In the competitive world of technology, there is a little meme that circulates widely – suggest a technology solution is dead, either because it is likely to be no longer supported, an acquisition is likely, it fails to work, or because it’s time has passed. This meme is very common in the world of collaboration because there are many competitive products, new product launches and because the work of collaboration itself is hard. Instead of falling into the trap of focusing on who may or may not be dead, organisations would be better investing in the change to make their collaboration solutions effective.
So is it Dead?
I won’t link to all the post suggesting, insinuating or otherwise discussing the imminent death of Yammer. While the rumours continue, Microsoft is investing heavily in the Yammer product roadmap, deepening its integration to Office365, clients are getting value from the tool and Yammer is a key part of both the Office365 stack and Microsoft’s collaboration offering, including Teams. We can do the same analysis for the rumours of the demise of many other platforms. This parody was rather easy to write as a result. Most of the time the simple question “what is the agenda of the author here?” raises some insights into why something might be suggested to be dead.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumours of death have a way of being ‘greatly exaggerated’. Let’s take a tour of recent examples. I’ve heard a rumour that the IT departments may be dead. See this post on IT transformation, this one on the death of IT or this one and ask your IT team about how ready they are for a radically different way of working. You can also produce articles from leading publications that declare HR dead, Marketing dead, and so on. Declaring something dead is a good way to get a headline and ‘bad news’ is more viral.
As a general rule, it is usually a waste of time to ask people to confirm rumours. Hidden truth comes out in its own sweet time. It is also mightily hard to disprove something that doesn’t exist.
Making Quality Architectural Choices
What ‘everyone says’ is a poor guide to IT decisions. We need to ask our IT specialists to do what IT departments are meant to do on important architectural choice questions – do their research. There is a sophisticated literature on IT architecture and plenty of reputable analysts to help organisations make better choices.
Making these choices is more than just picking the best tool on the market. The best tool for your organisation’s strategy requires you to understand the specific organisational value that is to be created through collaboration, what use cases and behaviours are needed to be supported and then picking tools capable of sustaining that work and realising the value. The commonly agreed ‘best tool’ may not be the tool that works best for your users. In addition, you also need to understand what you need to invest to realise that value through changes in user behaviour.
Invest for Success.
IT specialists should also be advocates for the total project investment required to see a solution to success in achieving its business objectives. Anyone who has researched collaboration knows deploying a collaboration tool is barely the beginning of the work. Any IT specialist who simply deploys the tool and walks away is wasting their organisation’s time and money.
As I stress repeatedly on this blog, any collaboration technology depends on the culture of the organisation, the support for change and ongoing community management. I have experienced or been told of a range of failed implementations of collaboration across all the major platforms, including the current wunderkinds Workplace and Slack. There are no magic bullets in changing how people work together.
On the broader question of whether collaboration solutions are dead, the evidence is that we are only just beginning to experience the maturity of the platforms moving beyond sharing and into work. Vendors are investing heavily in all these collaboration tools, because they have seen the value of collaborative work across organisations. Millions of employees around the world are connecting, sharing and solving business problems with these tools. The organisations who invest in helping their employees to leverage the platform are realising significant value and readying themselves to be more effective in digital transformation. If that is “dead”, then let’s enjoy the cemetery, it is a good place to be.
The Work We Need to Do
The arguments about the death or not of the various products are deeply secondary to the work of engaging the employees of organisations in better ways of working. That’s what matters to CEOs and users. Every vendor is working to support that, but the hard work of making it happen comes down to the customers and the employees.
Organisations spend a fortune on leadership programs to prepare their mid-career and high potential leaders for senior roles. Mostly, those programs are about unlearning the lessons learned as junior employees.
Early in my career, I worked in an organisation with a strongly hierarchical command and control culture. The environment depended so much on loyalty it was feudal in nature. It was also brutal where a meeting could turn vicious unexpectedly.
I could do loyalty but brutality was new to me. However, the consistent feedback I received working in that environment was ‘You don’t shout enough. Push harder. Get a bit mongrel.’ The prevailing lesson was that leadership was a macho, hard driving and ruthless enterprise. Anything less than pushing your own position at full bullying force was weakness. I learned to swear, to manage bullies and to push hard to survive. I didn’t realise all organisations didn’t work this way until I left.
What Junior Leaders Learn
We arrive in the workplace ready to make a difference. We have nascent capabilities, a new found sense of agency and ambition aplenty.
At first the workplace is a new and ambiguous place. The official position is that the culture is based in integrity, collaboration & teamwork, excellence and other noble values. Nothing works that way. Either through observation or explicit guidance we learn different rules. For most junior employees the rules become clear very quickly:
- Do your job well without help, mistakes, or complaint
- Follow instructions meticulously and never exceed your authority
- Make your boss look good and cover your ass
- Keep your head down
- Develop your unique expertise to make yourself irreplaceable
- Knowledge is power
- Get power
- Compete ruthlessly and view everyone else as a competitor for scarce resources
- Integrity is overrated; and
- Many more spoken and unspoken rules
This isn’t leadership, but it is what we come to associate with the exercise of power. These are the rules of traditional management based in command and control. None of these rules work in the digital economy.
Organisations teach the wrong lessons about leadership to employees for years. No wonder mid-career and high potential leadership programs cost so much and struggle so hard to make change. These programs are often a transactional investment in change in the midst of a systemic reinforcement of the traditional model.
We are asking people to unlearn the leadership that got them to mid-career or high potential status while everything around them suggests change is unwise. When there is a form of safety and predictability in bullying performance from automatons, why would leaders consider influence, agency, change, creativity and new opportunities
We need more than a fancy workshop to make a change in leadership behaviour in this environment. We need to redefine our organisation’s understanding of leadership entirely. Our digital future demands more systemic change. Those frontline employees that we are teaching to be passive are our lost competitive advantage. Digital leadership would be easier if the culture posters were real and if there wasn’t so much to unlearn.
To learn more about digital leadership, get a ticket to this panel with Anne Bartlett-Bragg and Euan Semple in Melbourne or Sydney. We will be discussing how leadership needs to change and what needs to be done to sustain change.
Everybody needs a narrative.
Not all narratives are real.
Not everybody is real.
Organisations are becoming increasingly aware that traditional models of leadership need to change to adapt to the new digital and network economy.
I am excited to be joining with Euan Semple and Anne Bartlett-Bragg to present panel events in Melbourne and Sydney exploring the changing role of Digital Leadership.
Digital Leadership Panel In Sydney on 27 March
Digital Leadership Panel In Melbourne on 29 March
Both events promise to be fantastic discussions.
I look forward to seeing you at one or other of these event and hearing your insights into how digital leadership is changing.
Euan Semple is an early adopter of digital technologies and an innovator who has worked with major organisations like the BBC, Nokia, the World Bank, and NATO. He believes that companies that are succeeding in the marketplace today are those that are beginning to initiate a dialogue with customers and staff to improve their operations and processes.
Euan offers unique insights into how to make the latest technologies work for you and your organisation. He has helped organisations, and more importantly the people in them, to get their heads around social media, social business, and the social web both inside and outside the firewall.
In his book ‘Organizations Don’t Tweet’, Euan identifies that there are remarkable opportunities to mine the intellects of senior managers, backroom operators, frontline staff and customers to create a more responsive business model.
Euan believes those leaders and managers that stay connected to their community at work and with their customers have the best chance to survive and flourish in this new ‘Age of Disruption’.
Anne is the Founder and Managing Director of Ripple Effect Group. She specialises in the design and implementation of innovative communication and collaboration networks with enterprise social technologies. Anne continues to extend her PhD research in this field to assist organisations develop informed approaches to using new technologies and changing traditional models of working. Her recent research into digital capabilities will provide a framework to review leadership models for the digital workplace.
Simon Terry provides consulting, advice, speaking and thought leadership to global clients through his own consulting practice, and as a Charter Member of Change Agents Worldwide, a network of progressive and passionate professionals, specialising in Future of Work technologies and practices. The focus of Simon’s practice is assisting organisations to transform innovation, collaboration, learning and leadership. Digital transformation and the future of work require purposeful, agile and collaborative teams, with all members able to lead responses to customer needs and market opportunities.
“Thanks for joining us today. You bring such wisdom”
The words in a meeting this week struck me heavily. I don’t feel wise. I feel like I am doing what I do and continually learning more as I go. I feel trapped in the usual mess and complexity we all face as we go about our work. It was easy at first to attribute this “wisdom” to perceptions of my age. I had the least hair in the room and what I have is grey. I wrote the comment off, as I had done with similar comments before.
On further reflection, I realised that there is a pattern in the times that people appreciate my contributions as wisdom. Here is how you can increase your wisdom without waiting for the grey hair:
- Stay calm – we expect gurus to be able to levitate above daily frustrations. With all that is going on at work, it is easy to lose it when things get challenging or complex. Keeping calm and centred when things are challenging is the first step to wisdom. Be a reminder that panic and flurry adds nothing valuable to work. Helping others to see that the daunting complexity can be managed or at least mitigated is an important role anyone can play
- Ask good questions -the best way to be wise is to enable others to bring forth their wisdom. Great questions are the key to drawing out other’s contributions. People often know the answer they just lack the confidence to believe it. Questions can elicit new information or reframe the problem to help others forward.
- Keep the focus on the goal – in the flurry or confusion of work, it is easy to confuse the goal. Clarifying the goal of a conversation or work can make matters dramatically easier for everyone, particularly in times of stress. Break down big daunting goals into smaller steps. There’s wisdom in progress and iteration too.
- Leverage experience – Been there; done that; got the wisdom. If you have seen a challenge before, it is far less daunting. Ask what have I seen that relates to this? Collect experiences that are relevant to your work from your life, networks, media and other sources. The experience you share might be your own, or your networks, either way, it advances the conversation significantly.
- Work from principles – Being able to support your positions and recommendations with principles and logic brings strength and ease of understanding to your work. Connecting the ideas that guide you makes your case stronger. Also working from principles, helps you to be in the rare category of having some principles at work.
- Be brief – Make your point concisely. The less you say the more effective it is and the wiser you appear. Too many people think that their audience measures their contributions by duration. They don’t. They weigh their impact.
Our relationships with our parents are some of the most significant relationships in our lives, for better or for worse. We cannot and should not try to replicate those relationships at work. It is time that our workplaces adopt the policy “We are All Adults Here”.
Playing at Parents and Children
When Netflix set out to define its culture as a startup, one of the core ideas was “we are not family here”. Netflix explicitly set out to leverage a radical idea of establishing its culture on adult-adult relationships. They want employees to have the freedom and the responsibility that comes from interacting as adults. Too many organisations’ efforts to extend autonomy are undermined by a culture of policies and procedures that treat employees as children. The ‘nanny state’ of political imagination is alive and well inside organisations.
Treating employees as adults is not a new idea. It is just rarely implemented. Treating employees as children started back before Frederick Winslow Taylor. In the craftsman’s shop and in the early days of industrialisation before child labour laws, many employees were children. Early industrialists and other Taylorist viewed the employee’s brain as the last thing you would use. Taylor himself once reiterated his point in testimony to a Special Committee of the House of Representatives:
I can say, without the slightest hesitation, that the science of handing pig-iron is so great that the man who is fit to handle pig-iron as his daily work cannot possibly understand the science; the man who is physically able to handle pig-iron and is sufficiently phlegmatic and stupid to choose this for his occupation is rarely able to comprehend the science of handling pig-iron
Taylor’s school of thought may have been dominant in industrial thinking, but it was not alone. Even back in the early 20th Century, Mary Parker Follett was researching and demonstrating the potential of reciprocal adult relationships at work. Follet who focused on the connection between leadership and followership in shared purpose said:
That is always our problem, not how to get control of people, but how all together we can get control of a situation.
Letting Go of Mom and Dad
The era of global digital networks that we now face has shifted the balance irreversibly from Taylor to Follett. An employee who sits childlike at the node of a network, waiting to be fed instructions is a blocker and will be routed around by customers, fellow employees and the community. In a network, you are judged by what you contribute, not what you consume. Waiting for a clear unambiguously attractive “what’s in it for me?” means a missed opportunity to make a personal choice.
The pace, customer centricity and competitive challenges of digital business demand organisations leverage the greatest potential of their people. An employee on the spot responding like a fully functioning human adult is the greatest competitive advantage that can be put into market, particularly if they can command the digital resources of the organisation in support of their decisions. That will never happen if they are really children playing and waiting for approval.
There are many psychological reasons why we revert to the comfort of adult and child relationships. Having an adult to ‘look after us’, whether CEO, boss or politician can be comforting in times of uncertainty and threat. However, as too many employees and citizens, have discovered that leader is only looking after themselves and leveraging the parent-child relationship to do so at their disadvantage. Unlike parents, CEOs are not in the business of sacrificing themselves to save their children.
The hard adult work of reciprocal relationships is in front of us. This is one of the critical reasons why organisations need to develop strong practices in sense-making, collaboration, adaptive leadership, and experimentation. We can no longer rely on the one adult in the room to make all the decisions. Changing engrained habits is not easy. However, these new challenging relationships are the way to realise our human potential.