#WOLWEEK DAY 3: VISIBLE WORK

This International Working Out Loud Week we will be sharing a reflection on a different element of working out loud each day.  We will be using John Stepper’s latest iteration of the five elements of Working Out Loud as a guide to those reflections. Our third reflection is on Visible Work.

VISIBLE WORK

All our work is visible to others to some extent unless we actively seek to hide it. What the visible work element of working out loud asks us to do is to consider how we can make our work more visible to those who can benefit and those who can help.

This is not about completed work.  That would be visible outcomes. The element of visible work is making work more visible to others and narrating that work in ways that enable other people to learn and to help. You may not value your work and your work process but making that work more visible to the right people might help you to understand how they value your work and how they can help you make your work more valuable.

Visible does not necessarily mean public. The audience who can see your work might be small and focused.  Visible does not necessarily mean insistently distracting. Visibility is the beginning of findability.  You may want to simply make your work visible where it may be found later by someone like you working on a similar problem.

Visible work is a far wider trend than working out loud in the future of work. We see visible work in Visual Management Boards, Kanban, Trello, dashboards and other tools of visual management. We see visible work in agile projects, in design thinking exercises, in ideation exercises and other environments where people need to coordinate work into one vision. The post-it note is the byte of visual work in these contexts. Visible work underpins our activity based workspaces, our collaboration solutions and many more management systems and practices. Rather than simply let the process or environment make your work visible, take control of your work and shape its visibility to help yourself and others.

Think for a minute about your invisible work – the efforts you put in, the anonymous giving, the work that gets folded into other work or slides off the end of the desk or meeting table. How rare is it that there is joy or even satisfaction in the invisible work? Most of it goes to waste. All of it is neglected. Visibility of work is a step to a better life and a better career. Start sharing your work as it happens.

International Working Out Loud Week is from 6-12 June 2016

The Exception Ends in Transparency

The power of culture is it changes our behaviours without us always noticing. Take care your culture is not creating exceptions from social norms. If so, transparency will hurt you one day.

Yesterday, I posted on the exception we have in business for the use of arbitrary power that would be unacceptable anywhere else in society. We allow this exception because we see the use of arbitrary power as part of the expected behaviours at work, part of the culture of work. One reader commented that the use of arbitrary power in business seemed ridiculous when you think about it. That’s the problem with culture. Most of the time we don’t examine our expectations. We just align our behaviours.

Over and over again organisations don’t see the issue in their culture until the light of transparency is shined on their behaviours. Suddenly their actions are judged not by their own internal norms and expectations but by the public social norms of the community. Too many organisations are shocked to see their own behaviour in that light.

Before you get caught by surprise by your own culture, open it up to discussion and reflection. Work out loud to engage customers and community outside the organisation. Keep the boundaries of your organisation porous. Listen carefully to the rebels and change agents bringing you news of issues. Most of all do purposeful human work in the real world. That’s the best way to keep yourself honest.

Leadership in Transformation

A common topic of debate in the Responsive Organization movement is whether an organization can become responsive or it must be born that way.

Undoubtedly many of the leading case studies of future of work organizations are organizations created or rebirthed from near death by charismatic founders. Some use this as evidence that the elements of a responsive organization must be present from the beginning. In a previous post, I pointed out that we cannot rely on transparency alone to make change occur for us. The power structures in a traditional organisation will prevent most radical change.

I am unambiguously in the optimist camp. I am not alone and the company in the optimist camp inspires me. I have seen organizations change enough to not recognise their former selves. Change to more responsive ways of working is possible. The question is how.

What gets in the way

Chris Argyris’ classic article Teaching Smart People to Learn is a rich source of observations of what gets in the way of a Responsive Organization transformation.  In particular, Argyris notes that:

… There seems to be a universal human tendency to design one’s actions consistently according to four basic values:

1. To remain in unilateral control;

2. To maximize “winning” and minimize “losing”;

3. To suppress negative feelings; and

4. To be as “rational” as possible—by which people mean defining clear objectives and evaluating their behavior in terms of whether or not they have achieved them.

The purpose of all these values is to avoid embarrassment or threat, feeling vulnerable or incompetent. In this respect, the master program that most people use is profoundly defensive. Defensive reasoning encourages individuals to keep private the premises, inferences, and conclusions that shape their behavior and to avoid testing them in a truly independent, objective fashion.

These hidden values in most organisation get in the way of the transparency-led transformation that many hope to see. The Responsive Organization poses a threat to control, a threat of losing and negative feelings. Importantly the delegation of authority in a Responsive Organization may cause people anxiety as to objectives and rationale for action.

The role of leadership is to act as a counterbalance these natural human values and shift the behaviours to that of a Responsive Organization. We need to create rationales for action more powerful than embarrassment. We need to create community to generate trust, support and connection. We need to enable learning through conflict and experimentation. 

Purpose:

Leaders must create a strong rationale for the transformation. In cases of crisis, startup or near death of organizations, this rationale can often be imposed by a charismatic individual. The external circumstances enable a threat based narrative to bind people together in a defensive rationale for change.

However, most organizations are successful to their own terms. As Argyris notes, we want to feel successful even if our results don’t pass external muster.  

Leaders need to leverage two elements to create a strong rationale for change in this context:  

  • The Purpose of the organization: a purpose is the ultimate rationale for why people come together in an endeavour. It defines the common impact the group of people wish to have on the world.  As a higher agenda, it is the perfect rationale for change for even the most successful organisations.  Purpose is a mastery quest. Very few organizations have the capability to completely fulfil their purpose. They can however strive to better realise it.
  • External orientation: No closed system will find a rationale for change. External orientation is where organizations find the challenges and opportunities that define the purpose into specific improvement opportunities. Leaders need to relentlessly focus the organization on its customers and community to see transparently the challenges and opportunities that exist for change. Well defined external impacts in this community will be what can drive the autonomy of teams in the organization.  Using customer and community data in line with Purpose, also enables change agents to overcome embarrassment-based resistance in the organization.

Community:

Individuals will need support to take on the risks of a Responsive Organization. The role of leaders is to create the sense of community that will support an individual through that change. At the heart of that community will be engagement with others and a growing sense of mutual trust.  Leaders set the tone for any community. They must also work hard to reinforce these key community behaviours

  • Engagement: Engagement begins with transparency and connection. I cannot truly care about the others in my community until I know who they are and understand their purposes, concerns and circumstances. Leaders need to create the conditions to enable people to be more social, to connect, to solve and to share their work challenges together.
  • Trust: Engagement will build trust as it builds understanding. Transparency will reinforce trust. However, leaders need to take on the role of fostering responsibility and accountability as engines of growing trust in the organization.  When people see that individuals and teams are accountable for driving change then they will have greater trust in the change agenda.

Learning:

This post is deliberately not titled like a listicle e.g. ’The 3 or 6 things to transform an organisation’. Even a basic familiarity with change highlights that formulas will work only up to a point. Leadership needs to be adaptive to enable any system to change in a sustainable way.

To be true to their purpose and stakeholders, to leverage the potential of their community, each organization will take an unique path through change.  The role of leaders is facilitate the individual and organizational learning required:

  • Experimentation: creating a culture of rapid iteration to address challenges and opportunities will accelerate the cycle of learning in the organization. Leaders must help this experimentation culture to overcome the resistance identified by Argyris and also to spread and have a wider influence in the organization. Lessons learned must become new truths which will take a sense-making role for leaders in the wider organization and mean leaders must champion new ways of working when they arise, whatever the personal costs.
  • Conflict: The biggest reason that organizational transformations fail is an unwillingness of the leadership of the organisation to allow uncertainty and conflict. Conflict will happen. The uncertainty associated with conflict is inevitable. Efforts to suppress this will either undermine transparency, the rationale for change, engagement or learning. Failure to embrace conflict takes many names: politeness, bureaucracy, politics, corporate speak, history, culture, etc. Failure to embrace conflict is an unwillingness to learn and improve. There will always be resistance when change comes and it must be addressed. Leaders need to create and sustain the right kinds of constructive conflict – driven by purpose, based in facts from an external orientation & experimentation, mediated through an engaged community. 

Change is Coming. Lead.

I have seen the potential of purpose, external orientation, engagement, trust experimentation and conflict to drive change. Supported by leadership these are the elements of each organization’s transformation. These elements are critical to a Responsive Organization.

Throughout this post I have referred to leaders and leadership. This need not be hierarchical leadership. Clearly it helps if leadership and power are aligned in an organization in reinforcing the need for change. However, the changes described above are not capable of being implemented by top-down edicts. These changes must come as individuals and groups discover their power and are influenced as a result, This kind of leadership relies on influence and can begin bottom up or even from the middle management so often scorned in organizations.

Change is possible. Change is coming. Smart people can learn. Your people and your organisation can better realise their potential and their purpose. A Responsive Organization transformation will occur if you are prepared to lead the change.

Lead.

Transparency is a Disinfectant

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‘Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants’ Louis Brandeis

Transparency is a disinfectant. Openness highlights the need for change. Just as hygiene enables but does not deliver good health, transparency alone will not change the behaviours in an organisation. 

From Transparency to Transformation

Many people hoped the transparency of social business would transform organisations. We are now in an era when an organisation is more transparent internally and externally than ever. Networks & conversations reach across organisational boundaries. Opportunities exist to connect, to share information about opportunities and issues and solve problems together.

Many hoped that with this new transparency would mean organisations followed a path that looked something like this:

Transparency > Greater awareness of issues> Experiments towards a Solution > Autonomous leadership

In this model, increasing the transparency and connection across the organisation highlights the problems. The visibility of problems enables individuals to experiment with new models to address the issues. Those experiments foster the evidence and the leadership to complete the transformation. 

This model has the appeal that people need do little. Simply add technology to make the organisations more transparent and change begins. However we have learned that organisations are communities of humans and that greater transparency is a positive, but it not enough to catalyse transformation. There are real human forces like power holding us back from this change.

Transparency is a Prerequisite not a Solution 

Speak to any change agent and you will hear a common refrain: ‘My organisation can see the problem but it still won’t do anything’. 

Transparency is essential to highlight problems & opportunities. Transparency in networks is good at finding new issues that have been hidden by historical ways of seeing things. Customers and community can raise their issues directly, often for the first time. Employees can share frustrations.  People can use the new transparent organisation to find those with the ability to make a difference to the issue. What transparency doesn’t do is guarantee that person does anything.

Brandeis is right that transparency is a wonderful disinfectant. Transparency also changes behaviours. When people are aware that their actions are transparent they are more likely to consider others and feel the accountability of the community. The rarity of bad behaviour in enterprise social networks is a case in point.

However, more likely does not mean a guarantee. Transparency will not overcome the wilfully blind leader, the resort to arguments, justifications and excuses or the use of power to enforce an exception. Each of these may be seen by all but they also might be accepted in the culture of the organisation.  When organisations have strong cultural or power forces that resist the issues, people may see something but still refuse to acknowledge, to discuss or act on it. 

Transformation takes Transparency, Accountability and Leadership

Organisations need transparency. Effective organisations thrive on it and particularly on the most difficult forms of opening their organisation up to external parties like partners, customers and the community. These organisations make accountability to respond to what flows from transparency part of their leadership conversation.

The sunshine of transparency helps create safer and more human organisations. Accountability and leadership leverage that transparency to complete the transformation.

A future post will describe the characteristics of an organisation’s leadership conversation that leverage transparency to foster transformation of organisations.

The Responsive Bank. Feature article in Q factor Oct 2014

Responding to a disruption and applying the Responsive Organisation principles to financial services

Note: the reference to an MBA in the bio at the end of the article is an error.

The Responsive Bank. Feature article in Q factor Oct 2014