“Many of us go through life only half awake.”
Bill James

There’s no secret to improving how you and your team work. It just requires promoting some things that organizations haven’t been very good at doing in their desire for complete efficiency: better thinking and learning by everyone.

It’s not an easy task, but not impossible. It can be disconcerting to learn the way we work isn’t working.

That’s the biggest hurdle. For you, for anyone, for me. In fact, when I first started finding evidence of a different worldview, I felt like I was never going to get it. New concepts, new ideas, new theories. It was overwhelming. (But exciting!)

So I created this list as a guide for where to go next. It is designed as a follow-on to the introductory email series you can sign-up for here if you haven’t already.

These are ten foundational ideas I’ve collected along the way that have helped me understand why work is the way it is and—most importantly—helped me to take action in finding the ways to work more effectively.

Because the only way to change work is through the work by doing the work.

Two Questions Worth Asking

Why is work the way it is?

What can we do about it?

Get Started With This Idea

(1) Niels Pflaeging has been a major influence in my learning on this subject. You’ll see his ideas sprinkled throughout much of my writing (and biases). My introduction to Niels started with his book Organize for Complexity: How to Get Life Back Into Work to Build the High-Performance Organization. Buy it. Read it. Read it again. (And again.)

Then This Idea

(2) A lot of improve-the-work initiatives are undertaken for the wrong reasons, namely to improve employee engagement or improve the organization’s culture. Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework, especially the illustration of different business contexts and the introduction of complexity, provides us a different reason to work in a more natural way: so the business can be successful!

Here’s a quote: “Most situations and decisions in organizations are complex because some major change—a bad quarter, a shift in management, a merger or acquisition—introduces unpredictability and flux.”

Doesn’t that sound like the situations and decisions in your job? Read this: “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making” in the Harvard Business Review.

Then These Ideas

(3) Command and control management relies on an incorrect assumption about human behavior, that humans dislike work and must be told what to do. What Douglas McGregor asserts in his seminal The Human Side of Enterprise (published in 1960! and still very relevant today) is if an employee is disengaging from the work it is as a result of how the organization is managed and not because of their human nature.

McGregor’s Theory Y postulates that under the right conditions employees seek responsibility and exercise self-direction and self-control in the pursuit of organizational objectives. In other words people can be trusted to do the work if conditions of trust are present. The book is (most assuredly) worth reading.

Here’s a summary of Theory X and Theory Y to familiarize yourself.

(4) Harold Jarche’s “Work is learning and learning is the work” insight was a revolutionary finding for me. What it means is work and learning are the same. We’re learning about the problems we’re solving as we’re solving them, because … complexity.

Here’s what Jarche writes: “There is no time to pause, go into the back room, and then develop something to address our learning needs. The problem will have changed by then. We need to learn as we work.”

(5) There’s something about this next idea that makes people outright reject it as soon as I’ve introduced it. So I encourage you to resist that temptation and sit with it for some time before making your own assessment.

It’s a metaphor about organization culture. Niels Pflaeging tweets: “Org #culture is like a shadow: You cannot change it, but it changes all the time. Culture is read-only.”

Culture change is an outcome. It happens as a result of work being done.

And if there are thoughts of protest in your head, perhaps something to the effect of, “Yes culture can change!,” I say to you: You’re correct! But no one has ever been able to act on the culture itself—it’s a shadow—they’ve only been able to influence its change through action on the elements that produce culture.

And Then These Ideas

(6) Systems. I know about systems. I still don’t have a handle on systems. I’m not sure it’s possible to have a handle on systems. But seeing systems provides an explanation for why so many things are the way they are. That’s important.

A good start with systems is Donella Meadows’s Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Her twelve leverage points are worthwhile reading even if, taken together, it’s an advanced concept.

My … ahem … thing with systems is I’ve found the concept can be a little debilitating. As I’ve embraced the idea of systems, I’ve also become more reticent—at times—to take action. Which is perhaps the point. Nonetheless, it can be confusing.

Anyway, our world is systems. Important to know. 

(Also: John Gall’s Systemantics is a practical critique-like text about systems that’s been helpful to my understanding. Check to see if it’s available in a library near you.)

(7) Who in your organization can meet the needs of a single patient without working with other people? Yet most organizations are still highly focused on the performance of the individual employee, often at the expense of the team performance and value creation.

Individual performance is a myth. Performance reviews can be toxic. And while we’re on the topic: “Telling people what we think of their performance doesn’t help them thrive and excel, and telling people how we think they should improve actually hinders learning.”

Some out-of-context but bang-on quotations from management legends henceforth:

John Seddon: “The problem of people not working together won’t be solved by interventions such as teamworking, participation, empowerment programmes and the like, for one simple reason: it is the system that governs behaviour.” 

W. Edwards Deming, part one: “The fact is that the system that people work in and the interaction with people may account for 90 or 95 percent of performance.”

W. Edwards Deming, part two: “Put a good person in a bad system and the bad system wins, no contest.”

W. Edwards Deming, part three: “The role of management is to change the system rather than badgering individuals to do better.”

(8) Making change happen is literally the job we’re all paid to do. Unfortunately, the models of change that many of us have learned are incomplete or a misinterpretation of good theory. It’s had an unfortunate impact on our change outcomes.

So start with this delicious Niels Pflaeging blog post: Change is more like adding milk to coffee. It’s another mythbuster. Then read this one: Now to New: How to flip your company to perpetual beta

Then make another visit to Amazon for two essential books. John Kotter’s Leading Change will help you reacclimate to the situational aspects of managing change. And William Bridges’s Managing Transitions will be your guide to the psychological transition that accompanies every change, a concept we’ve essentially been ignoring to the detriment of the people we work with and the outcomes of our efforts.

(9) I want to bring some of these interconnected topics together. Actually, I am going to have Niels Pflaeging bring them together in this video where you can hear why he believes drinking more coffee and starting a smoking habit are good for your career:

(10) It’s time for reflection, for thinking, and applying these ideas to your work world. And the question Aaron Dignan asks in his book Brave New Work: Are You Ready to Reinvent Your Organization? is perfect for the exercise. It is this:

“What’s stopping you from doing the best work of your life?”

More Ideas

At the top of this post, I wrote better thinking and learning is what is required for organizations to return to a more natural way of working. Unfortunately, much of the way we’ve learned to work and been managed has systematically eliminated widespread thinking and learning in the pursuit of efficiency. 

Along the way, we’ve been conditioned to believe any effort to change how a team works requires a programmatic intervention, often with the help of an internal or external consultant. What’s happened with Lean, Balanced Scorecard, Agile are three examples. 

Better thinking and learning isn’t a program to be implemented. It’s something to be figured out and applied in context. Transitioning from a paradigm based in efficiency to one framed on effectiveness requires better thinking and learning by everyone

To do that, to promote better thinking and learning, we need to improve our thinking and learning. 

That’s why I’ve created a weekly email series (currently) containing 34 advanced topics to help you increase your confidence in applying them. You’ll receive one email per week with ideas, books, people to follow, videos, resources, et. al, I’ve been collecting and curating for more than five years. Think of it as a regular infusion of new thinking to help you make (more) change happen at work and in your career. 

Working with these ideas—learning, thinking, discussing them—is how to gain confidence in applying them. I’ve found continued exploration of these and adjacent ideas has been the most important factor in helping me do that. I believe it can help you to do the same.

All 34 are yours for $10. And you’ll receive each additional idea I add to the series, so there’s no telling what the final number will be. (You can always unsubscribe if your interests change.)

Sign up to receive The Weekly Email including examples of organizations working in this way already, a participatory change model you can use the moment you learn it, why mental models are foundational to the work we do, why organization principles are better than an organization’s values, and (at least) 30 more.

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Pretend like you have a new best friend, who just happens to be an alien from outer space, and you’re constantly having to explain to them how something on Earth works.

Like a grocery store. Whatever just came to your mind is part of your mental model of how a grocery store works. Now explain it to your new best friend. 

Where do you start? Do you give a lesson on commerce? Do you talk about why humans need food? Do you show them a recipe book? Do you give a lesson on food systems? Do you discuss the transformation of human society and the effects it’s had on how we source food?

Or do you grab a shopping cart, explain what it is, and begin shopping for groceries? Along the way you might explain: how to buy produce, why Cheez-Its are the snack of choice, what a butcher does, why oat milk is your preference—these are all mental models that combine with near-infinity number of other mental models to create a mental model of the grocery store. 

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Then you choose a check-out line (What’s a check out?) (What’s a queue?), unload your groceries onto a conveyor belt (What’s a conveyor belt?), watch as the clerk scans your items (What is a barcode?) (What is an optical scanner?), bag your items (Why do you need a bag?) (Where are you transporting these groceries?), presented with a total (What’s currency?) (How do you gain more currency?), and use your credit card to pay (What is credit?) (What is a credit card?) (What is payment processing?). 

It’s a lot right? And how much did you skip? That’s why mental models are important. They’re shortcuts. So every time we get hungry we don’t have to learn again what the heck a grocery store is.

Yet mental models can be improved! Coupons! Prepared foods! Cheese! Once your alien friend understands the concept of the grocery store, they can focus their energy on understanding additional mental models in the grocery store (like how to make sense of  the artisan cheese counter) while at the same time still improving their grocery store mental model with each new learning.

Soon a trip to the grocery store becomes so natural your alien friend is making phone calls to aliens at home while they shop, an activity that would have been impossible on the first trip. They’re looking for love as they pass other shoppers. They’re on a first-name basis with everyone in the bakery.

A mental model is an abstraction of a concept (grocery store), often multiple concepts (produce, check out registers, Cheez-Its, etc.), that gives us the ability to navigate through the day. Our mental models allow us to process overwhelming amounts of information rather easily. 

A problem can arise, however, when our mental models miss important details. Sometimes it’s because our mental models are too simple. Sometimes it’s as a result of missing new information because of our comfort with what we already know. Sometimes it’s because they are wrong to begin with. Sometimes it’s a combination of all the above.

We rely heavily on mental models at work to do our work. And one mental model that I’ve been improving in the last several years is how change happens in organizations. 

We’ve been conditioned to believe that change has to be a journey. But what if it isn’t? What if, as management exorcist Niels Pflaeging has concluded, it’s more like adding milk to coffee? Once a bit of milk has been splashed into a cup of coffee, the cup of coffee is different at that moment. Forever changed. No journey required. 

And what if resistance to change isn’t resistance at all but a very natural human process of transition, one that includes letting go of the known, going through a neutral zone, before a new beginning?

It’s possible this new mental model of change, one of adding milk to coffee and supporting people through transitions, will change the way you work, as it has for me. And it’s possible that you’ll continue to refine and improve this mental model of change as you use it and explore it. 

And hopefully—regardless of where you come out on milk, coffee, and transition—you now have reason to explore your existing mental models and how they guide your work successfully … or not. 

Because all mental models are wrong and some are more useful than others.

“Change is like adding milk to coffee,” writes Niels Pflaeging.

It’s the perfect rebuttal to the change-as-journey metaphor we’ve been saddled with for so long. Metaphors matter and using different metaphors have a profound effect on our view of the world.

Pflaeging’s introduction of a different metaphor captures everything right about making change happen and discards the baggage of the long, arduous, this-may-fail journeys we’ve been toiling on since entering the workforce. What he isn’t saying is that more change doesn’t happen over a longer period of time, it’s that we don’t have to wait for a journey to be completed before we recognize that change has occurred.

He writes, “The journey metaphor tricks us into ignoring the possibility that the desired change might be accomplished quickly, with little effort, right now, with existing resources and with minimal disruption. The metaphor itself makes change hard.”

What happens when we view change as a journey is that we spend a whole lot of time planning for what that change is going to be rather than just going out and making that change happen.

This is a disrupting idea. I’ve had conversations with people who flat out reject the notion that change can happen [right now]. That’s how conditioned we’ve become to the idea that change is always difficult.

What he offers as an alternative is that change is a flip from now to new. And that the amount of change we’re looking for when embarking on a journey can really just be a series of flips from now to new.

This journey hullabaloo is a byproduct of the command and control approach to management. And no person in the last few years has helped me realize how pervasive command and control principles are in organizations—even during this enlightened period—than Pflaeging.

He’s written a book—which, if I haven’t gifted it to you yet, you should buy—that you will return to, as I have, many times in your career. “Organize for Complexity, How to get life back into work to build the high-performance organization,” is a book about complexity and work and if it were acceptable to copy and paste an entire text right here, I would because it’s that illuminating.

People have shared with me after their first read that they enjoyed it but didn’t understand everything he expresses. Yes. Read it again in a month. And then again in a month. (It can be read in 90 minutes, so no worries there.)

It’s not that the content is too academic or unintelligible, it’s that the concepts fly so directly in the face of everything we think we know and understand about organizations, it just doesn’t feel “right.”

“Right,” of course, is a construct of our own collective making and this book does its best to remodel our beliefs about how things actually work at work.

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Basically, since the early 1900s, we’ve been separating the thinking from the doing on the belief that the top of the organization is best at making decisions and the bottom of the organization is best at doing the work.

That approach was useful during the industrial revolution. It’s constraining now. Instead, as a result of our increasing awareness of complexity, we should view our organizations from the center out.

The book goes on to describe the concept of a better way to organize our organizations, why complexity matters at work, why our beliefs about human behavior are imperative to understand if we want our organizations to succeed, why thinking in systems will help you see work differently, and a few other informative topics. It ends with an interview tiled “Management is quackery” in case the point hadn’t been made. So there you go.

Another quote I like of his: “Culture is like a shadow. You cannot change it, but it changes all the time.” Let that sink in as you reflect on all the culture change initiatives you’ve been a part of.

You probably won’t be shocked to learn that he believes much of what happens in organizations is based on flawed assumptions. Here he writes, “Most books, articles and concepts on leadership are ridiculous. Mainly, that’s because they fail to consider history, available science, and the systemic nature of work and organizations.”

He believes that the organizational structure we all use to illuminate power in the organization is actually missing two other representations. The pyramid we know is the formal structure which is only good for following the rules. The second structure is more of a network and is the realm of influence, it’s called the informal structure, and is composed of relationships between people. Then there’s the value creation structure which is where the work actually happens. The theory is called Org Physics. More here. Go read it as it’s illuminating.

He believes that companies don’t need leaders or bosses. That organizations approach learning with flawed assumptions. And lots more worth exploring here.

Pflaeging tweets at @NielsPflaeging. He writes and posts all over the internet including LinkedIn, SlideShare (an interesting format that allows you to think with his ideas), and YouTube.

He and his business partner (Silke Hermann) opened a learning-oriented start-up and published a book titled “OpenSpace Beta, a handbook for organizational transformation in just 90 days” which provides a technique for making the ideas in “Organize for Complexity” real. It uses Daniel Mezick’s OpenSpace Agility framework and an idea called leadership by invitation.

You’ll see the Beta Codex mentioned throughout Pflaeging’s work. It’s a set of principles for thinking and acting in organizations and is the foundation of his work (and, I’ve found, better understood after studying some of his other work first).

Here is a keynote that is well worth the next 60 minutes of your day (and a useful pastime until Amazon delivers the book you just ordered). Though it’s at an agile community event, you don’t need to know anything about Agile to find value in the talk.