Writing

Lightness

Ceci n’est pas un chapeau

When all the world seems heavily laden with grief, loss and pain, can we find lightness? Can we put aside the heaviness of the world today and seek some hope, joy and levity. We can only try. Perhaps if we succeed we will fly together.

The weight of the world

Stoicism is back. Serious young men with beards are advising me to lean into stoic philosophy across my social timelines. Older gurus with beards are expounding the unknowable complexities of life (to which they alone hold the key). I understand their passion. I have read enough stoics to know that there is comfort in Marcus Aurelius and Seneca when it feels like republics and empires are collapsing, when crisis rolls into crisis and when plague is rampaging. After all, stoicism can at times reflect advice to simplify your aims, bear your burdens and place one foot in front of the other. It is worthwhile to discuss stoicism, because burdens are the reality of life, persistence matters and if only to relish the joy of the truly magical word vicissitudes.

When we are thrown into a liminal state, with plans on hold, incomes and adventures curtailed, heavy forbearance can be a comfort. Whether sent by randomness, by nature or by your god, suffering is hard work, just like days full of back-to-back videoconferences. We can see the shadows clearly in this time, but shadows mean that somewhere there is a strong and upliftng light. We just can’t see that clearly at the moment. There is little joy in the news, precious little distraction and even the rampaging puppies of social media are losing their lustre.

Light as a Cloud

Another voice has been struggling through my social channels and other reading of late, a quiet call to lightness. This invitation to levity doesn’t come with the gravitas of Seneca, but neither is it the jokes of Twitter comedians. This call to lightness is in the voices of children, explorers, artists and poets. It is an invitation to proceed with a light and hopeful step into the world.

I found it in Clive James’ last poem, in Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the New Millenium, in William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, in poems, tweets, blogposts and of course in Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being. I discovered that Basho made lightness the philosophy of his poetry. I even discovered its joy in the impermanence of a dipped painting:

Flight of Hope, Not Escape

This is not the lightness of escape. This is lightness because the world is real, concrete and heavy. It is the lightness of engagement with a world which may not change. Calvino talks of shamans:

‘flying to another world, to another level of perception to change the face of reality.’

Arthur C Clarke famously said ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ We live in a world that right now cries out for a little magic to change the course of history. It is less widely known that this was a part of three laws and the second of these laws is:

The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

We have to create our own magic now. We need to venture into the impossible with a light heart. Succeeding in that venture is going to require a new level of thinking and new levels of action. We are going to have to explore, invent and fly a little together. There will be risks and there will be failures, but we must seek to lift each other up a little higher.

I had the epiphany that laughter was light, and light was laughter, and that was the secret of the universe.

Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

Lightness is not escape. Bearing our current situation with lighness requires us to be present in the current situation. We must acknowledge what is or everything is illusion and will lead us astray. Douglas Adam’s in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy pointed out that we must very much have the reality of the situation in mind if we want to fly:

There is an art to flying, or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss…. Clearly, it is this second part, the missing, that presents the difficulties

We need to see the world as it is, then turn our head slightly and look at it again. Looking with the curious wonder of the child, the artist or the poet, we can hold the world in light-filled compassionate hearts. Perhaps then with a new lightness of view we might see some new way forward. We can rediscover the lightness of hope. We can use our relationships with others to create, to share and to spread that hope. Hope is light. It lifts hearts. Hope is after all the ‘little thing with feathers’ that asks little of us, but gives us so much.

I hope to show that there is such thing as a lightness of thoughtfulness, just as we all know that there is a lightness of frivolity. In fact, thoughtful lightness can make frivolity rather heavy.

Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the New Millenium

Do the Basics Right

A week ago I was despairing that a collaborative project had an end April deadline and hadn’t been started due to the pressure of other projects. A week later it was delivered a day early. It is worth reviewing why because it is a reminder that the key to step change in productivity is the little things in collaboration. We often don’t do the little things well.

The project was to deliver a document, leveraging a range of specialists all located at home in different states. Here’s how that project came together.

Connect

  • All the potential team members joined a kick-off conversation to discuss the project, clarify the goal, understand capacity and get buy-in.
  • The next task was to develop a collaborative document to summarise the strategy so that everyone could work with both the end and the way in mind.
  • We set up a governance process for the week with regular check-ins.
  • The team is used to collaborative working and had a full suite of tools – Office 365, Teams, Sharepoint, etc to support the work. Everyone was familiar with these tools and this mode of work.
  • People were given the autonomy to do the work as they saw fit. If they needed to bring in others they did so and if they needed to change things we respected their unique expertise.
  • There was trust and alignment in the team around the value of the work and its importance. Everybody was coping with challenges and isolation but everyone committed to the project as best they could.

Share

  • Everybody worked out loud all week. Accoutabilities were clear so we worked in parallel. There was shared visibility of the work underway, the work to be done and any challenges or input needed. Working in this way meant there was cameraderie in the struggles too.
  • Documents were open to review, editing and comment by others as they were being written and finalised.
  • We were able to leverage the organisation’s knowledge resources so that much of the content creation was editing previously prepared quality content. We ‘stood on the shoulders’ of the work of other projects and other purposes because it was all available to be reused. We only had to create new content at the edges of the project and to align to the specific client and strategy.

Solve

  • Challenges were shared widely within and beyond the team so that the collective capability of the organisation and even external stakeholders could contribute to the quality of the solution we developed.
  • If something didn’t have an immediate answer we would break out into agile chats or calls to discuss and resolve. There were no meetings, just interactions (chats or conversations) that lasted as long as they needed to solve an issue or to point someone towards the solution.
  • Some problems were clarified and resolved in the collaboration features of the documents themselves (collaborative editing, markup, comments, etc).
  • Differences of opinion were recognised as differences of opinion. Accountability for decisions and clear lines of expertise enabled us to ensure that differences of opinion didn’t get in the way of an outcome.

Innovation

  • We knew from the outset that we needed to do more and different to succeed so it opened the entire team up to ask ‘what if’ and explore new solutions
  • We treated these as ideas for experimentation and threw a lot of things in for trial. Not all made it through to the final output but the result is better for those value adding ideas that worked after tweaking.

There’s no individual piece of magic in this approach to a collaborative project. There was a lot of just hard work and long hours to finish early. There was luck. However, all that was possible because a lot of little fundamentals were understood, agreed and done well. None of the steps above are beyond any team or any organisation. The challenge is how we organise our teams and our work to deliver better and more productive results.

The magic isn’t just one thing. Often it’s a lot of little things. Doing the basics consistently well is one of the reasons magic is so rare.

Power, power and more power

Camouflaged but hardly hidden

Even with the danger of digital cubicles, it is easy to assume that our seclusion represents a turning point the transformation of our work. There is some anecdotal evidence that people are discovering the power of new ways of working and are surprised the technology works. This could be cause for the long term advocates to rejoice that the next phase of work

The danger of this thinking was eloquently summarised in the following tweet:

Confirmation bias is real. We look for validation of our own beliefs and social media is flooded with people’s confirmation that whatever they believe is right. We need a better quality of discussion. Hope is not a strategy. We need to examine the real organisational dynamics that stand in the way of change.

Hope is not a Strategy

There’s a lot of love in those advocating for change. It is hard to imagine what else would sustain them. For more than 20 years, change agents have been advocating for new and better ways of work that use the digital tools to empower, to enable and to make work more human. There have undoubtedly been many successes – great case studies, improvements and some enduring changes. There has not been the transformation we all wished to see. Love, hope and community can sustain the change but won’t get you there.

Adam Kahane in Power and Love describes the need for change to balance the engagement of love and of power. We are missing the conversation about power in the future of work.

Let’s Talk Dirty

People are masters of the interpretation and management of power. We find & sustain hierarchy even where it doesn’t exist. Because it is seen as a dirty (& dangerous) topic we are often reluctant to discuss the power dynamics in our organisations. Some of the most powerful and privileged in our organisations go out of their way to deny that power matters.

Because it is unspoken, power is an even more influential element of our thinking. Like the predator that may be lurking in the long grass, power is hidden but threatening. Concerns about power, such as recriminations by those with power or loss of power, reputation, trust and status, are found at the heart of much of the concerns around psychological safety.

Traditional change management models have extensive discussions of how to co-opt the powerful in the organisation to win their support, their advocacy or at least their disinterest in the change. We all know to win senior executive sponsorship and support. It’s so fundamental many change projects end up as contorted as a pretzel to win and sustain that support as power shifts and organisations change. In many cases, the compromises to win exectutive support are why the change fails.

If you want to predict the future of work, follow the paths of power:

  • Data and Knowledge: We know that what gets measured gets done, even if that’s not what’s worth doing. The definition of data, its gathering and its interpretation are all tools of power. Most AI and automation is centralising, not decentralising. It reinforces the exercise of power and makes knowledge and data power. There are still managers and team members who hoard knowledge to accumulate a form of influence, if not power. Even Kanban gives new data and enables greater knowledge on the workflow process to give comfort in new ways of working.
  • Control and Influence: In a discussion with Change Agents Worldwide on the weekend, I said one of our challenges is making the future of work safe for managers, especially middle managers. Modern management practice is optimised for their control and power. If we look at many early models of self-organisation, they are often power-blind, which either reinforces current power structures or creates a hidden feudalism as people seek safety in new tribes, or they require managers to vote themselves out of existence. Managers want to be more effective and more human but we can’t ask them to surrender power, when that is seen as their sole lever of performance and power is perceived as the commodity of success.
  • Policy and Process: The appeal of process is the appeal of power. You only have to read Frederick Winslow Taylor on the appeal of mindless workers executing a process to see that process can be a vehicle of control. New processes can help mitigate the loss of control in changes to new practices of work. The success of Scrum, as a process of agile work, is a clue to this role of process.
  • Trust and Inclusion: Inclusion and exclusion are the oldest human tools of power. Underpinning these is how far groups extend circles of trust. You can be in the team and on the video call but be excluded, if you are not called on, not trusted or if your voice is not valued. New ways of working must explicitly engage in growing and developing trust if there is to be an ability to leverage wider circles of people and their potential.

For some it may seem, that this list implies no change is possible. Rather I am making the case for the opposite. If we explicitly engage with the dynamics of power, we can design new ways of working that improve work and also address data and knowledge, control and influence, policy and process and trust and inclusion. We can make work better and make it safe for those who have to manage before during and after the change. We don’t need to move from tight totalitarian control to full anarchy. There are many shades of activity in between.

No amount of love, collective energy or human potential is going to change our work for the better, if it ignores these fundamental dynamics of power. We do not need to respond with a cynical organisational realpolitik, but we can be optimistic and clear eyed as we plan to make change in our organisations and design that change to engage with the organisational and political realities.

The Absence of Crowds

We don’t do crowds anymore. We are missing an opportunity for collective creation and collective wisdom in the face of adversity.

Live in even a moderately busy city and you become used to the opportunity to lose yourself in a crowd. In the throng of people, we can slip into the flow and become anonymous members of the hustle and bustle. Crowds are an opportunity to participate in a collective experience without necessarily participating in interactions. Many people never consider how lonely you can be in a crowd.

Crowds are lost to us as we isolate in this unique time, but our need for a collective experience and the value of collective action remains. We may not miss their madness and their folly, but we are less for the absence of crowds. Crowds are forces of creation and change. There are things we can do to mitigate this loss, but we need to see that the crowds we recover is as valuable as the one we lost.

We have not just lost the crowd, but we may have lost the wisdom of the crowd too. James Surowiecki described the characteristics of wise crowds in his book The Wisdom of Crowds and it is clear we have challenges:

  • Diversity of opinion: People don’t necessarily have their own private information or their own views. We can draw on our own knowledge but we are not necessarily out engaging with our surrounding world to bring in a diversity of information or encouraged to share our diverse and unique views.
  • Independence: Partisanship shapes all conversation and decision making into factions that are not independent in their views and actions. The power of thought leaders shapes tiers of influence and imitation. Loyalty and popularity overwhelm independence.
  • Decentralisation: We are decentralised physically, but not necessarily culturally. Power tends to run in hierarchies and we engage in anticipatory obedience even in crises. Repeating the same authorised messages shapes the influence of a few sources of opionins.
  • Aggregation: We may have different views, but we don’t have easy mechanisms to aggregate those views. Markets handle the shocks of crises poorly as our animal spirits are easily spooked into herd behaviour. Polls depend on the questions asked. The media in its scrabble to survive, relies on shock and emotions, tending to emphasize extreme and unique views over an aggregate of the crowd.
  • Trust: The crises of this year and the failings of leadership seem to be reinforcing the societal crisis of trust.

Collective challenges demand collective action. We can’t expect to solve the challenges of our times in digital cubicles. We can only restore the value of our crowds if we each consider how to take action to improve the discussion. As tempting as it is to focus on loyalty, alignment and power in a crisis, the collective debates of a self-managing crowd are more likely to offer value. They also offer the opportunity to improve the dialogue and address Surowiecki’s criteria for wisdom in the process.

Wise crowds are unruly. They are messy. Their views aren’t individually celebrated. They succeed as an aggregate. Nobody gets to claim victory. Nobody gets left out because they are inconvenient or invalid.

Like any process of inclusion, we cannot expect those excluded or ignored to do all the work of fixing our tainted dialogue. Change agents can come from either the excluded or the privileged. The change is not about fixing the excluded voices. The change we seek is about fixing the system to be able to realise the collective potential of all. We all have a stake in that outcome.

Until then we have just our memories of the hubbub of the crowd to console us as we work to bring them back.

Digital Cubicles

Right now around the world people are working from home in new digital cubicles. We may not be in the office, but we are in new boxes of isolation in our homes. The social separation is greater than in the office cubicle, because the distance between employees is measured in kilometres. The usual information methods of information sharing have been lost. Context, coaching and coordination are missing. The external pressures, of family, of financial stress and of survival, are greater. Back-to-back video conferencing meetings have taken over from back-to-back physical meetings. The myriad of interruptions, the searching to find information and the process glitches mean that any productivity gains from remote work and meeting efficiency are lost.

Digital transformation is the opportunity to do differently, not just digitally. Smashing the same process, organisational models and decision making through videoconferencing and collaboration platforms is not anything new. We need to start solving the problems of our people, our customers and our communities in new ways to create sustainable value from our current uncertainty and stress.

The opportunity to work digitally has existed for a long while. As we discover it in this forced change we need to consider not just how we work digitally, but how we work better. For me that challenge comes down to three key issues:

  • how to we become more responsive to our environments and learn faster?
  • how do we change our methods of working so as to benefit from digital work?
  • how to we use our potential to collaborate better to create new value for our people, our customers and our organisations?

We have been forced to react. We have done the tactical things to keep working. The strategic opportunity in front of us now is to do differently to create new value, new competitiveness and support our people to realise their potential in this a new normal.

How do we end the digital cubicles?

Here’s a series of starting points for pulling down the walls of the digital cubicles and rethinking the way we work,

Enable Greater Learning and Responsiveness

There’s a lot of change going on and a lot more needed. To be able to manage this in a distributed way, we need to increase learning, responsiveness and adaptation. This means our management mindsets, accountabilities, processes and our decision making need to change first. You can’t micromanage distributed learning and adaptation:

Start Changing Our Practices and Processes

Aligned to this we need to rethink our personal work practices and our organisational structures, processes and systems to work at scale in a distributed organisation. We will need to reflect on the foundations of our work and how best to use new ways of work to realise strategy and achieve our shared purpose.

Increase Collaboration for Strategic Value

Knowledge work is networked work. The more digital we are the more knowledge work we will have in our organisations. We need to think about how our people collaborate to create value, especially remotely and using their new digital tools. We need to find, foster and develop the distributed leadership that will scale agency and change in our organisations and support a culture of continuous innovation:

Of course this means we also need to understand what value we want to create for ourselves, our employees and for our customers and creating the open platforms to leverage our organisation capabilites to realise change.

None of this digital transformation has anything to do with how many video images your videoconferencing platform shows on screen in meetings. What matter is how organisations and individuals work, learn and adapt. The real value is not to work on digital tools. The value creation occurs when we work, learn and adapt in new ways.

Placing Markers

We are sense-making our way through a global crisis unlike any in recent memory. We need to lay down markers to guide us in the fog of uncertainty. Without public markers, we will not sense our progress and could end up looping back again.

If only we had this view of the way

We are in an unusual and uncertain experience for our times. We are challenged to make sense of new restrictions on our lives for our safety and the safety of others. We don’t know what effect we are having for good or for bad. We struggle to make what we can of our life work in this new and difficult world.

Like the man spreading, elephant powder in the old joke, we measure our success by an absence. Even then we face the uncertainty that what appears an abscence may be too much, may be not enough or may be the darker longer threat of asymptomatic spread. We struggle to understand the exponential and to appreciate how a little can quickly become overwhelming.

In the fog, it is easy to get lost, to get confused, or to follow false leads. A lot of the usual markers for our decision making aren’t their usual sure and certain guides to balancing the complex trade-offs we face as societies, as organisations and as individuals: prosperity, rights, entitlements, privilege, equity, normal practice, custom, habit, power, security, health or life. Now is a time to step back from shorthand and ask ourselves what values should guide our way and make decisions consistent with their application at this time.

We don’t get to live life in a double blind trial, so we will never know the differing outcomes of other paths. What we can know is our path. We walk one foggy and uncertain way. We can lay down markers of the way we have taken and set guides for our future course. If nothing else markers, create a path for action where otherwise there is only confusion. Bending the curve, herd immunity, supression and elmination have acted as markers in a frenetic public debate.

We can define what getting there looks like and refine that in continuous conversation as we learn, as we experience and as we adapt. Knowing and agreeing our collective course will help us to know when we change and to make that choice clear to others and to ourselves. Markers will help us refind the way if our choices to change don’t work. Markers will help others to learn and adapt from our experience.

If our path was obvious, then there would be no challenge. Now is a time for the robust discussions of civil society, not pat answers. You don’t build a cairn alone. It is a collective task with stones added and maintained by others over time. If nothing else, laying down some cairns in the fog will tell us where we went should we come this way again.

Pull, Push, Fast and Slow – Part II

A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact

Danile Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow

Intelligence is not only the ability to reason; it is also the ability to find relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed

Danile Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow

This post is the second part of two posts on a challenge posed by Steve Nguyen on Linkedin. The first post covered the implications of our preferences for push messages over employees pulling the information that they need as and when required. This post will look at fast vs slow styles of communication and its implications for our work.

The Different Ways we Talk

We have different styles of conversatiosn to suit fast vs slow thinking:

  • Chats: support shared information and can be incredibly rapid. Much of the highest velocity conversations in the Swoop Analytic Microsoft Teams benchmarking report would have been simple exchanges of factual information and status with little need for reflection or understanding
  • Conversations: support shared understanding. We need to slow down to ensure we understand each other’s thinking. We need to step outside of assumptions and shorthand and explore topics more deeply. Much of leadership and coaching occurs in the conversation.
  • Collaboration: supports shared work. We can work fast individually sharing status and information through chats. However, when we want to draw deeply on others talents and experience, it is a slower process of exchange and work. We know this work.

Fast vs Slow Conversation

These different modes of conversation support and are supported by different modes of thinking. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow explores two key modes of human thinking from his behavioural economics research and they map well to this discussion.

Fast thinking is tuned for the quick response. It leverages patterns, automatic processes and emotions to be able to make rapid judgements. Chat is ideally placed to suit the needs of fast thinking and fast thinking supports the rapid fire cognitive demands of a fast flowing stream of information.

However, fast thinking and fast chat have their limitations. They are prone to bias due to the heavy reliance on heuristics, patterns of thinking with which we can associate new information received without time for processing. We aren’t looking to create new patterns here so we will gather information to confirm our biases, reinforce our stereotypes and reinforce our existing narratives. The error rate of these mental models is likely low if we are working on common problems synchronously with our usual team, but these become real issues when we are doing something new at pace aynchronously with a new team.

I had a simple example over Easter. I was advising a friend making hot cross buns via chat. I had flicked a simple recipe to them and simply told them to follow. The friend was busy doing many things while they made the dough. I was not following along as I had gone about my day confident that the recipe was no fail. They came back to say there was a problem with the recipe. The bun dough looked like a wet batter rather than a dough. I asked if they had followed the recipe and they answered yes. After many back and forths trying to diagnose the issue, we realised that they had added 250ml of flour rather than 250g. Executing a new task in a low information fast-paced environment, my friend had assumed that the flour measures in the recipe were the same as the milk and warm water. It was written as grams on the page but their brain had formed a pattern and ignored information that didn’t fit the pattern.

Wet hot cross bun dough is easily fixed, but in our work environment errors like this from rapid communication of new tasks in low context can have major implications. We are currently grappling with a new environment where context is reduced, work is more asynchronous and our natural high bandwidth of communication is strained. We are more dependent than ever on tools like Microsoft Teams and Yammer to support our work. In this environment, we don’t want to be thinking and communicating faster than the judgement that says, ‘that doesn’t look right’. For example, there is already evidence that hackers are trying to use techniques to gain access that leverage the current environment.

Kahneman’s slow thinking is that process of considered reflection using effort and our rational logical thought processes. Our conversation to diagnose the issue with the dough needed to move slowly and methodically with effort through the potential causes and effects. We needed to confirm and check our understanding, unravelling the confusion and assumptions as we went. Much of our leadership and coaching is this work of building shared understanding and moving towards new ways of working through innovation. It can’t be done at the pace of chat. Just as we have Inner and Outer Loops of work we need to think through the slow and fast cycles of communication around our work and use tools suited to the different speeds of thinking.

Align the Speed to the Problem You are Solving

Leaders need to pick the communication style and thinking style that supports the goal that they are trying to achieve in each interaction and each team. The work to make people aware differs, from the work to align goals and from the work to motivate action and manage performance. I have previously explored how the different leadership challenges of Awareness, Alignment and Action map to different styles of conversation and the value maturity model.

Leaders need to identify when it is best to transition to a new mode of discussion on a new platform to ensure that the group dynamic is productive and that bias is not limiting performance. As noted previously, the need to learn and receive feedback is a good signal of the need to change pace. My previous post also identifies a range of specific triggers that might signal the need for transition.

Yammer is a tool to put people and organisational capability to work to support your strategy. The high velocity execution can and should occur in a tool like Microsoft Teams properly administered to manage the velocity and relevance of messages in teams. Together these tools form a platform for the digital transformation of your business and critical capability to continue to deliver our work goals in this time of enforced isolation.

The role of leaders is to leverage these tools and to manage the balance of push/pull, synchronous/asynchronous, fast and slow conversations to suit the delivery of the strategy of the organisation. There is no one size fits all, but alert leaders will manage these challenges adaptively and empower their teams to get the best from the platforms in each circumstance.

Pull, Push, Fast and Slow – Part I

Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes around in another form

Rumi

Slow down and remember this: Most things make no difference

Tim Ferris

We are obsessed about push messages and overvalue the interruption. We undervalue the ability to pull messages and worry too much about what is lost in communication. We love fast chatter as activity. We undervalue the slow discussions and even slower discovery that create meaning.

Background

In my recent review of the Swoop Analytics Teams benchmarking report data, I made the following comment:

Don’t Kill the Golden Goose: You can love Microsoft Teams to death. The high end numbers of Microsoft Teams use in the report are actually more than a little frightening. Instant messaging and flying threads is not always the best way to think and to work. You can have too much engagement for reflection and work.

Steve Nguyen, Principal Program Manager for Yammer at Microsoft, asked one of his great questions on Linkedin – ‘Sort of related to the “Don’t kill the golden goose” section, would love your thoughts on fast vs. slow conversations sometime’. I will respond to Steve’s request with a two part post that explores the implications and issues with fast and slow conversations across both Microsoft Teams and Yammer:

  • Part I (this post): Will look at push vs pull communication in the light of Daniel Kahneman’s ideas on loss aversion
  • Part II (the next post): Will examine the impact of our speed of conversation on our interactions and our thinking.

Push v Pull – Power vs Productivity?

We moan about the volume of emails. We tire of waiting to push the skip ad button. We complain about marketing messages and calls interrupting our lives. We laugh at carefully and expensively prepared corporate videos that don’t reflect reality. A fast moving chat message stream has a real psychological and productivity load as we struggle to multi-task and change context. However, when it comes to employee communication and work communication we overvalue the push message to everyone.

Our willingness to push past relevance in pursuit of 100% communication is strange (and this applies equally to its related goal of 100% adoption) . We don’t need everyone to know and we don’t need to collaborate with everyone. As noted above, these messages are even a drain on productivity and engagement as they take us away from managing our own information and our own work.

Pulling the information we need when required is far more productive. Employees skilled in personal knowledge management and working out loud can productively rely on a network like Yammer to support and sustain there work with relevant information when and where they need. Creating this productive work network that enables employees to leverage an organisations talents to support their work and learning is the goal of the Collaboration Maturity Model approach, with its focus on connection, sharing, shared problem solving and innovation.

In the past, I have been focused on explaining away the bias to push communications as a feature of power dynamics in organisations. Leaders want to know that they have been heard. Employees want to ensure that they have evidence of sharing information with everyone for safety’s sake. Knowledge is power and this obsession with sharing knowledge universally, even at a real cost to productivity, is partly related to power dynamics.

Many high velocity push message enviroments have this dynamic where a leader with power is micro-managing by chat and the employees are demonstrating their compliance with an equally high volume of messages on status to facilitate the micro-management. This pattern was seen in the Swoop Teams research as one of its Teams structures. Even in flatter organisation structures, uncertainty and competition for power can lead to an unnecessary velocity of messages as members of the network compete to update, one-up and claim status.

Loss of Information?

Reflecting on Steve’s question opened up another factor in play. Daniel Kahneman who wrote Thinking Fast and Slow, won a Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on prospect theory, a challenge to the rational utilitarian view of human behaviour in economics. Utilitarian logic would question why . Part of prospect theory was demonstrating people’s aversion to losses. We don’t value gains and losses with equal equanimity as traditional utilitarian theory demands. Kahneman and his research collaborators showed that we value losses much more highly and are much more averse to losses than rational theory expects.

Even though we know most push communication is ineffective we still use it (Email open rates will tell us that). Why? Perhaps we are overly worried about the losses if we don’t try to communicate with everyone all the time. We worry that some disaster will befall us in the last 20% of employees to adopt or in the 10% of employees who don’t know. Many compliance regimes focus on 100% messaging for this exact reason even though we know that being communicated at is no guarantee of being understood. The number of people who know something in an organisation is always large than those who have been told it because communication happens most effectively through conversation – the development of shared understanding – questioning, debate and discussion.

We worry excessively about this potential loss and we respond with ineffective & increasingly uneconomic strategies to manage it. We worry about this loss exactly because it is undefined and uncertain. We assume that 100% push communication will elminate it but that is just an assumption and not supported by our own experience of understanding and push communication. A major barrier to the adoption of pull strategies is people’s fear of losing the outcomes of their ineffective push communication. They don’t know how well it works, they wish it worked better, but surely it is better than letting employees discover what they need to know.

Beyond Loss Thinking

The flip side of Kahneman’s theory is that we also undervalue our gains, as we overvalue our losses. Much of management has our focus squarely in the realm of linear thinking. We assume that the move up delivers a linear improvement in communication and collaboration.

However communication and collaboration in a network is en environment of exponential returns. We don’t need 100% of anything to happen because a small well connected group of individuals can deliver massive step changes in performance. They can break out of our persistent focus on 5-10% better and truly transform their work and the value to the organisation. More importantly, they can continue to collaborate and improve their work ongoing without the push of leadership or direction. Instead of worrying about everyone, we should put our resources into supporting the small teams that deliver exponential changes.

As we adjust to new ways of working, perhaps it is time for leaders and their communication professionals to consider how much we should invest in supporting this kind of pull communication in our organisations. This is where the role of the Inner and Outer circle working together matters most. The Swoop Analytic report highlights that those organisations using both Microsoft Teams and Yammer had the highest levels of communication and collaboration across both platforms. There is a role for the pull communications of conversation and collaboration to support the pace and execution of chat. More effective use of tools like Yammer can even reduce the need to pound Microsoft Teams chats with information, just so everyone knows.

Part II explores fast and slow thinking

Three Graces for Our Time

The Three Graces

With his eloquent brevity, Ernest Hemingway gave us the phrase “grace under pressure”. Now is a time of pressures. Lives, livelihoods, relationships, health and more are under strain. Grappling with this mess, unshaven in our leisure wear, it can feel hard to connect our current experience to the concept of grace.

The ancient greek concept of the Three Graces have had shifting origin stories, purposes and composition over history to suit the adorning virtues of each era but they revolve around our common meanings of grace, such as beauty, elegance, courtesy and joie de vivre. In Christian theology, grace is a bestowal of undeserved blessings and the three graces are faith, hope and charity, supporting an optimistic and outward engagement with others. Each of these sentiments are much needed as relief in this time.

We don’t need elegance in our current crisis. Like the ancient Greeks, we should treat the graces as a flexible to the needs of our time and our narrative now. We need to be able to respond to the pressures with grace, but we each get to choose our own three. There is a long list of much needed virtues in this time. To be able to practice our choices from these, under everyday pressures, is to shift our virtues and our values from hobbies to habits.

Here is my list of three graces for our time of pressure:

  • Compassion: There is real suffering now. We can look beyond ourselves and our losses to acknowledge the sufferings of others and work to alleviate them. Compassion will strengthen our hearts and our communities.
  • Joy: We lack many of our every day joys. We can find happiness and uplift in the smallest of our gifts. Joy will strengthen our lives & relationships.
  • Generosity: Today is not a time for how much we take or make. Today is a time for how much we can give to others to help them through. Generosity will strengthen our (common)wealth and societies.

The final word on grace is to remember that grace can be an undeserved blessing. You may not feel worthy of blessing today or any particular day in the future. Worthiness is not the test for grace. Practice self-care and self-compassion. Give yourself the good grace of your company. Forgive yourself and look for the little moments of beauty in each day.

Clean Mind Policy

I woke early this morning around 5am. I couldn’t fall asleep again. Sadly I missed the much vaunted early productivity because I was distracted by life these days.

A Clean Mind Policy

Most organisations have a clean desk policy. For productivity and for security of information, desks should be cleared regularly. As someone who likes to work in the inspiration of piles, books and mess, clean desk policies haven’t always been comfortable. However, I recognise the value of a mindful approach.

Now that we are forced to work from home, we need to take the same care with our mindfulness. A clean mind policy can contribute to our health, happiness and productivity. We can’t empty our minds (not least in these circumstances), but we can acknowledge thoughts and put them in their place.

My tweet above was tongue-in-cheek, but there is value in a clean mind policy:

  • End days by spending 5 to 10 minutes planning to clear the anxiety and set up the start of the next day
  • Start days with some priority-setting to know what must come first and sift the important from the urgent
  • Take breaks to reset your energy and be ready to work again.
  • If other challenges need your time, stop work.
  • Don’t multi-task (if you can avoid it). Disruptions ruin productivity. It’s better to stop completely than shift back and forth.
  • Breathe. Meditate if you can. If you don’t meditate to improve mindfulness, at least take some deep breaths to reset your focus.
  • Postpone worry. Focus on what you can do now. There will be time for consequences later. It’s never too late to worry. Worry is never about now. Don’t mix crisis and work if you can.
  • Celebrate the end of tasks. Give your mind the reward of progress.
  • Laugh. The responses to the tweet thread above completely reset my mood and enabled me to enter the day more productively.

Lastly, and most importantly, forgive yourself some anxieties, some lack of focus and some challenges in these times. The power of a clean mind is seeing life as it is, not as it should be. We can only work with what we have. Anything else is just a messy thought looking for a bin.