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Make progress at work this week (and in a new reality) with these three models

Whoa! Things have changed. 

Just like that. And while there’s a chance we’ll return to our regular ways of doing things, there’s a greater likelihood this experience is going to lead to a very different work environment than the one we knew at the end of February 2020. 

While COVID-19 is going to be seen as the catalyst, it’s more likely COVID-19 and the pandemic have made visible a reality that’s been with us for some time: We work (and more importantly live) in complexity. 

You can read my introduction to complexity here. You’ll want to explore a bunch more, so if you’re in the mood for learning, enroll in this six-day, six-email complexity introduction email course. And then, if you’re really into it, you can check out my post The Now of Work which further illustrates these concepts and introduces additional ideas.

Here’s the bottom line: Figuring out complexity for yourself is really the only way I’ve found to understand complexity, and COVID-19 is as practical an introduction to complexity as there is.

What’s most important to know about complexity in this moment, for the context of navigating the next few weeks, is this:

  • Complexity produces surprise. It’s not always an extreme surprise like COVID-19, it can be smaller surprises, too: an upset patient, an employee calling out sick, a reorganization, a new regulation, a reaction from a colleague you weren’t expecting—any unexpected event, whether it rates astonishing or not. Often, a surprise leads to another surprise, etc, etc.
  • Because of surprise, a linear, rule-following, always do it this way approach will not be as effective as you might hope and, in fact, could make the situation worse. (The approach is called command and control management. It’s how we’ve learned to work and is, more or less, how we’ve worked until just a few weeks ago. Now everything seems different because it is different.)
  • As a result, our normal relationship with cause and effect is tossed aside. While we usually expect a certain outcome when we take a defined action, in complexity cause and effect relationships can’t be determined until after the fact. So you may be certain your idea is the idea that will solve a particular problem, but we won’t know for sure until the problem has been solved.

Getting introduced to complexity through something like COVID-19 can be a disorienting experience. It feels like things are crazy, because in fact they are, but it doesn’t mean the situation isn’t logical.

A lot of smart people have done (and are doing) a lot of smart thinking about complexity. So let’s lean on them and learn from them in this moment and in the next few weeks. They’ve used their prior experiences with constant surprise—from the extreme to the teensy-weensy—to develop models to navigate this apparent-to-them and new-to-us reality. We can use them in figuring out what to work on, taking action, and learning from all the change.

Figuring Out What to Work On

Perhaps you’ve heard of agile software development. The idea emerged from frustration with what is known as waterfall software development. Using a waterfall method to develop software in a complex environment is a recipe for useless software because waterfall requires high levels of certainty when, in complexity, certainty only exists after the fact.

The folks who authored the agile software manifesto knew this and prioritized testing ideas of certainty in a responsive manner by creating software based on four values, known as the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. Here it is:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

“That is,” wrote the manifesto’s authors, “while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.”

The issue with waterfall is it’s slow and rigid. Sometimes slow and rigid is the right approach. In a complex context, however, flexibility and responsiveness are of higher value because requirements are changing faster than software can be written using a waterfall method.

An agile approach welcomes constant change because the development team knows this is the reality of the environment. Things change. How fast they change isn’t so important as working in a way that acknowledges things are always changing

So perhaps you and your team find yourselves in a situation of trying to figure out what is worthy of being worked on and what you should just let go, at least for the time being. Consider using an interpretation of the manifesto as a way to guide you in making those decisions. 

Then deliver on customer (broadly speaking) needs without falling back on your usual waterfall-like processes. Focus on being helpful in the moment by starting with a blank work plan. What do they need now? What are they going to need in the very near future?

As you work, concentrate on the people you’re working with and your interactions with them over holding true to your usual tools or processes, commit to creating services or products they can use now, collaborate with each other closely (but more than six feet!) rather than disappearing for some time only to reemerge with something misfit for whatever changed in the interim, and respond to what’s different today rather than staying committed to an outdated plan—even if that plan was created last week.

If it seems like it might make more sense to throw your entire annual work plan out the window and commit to helping in the moment, you’re probably right. So do it.

Manifesto for Agile Software Development | Principles behind the Agile Manifesto

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Taking Action

The way to solve problems in complexity, or move in the direction of problem solving, is through an approach the Cynefin framework calls Probe, Sense, Respond.

A probe is an action, one guided by knowledge and experience, and it’s used to get started. When it’s impossible to know what will solve a problem, we’re left to try things we have good reason to believe will solve the problem. 

The thing about working in complexity is it’s not entirely clear what the best next step is. That’s a function of being unable to connect cause and effect prior to moving forward. It’s one thing to think something is the right action, it’s an entirely different thing to know it’s the right action. Experience can only help you in deciding what to attempt, not in ensuring what you attempt will be successful. So we probe.

Then we sense, which is another word for learning, and what we’re looking for is the effect a probe has on the problem. Did it solve it? Did it make it worse? Did it help us identify another problem? Did it move us toward solving the problem?

Then we respond, which is the amplification or dampening of the probe’s effect and deciding what to do next.

It sounds like how a clinician treats a patient, doesn’t it? Exactly.

The entire practice of diagnosis is probe, sense, and respond—a series of actions uncovering additional information and help a provider make a diagnosis. Treatment works similarly. A provider decides on a course of treatment, senses whether a patient responds to the treatment (a good thing) or reacts to the treatment (a bad thing), and decides what to do next, if anything. 

We effectively already work this way, too. It’s just that we haven’t realized it quite yet. 

We’re fairly competent at recognizing when what we’re doing isn’t working and naturally adjust course as a result. But we can make it easier for ourselves and our colleagues by adopting a Probe, Sense, Response mental model because, after all, we spend most of our time working in complexity.

Here’s an example some of you may have experienced for the first time recently: working from home. If you’ve never worked from home before and were suddenly thrust into a work-from-home environment, figuring out how to do it happened (and likely still happening) through a series of probes. As you worked from the kitchen table, or outside on the patio, or around the needs of your children, you sensed what was working for you and what wasn’t. Then you adjusted your practices to be more productive. 

We’ve all been in a different work environment for some years, COVID-19 has provided the collective rite of passage for realizing it. It’s going to take time and probes to figure out how to work effectively in it. In perpetuity. Because it will continue to change. 

So try new ideas, learn from them, and adjust those ideas based on what you find. The only way to be successful in a complex environment is to use this Probe, Sense, Respond approach.

What is complexity? | A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making (Harvard Business Review)

Learning from All the Change

One of my favorite quotes about complexity is from Harold Jarche. It’s so good: “Work is learning and learning is the work.”

He captures the essence of working in complexity with those eight words. 

I think it can be easy to believe learning is superfluous in a crisis or always-on-the-verge-of crisis situation like COVID-19, but the reality is you have no choice but to learn in order to navigate a complex environment. Learning is the job. 

Constantly being oriented to learning as we work, though, is a new concept for most of us. Learning isn’t something (that can be) left to the Learning and Development departments, or conferences, or even books for that matter. It’s those things and other traditional learning activities as well as the interactions you have with others and the day-to-day activities of your job that lead to learning, now and always.

Perhaps you’ve been introduced to the 70-20-10 rule from the Center for Creative Leadership. It posits 10 percent of our learning happens as a result of coursework and training, 20 percent as a result of our relationships, and 70 percent from the work we do. The rule gets misinterpreted and misapplied far too often in my opinion so I hesitate to even write about it; but the lesson to draw on is how much of our learning happens as a result of just … working. 

And that’s where Harold Jarche’s Seek > Sense > Share framework can help us. Because it’s critical to make meaning of what we learn if we’re to learn as much from it as we can. 

Seeking is the activity of collecting information. We do it a lot of different ways, from the information we gather as we work as well as what we read, watch, and listen to. It comes from personal experience and the experiences of others. “Seeking is finding things out and keeping up to date,” writes Jarche.

Sensing is the activity of giving information meaning and using it. It’s turning information into knowledge, in a way. It’s reflection. It’s doing. It’s doing and reflection. It’s putting into practice what we learn.

Sharing is just that: what we do to share what we’ve learned with a broader audience—whether with our employees or colleagues or on social media. Acts of sharing help us further our understanding of our learning and create opportunities to collaborate and learn from others.

Sensing is the most difficult of the three, according to Jarche. I agree. But it’s also a natural activity and one we can do with more conscientiousness. It’s keeping track of new learning. It’s an awareness of adjustment. It’s thinking. And doing. And then thinking some more. It’s working (i.e., learning) intentionally and adapting as you continue to learn.

The opportunity is to be deliberate. To craft your information sources. To spend time thinking before and after doing. To take the time and effort to share while understanding your learning continues as a result.

But for now I recommend starting with work journaling. Here are three questions to answer at the end of each work day as we move through the next weeks:

  1. What stood out today?
  2. What did I learn today?
  3. What do I want to do differently tomorrow? What do I want to try tomorrow?

If you have the desire to go further, consider: 

Conclusion: Change and Transition

Complexity requires us to take a different approach to work. Doing so requires becoming comfortable with new mental models. The three described here can be helpful. Know there are many more.

This whole situation feels like a gigantic reset. And I think that’s okay because it can be a gigantic reset. It’s a burning platform to do the work of rethinking work, including the delivery of healthcare services, we’ve been needing to do for several decades—some of that work is already happening, while much of it will happen in the near future. 

I’d write something here about it not being easy, but that’s really not the case. The experience we’re going through, the psychological toll of COVID-19, the failure of current systems, the overburdened EDs and ICUs, the transition, is what isn’t easy. At the end of this we’re going to do anything required not to let it happen again. The change will be relatively straightforward.

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