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.
(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.
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?”
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.