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Yesterday, I had an opportunity to gather with two colleagues to prepare a joint presentation for a future conference. We had put aside 2 hours to work on integrating three distinct approaches to the role of collaboration in digital disruption into one compelling approach. After thirty fire-cracking minutes of sharing, building on each other’s ideas and the odd challenge, we had advanced everyone’s understanding and put together an exciting story that we all passionate believe in. We were so excited by the outcome that we will likely seek to convert the approach to other formats as well. What made the experience is exciting was how quickly 3 diverse perspectives came together when approached with trust, openness, generosity, a focus on practice and a willingness to learn. This conversation was working out loud at its finest.
Working out loud helps me every day to understand and engage with diverse perspectives on my work. I am a middle aged white male who has had many senior executive positions. I am regularly hired as an expert, a consultant and a speaker. I am confident in my opinions and given too much latitude can easily slip into the bad habit of dominating conversation. However, I don’t learn anything when I am speaking. All I do is confirm what I believe to myself.
Working out loud is an opportunity to change that pattern of interaction. When I am open with what is going on, but not yet finished, I invite the contributions and corrections of others. When I am open and generous, I encourage others to trust me more and respect the vulnerability I have shown. As I haven’t concluded the work, I have less to defend. I don’t engage the other people around me as well by expressing conclusions because I am tempted to fight for them. When I haven’t finished, I am much more open to learn and to develop ideas based on the generative inputs of others.
Working out loud has taught me to go seek the voices of the quiet participants in groups and to seek views from further afield than my usual interactions. I have learned to encourage others to share their harshest views of my work. In some of the most brutally unfair criticism, there can be insight to another worldview or a different message that needs to be addressed in my work. Working out loud around the world has also helped me to understand the hidden cultural expectation that shape our work and our behaviour. Effective change and adoption require us to be able to surface and engage with these cultural expectations as well. There is more that I can do to gain additional perspectives but I know that working out loud will be a critical vehicle for me in learning from the views of a diverse community of collaborators.
Leadership is the art of realising potential. That potential is often least tapped where diversity is suppressed or people’s contributions are not being considered. Working out loud as a leader can play an important role in supporting an inclusive environment and gathering new views and contributions. All leaders need to reflect on how they step outside their own experience and opinions and learn from the wider community around their work.
One of the challenges is the modern economy and its new far-flung connectedness is that there can be a tendency to presume trust in relationships. We need to be clear that trust is a vital part of our commercial and social activities. The role of leaders is to help create, sustain and grow trust in their networks and communities.
Trust Arrives on a Tortoise and Leaves on a Horse – Proverb
I start with a high degree of trust in people. I always presume a positive intent and I am willing to be generous with my time and efforts. A recent experience caused me to reflect on how important that trust is in a relationship and how we need to continue to invest in building trust in our relationships.
An social network acquaintance asked me many months ago to help their new product by letting them use some of my content. I laid out some simple terms of that use, in particular that they take some actions to let me approve the content in context. Nothing happened for months. Suddenly, last week I was told that the product was going live. My trust in my acquaintance collapsed and our relationship became very difficult quickly.
Without trust, the interactions took on different colour for both parties and matters became tense. Everything eventually fell apart. What had begun as a good natured collaboration ended up as a frustrating and angry experience in the absence of trust. Did I overreact? My acquaintance seemed to think so. However, the simple step of acting promptly on an agreement could have maintained trust and avoided the issue. Failure on a relatively small issue can often have the biggest impact on trust, because we want to trust those who look treat the small things seriously too. What is a small thing to you, may well be critical to me. Little doubts are warnings of larger concerns.
Trust in the API Economy
We have grown used to the API Economy, extending trust to remote connections and even starting to leverage trustless ways of interacting and working. In this context, we can forget the vital role that trust plays in frictionless commerce and interactions. Without trust, costs and the emotional burden of interactions increase. Those additional costs might be the costs of coordination, management of performance, sharing of information, monitoring or verification. The emotional toll of lack of trust is seen in interactions coloured by doubt, suspicion, self-centred thinking and a raft of negative emotions from fear to anger. We can absolutely execute standardised transactions without trust, particularly when they are supported by a robust API-like platform to help manage the quality, transparency, accountabilities and risks required. However, we cannot achieve our best complex, collaborative or creative work together without trust. The costs of lack of trust are too high and the potential opportunities are lost as people focus on self-interest and self-preservation.
APIs are just like my reaction to a change in the terms. An API rejects anything that doesn’t meet the agreed parameters. APIs are designed for flexibility, novelty or agility. They are designed for seamless transaction. They don’t rely on trust to bridge gaps as things change.
As we focus more of our economic and social relationships into the API Economy and its network of platforms, it is important to remember that trust always resides in the human brain. Platforms can provide tools to support human trust and they can provide proxies for human trust. They cannot deliver it. The role of network participants and in particular leaders is to create, foster and develop trust. This work is what helps turn a network into a community. Leaders play a critical role in making trust an expectation in a network and their work influencing others can shape behaviours and their consequences across the network.
“It’s like he is a cartoon leader. He’s two-dimensional in a three-dimensional world”
Trust in leadership is declining in many spheres of life. Many leaders look more out of their depth than ever. Clinging to carefully manufactured facades, familiar patterns of power and simple plans, they fail quickly in a complex world. Leaders need to adapt their practices to a changing world. To avoid being a cartoon leader, you need to adapt to the richness of the world as it is, not as you want it to be.
“Wishing doesn’t make it true”
Complexity comes with a real cost. Often we will wish for simpler times and for a return to simpler old fashioned ways. We can learn from that wish but wishing won’t make that an effective strategy. Leaders don’t get to act in the world of their wishes. That only happens in cartoons. Leaders must act and lead action in the world as it is. The world in which leaders must act is irreversibly multi-dimensional:
- Today and into the future
- Power and influence
- Hierarchies and networks
- Local and global
- Expertise and learning
- Massively scaled and personal
- Commercial considerations and human values
Sustainable in Every Dimension
“He was there, he heard it, he says he sees the problem, but I am still not sure that he gets it”
Leadership is about influencing others to act. That influence demands leaders engage with the complexity of the real world.
Ignore a dimension in your leadership actions and you are that cartoon leader who is less rich than the world that they are seeking to influence. Ignore a dimension and you can expect to be judged harshly by those who see the complexity or demand a solution that engages that dimension. Ignore a dimension and you lose influence.
Leaders can find it hard to step out beyond the cartoon simplicity. In many cases their organizations and stakeholders are demanding simple answers and easy change. Working against an expectation that you behave like a cartoon leader takes courage and time.
One of the reasons that leadership tenure is declining in many of our institutions is that leaders ignore complexity. They remain a cartoon that is not adapting to the changes that these additional dimensions demand. Cartoons don’t do complexity. Cartoons don’t last very long. Cartoons are short fast hits until their command on attention expires. Eventually the anvil drops. A leader engaged in the real world is far more enduring.
The challenge for leaders is stepping out of the cartoon and engaging with the world as it is.
When we think about our organisations we often fail to notice the essential role of trust. Trust enables or disables our work, structures, or processes. As we move more into the future of the network economy we need to make trust explicit again.
What We Don’t See
We forget about trust because the process of trust is second nature to us. Trust is deeply engrained in the way we manage relationships, transactions and exchanges. This role of trust makes it critical to the way we organise our work, the way we exchange information and the decisions we make. Any organisation that is not explicitly managing the level of trust in the organisation and with its stakeholders is losing value.
Trust plays an outsized role in my work. Customers pay a premium when they trust an organisation. That customer trust is directly related to the internal trust relationships inside an organisation. They won’t give an organisation greater trust than its own employees. When Change Agents Worldwide wrote its first book, my chapter was on the need for organisations to trust their employees to enable the benefits of the future of work. A critical underpinning of the Value Maturity Model is its ability to develop the mutual trust in organisations that facilitates effective collaboration and supports execution of strategy. Trust is key to any complex and uncertain challenge in leadership, learning or innovation.
What We Work Around
Much of business history back to the beginnings of time has been managing trust. Ancient businesses of the Phonecians and Greeks, operating in the era of an absence of information used family relationships to ensure trust. Over time businesses built processes to enable wider networks of trust in trade, in banking, in record keeping and in management of businesses. Our organisations are built of thousands of individual interventions to manage trust in relationships.
Organisations are often tempted to see the goal as creating a trustless environment. Build the processes & structures such that you no longer care. Blockchain promises a trustless ledger for example. The gig economy promises to make employees fungible units of production where trust in the individual is irrelevant. We trust platforms, not people. We undoubtedly can continue to build more transparency, processes & accountability to extend work relationships further down the curve of trust.
The Cost of Trust
When we engineer trust out of our relationships, it does not go away. We continue to evaluate trust in our work because that instinct is a deeply human one. When we engineer trust out of our relationships, we accept a new set of stresses and new set of demands on performance.
- We worry about the effectiveness of our trust-replacement solutions. We stress about the quality of our human relationships. Absence of trust is a high stress situation for humans.
- We over-invest in these systems and bear an unnecessarily high cost to performance. Look at any compliance regimes where risk avoidance dominates thinking.
- We are reticent to share information which results in suboptimal decision making
- Those who don’t receive trust, don’t give it. Trust is reciprocal and an absence of trust in one direction will result in customers, employees and other stakeholders who don’t trust.
Organisations that want to perform effectively in the future of the work cannot place all their faith in processes, structures and platforms to manage trust for them. They need to remember the human relationships of trust. Create and manage an organisational culture that is rich and generous with its trust.
As we begin to explore the collaborative potential of connection, co-creation is becoming increasingly important solution to problems. Organisations are increasingly looking to employees, partners and suppliers to be a part of efforts to co-create solutions to complex problems. Collaborative co-creation is a key part of the Solve phase of the Value Maturity Model. As we practice co-creation, we discover bigger opportunities to create value.
Most co-creation begins with some kind of crowd-sourcing of ideas to solve problems. Diversifying the sources and inputs into the creation of a solution can enable big steps forward. Often new stakeholders have solutions to hand, see potential to reuse capabilities or bring opportunities to do things in new ways. Crowd-sourcing can be a fast and effective way to gather inputs from a large group of people towards a solution.
Efforts at crowd-sourcing solutions need to plan for two main challenges:
- Lack of Connection: To contribute meaningful solutions, people need to feel connected to the problem and to each other.
- The Volume of ideas overwhelms Execution: ideas are great but the exercise to sift and integrate diverse ideas can be a drain on execution. This is why many efforts at crowd-sourcing turn into a show of ‘engagement’ with no traction on the ideas submitted.
Co-Creating the Work
The next level of co-creation is when people come together to take a solution and execute it. The challenges of a problem don’t stop when you have an idea. People need to solve all the little issues and manage the idea until it is successfully implemented.
Make sure the expectation in you co-creation community is that work will be done to solve the problem. Give the community the autonomy to follow their ideas. People will contribute better ideas if they think that they have to see them through. Co-creation is more meaningful to a community that has been asked to work the problem together. Challenge them to take their ideas and see them through to implementation.
Co-Creating the Problem
The final level of co-creation goes back to the start and looks at the system from a higher view. This level removes the constraint that the problem definition is externally imposed on the community. At this level of co-creation, the community has responsibility to find, create and implement its own solutions. To do this the community is going to need to start to ask questions about Purpose, the scope of the system and what goals they have for the system. Bring a diverse group of stakeholders in to shape the problems and you may discover new problems and that some of your current problems aren’t such a big issue. The third level asks the community to own co-creation from Purpose, through Diagnosis, and then to the Design and Execution of any solutions.
We live between norms and force. When norms lose their power, force becomes the alternative option. For effective organisations and civil society, we need an ongoing conversation about expectations of behaviour.
David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address begins with a story
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes,
“What the hell is water?”
Social norms are often like water to the young fish. In the Oxford dictionary, norms are defined as:
A standard or pattern, especially of social behaviour, that is typical or expected
We don’t even notice they exist. They are simply baked into our expectations of social interactions. We follow the most common norms without reflecting on their existence. Often the first time we focus on them is in our outrage at a breach of a norm.
Norms shape group and individual behaviours. Norms that are undiscussed, and in some cases undiscussable, can have real consequences for individuals and societies ability to manage and change. These norms are also a critical component of group connection. Loss of shared norms will impact cohesion, sharing and collaboration in a group.
While many norms are taken as given, they are not fixed. Our expectations are constantly adapting based on our experience of the behaviour of others. Sustained violation of norms can and will cause change. This is one reason that so many protesters violate social norms. They want to disrupt a range of expectations to gain notice and to influence people to reflect on the need for change. Where change has been driven by social change movements, the changes are largely positive for society with new norms being more inclusive, equitable and better able to support civil society.
The Power of Norms
We live between norms and force. When norms lose their power, force becomes the alternative option to regulate social behaviour. The functioning of our organisations and our civil society depends on effective norms.
Over summer I read Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday, a book that examines the lessons from traditional societies. The book explores how many tribal societies experienced life that involved continuing violence. The violence was an outcome of the challenges of sustain norms between tribal groups, leadership within tribes depending on authority and because disputes were often resolved by force. Many of the mechanisms we expect to prevent violence, such as peaceful acceptance of strangers, were not norms in these societies, because they represented real dangers to individuals and the group.
Change movements often seek to smash existing norms. Equally important is the need to foster and develop the new behavioural expectations that will follow. In the absence of shared expectations, any group will increasingly have to use force to maintain behaviour in a group or fail in its shared endeavours.
Let’s consider an example of the justice system. What makes our laws effective is not the courts or a constitution. The first element is a community expectation that we will follow the law, respect the courts and honour those decisions. When individuals fail these norms, the executive branch of government has a range of force to bring to bear on social behaviour and enforce the law. We simply expect that the courts and the executive will collaborate to maintain the law. The history of the breakdown in civil societies around the world shows us that this is one of the first norms to fail.
Norms in Organisations
In organisations, the equivalent force is the power of exclusion. Few organisations have the power to use force against their employees except to show them from the premises. Misbehave persistently and you will be sacked and denied an ability to remain in the community. Exclusion presents a cost to the individual and a loss of capability to the organisation. Exclusion of large groups can be incredibly disruptive as strikes and lockouts show.
Organisations depend on norms to keep the peace and to foster cohension and collaboration. A few of those norms are on posters. Many are inherited from the society in which the organisation operates. As our organisations involve more temporary workers and as they become more open to the networks around them, managing these group norms becomes more important.
Most of those norms are never discussed. Some are seen as undiscussable. Rather than force people to exit when they have an issue with norms, we have offer people the alternative of voice. Exit is too easy in our networked era. Voice should be the easiest option. Encourage people to discuss their issues openly, especially those seen as hardest to raise. Celebrate resistance as a form of engagement. When norms are often invisible, it can also be a great learning experience to leverage the insights of those who can see.
The functioning of our society depend on explicit and implicit norms of behaviour and interaction. Let’s invest in the conversations and actions in community necessary to sustain norms and keep the use of force at bay.
I recently did a podcast with Tathra Street on making leadership safe for humans. Tathra has an series of interviews on the idea of Human Centred Leadership. In our 30 minute conversation, we discussed my leadership lessons, how work is changing, the demands of digital culture, working out loud and more.
The discussion was great but sadly the audio quality did not hold up to the content of the discussion.