the legitimate resistance to additional struggle will remain a barrier to adoption in organisations.

Uncertainty is the Work

Organisations exist to manage uncertainty. They must place a priority on learning change and adaptation to do so. Once the greatest uncertainty was consumer demand. Now organisations must deal with multi-dimensional and volatile uncertainty.

Theory of the Firm

Economists are highly rational people. For a long time, economics has struggled to justify exactly why organisations exist. Contracting can be efficient and resources and capabilities in the market might be superior. Why would people organise slow to change, expensive, often inefficient organisations to manage work?

Most of the rationales for the economic theory of the firm have come down to managing uncertainty. Uncertainty and its related psycho-social characteristics like power, control, trust and culture tend to sit poorly in classical economic models of perfectly informed ahuman rational actors. In a sense Steve Blank’s classification of organisations between traditional organisations and startups also revolves around uncertainty. A traditional organisation with its scalable repeatable process manages uncertainty in demand for a proven product. A start-up manages the uncertainty of whether there is demand and whether the product can scale to the demand economically.

If you take a human social view of the organisation, you quickly return to a major role of managing uncertainty. We join organisations to provide a sense of belonging, safety and security from precarity, though these may all be illusions. Organisations work because they align people to goals and shape trust networks facilitating collaboration and cooperation. Organisations help manage and develop uncertain human talents over time, which can be a challenge in even the most deep and fluid labour markets. Organisations can sustain passion, vision and creativity that might wither in a volatile and uncertain marketplace.

The Fluid Firm

Whatever our view, managing uncertainty is a large part of our organisational life, so why do we focus so much on the static machine view of our organisations? The best strategic models recognise that organisations learn and adapt and that strategy should be iterative. I am a regular user of the Lafley & Martin Playing to Win framework which calls this out explicitly. We should devote the same attention to learning, change and adaptation as we devote to process, structure and compliance.

If recent months have highlighted anything, they have shown organisations the importance of the ability to adapt to uncertainty. We need to foster the management capabilities, the talents and the mindsets that enable our people and our organisations to learn, adapt and change as an everyday task. The future will not include a new normal. The future will include an everchanging uncertain series of challenges. The obstacles are the work. So is managing the uncertainty of our new changing competitive connected world.

Successful organisations already build strategies and capabilities that seek to leverage the potential hidden in uncertainty. They enable their people, their systems and their culture to thrive when things get difficult, messy and when change is required. The work ahead is to continue to evolve and adapt the fluid firm. We need to build disciplines, process and capabilities to manage this adaptive learning organisation that are as refined as the processes of traditional management. When we can show others how to embrace and thrive in the uncertainty, a new wave of potential will be realised.

I am talking at Microsoft365 May on Thursday 28 May on Yammer as a Strategic Talent and Coordination Tool exploring these topics in greater depth. Register at M365May. There is already fantastic material from a range of speakers there already.

The Algorithmic Bubble

Isolation narrows our physical connections. It also increases the digital mediation of our lives, work and interactions. We need to take care that algorithms aren’t distorting our work.

I have been working entirely at home for more than two months. In that experience, I have been privileged to have good technology and deep networks on which I can rely to enable me to continue to work and interact. However, as time goes on, I have been more cognisant of the limits of my new patterns of work. I feel the comfortable bubble around me slowly freezing.

Reinforcing Patterns

There’s been lots of discussion of a new normal, but I have been most interested by how my digitally mediated life reinforces patterns. Our brains search out, build and reinforce patterns. I am finding these patterns are also being strengthened by the algorithms that openly and secretly support our digital lives.

The content and conversations we see on social networks are shaped by algorithms. The advertising we see are driven by algorithms. Our online shopping is shaped by algorithms. The more time we spend on digital tools, the more these algorithms learn and reinforce our patterns. When all our personal and work devices are in one location, on one IP and in fluid interchange all day, the web of algorithms closes more tightly.

I notice this most when I decide I want to change one of these digitally engrained patterns. Even as I seek to look elsewhere or do different, I find algorithms offering my brain the easy and familiar patterns. Digital habits are hard to break when the algorithms are working in concert to reinforce them.

Losing Serendipity

I value the serendipity of chance discoveries. Much of the value in my work comes from accidental meetings, browsing books, diversity of ideas, wider inspiration and other accidents. In a digital bubble of isolation, we have to work continuously at creating and expanding our chances for discovery. I need to create my own accidents and break the algorithmic grip.

Rediscovering serendipity requires us to go look for new connections. Reading widely is important, particularly reading offline where you can begin to escape the echo chamber of repeated views. Exploring weak links in networks and finding new voices to follow is important, especially those who don’t always agree with your current perspectives. Pulling out the phone and calling distant and lost connections needs to be a regular action.

Bursting The Bubble

We don’t need a new normal. There was nothing particularly satisfying or attractive about the old normal. Algorithms, systems and information flows that work to push us back into new steady norms are comforting and safe for our institutions, but they work against the needs of our own growth and the needs of our society as we recover from this experience.

We need to discover, to experience, to learn and to do different. We need to find new ways to leverage our personal and collective capabilities. All of these actions push us beyond our patterns and into the uncomfortable & dangerous spaces beyond the bubble. Those are the things beyond any frozen bubble of normal. Pushing out to explore them will always burst the bubble.

Beyond our bubbles lie new ideas, new patterns and new discoveries. These will be disruptive, but they are a path to greater potential. Despite the comforting reassurance of the new normal and its reinforcing algorithms we need to remember to go looking for those disruptions.

So What?

Justice is blind, but carries a sword

Let’s say you have a dream. Let’s also say it is important to you, a special dream that you have shared with nobody or only a few trusted friends. If you are brave or foolhardy you may have shared it everywhere. Either way, the dream has such a tight grip on your heart that not achieving it is going to hurt.

So what?

Yes that’s my only question. Chasing dreams always involves a double-edged sword. You either know what you are doing now to bring it about (so what is the next action?) or you are abandoning the dream to its fate (so what? I don’t care).

The Double Edged Sword of Execution

Remember these dreams hurt either way. It’s the unbearable burden of longing or the pain of failure. You choose. Nobody else defined the dream. Nobody else can deliver it. You either act or you walk away (sometimes pretending you still care). The sword of execution bites either way. So what do you choose?

Let’s get the list out of the way:

  • The dream is unlikely. Yes, so what can you do to change the odds?
  • Realising dreams isn’t easy. Yes, so what is the next step?
  • The system is stacked against you. Yes, if it was your dream fulfilment system, you’d have made it that way. So what are you going to do?
  • Others have advantages. Yes, always, so what does that change in your actions?
  • Others are better, further ahead, or more likely to succeed. Yes, that will stay the case until you start. So what can you do to better them?
  • There’s a better time or place to start. Always seems like it but when you get there it still seems like it. So what will you do to start now?
  • It’s not fair. Never. Justice is blind. Makes her impartial but that’s not always fairness and also can make for very odd outcomes when she starts swinging her sword. So what can you do to take it out of her hands?
  • I could have more help. Often, though magical friends are rare. So what are you going to do to get some?
  • I might change my mind. Always. So what did you learn?

I’ll say it again, ‘So what?’

So what are you going to do? So what are you going to surrender? So what pain will you bear to realise your dreams? So what hopes are you willing to lose? So what matters most now?

Our imaginations are incredibly powerful. We can imagine worlds so far beyond our own current circumstances. We dream of better people, better things and better places. As long as those things remain in our heads we remain stumped by the question, ‘so what?’

Imagination is powerful, but execution is where the double-edged sword starts to bite. Swing it yourself. Don’t leave it to blind fates. If you need to hackup the system to make changes to realise a dream then do so or fail trying.

As the old line goes

‘Vision without execution is delusion’

So, what is next?

The Opportunity Cost of Culture

What’s written on the walls of your organisation?

Focused on achieving small efficiency gains, we often miss that small changes in the way our organisational expectations and values can make dramatic changes in performance.

Not the Process. It’s Us

Many organisations have discovered that employee productivity has increased in this time of isolation, even with the interruptions and distractions. Forced into remote working, they have had to change the way people interact and work through:

  • Better clarity of accountability
  • More autonomy
  • More asynchronous work
  • Shorter, more focused meetings
  • Better use of people’s unique skills and potential
  • Leveraging the collaboration tools available

We are starting to see the benefits of new ways of working and we are also starting to see the opportunity costs of our work culture. Culture is our expectation of what is acceptable behaviour and how our interactions will work in an organisation. Because these expectations can be deeply engrained, we some times don’t see the inefficiencies and the lost opportunities.

If everyone else has meetings back-to-back all day, it can feel like the gold standard of busy productivity. Our expectation becomes that meetings are the work. The fact that little gets done in those meetings just generates more meetings to discuss how to get more done. The new context of videoconferencing has helped us see some of that inefficiency, to question our assumptions and experience a new level of tiredness at the routine.

If all information and all decision making flows through levels of hierarchy to senior managers, we become expert at managing that process and used to the disempowerment, delays and confusion that it entails. Our expectation becomes that decisions happen elsewhere. When we are disconnected from our peers, forced to react quickly on our own or cutting directly through to those who make the decisions we can’t, then we see new potential to work in better ways.

If work, information and accountabilities are siloed, we become masters of our own domain and used to the time that must be invested in defending that territory, negotiating misalignment and confusion. Our expectation becomes that knowledge is power and that the only way to get something done is in a silo we control. When collaboration cuts across those silos, sharing powerful information and aligning work with those best suited to deliver outcomes, then the potential output of our teams explodes.

Most people find a fit between their personal purpose and the work they do. Inherently, engagement should be high. However, these cultural misfits sap our personal purpose and productivity. Our disengagement comes from how we work, not what we do. Making changes that help empower discretionary effort and engagement can also supercharge a team’s performance.

Productive changes in the culture of an organisation can create more than an incremental change in performance. You might be able to make a process 10-20% more efficient with some effective re-engineering work. However, effective work on the prodcutivity of an organisation’s working culture can deliver exponential increases in output. Everyone in the team benefits and those benefits are compounding as barriers to success are removed, people work in parallel to leverage their talents, bureaucratic molasses is drained and as people can adapt to realise new opportunities.

If your organisations culture is not contributing to realising the collective talents and potential of your team, then it is time for change. Changing the culture of a workplace is not easy. However the rewards can be dramatic in purpose, productivity and for the potential of people.

The Machinery of Salvation

Discussion of the end of our current crisis make you feel like the audience at an ancient Greek tragedy. The longer this crisis has gone on the more messy and complicated our circumstances have become. Our leaders are starting to describe magical changes as the way out of our mess. We are waiting for a god to pop out of a machine and set things right again. This ignores the elements of our technology that have helped us already and are essential to our next phase of recovery.

Deus Ex Machina

The sudden arrival of a vaccine, a miraculous new medical treatment, a powerful contact tracing application or even the evolution of the virus to a less lethal form are all paths to end our current crisis. Like the deus ex machina of an ancient greek tragedy, these sudden technology-powered or mediated changes in course will resolve our complex situation without much effort on our part. No wonder they appeal to those of our modern political leaders like to stress that things will get better without any work by the voting public.

We have come to associate the meaning of technology with science and also with computing power. However, we should recognise that its origins are aligned to that of technique. Technology is the practical application of knowledge, particularly applied science and the mechanical arts. Many of our modern technologies are those that would be unrecognisable to people of ancient greek society or even more recent times. The connection to technique reminds us that all of these technologies are capable of ongoing refinement and improvement if we put in the work. No social technology is inherently perfect.

If we widen our lens, we can see how technology broadly defined has already shaped our response to the crisis:

  • Government: If you brought someone from the plagues of the 15th century to our time, the nature of our government and breadth of the government involvement in a response would surprise. Government is based in a wide franchise, has accountability to the people and has a wide array of resources to deploy. Social safety nets vary around the world, but that they exist at all would surprise some previous generations who were left with charity, mutuality or nothing at all in a crisis. Government is hardly perfect but it is working on a solution, not hiding out the plague on its estates in the Florentine hills.
  • Law and Order: Professional and independent police, military and security forces, whatever their occasional failings are a modern creation. Our medieval ancestors either did without security or expected the enforcers to be agents only of those in power.
  • Hospitals: Hospitals and organised medical care have existed for thousands of years in various form. However, a consistently professionalised medical system scaled to deliver public and private care to most of the population and focused on treatment of disease, rather than convalescence, reflects the advances in medical science over the last centuries.
  • Media: Before the printing press, mass communications were limited. Now we have global instant communication that informs the community and enables debate around staying at home. We have it for better and for worse.
  • Transportation & Logistics: When we order goods to be delivered, we forget that the expectation that they will arrive, somewhat promptly, let alone be tracked, is an entirely recent modern experience.
  • Work: Our organisations are modern technology reflecting business practices of the two centuries since the industrial reveolution began to accelerate.

There is no real value in a crisis like our current one in pointing out that things would be worse if it was the 15th century. However, the reflections above are a reminder of how much we have and can change to improve our lives, our work and our situations in crises. Reflecting on the role of these institutions and their history can also help us see where past assumptions no longer suit our future needs. The assumptions that shaped the design of these institutions may be buried deep in our collective conscious or inherent to how we see the institutions. For example, many managers cannot conceive of a workplace without control, but they exist and they prosper. Nothing in this arena of social technology is once and done. We have a lot of arenas in which we can perfect this technology, continuing the ongoing work of mastery. We need not waiting for a god to appear on stage from a magical riser or crane.

We must not ignore the role that these important pieces of technology play in our lives today. The government and commentators might invite us to look the other way, but we need to consider how these arenas can continue to improve. Critically, we collectively created and sustained these changes and can make further changes to make them better. We must not lose focus on the role of these wider technologies in our health, wellbeing and success.

We have lots of work to do to perfect our civil society and to improve these key elements of the technological infrastructure that sustain our society. We can argue about how to fix them, but we should all be focused on improving all aspects of the technology of our lives. We must treat with caution those who argue we would be better off without them, to not worry about the shape of these institutions and to encourage us to wait for miracles. Let’s hope a vaccine comes soon, but, while we wait, let’s improve all the technology in our lives.


Ceci n’est pas un chapeau

When all the world seems heavily laden with grief, loss and pain, can we find lightness? Can we put aside the heaviness of the world today and seek some hope, joy and levity. We can only try. Perhaps if we succeed we will fly together.

The weight of the world

Stoicism is back. Serious young men with beards are advising me to lean into stoic philosophy across my social timelines. Older gurus with beards are expounding the unknowable complexities of life (to which they alone hold the key). I understand their passion. I have read enough stoics to know that there is comfort in Marcus Aurelius and Seneca when it feels like republics and empires are collapsing, when crisis rolls into crisis and when plague is rampaging. After all, stoicism can at times reflect advice to simplify your aims, bear your burdens and place one foot in front of the other. It is worthwhile to discuss stoicism, because burdens are the reality of life, persistence matters and if only to relish the joy of the truly magical word vicissitudes.

When we are thrown into a liminal state, with plans on hold, incomes and adventures curtailed, heavy forbearance can be a comfort. Whether sent by randomness, by nature or by your god, suffering is hard work, just like days full of back-to-back videoconferences. We can see the shadows clearly in this time, but shadows mean that somewhere there is a strong and upliftng light. We just can’t see that clearly at the moment. There is little joy in the news, precious little distraction and even the rampaging puppies of social media are losing their lustre.

Light as a Cloud

Another voice has been struggling through my social channels and other reading of late, a quiet call to lightness. This invitation to levity doesn’t come with the gravitas of Seneca, but neither is it the jokes of Twitter comedians. This call to lightness is in the voices of children, explorers, artists and poets. It is an invitation to proceed with a light and hopeful step into the world.

I found it in Clive James’ last poem, in Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the New Millenium, in William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, in poems, tweets, blogposts and of course in Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being. I discovered that Basho made lightness the philosophy of his poetry. I even discovered its joy in the impermanence of a dipped painting:

Flight of Hope, Not Escape

This is not the lightness of escape. This is lightness because the world is real, concrete and heavy. It is the lightness of engagement with a world which may not change. Calvino talks of shamans:

‘flying to another world, to another level of perception to change the face of reality.’

Arthur C Clarke famously said ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ We live in a world that right now cries out for a little magic to change the course of history. It is less widely known that this was a part of three laws and the second of these laws is:

The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

We have to create our own magic now. We need to venture into the impossible with a light heart. Succeeding in that venture is going to require a new level of thinking and new levels of action. We are going to have to explore, invent and fly a little together. There will be risks and there will be failures, but we must seek to lift each other up a little higher.

I had the epiphany that laughter was light, and light was laughter, and that was the secret of the universe.

Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

Lightness is not escape. Bearing our current situation with lighness requires us to be present in the current situation. We must acknowledge what is or everything is illusion and will lead us astray. Douglas Adam’s in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy pointed out that we must very much have the reality of the situation in mind if we want to fly:

There is an art to flying, or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss…. Clearly, it is this second part, the missing, that presents the difficulties

We need to see the world as it is, then turn our head slightly and look at it again. Looking with the curious wonder of the child, the artist or the poet, we can hold the world in light-filled compassionate hearts. Perhaps then with a new lightness of view we might see some new way forward. We can rediscover the lightness of hope. We can use our relationships with others to create, to share and to spread that hope. Hope is light. It lifts hearts. Hope is after all the ‘little thing with feathers’ that asks little of us, but gives us so much.

I hope to show that there is such thing as a lightness of thoughtfulness, just as we all know that there is a lightness of frivolity. In fact, thoughtful lightness can make frivolity rather heavy.

Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the New Millenium

Do the Basics Right

A week ago I was despairing that a collaborative project had an end April deadline and hadn’t been started due to the pressure of other projects. A week later it was delivered a day early. It is worth reviewing why because it is a reminder that the key to step change in productivity is the little things in collaboration. We often don’t do the little things well.

The project was to deliver a document, leveraging a range of specialists all located at home in different states. Here’s how that project came together.


  • All the potential team members joined a kick-off conversation to discuss the project, clarify the goal, understand capacity and get buy-in.
  • The next task was to develop a collaborative document to summarise the strategy so that everyone could work with both the end and the way in mind.
  • We set up a governance process for the week with regular check-ins.
  • The team is used to collaborative working and had a full suite of tools – Office 365, Teams, Sharepoint, etc to support the work. Everyone was familiar with these tools and this mode of work.
  • People were given the autonomy to do the work as they saw fit. If they needed to bring in others they did so and if they needed to change things we respected their unique expertise.
  • There was trust and alignment in the team around the value of the work and its importance. Everybody was coping with challenges and isolation but everyone committed to the project as best they could.


  • Everybody worked out loud all week. Accoutabilities were clear so we worked in parallel. There was shared visibility of the work underway, the work to be done and any challenges or input needed. Working in this way meant there was cameraderie in the struggles too.
  • Documents were open to review, editing and comment by others as they were being written and finalised.
  • We were able to leverage the organisation’s knowledge resources so that much of the content creation was editing previously prepared quality content. We ‘stood on the shoulders’ of the work of other projects and other purposes because it was all available to be reused. We only had to create new content at the edges of the project and to align to the specific client and strategy.


  • Challenges were shared widely within and beyond the team so that the collective capability of the organisation and even external stakeholders could contribute to the quality of the solution we developed.
  • If something didn’t have an immediate answer we would break out into agile chats or calls to discuss and resolve. There were no meetings, just interactions (chats or conversations) that lasted as long as they needed to solve an issue or to point someone towards the solution.
  • Some problems were clarified and resolved in the collaboration features of the documents themselves (collaborative editing, markup, comments, etc).
  • Differences of opinion were recognised as differences of opinion. Accountability for decisions and clear lines of expertise enabled us to ensure that differences of opinion didn’t get in the way of an outcome.


  • We knew from the outset that we needed to do more and different to succeed so it opened the entire team up to ask ‘what if’ and explore new solutions
  • We treated these as ideas for experimentation and threw a lot of things in for trial. Not all made it through to the final output but the result is better for those value adding ideas that worked after tweaking.

There’s no individual piece of magic in this approach to a collaborative project. There was a lot of just hard work and long hours to finish early. There was luck. However, all that was possible because a lot of little fundamentals were understood, agreed and done well. None of the steps above are beyond any team or any organisation. The challenge is how we organise our teams and our work to deliver better and more productive results.

The magic isn’t just one thing. Often it’s a lot of little things. Doing the basics consistently well is one of the reasons magic is so rare.

Power, power and more power

Camouflaged but hardly hidden

Even with the danger of digital cubicles, it is easy to assume that our seclusion represents a turning point the transformation of our work. There is some anecdotal evidence that people are discovering the power of new ways of working and are surprised the technology works. This could be cause for the long term advocates to rejoice that the next phase of work

The danger of this thinking was eloquently summarised in the following tweet:

Confirmation bias is real. We look for validation of our own beliefs and social media is flooded with people’s confirmation that whatever they believe is right. We need a better quality of discussion. Hope is not a strategy. We need to examine the real organisational dynamics that stand in the way of change.

Hope is not a Strategy

There’s a lot of love in those advocating for change. It is hard to imagine what else would sustain them. For more than 20 years, change agents have been advocating for new and better ways of work that use the digital tools to empower, to enable and to make work more human. There have undoubtedly been many successes – great case studies, improvements and some enduring changes. There has not been the transformation we all wished to see. Love, hope and community can sustain the change but won’t get you there.

Adam Kahane in Power and Love describes the need for change to balance the engagement of love and of power. We are missing the conversation about power in the future of work.

Let’s Talk Dirty

People are masters of the interpretation and management of power. We find & sustain hierarchy even where it doesn’t exist. Because it is seen as a dirty (& dangerous) topic we are often reluctant to discuss the power dynamics in our organisations. Some of the most powerful and privileged in our organisations go out of their way to deny that power matters.

Because it is unspoken, power is an even more influential element of our thinking. Like the predator that may be lurking in the long grass, power is hidden but threatening. Concerns about power, such as recriminations by those with power or loss of power, reputation, trust and status, are found at the heart of much of the concerns around psychological safety.

Traditional change management models have extensive discussions of how to co-opt the powerful in the organisation to win their support, their advocacy or at least their disinterest in the change. We all know to win senior executive sponsorship and support. It’s so fundamental many change projects end up as contorted as a pretzel to win and sustain that support as power shifts and organisations change. In many cases, the compromises to win exectutive support are why the change fails.

If you want to predict the future of work, follow the paths of power:

  • Data and Knowledge: We know that what gets measured gets done, even if that’s not what’s worth doing. The definition of data, its gathering and its interpretation are all tools of power. Most AI and automation is centralising, not decentralising. It reinforces the exercise of power and makes knowledge and data power. There are still managers and team members who hoard knowledge to accumulate a form of influence, if not power. Even Kanban gives new data and enables greater knowledge on the workflow process to give comfort in new ways of working.
  • Control and Influence: In a discussion with Change Agents Worldwide on the weekend, I said one of our challenges is making the future of work safe for managers, especially middle managers. Modern management practice is optimised for their control and power. If we look at many early models of self-organisation, they are often power-blind, which either reinforces current power structures or creates a hidden feudalism as people seek safety in new tribes, or they require managers to vote themselves out of existence. Managers want to be more effective and more human but we can’t ask them to surrender power, when that is seen as their sole lever of performance and power is perceived as the commodity of success.
  • Policy and Process: The appeal of process is the appeal of power. You only have to read Frederick Winslow Taylor on the appeal of mindless workers executing a process to see that process can be a vehicle of control. New processes can help mitigate the loss of control in changes to new practices of work. The success of Scrum, as a process of agile work, is a clue to this role of process.
  • Trust and Inclusion: Inclusion and exclusion are the oldest human tools of power. Underpinning these is how far groups extend circles of trust. You can be in the team and on the video call but be excluded, if you are not called on, not trusted or if your voice is not valued. New ways of working must explicitly engage in growing and developing trust if there is to be an ability to leverage wider circles of people and their potential.

For some it may seem, that this list implies no change is possible. Rather I am making the case for the opposite. If we explicitly engage with the dynamics of power, we can design new ways of working that improve work and also address data and knowledge, control and influence, policy and process and trust and inclusion. We can make work better and make it safe for those who have to manage before during and after the change. We don’t need to move from tight totalitarian control to full anarchy. There are many shades of activity in between.

No amount of love, collective energy or human potential is going to change our work for the better, if it ignores these fundamental dynamics of power. We do not need to respond with a cynical organisational realpolitik, but we can be optimistic and clear eyed as we plan to make change in our organisations and design that change to engage with the organisational and political realities.

The Absence of Crowds

We don’t do crowds anymore. We are missing an opportunity for collective creation and collective wisdom in the face of adversity.

Live in even a moderately busy city and you become used to the opportunity to lose yourself in a crowd. In the throng of people, we can slip into the flow and become anonymous members of the hustle and bustle. Crowds are an opportunity to participate in a collective experience without necessarily participating in interactions. Many people never consider how lonely you can be in a crowd.

Crowds are lost to us as we isolate in this unique time, but our need for a collective experience and the value of collective action remains. We may not miss their madness and their folly, but we are less for the absence of crowds. Crowds are forces of creation and change. There are things we can do to mitigate this loss, but we need to see that the crowds we recover is as valuable as the one we lost.

We have not just lost the crowd, but we may have lost the wisdom of the crowd too. James Surowiecki described the characteristics of wise crowds in his book The Wisdom of Crowds and it is clear we have challenges:

  • Diversity of opinion: People don’t necessarily have their own private information or their own views. We can draw on our own knowledge but we are not necessarily out engaging with our surrounding world to bring in a diversity of information or encouraged to share our diverse and unique views.
  • Independence: Partisanship shapes all conversation and decision making into factions that are not independent in their views and actions. The power of thought leaders shapes tiers of influence and imitation. Loyalty and popularity overwhelm independence.
  • Decentralisation: We are decentralised physically, but not necessarily culturally. Power tends to run in hierarchies and we engage in anticipatory obedience even in crises. Repeating the same authorised messages shapes the influence of a few sources of opionins.
  • Aggregation: We may have different views, but we don’t have easy mechanisms to aggregate those views. Markets handle the shocks of crises poorly as our animal spirits are easily spooked into herd behaviour. Polls depend on the questions asked. The media in its scrabble to survive, relies on shock and emotions, tending to emphasize extreme and unique views over an aggregate of the crowd.
  • Trust: The crises of this year and the failings of leadership seem to be reinforcing the societal crisis of trust.

Collective challenges demand collective action. We can’t expect to solve the challenges of our times in digital cubicles. We can only restore the value of our crowds if we each consider how to take action to improve the discussion. As tempting as it is to focus on loyalty, alignment and power in a crisis, the collective debates of a self-managing crowd are more likely to offer value. They also offer the opportunity to improve the dialogue and address Surowiecki’s criteria for wisdom in the process.

Wise crowds are unruly. They are messy. Their views aren’t individually celebrated. They succeed as an aggregate. Nobody gets to claim victory. Nobody gets left out because they are inconvenient or invalid.

Like any process of inclusion, we cannot expect those excluded or ignored to do all the work of fixing our tainted dialogue. Change agents can come from either the excluded or the privileged. The change is not about fixing the excluded voices. The change we seek is about fixing the system to be able to realise the collective potential of all. We all have a stake in that outcome.

Until then we have just our memories of the hubbub of the crowd to console us as we work to bring them back.