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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Worse still many employees and many organisations have an outdated expectation that the role of leader is to make a team safe, to make work simple and easy and to provide security and protection.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

Noticing Out Loud

A few weeks ago, I was struck by the idea that I was commuting to and from work and not paying much attention to the environment around me. Paying attention to little things has been a big source of inspiration for the posts on this blog. I didn’t want to miss opportunities. I chose to pay attention.

I began to reflect on what I was seeing as I walked, caught planes, trains and cars to work in my own and other cities. Some of those reflections caused me to research the history of particular aspects of our work culture like business attire. Other reflections left me with open questions or new topics of inquiry.

Because my habit is to work out loud, I shared the first of the insights on twitter and added the hashtag #morningcommute. That hashtag is a reasonably busy collection of messages of people sharing content about their morning commute. Like any effort at working out loud, I was sharing thinking in progress with a relevant community in my followers on twitter and that hashtag. Because I shared them in the moment, there was a good chance others would be in the same experience at the time too. I had started noticing more and now I was noticing out loud. Most importantly, I tried to frame each tweet as the start of a conversation. There was more I wanted to learn. Here was this morning’s effort:

What struck me immediately was the extraordinary conversations that began to happen each day triggered by the tweet. That tweet alone has generated discussion on digital tribes, trust and connection in under 30s and the future of work, the coaching of kids sport teams and how we teach people to collaborate, the value of talking to strangers and where to find the pack mentality.

I was surprised to get answers and insights from people around the world. Many correspondents were on their way home or even at the end of their day. Some topics went on for days. Others faded immediately.

With one simple step, my efforts to pay better attention were supported by a global community who helped me benefit in my work and presumably benefit in return. A few people became regular partners in conversation on my journey to work. It reconnected me to people with whom I had lost contact. Even better I learned a lot and the discussions pushed me to consider insights I had missed.

Each of these interactions encourages me to keep going, to pay more attention, to reflect more and continue to share. Sharing a simple moment out loud helped me find a community to support the work of paying attention.

No insight or action is too small or too insignificant for working out loud. The community will help you discover value you cannot yet see. The simple act of noticing might be enough to create a special moment of connection.

Agile, Learning & Random Walk of Performance

The pace of business continues to accelerate. Learning is more valuable than ever. We place a high priority on change. However, with this focus on pace and adaptation comes the danger of a random walk of performance.

The Random Walk of Performance

The random walk of performance occurs when the rate of change overwhelms the insights of the performance of that change. We begin to react before we know what we are learning from our changes to improve performance.

Here’s a common example:

  • A product owner wants to test a new product in market with the sales team
  • After the first few days the results are disappointing so they make a change to the communication materials
  • A few days later the results haven’t improved so there’s changes made to the sales approach
  • A few days later the product pricing is changed because the change in sales approach disrupts the sales team and sales decline
  • Later still some more product features are announced to address customer feedback from the first week
  • Eventually with no consistency & no baseline to measure from the team realises that while there may be positive signs now, they don’t know what they learned through this process of change. Would results have improved with time? What changes worked? What should they do now? Everyone is stressed & confused, catching up with the cascade of change, and the confusion isn’t helping performance. Was that the issue all along?

I used a product example but the same situation happens with the development of personal skills. Practising new skills takes time to develop confidence, involves discomfort and needs persistence.  Layer too many changes of approach on top of each other too quickly and it can be hard to develop the desired skills and understand what is driving changes. Far too many people give up on positive changes because they aren’t prepared to wait for outcomes or the change gets overwhelmed by the next new thing.

Avoiding the Random Walk

To avoid the random walk, changes need to be given time to embed into performance and they also need a clear baseline against which to measure performance.  The desire to test multiple changes at once is why many organisations now run complex comparison testing. Separating the changes into different cohorts helps keep clear the impact of each change. It also makes it easier for the system to adapt to each individual change and improves the pace of assessment.

Processes like scrum build in reflection at the end of a sprint cycle so that learnings can be built into the next sprint. Staging learning into the system in this way gives better assessment of the need for and impact of changes.

At an individual level we can manage the random walk by:

  • being clear on our measures of performance and the base performance level
  • persisting with a change until we can understand the impact on performance, often until after the period of conscious incompetence ends
  • resisting the temptation to change everything at once or in rapid succession
  • building in time for reflection

Rapid learning is more important than ever. However a random walk of performance tells us little. We need to plan our changes as part of a process of managing learning and adaptation.

The Diversity of Working Out Loud

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.