Writing

No Island

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne

Bells were tolled in 17th Century England to mark deaths and to share the news with the whole community. In that pre-industrial era, community connections were embedded into the work and life of towns. Each death diminished the community and given the mystery of disease, might well be a warning to all. Nobody worked or lived alone. Being isolated at that time was a punishment akin to a death sentence.

As much as we might reinforce individualism in our society today, the last few months are a reminder than nobody lives and works alone. Nobody is an island. Our lives and work exists in chains of connection too. Remove those connections and our work stops or is impeded. Individuals may be able to sustain personal productivity for a while but without the connection to others over time motivation, inspiration, knowledge and capability declines. We might be able to continue our lives longer but only by depending on the work of others to support our communication networks, to pack and deliver our needs and provide other essential services.

For over a century, it has suited our organisations to divide, to simplify, to measure and to standardise our work such that it feels separate and distinct. However, all the efforts to bring machine efficiency to our work don’t exclude the human connection inherent in our working lives. This division and simplification depends on certainty and predictability to work. Yet the greatest challenges we face today are complex and uncertain.

All our work is part of and shapes a continuous community whole. A century ago, Mary Follet described community as a process. Follet describes the process of continuous evolution of purposes, ends and means when people come together in community. We don’t need people to subjugate themselves to others, to goals or to process. We need people to contribute their talents and capabilities.

We are capable of creating a collective will, and at the same time developing an individual spontaneity and freedom hardly conceived of yet, lost as we have been in the herd dream, the imitation lie, and that most fatal of fallacies the fallacy of ends

Mary Follet, Community as a Process

Whether, we hear them or not the bells of community shape our ability to deliver our purpose, our collaboration and the value of our work. We work on the mainland or at least an archipelago. Nobody is an island.

Creating Value is Always Collaborative Work

We need to recognise that the highest value in our work and our lives is collaborative community work. We have organisations and government exactly because there is more value we can accomplish together in community than alone.

The highest value challenges aren’t changes that you can order or solve with brute force or heroic action. We don’t solve big challenges, complexity and uncertainty on our own. We need to share, discover, learn and adapt together.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has

Margaret Mead

Addressing these challenges requires the best of our human knowledge, talents and capability in community. Importantly, as Follet notes above, addressing these challenges also brings out the best in us and creates new opportunities for others to realise their potential through community. We must ensure that our work and our lives are diverse and inclusive and that we are tackling systemic barriers to people participating in realising their own and collective potential.

When we fail to do so, the bell tolls for all of us.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere

Martin Luther King

Yammer as a Strategic Talent and Capability Coordination Tool – #M365May

I recently spoke at the Microsoft 365 May event building on the themes of how organisations adapt to uncertainty and looking at how organisations can leverage Yammer to engage in open discovery and coordinate known and unknown talents and capabilities.

More on the Value Maturity Model of Collaboration.

More on the Drivers of Strategic Value

More on the Playing to Win Strategy model from Lafley and Martin.

Not By itself

A mountain doesn’t climb itself

Happiness doesn’t create itself.

Empathy doesn’t care itself.

Love didn’t happen by itself.

A pandemic doesn’t cure itself.

Your potential won’t find, grow and realise itself.

Your strategy won’t execute itself.

The economy won’t reset itself.

Your organisation won’t change itself.

The harmed won’t all save themselves.

Racism won’t end itself.

Structural inequality won’t remove itself.

The government won’t make itself more effective.

The climate won’t fix itself.

Ignorance won’t cure itself.

A mountain doesn’t climb itself.

It won’t fix itself. They won’t fix themselves.

Time heals wounds. It doesn’t prevent them.

We can’t rely on other nouns, other entities and other people to solve our problems for us.

If we want change, at any level, then we must make it happen. Ideally together. Alone if we must.

Absent Transitions

I miss the daily transitions. In our new lives working from home in a global pandemic (‘WFHIAGP’), we have lost transitions from one venue to another, one organisation to another, one phase and one task to the next. In addition to marking change, transitions give us in-between time to reflect, to relax and to reset. Boundaries matter

The Lost Transitions

The commutes went first as I adapted to working in my study every day. Travel now seems like a mythical experience. Walking through an alien foyer seems like a transgressive experience when navigating the local supermarket seems like a game of social distancing bumper cars.

I had to make coffee a consistent morning and afternoon ritual to remember to take regular breaks. My pomodoro clock sits abandoned in a city office. Lunch is often threatened as a break when someone is only available to talk at that time, but at best it’s a walk down the hall for a quick sandwich or toastie. Other meetings and catchups extend the day into the evening until dinner or beyond. Without transitions of scene, everything blurs into one long day. The only real changes of scenery are walks, exercise and grocery shopping, often combined into one excursion for simplicity’s sake.

Twitter has become a regular place to be exposed to different voices and to find some inspiration for the mind and heart, but social bubbles aren’t always healthy. Not all of life is work, but the lack of defining transitions means it can be hard to switch off, to change pace and to move on. Stress and anxiety have to be beaten back from every part of life.

Lost Reflection

I don’t do always on particularly well. My personal practice is to balance intensity of work and life with withdrawal to reflect. Things like commutes, travel time, meal breaks and even cups of coffee alone or with others were opportunities to muse on life the universe and everything. Missing transitions have meant that I need to make time for this reflection and I haven’t always been successful. As a result my energy levels often sag.

Writing blog posts is usually documenting these reflections and conversations for me. Now the process of writing is more likely to begin with forcing some time for reflection. A chance to force a caesura into the regular metrical flow of the day.

Endings

Paul Valery famously said ‘a poem is never finished, only abandoned’. I feel the same sense often in my transitionless existence. Without boundaries and deadlines, personal and work tasks fall into a liminal abandon. Closure is missing.

Transitions help us to see beginnnings and endings. Those moments also help us to appreciate what we have and what we lose.

Don’t it always seem to go 

That you don’t know what you’ve got 

Till it’s gone 

They paved paradise 

And put up a parking lot

Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

Boundaries were a big project for me in 2020. Those boundaries got lost in the chaos of isolation. Now is the time to reflect and refurbish them for our continuing project of social distance.

The Struggle of Work

In ancient Greek myth, Sisyphus was condemned by Hades to the eternal task of rolling a boulder to the top of a hill each day for it to roll down each time it neared the top. Oddly, the boulder is often represented in art as round. If you were a god assigning this daily struggle, wouldn’t you make the boulder misshapen? Work is a greater struggle when it is precarious, volatile and uncertain.

The Struggle

Yesterday, I discussed that uncertainty is the work. Today, let’s look at what that means for the worker.

Many of us have had Gianpiero Petriglieri’s experience in recent months. Work can feel like it is disappearing due to our crisis and expanding at the same time. We have been exposed to the struggle of precarious, uncertain and volatile work. There has been lots of change, much ambiguity, and a need for continuing adaptation to cope with the evolving situation. We are faced with constant effort to understand, to learn, to change and to adapt. The unthinking rote activities of work have been replaced with reflection and mental effort.

This experience scales as organisations understand that uncertainty is the work. As our organisations grapple with greater uncertainty that flows onto individual work. The precarity, volatility and uncertainty that is often reserved for freelance workers, partners and contractors becomes a more common part of our experience. In addition to doing the flow of mechanical work, we become increasingly enagaged in the complex struggle of managing work: understanding context, creating demand, managing changing, resolving issues and all the related interpersonal relationships. Stable predictable process work requires effort but less of this demanding struggle.

As we have this new volatility in our work, we experience more time on ‘balcony and dance floor’ to borrow from Heifetz and Linsky’s work on adaptive leadership. We are taken out of our normal busy lives and asked to reflect on the overall system, relationships and circumstances of our work. This is new work for some and demanding work for all.

Why should I do it if it ain’t easy?

One challenge future of work advocates have faced in recommending new work practices to manage uncertainty, learning and adaptation to the managers in organisations is that the managers understand these struggles. They know that there is comfort and security in stable, predictable processes with clearly defined goals. Anything precarious, uncertain and volatile is a struggle to be avoided, allocated to others or assumed away. Constantly changing, learning and adapting is a struggle as a leader and a challenge to lead in a team.

Sir Richard Hicks said ‘the best of all monopoly profits is a quiet life’. Organisations have taken this to heart allowing teams monopoly power over processes to their own comfort and weakening adaptation externally. Struggle was outsourced to the edges of the organisation where sales teams and customer contact teams managed adaptation as best they can and experienced higher performance expectations and turnover.

The expansion of global demand in the 19th and 20th Centuries lulled us into the security of stability. For a traditional organisation focused on uncertain demand, the global growth in markets made demand a forecasting challenge. We can no longer separate stable processes for making products from the customer engagement, marketing, distribution and servicing. We need change, learning and adaptation along the entire value chain. We need to bring struggle into the heart of all our work.

Leading organisations are building the leadership capabilities, the skills and the cultures that enable their people to adapt to this new struggle. They are addressing the real anxieties of middle managers and employees about these new ways of working. The outcome is to build the resilence and the capability of both the organisation and its people. Traditional organisations are stable until they are not and the consequence for employees was usually that they would be ejected from comfortable stability to new precarity through layoffs, restructures or other changes.

You may not make this struggle go away, but we can be explicit that the struggle is part of work and skill people to succeed in managing work in new adaptive ways. Leaders will need to embrace different approaches and model the new practices. You can help people to smooth the edges of the boulder with new work practices and approaches. Until we do so, the legitimate resistance to additional struggle will remain a barrier to adoption in organisations.

Uncertainty is the Work

Organisations exist to manage uncertainty. They must place a priority on learning change and adaptation to do so. Once the greatest uncertainty was consumer demand. Now organisations must deal with multi-dimensional and volatile uncertainty.

Theory of the Firm

Economists are highly rational people. For a long time, economics has struggled to justify exactly why organisations exist. Contracting can be efficient and resources and capabilities in the market might be superior. Why would people organise slow to change, expensive, often inefficient organisations to manage work?

Most of the rationales for the economic theory of the firm have come down to managing uncertainty. Uncertainty and its related psycho-social characteristics like power, control, trust and culture tend to sit poorly in classical economic models of perfectly informed ahuman rational actors. In a sense Steve Blank’s classification of organisations between traditional organisations and startups also revolves around uncertainty. A traditional organisation with its scalable repeatable process manages uncertainty in demand for a proven product. A start-up manages the uncertainty of whether there is demand and whether the product can scale to the demand economically.

If you take a human social view of the organisation, you quickly return to a major role of managing uncertainty. We join organisations to provide a sense of belonging, safety and security from precarity, though these may all be illusions. Organisations work because they align people to goals and shape trust networks facilitating collaboration and cooperation. Organisations help manage and develop uncertain human talents over time, which can be a challenge in even the most deep and fluid labour markets. Organisations can sustain passion, vision and creativity that might wither in a volatile and uncertain marketplace.

The Fluid Firm

Whatever our view, managing uncertainty is a large part of our organisational life, so why do we focus so much on the static machine view of our organisations? The best strategic models recognise that organisations learn and adapt and that strategy should be iterative. I am a regular user of the Lafley & Martin Playing to Win framework which calls this out explicitly. We should devote the same attention to learning, change and adaptation as we devote to process, structure and compliance.

If recent months have highlighted anything, they have shown organisations the importance of the ability to adapt to uncertainty. We need to foster the management capabilities, the talents and the mindsets that enable our people and our organisations to learn, adapt and change as an everyday task. The future will not include a new normal. The future will include an everchanging uncertain series of challenges. The obstacles are the work. So is managing the uncertainty of our new changing competitive connected world.

Successful organisations already build strategies and capabilities that seek to leverage the potential hidden in uncertainty. They enable their people, their systems and their culture to thrive when things get difficult, messy and when change is required. The work ahead is to continue to evolve and adapt the fluid firm. We need to build disciplines, process and capabilities to manage this adaptive learning organisation that are as refined as the processes of traditional management. When we can show others how to embrace and thrive in the uncertainty, a new wave of potential will be realised.

I am talking at Microsoft365 May on Thursday 28 May on Yammer as a Strategic Talent and Coordination Tool exploring these topics in greater depth. Register at M365May. There is already fantastic material from a range of speakers there already.

The Algorithmic Bubble

Isolation narrows our physical connections. It also increases the digital mediation of our lives, work and interactions. We need to take care that algorithms aren’t distorting our work.

I have been working entirely at home for more than two months. In that experience, I have been privileged to have good technology and deep networks on which I can rely to enable me to continue to work and interact. However, as time goes on, I have been more cognisant of the limits of my new patterns of work. I feel the comfortable bubble around me slowly freezing.

Reinforcing Patterns

There’s been lots of discussion of a new normal, but I have been most interested by how my digitally mediated life reinforces patterns. Our brains search out, build and reinforce patterns. I am finding these patterns are also being strengthened by the algorithms that openly and secretly support our digital lives.

The content and conversations we see on social networks are shaped by algorithms. The advertising we see are driven by algorithms. Our online shopping is shaped by algorithms. The more time we spend on digital tools, the more these algorithms learn and reinforce our patterns. When all our personal and work devices are in one location, on one IP and in fluid interchange all day, the web of algorithms closes more tightly.

I notice this most when I decide I want to change one of these digitally engrained patterns. Even as I seek to look elsewhere or do different, I find algorithms offering my brain the easy and familiar patterns. Digital habits are hard to break when the algorithms are working in concert to reinforce them.

Losing Serendipity

I value the serendipity of chance discoveries. Much of the value in my work comes from accidental meetings, browsing books, diversity of ideas, wider inspiration and other accidents. In a digital bubble of isolation, we have to work continuously at creating and expanding our chances for discovery. I need to create my own accidents and break the algorithmic grip.

Rediscovering serendipity requires us to go look for new connections. Reading widely is important, particularly reading offline where you can begin to escape the echo chamber of repeated views. Exploring weak links in networks and finding new voices to follow is important, especially those who don’t always agree with your current perspectives. Pulling out the phone and calling distant and lost connections needs to be a regular action.

Bursting The Bubble

We don’t need a new normal. There was nothing particularly satisfying or attractive about the old normal. Algorithms, systems and information flows that work to push us back into new steady norms are comforting and safe for our institutions, but they work against the needs of our own growth and the needs of our society as we recover from this experience.

We need to discover, to experience, to learn and to do different. We need to find new ways to leverage our personal and collective capabilities. All of these actions push us beyond our patterns and into the uncomfortable & dangerous spaces beyond the bubble. Those are the things beyond any frozen bubble of normal. Pushing out to explore them will always burst the bubble.

Beyond our bubbles lie new ideas, new patterns and new discoveries. These will be disruptive, but they are a path to greater potential. Despite the comforting reassurance of the new normal and its reinforcing algorithms we need to remember to go looking for those disruptions.

So What?

Justice is blind, but carries a sword

Let’s say you have a dream. Let’s also say it is important to you, a special dream that you have shared with nobody or only a few trusted friends. If you are brave or foolhardy you may have shared it everywhere. Either way, the dream has such a tight grip on your heart that not achieving it is going to hurt.

So what?

Yes that’s my only question. Chasing dreams always involves a double-edged sword. You either know what you are doing now to bring it about (so what is the next action?) or you are abandoning the dream to its fate (so what? I don’t care).

The Double Edged Sword of Execution

Remember these dreams hurt either way. It’s the unbearable burden of longing or the pain of failure. You choose. Nobody else defined the dream. Nobody else can deliver it. You either act or you walk away (sometimes pretending you still care). The sword of execution bites either way. So what do you choose?

Let’s get the list out of the way:

  • The dream is unlikely. Yes, so what can you do to change the odds?
  • Realising dreams isn’t easy. Yes, so what is the next step?
  • The system is stacked against you. Yes, if it was your dream fulfilment system, you’d have made it that way. So what are you going to do?
  • Others have advantages. Yes, always, so what does that change in your actions?
  • Others are better, further ahead, or more likely to succeed. Yes, that will stay the case until you start. So what can you do to better them?
  • There’s a better time or place to start. Always seems like it but when you get there it still seems like it. So what will you do to start now?
  • It’s not fair. Never. Justice is blind. Makes her impartial but that’s not always fairness and also can make for very odd outcomes when she starts swinging her sword. So what can you do to take it out of her hands?
  • I could have more help. Often, though magical friends are rare. So what are you going to do to get some?
  • I might change my mind. Always. So what did you learn?

I’ll say it again, ‘So what?’

So what are you going to do? So what are you going to surrender? So what pain will you bear to realise your dreams? So what hopes are you willing to lose? So what matters most now?

Our imaginations are incredibly powerful. We can imagine worlds so far beyond our own current circumstances. We dream of better people, better things and better places. As long as those things remain in our heads we remain stumped by the question, ‘so what?’

Imagination is powerful, but execution is where the double-edged sword starts to bite. Swing it yourself. Don’t leave it to blind fates. If you need to hackup the system to make changes to realise a dream then do so or fail trying.

As the old line goes

‘Vision without execution is delusion’

So, what is next?

The Opportunity Cost of Culture

What’s written on the walls of your organisation?

Focused on achieving small efficiency gains, we often miss that small changes in the way our organisational expectations and values can make dramatic changes in performance.

Not the Process. It’s Us

Many organisations have discovered that employee productivity has increased in this time of isolation, even with the interruptions and distractions. Forced into remote working, they have had to change the way people interact and work through:

  • Better clarity of accountability
  • More autonomy
  • More asynchronous work
  • Shorter, more focused meetings
  • Better use of people’s unique skills and potential
  • Leveraging the collaboration tools available

We are starting to see the benefits of new ways of working and we are also starting to see the opportunity costs of our work culture. Culture is our expectation of what is acceptable behaviour and how our interactions will work in an organisation. Because these expectations can be deeply engrained, we some times don’t see the inefficiencies and the lost opportunities.

If everyone else has meetings back-to-back all day, it can feel like the gold standard of busy productivity. Our expectation becomes that meetings are the work. The fact that little gets done in those meetings just generates more meetings to discuss how to get more done. The new context of videoconferencing has helped us see some of that inefficiency, to question our assumptions and experience a new level of tiredness at the routine.

If all information and all decision making flows through levels of hierarchy to senior managers, we become expert at managing that process and used to the disempowerment, delays and confusion that it entails. Our expectation becomes that decisions happen elsewhere. When we are disconnected from our peers, forced to react quickly on our own or cutting directly through to those who make the decisions we can’t, then we see new potential to work in better ways.

If work, information and accountabilities are siloed, we become masters of our own domain and used to the time that must be invested in defending that territory, negotiating misalignment and confusion. Our expectation becomes that knowledge is power and that the only way to get something done is in a silo we control. When collaboration cuts across those silos, sharing powerful information and aligning work with those best suited to deliver outcomes, then the potential output of our teams explodes.

Most people find a fit between their personal purpose and the work they do. Inherently, engagement should be high. However, these cultural misfits sap our personal purpose and productivity. Our disengagement comes from how we work, not what we do. Making changes that help empower discretionary effort and engagement can also supercharge a team’s performance.

Productive changes in the culture of an organisation can create more than an incremental change in performance. You might be able to make a process 10-20% more efficient with some effective re-engineering work. However, effective work on the prodcutivity of an organisation’s working culture can deliver exponential increases in output. Everyone in the team benefits and those benefits are compounding as barriers to success are removed, people work in parallel to leverage their talents, bureaucratic molasses is drained and as people can adapt to realise new opportunities.

If your organisations culture is not contributing to realising the collective talents and potential of your team, then it is time for change. Changing the culture of a workplace is not easy. However the rewards can be dramatic in purpose, productivity and for the potential of people.

The Machinery of Salvation

Discussion of the end of our current crisis make you feel like the audience at an ancient Greek tragedy. The longer this crisis has gone on the more messy and complicated our circumstances have become. Our leaders are starting to describe magical changes as the way out of our mess. We are waiting for a god to pop out of a machine and set things right again. This ignores the elements of our technology that have helped us already and are essential to our next phase of recovery.

Deus Ex Machina

The sudden arrival of a vaccine, a miraculous new medical treatment, a powerful contact tracing application or even the evolution of the virus to a less lethal form are all paths to end our current crisis. Like the deus ex machina of an ancient greek tragedy, these sudden technology-powered or mediated changes in course will resolve our complex situation without much effort on our part. No wonder they appeal to those of our modern political leaders like to stress that things will get better without any work by the voting public.

We have come to associate the meaning of technology with science and also with computing power. However, we should recognise that its origins are aligned to that of technique. Technology is the practical application of knowledge, particularly applied science and the mechanical arts. Many of our modern technologies are those that would be unrecognisable to people of ancient greek society or even more recent times. The connection to technique reminds us that all of these technologies are capable of ongoing refinement and improvement if we put in the work. No social technology is inherently perfect.

If we widen our lens, we can see how technology broadly defined has already shaped our response to the crisis:

  • Government: If you brought someone from the plagues of the 15th century to our time, the nature of our government and breadth of the government involvement in a response would surprise. Government is based in a wide franchise, has accountability to the people and has a wide array of resources to deploy. Social safety nets vary around the world, but that they exist at all would surprise some previous generations who were left with charity, mutuality or nothing at all in a crisis. Government is hardly perfect but it is working on a solution, not hiding out the plague on its estates in the Florentine hills.
  • Law and Order: Professional and independent police, military and security forces, whatever their occasional failings are a modern creation. Our medieval ancestors either did without security or expected the enforcers to be agents only of those in power.
  • Hospitals: Hospitals and organised medical care have existed for thousands of years in various form. However, a consistently professionalised medical system scaled to deliver public and private care to most of the population and focused on treatment of disease, rather than convalescence, reflects the advances in medical science over the last centuries.
  • Media: Before the printing press, mass communications were limited. Now we have global instant communication that informs the community and enables debate around staying at home. We have it for better and for worse.
  • Transportation & Logistics: When we order goods to be delivered, we forget that the expectation that they will arrive, somewhat promptly, let alone be tracked, is an entirely recent modern experience.
  • Work: Our organisations are modern technology reflecting business practices of the two centuries since the industrial reveolution began to accelerate.

There is no real value in a crisis like our current one in pointing out that things would be worse if it was the 15th century. However, the reflections above are a reminder of how much we have and can change to improve our lives, our work and our situations in crises. Reflecting on the role of these institutions and their history can also help us see where past assumptions no longer suit our future needs. The assumptions that shaped the design of these institutions may be buried deep in our collective conscious or inherent to how we see the institutions. For example, many managers cannot conceive of a workplace without control, but they exist and they prosper. Nothing in this arena of social technology is once and done. We have a lot of arenas in which we can perfect this technology, continuing the ongoing work of mastery. We need not waiting for a god to appear on stage from a magical riser or crane.

We must not ignore the role that these important pieces of technology play in our lives today. The government and commentators might invite us to look the other way, but we need to consider how these arenas can continue to improve. Critically, we collectively created and sustained these changes and can make further changes to make them better. We must not lose focus on the role of these wider technologies in our health, wellbeing and success.

We have lots of work to do to perfect our civil society and to improve these key elements of the technological infrastructure that sustain our society. We can argue about how to fix them, but we should all be focused on improving all aspects of the technology of our lives. We must treat with caution those who argue we would be better off without them, to not worry about the shape of these institutions and to encourage us to wait for miracles. Let’s hope a vaccine comes soon, but, while we wait, let’s improve all the technology in our lives.