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Too Busy to Be Bold

Busyness is a major problem in business. Everyone is busy. Oddly, we also have a problem of conservatism and lack of ambition. Everyone is busy playing it safe and fulfilling the routine tasks that always accumulate. The result is a massive waste of human potential.

We need to be less busy and be more bold.

Too Busy

It’s not hard to be busy. Everyone is busy.  The workload is everywhere. Modern communications generates volumes of information and an urgency of response. Many of these communications by social platform, instant message or email are social filler or merely procedural.

We can now bring people together from around the world at a moments notice. Meetings can take up the whole day. Badly run meetings waste enormous amounts of valuable work time.

Broken processes proliferate and people continue to execute them. The work and the fixes pile up making more busy work for everyone addressing the resulting issues.

Without clarity of what is important and what is merely urgent we can feel like we are failing to keep up. The psychological stress of falling behind on all the repetitive low value work is huge. That stress also makes people more likely to be risk averse. If you are already behind, why would you take on new risky tasks. We miss the chance to do more with our human potential and to reap the rewards in personal and organisational value.

We are also falling into the trap of making our work easier to eliminate. If we spend all our days on busy tasks, we aren’t delivering our human potential. It is easy for people to see that work as better automated. Robots don’t have to fall behind. They can do the busy work scalably.

Be Bold

Many people see the path to success as having a perfect strike rate. If they are 100% successful, then they will be rewarded. That’s not how it works. To be 100% successful you have to focus on the sure thing, the low value tasks and you will be working as one of the undifferentiated mass of qualified candidates. The differentiation that delivers success comes from taking the risky shot.

What would really happen if you didn’t reply to every email? If the initial email was better dealt with another way, replying only compounds the issues. Take another approach. Release your time to do better. Have the risky conversation that helps you and others to do better.

What would happen if you walked out of wasteful meetings to do better work? Sitting there only increases the pressure on everyone else to remain. Send a signal that you value your time and are making better decisions. Risk offending the meeting organiser to save everyone time and create value.

What would happen if you challenged or changed a broken process? Some times all it takes is one voice to highlight an issue and remove the work and rework with a simple fix.

If you know you can succeed on every task you are doing, why are you doing them? The greatest value in life comes from and with risk. Delegate or reassign or stop tasks that are inevitable successes for you. Give them to someone for whom they represent a challenge and an opportunity to learn. Take on a task that has a chance of failure instead. Risk failure to do something that others think can’t be done.

If these simple changes are too hard for you in your current role, is it time to change to something newer and riskier? Find a role that enables you to develop your potential through new and challenging work. Risk taking your talents to market if they are being wasted.

Your personal growth and greatest personal reward comes from being bold with your talents and capabilities. Conservatism and busyness will consume your life.

Personal Success Requires a Personal Goal

Personal success requires a personal goal. Obvious really. However, people commonly seek to avoid clear targets to avoid the risk and disappointment of falling short. Losing a realistic goal means losing engagement, the ability to learn and inviting intervention. We don’t have to impose targets externally, but we can ensure that people set their own goals.

Underselling Yourself

Target setting in many organisations is often a weak process. We all know the games that are played to set low or vague targets. Many employees prefer the idea that they have no targets at all, at least at first.

Experience suggests that unclear (or low) targets generally results in new and different pressures for employees. Because the targets are unclear for an employee’s work, they have undersold their value.  That results in:

  • Lower engagement: when it is unclear the value that an employee is delivering, that employee is the first to know. Engagement suffers when an employee can’t be clear how the work that they are doing is contributing to the organisation’s outcomes
  • Greater oversight and intervention: Nothing attracts interventionist managers more than uncertainty and potential underperformance. If the performance can’t be assessed by stakeholders then they are much more likely to call for an intervention at the expense of employee autonomy.
  • Inability to prioritise: We all have too much work. There’s always too much to do. Without goals there is no way to prioritise what to do and what not to do. This can lead to a dynamic that impacts both engagement and brings on more intervention.

Measuring Stick

We all learn and improve based on feedback. You need a measuring stick to assess what could be done better or differently. Without some form of realistic expectation for the work set in advance, measurement of the work is harder.  Declaring success becomes a subjective exercise or often simply that the task was completed delivering the outcome it achieved.

Asking employees to define in advance the goals they will achieve with a task is a key exercise in planning and prioristing their work. The targets don’t have to be set externally. Employees can nominate and defend their targets with the evidence and lessons of past performance. They can also be a part of the process of reviewing whether the aggregate of their and their teams’ efforts is enough. This changes the target setting process from one that is parent-child to one that is adult-adult.

Engaging in a rich dialogue around realistic expectations for future work and the lessons of past work provides the best foundations for autonomy and engagement of employees. It also accelerates the organisational learning process.

 

Value depends on Values

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I have recently being doing work in and around the not-for-profit and mutual sectors. What is clear to those organisations is often lost in the wider business market. Value depends on values. If we want to accelerate value creation, we need to found our efforts in the expressing the values of the organisation. If we have challenges realising value, we are wise to look to values as a potential barrier.

Found Connection in Purpose & Values

Purpose is the core reason the organisation exists. In connecting people across the organisation, it is essential to leverage this rationale and invite employees to connect their personal purpose in pursuit of this value to others.  Purpose will also be an expression of the shared values in the organisation.

Values are an important part of this alignment. Enterprise social collaboration is a megaphone of organisational values, not the ones on the poster, the real values in action across your organisation. If you want to focus on fostering the value that flows from collaboration, you will want to reinforce the constructive values and address any negatives.

We are now clear that psychological safety is a key enabler of collaboration. Shared expectations within and across teams in an organisation help create this environment of safety to share, criticise and take risks. Those shared expectations are the values in action in your organisation. This is culture – the expectation of interactions.

A key step in setting up connection is working with executives, champions and other leaders to foster the visibility of the positive behaviours. Showcase the best of your values and help employees to move towards positive change.

Another key issue that improves psychological safety and demonstrates constructive values is leveraging the new collaboration capability to share with openness, authenticity and a reduced power difference between senior executives and other employees. The greater the power difference in interactions and the less transparent senior executives are the more uncertain employees will be of the value of contributions. Values will be shaping the value creation from day one.

Values Enable Scaled & Agile Change

Values shape how quickly organisations mature the value of their collaboration. Highly valuable collaboration depends on employees having the encouragement and ability to address issues and realise strategic goals together.

The four drivers of value in collaboration, growth, velocity, effectiveness and protection, each depend on the ability of employees to identify, share and come together to create solutions that improve the organisation’s performance of its strategy. Without constructive values, this work by employees will be blocked, deferred or frustrated.

This work demands organisations practice values that support this value creation by employees:

  • Openness: Is the organisation and its people open to hearing the good and the bad? How is feedback taken and actioned? Does the organisation listen to all voices – powerful and quiet, internal and external?
  • Integrity: Does the organisational conversation reflect the practice of integrity by employees? Is there a realistic view of what is going on? Are employees misleading each other?
  • Recognition: Are the efforts of employees celebrated? Are good outcomes and bad outcomes discussed openly recognising the contributions and the outcomes?
  • Generosity and Reciprocity: Do employees give of their ideas, time and talents? Are those gifts reciprocated by the organisation and other employees?
  • Autonomy & Initiative: What degrees of freedom do employees have to initiate change? What impetus is there for employees to take action without waiting for others or waiting for instruction?
  • Trust: are employees trusted to make change for the better?

Values play a key role in shaping the potential value creation by employees in collaboration. Through all stages of the Value Maturity Model we need to foster more constructive values in action.

Anticipatory obedience

From Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny

Don’t obey in advance. Anticipatory obedience is one of the greatest constraints on the degrees of freedoms for employee-led change and innovation in organisations.

Our Problem of Anticipatory Obedience

Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do. – Timothy Snyder

I read the paragraph above, in Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, a book about authoritarianism in politics. It immediately hit home, not in the political context but in a corporate one.

One of the big barriers to employee-led change and innovation in organisations is employee’s desire to see explicit permission to act. Part of this is a response to psychological safety issuesPart is a lack of freedom to act.

However, much of the challenge is anticipatory obedience. Employees anticipate the most draconian constraints on their action and effectively bring them into place. They anticipate organisational concerns and prevent them from occurring.

This is a key way in which the culture of an organisation can have a restraining effect on employees ability to collaborate, innovate and change. In Vaclav Havel’s essay the Power of the Powerless, he describes how the act of a greengrocer putting a slogan in the window in a totalitarian regime reinforces a culture of obedience, even if the gesture is empty and merely one of avoiding issues. That sign is a signal to others to tow the line. The greengrocer hides his own wishes and others follow the external signals. If everyone is participating in anticipatory obedience, others follow. Havel says

‘individuals confirm the system, fulfil the system, make the system, are the system’

Importantly, this obedience and its related reticence to act is often taken by managers as a lack of capability or motivation demanding more command and control. Employees who failed to take their chance to make change find others take their freedom away.

Collaboration and Agile Change

The power of fostering collaboration and agile change for employees in organisations is that it challenges management to allow the right degrees of freedom to fulfil strategy and to create value. It also shows employees that there are alternatives to anticipatory obedience.

Collaboration and agile change also bring managers, stakeholders and other employees into dialogue around the challenges and opportunities in the organisation. Closing the communication gaps and speeding the flow of information helps make employees clearer on what the strategy, goals and degrees of freedom in the organisation are.

When fear rules the system, we don’t make change through announcements or even great strategy. We make change by doing differently repeatedly until others notice and follow along.

The Leadership Stencil

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A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves – Sun Tsu

Leaders often think that their leadership legacy will be the areas that they touch in an employee’s life: goals set, advice given, directions, training given and problem solving. However often the greatest mark a leader makes is where they leave room for an employee to show what they can do.

The Leadership Stencil

Think of your greatest career achievement. It is highly unlikely to be where you met an externally determined goal in the way specified by your manager. Career achievements are often where you show yourself potential that you weren’t even sure you had going in, where you grew in the process of the work and where you went beyond what everyone else expects.

Like a stencil, leaders need to provide the surrounds for employees to fill in the colour and build the picture of what they can do. Leaving empty space for employees to explore, to make choices, to grow and to develop is what great leaders do to engage and inspire their employees.

Lots of discussion of engagement forgets that engagement is about leveraging employee’s discretionary efforts and untapped potential. If employee’s lives are entirely specified, directed and inspected by their manager there’s no room for discretion and no value in extra effort. Engagement withers from disuse.

The key here is that like a stencil leaders make choices as to where they leave space and where they provide support. The goal is to guide employees to produce the right success on their own terms, not to abandon them to their fates.

The degrees of freedom in the white space are how employees work out what is possible for their own contributions.

Brittle Organisations

This weak I was asked a powerful couple of questions:

  • What defines an organisation that is beginning the descent into entropy and collapse?
  • What signals can we spot early of this process?

After some reflection, my answer was that a brittle organisation is one that has begun to turn inwards. When it no longer has external stimulus & engagement, it is exposed to the process of entropy.

Here’s a process by which organisations become brittle:

  1. Loss of curiosity: Once an organisation loses its sense of curiosity, it diminishes the value of external signals in favour of internal conversations. Curiosity may decline because of success, pressures of work or other cultural factors but the impact is always the same. Signals of the need to learn and adapt are being sent but the organisation starts to pay less attention and ask fewer questions.
  2. Excuses: Once curiosity drops, the organisation tends to begin a process of explaining away signals and issues of underperformance. Accountability to external stakeholders erodes as the organisation becomes increasingly wedded to its rationales and excuses.  An employee or stakeholder seeking to hold others to account or to make change now needs to work through layers of excuses.
  3. Cognitive Dissonance: If the signals from the outside are weak and the excuses are strong, an organisation can arrive at a place of cognitive dissonance.  Employees have to choose between what they might see or hear outside the organisation and what is believed internally. The pressure to conform is strong and many people will choose to rationalise the internal beliefs.
  4. Learned Helplessness: Argue with employees enough about changes or lessons that they see in their work and they will learn that change is not possible. Learned helplessness takes over where employees may individually know that a change is required but they assume nothing can be done.
  5. Lack of Trust and Agency: When employees behave as if change can’t be made, organisations commonly take away the power to make change. Performance focus becomes stricter and more oriented to compliance because trust is collapsing and accountabilities are breaking down. This creates a focus on internal accountabilities over external delivery. Collaboration and innovation break down. As employees move away from responding to their circumstances and more tightly follow policy and process,  the organisation loses its last exposure to external stimulus.

This process is not irreversible or inevitable. It can be stopped any way down the chain by refocusing the discussion in the organisation in three ways:

  • Turn outward
  • Discuss externally focused accountabilities
  • Restore agency and trust

 

Brittle Careers

Expertise is brittle. Mastery is resilient and adaptive.

Yesterday I spoke to a group of Microsoft MVPs and community leaders about adaptation and resilience in the future of work. A key theme of that talk was that community leaders need to take care that their expertise is not limiting their potential in the rapidly changing work environment.

Expertise is brittle. Like competency, people can tend to see it as something that you either have or you don’t. Shifting markets, work practices and capability needs can mean a much desired expertise is either no longer relevant or requires significant effort.

If you define yourself by an expertise, then there is value in being vulnerable. We need to look at the world around us to understand the risks and issues in our particularly expertise. Expertise, especially externally validated expertise, can become a barrier to engagement with others and to inclusion. Next thing you know you aren’t being warned of issues or aware enough of the need to learn and adapt.

The best way to embrace this vulnerability is to see all of our work relationships as a process of mastery.  There is no standard. There is only the ongoing work to learn, to work with others and to be better. This vulnerable mindset keeps us outwardly engaged and with a strong focus on learning and adaptation.  Engaging with our communities and helping them to create change, learn and adapt is an important part of this process of mastery.

Sharing with Value

Sharing content is for each person a process of testing and learning what works. Every audience is different and there are different dynamics for different kinds of content. After thousands of posts on this blog and a range of different types of content across videos, books, talks and more, here are my lessons for creating content that adds value for an audience.

  1. Don’t say what others are saying: It frustrates me that so many people follow the advice to post on topical subjects but then all say exactly the same things. I put down many business books when they are full of the same quotes, anecdotes, recommendations and stories. If you want to add value, bring a new and different perspective. For example, instead of describing the announcement of a new feature or product, can you put it in a bigger context, describe what it means for you personally, focus on a specific use case or string it together into a story?
  2. Start not the End of a Conversation: Recognise that in a community every piece of new content is a trigger for a new conversation. You don’t need to be definitive. You don’t need to answer every question. You can ask questions that remain unanswered or highlight what you would like to know.  The discussion about your content will be richer if it is not the end of the road.
  3. Take a Position: Sitting on fences is not that entertaining. Be bold. Say what you mean. Expect someone to take offence. If there is no opposition to your viewpoint, is it really worthwhile talking about it? Taking a position challenges you to be clear on what you think and why. That is always to the benefit of people who engage with your content. Nobody wants to spend time with your work for a wishy-washy perspective that maybe means something, but might not.
  4. Build on Your Themes: If you share content consistently (& you should), then a philosophy will underpin that content over time.  You will have themes you share regularly, approaches that repeat and a sense of unity to your thinking. Build this into your content and help your users to make sense of the bigger picture and connections in your work.
  5. Seek Feedback: Before during and after the process of creating content, engage others to get their feedback. Great ideas are one thing.  Great conversations are what prompt the best content.  The value of feedback is that it can also be the basis for the next piece of content. I have often created further material to respond to questions or suggestion or broken long pieces into parts to extend and open up the conversation.

Here’s the story of one of the more successful post on this site to elaborate these points. I attended Microsoft Ignite in 2017 when Microsoft explained their inner and outer loops approach to collaboration. I immediately celebrated a new found clarity of Microsoft’s collaboration tools. However, I began to reflect that the simple models were missing something. On the long flight from Orlando to Melbourne, I jotted notes on these questions. One thing that struck me was that the model didn’t clarify transition between these loops. As a result some scrawls began the first draft of tables that ended up in the post.

When I got of the plane, I started conversations with other experts in collaboration. People encouraged me to share more and suggested points I had missed. Eventually, with an almost finalised draft, I had a conversation with the Yammer product team to get their thoughts and understand what I might have missed. They encouraged me to clarify a few points and start the conversation. Just before I posted the final draft, I realised that it related to some themes of this blog that both I and Harold Jarche have discussed in our content. That went into the final post too.

The response to that post has also led to posts by others (and here) , great discussions and also further posts as I picked up loose threads and answered questions. The magic of this post is that it is different, extends and enriches a key topic of conversation and people keep coming back to it for that reason.

The way to create value in sharing content is to have it be something that inspires others to action or new discussion. That is the definition of influence. That value only comes if you see your content as part of an ongoing conversation with your audience. Anything else is just shouting into the wind.

The Dark Horse

Last night I gave a talk on the future of work and its implications for careers. One of my themes was that while analytics and automation are changing our work opportunities, there are new horizons for us to do what humans do best: creativity, uniqueness, collaboration, adaptation and so on. I highlighted that global connectedness enables people to be found and their talents to be leveraged in ways that were never possible before.

At the end of my talk, a parent of twenty-something challenged my positive spin and asked “How do you get found when you haven’t had the experience yet?”. They noted that the same dynamics of global connection also mean that your competition is global and the skills and scale of others competing is daunting.

Like any great question, the answer all depends on your perspective.

The Commodity Candidate

The future of work is going to be very unkind to commodity candidates.  If you look similar to lots of others in your field, then there’s a real risk you will be a commodity candidate. In picking from a vast array of similar candidates, organisations are going to pick on extreme criteria or distinguish on differences like price or willingness to do the hard yards for little return.

Publicly advertised roles have already reached this point. There are so many similar qualified applicants that organisations now have started to use candidate management systems (ie algorithms) to filter the applicants to a short list.  Suddenly the test is not your unique contributions but how well you beat the algorithm.

This process is one that can take time, changes to skills and experience and just dumb luck. The questioner was right – going in through the front door is harder than ever when it involves a pipeline of similar candidates.

The Dark Horse Candidate

My career doesn’t fit any usual template. There are very few people who have similar skills and experience. When I used to go for competitive roles (admittedly before algorithmic filtering), I embraced the fact that I did not fit the usual type.  I deliberately pitched myself as the dark horse candidate, the one added to the interview list because they brought something unique and different. It wasn’t easy. As the dark horse, you have to work hard to get on the list and harder still to maintain attention.  It doesn’t work most of the time. However, when it works, I was chosen because of the unique skills that I brought to the role.

The future of work benefits the dark horse. Unique skills, insights and experience are the foundations of global reputations. These are the opportunities that can get you roles through the back and side door as connections, networks and reputation help you to differentiate yourself and to step around the algorithms that assess the commodity candidates. Not fitting the algorithm at all can be better than almost fit, if you get a human to consider your case.

A theme of my talk was that the power of the globally connected networks of work today is that we can all develop our own unique skills, insights and experiences. We don’t have to wait for jobs to give them to us. We can use our insights, our passions and our projects to build connections and tackle problems. The work we do through interest, hobbies, communities and more is the foundation of our future uniqueness.  That work is also how we discover our purpose – the purpose is in the work. The challenge for each of us is to experiment our way to uniqueness. We also have to do that in a way (ideally working out loud) that enables others to find us.

My work on collaboration came from a side project while I worked day-to-day on other roles. My work today in healthcare payments came from that role and a variety of projects while I worked the last few years on collaboration. Working out loud shared that with networks, communities, colleagues and others. Mixing roles, projects, experiments has been a learning journey and all of it contributes to building a unique portfolio career.

The future of work favours dark horse candidates over commodity candidates. What roles, projects and experiments are going to demonstrate your unique value? When are you starting?

What Kind of Digital Transformation?

Digital transformation is a buzzword. Like any good buzzword it covers a multitude of sins. This jargon is used and abused to cover a wide range of product, process, organisational and technology changes. Many of these different approaches reflect different stages in the maturity of our understanding of the potential of digital technology.

Let’s examine a few examples of each:

Technology-focused – Build it and They will come

  • Move these servers to the cloud – Same old software. New metal
  • Move this software to the cloud – Newer software. Access anywhere
  • Give us new digital stuff – Duplicating and extending analogue ways
  • Proprietary Interfaces everywhere – You can have access on our terms
  • Solutions in search of problems – Blockchain, and so on
  • APIs everywhere – Open Access but new challenges
  • Automate everything – We have a bot for that.
  • Platforms to nowhere – We built a platform but now it needs users
  • User-driven technology and adoption – We start with user needs and work back to the digital technology

Process-focused – Digital Transformation Done Analogue Ways

  • Digitising Your Current Processes – Paving the Goat track. A faster & sexier way of the same inefficient process
  • Locking in Legacy: Adapting to new processes but building in logic, data or algorithms from analogue models
  • Digital Process Innovation: Leveraging openness, connectivity, real-time, transparency and more to develop new process approaches
  • Realigning Around Customer and Employee: Ensuring that the new digital processes are designed to deliver value to users

Product-focused – New Digital Goodness

  • New channels for Customers: More ways to talk to us so the cost to serve has increased overall
  • New product enhancements – Adding digital features or services to existing analogue channels. Your cereal now has an app. Your airport has a Facebook account
  • New products and services – Rethinking the Job to be Done for your product in new ways with digital
  • Product Management: Lean Prototyping and Releases – shipping faster and earlier
  • Opening up capabilities as services – Rethinking what your organisation does well and what it can do for or with others

Organisational-focused – Rethinking the Digital Organisation 

  • Digital team – small group of people playing with the cool stuff
  • Digital Labs – put digital experimentation somewhere safe but let it grow into a business
  • Digital Ventures – partner with startups to do digital innovation. Mostly we bring the money.
  • Measurement and Analytics – HR Data for the win
  • Agile transformation (or similar) – Take digital practices and incorporate them into our workflow and structures. Some times it works. Mostly it doesn’t
  • Digital People Experience – Onboard, work, and offboard yourself
  • Digital Culture Transformation – Scaled Learning and Change and rethinking Value Creation

This small sample highlights myriad ways that digital technologies are used in organisations. There’s many more. In each of these areas in which digital can change the organisation, it comes down to a few key questions:

  • Are you ready to change your thinking?
  • Are you ready to change your approach?
  • Who are you designing for?
  • What value do you want to create – for them? for you?
  • Are your prepared to learn and adapt?