A COMMON NEED
Topics covered in this chapter:
• Today’s workplace challenges and the future of work
• The need for new approaches and innovation
“It’s like a suit jacket that doesn’t fit,” my coworker said. “No matter how many times I adjust, something just feels off.” I understood what she meant, but where was this problem coming from? The company had decent products and values to match – anyone could get behind them. The thing is, the “right fit” has to do with so much more than shared values; it extends to the culture’s lived experience. When it feels right, it feels really right, but when it’s wrong, everything’s wrong.
Most people think about work experience as achievements you put on your resume. There’s also the type of work experience that has to do with “what it’s like to work there,” the kind that has the potential to either enrich or harm the quality of your life. It’s in every employer’s best interest to create the good kinds of experiences – the ones that increase job satisfaction, employee engagement, and company performance. Whether your organization is in startup mode or long established, you’ve got to figure out how to manage your culture and its related experiences – not only for the many benefits it brings, but to avoid the dreaded or else. You only need to read the headlines to know how often dysfunctional cultures are blamed for corporate scandals and other disasters. Threats aside, there is a huge opportunity gap between where company cultures are today and our aspirations for them. A 2015 survey from Columbia Business School and Duke University found that out of almost 2,000 CEOs and CFOs, 90% said corporate culture was important, but only 15% felt that their culture was where it needed to be (Columbia Business School, 2015). The follow up question might ask, “What is being done?”
As if doing business wasn’t challenging enough, employing people means figuring out how to best utilize, develop, and manage diverse talent in ever-changing circumstances. And it’s here – “the future of work” – the one where the boundaries of our collective understanding are being disrupted every day. The concept of work is being redefined. The war for talent rages on. The emergence of the freelancer in the “gig economy” muddles what is internal/external to the company. The lines between nonprofit (or public) and for-profit (or private) are softening. A socially minded business calls itself “not only for profit” (Armstrong, 2014), while another regards their product testers (who are also customers) part of the company and their community (Brodesser-Akner, 2014). Then there’s the organization that accepted a visiting executive from another company on a developmental rotation.
How people work is changing as well. The 9–5 schedule is becoming less and less relevant. Many are working on different timetables, longer and shorter, regular and irregular. Co-working centers are now in most major metropolitan cities, from San Francisco to New York. These are the physical workspaces that are shared among multiple startups, small businesses, and solopreneurships to encourage networking or even partnerships. Virtual work arrangements, online team collaboration, and videoconferencing are commonplace. Technology has enabled different ways of working, from the cloud to software as a service to communication tools to productivity applications and beyond.
How knowledge is transmitted and received is also changing. Large, blue chip companies are regularly reaching out externally, using open innovation forums to invite outsiders to co-design new solutions (Das, 2011). Other organizations give away proprietary information to encourage advancement or societal change, like the social networking platform that designated their core software infrastructure as open source (“Thrift: We’re Giving Away Code,” 2007). Other tech companies have followed suit. A mining company became a well known innovation case study after they publicly shared all their previously confidential geological data and invited participants to help them literally find gold. In the end, they netted $3B out of a $575K investment in prize money (Tapscott & Williams, 2007).
Companies are trying out different working paradigms. They buy other businesses, not for products and services, but for their talent. It’s known as acqui-hiring (Williams & Perez, 2014). They bring back previous employees they call “boomerang hires” because they left the company and return with even more experience. #FutureofWork is mentioned on social media up to 10,000 times per week, which means people are buzzing about it.
All this indicates that work isn’t going to change, it already has. With these developments happening at the same time with greater frequency, it may seem like a bunch of moving targets for employers who must juggle talent and culture internally and the future of work externally. How will your organization respond?
THE BEST PRACTICES MYTH
Let’s start with what not to do: misuse best practices. When confronting challenges, organizations choose solutions that may have worked elsewhere, but find they only superficially address or temporarily relieve symptoms (Senge, 2006, p. 103). It’s a form of hacking – making do, quick and dirty. Emulating best practices is easy; just spend money on trendy amenities, programs, or technology even if they’re disconnected from strategy, purpose, or the people they are intended to help. They may set precedents or costs they can’t sustain because they lack what’s been called a “market-proof culture” (Ruch, 2016).
Best-in-class products and practices may sometimes mask or divert attention from the true nature of the very problems they are attempting to fix. For example, a company decided to install an expensive timekeeping system instead of confronting employees who were abusing policies. UX Designer and author of The Best Interface is No Interface, Golden Krishna, would equate this to “slapping an interface on it” (Krishna, 2015). When implemented wholesale, best practices come with mixed results. Instead of being right for everybody, they’re a little wrong for most.
Many best practices do, of course, have some validity. The problem is in how they’re used. One solution is applied to one problem in isolation. There’s a failure to consider the impact of the practice on the whole and to integrate actions. They don’t dig beyond the surface to the fundamental needs or root causes. These actions inadvertently cause new problems (Senge, 2006, p. 58) and might not address the old problems either.
Then there’s the tendency to emphasize “practice” over resolution: a decision is made. Once it’s carried out, the problem is considered solved. The focus then shifts away from the initial problem and more toward the tactics of implementation.
Best practices are great when used appropriately but not when they are counted on as standalone, one-size-fits-all solutions. Besides, how does differentiation happen if everyone is doing the same thing? How about we call for some creativity in our workplace practices?
THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTEXT
Whatever your organizational challenges might be, here’s what you can’t overlook: an unprecedented, deep understanding of your organization’s unique context. The use of that knowledge ensures solutions that are authentic and relevant. This is what determines your starting point of “how” – and goes so much farther than your typical surveys and focus groups.
What makes up the context, or what organizational psychologist Peter Senge might refer to as the “system,” consists of the following:
Business Factors: Typical business factors include the competitive landscape, regulatory issues, economic and industry pressures, internal and external forces, and so on. These are the circumstances that generate work. Organizational elements such as strategies, policies, mission, and values fall within this sphere because they are your company’s challenge to itself to live up to why it exists and how it intends to do business. All the opportunities and issues that require leadership (or are created by leadership) are business factors too.
Culture: Culture is a construct reflected in all things that have the power to influence behaviors, interactions, and perception within a socially defined entity or institution. Examples of what reflects culture include: norms, literal and figurative messages, artifacts, and so on. These work together to determine the boundaries of what is acceptable and not acceptable. They are manifested in how people behave, interact, react, and perceive reality. Culture is created, reinforced, and experienced by people. It includes not just what’s said, but what’s actually lived. Because components that reflect culture can be modified – particularly behavior – culture can ultimately be changed over time.
*NOTE: The term “culture” itself is colloquially used in layman’s terms as a catch-all for all things related to the work environment. Scholarly research and commentary on culture is far more nuanced. To learn more, start with Edgar Schein’s book, Organizational Culture and Leadership (2017).
Environment: These are the conditions set by business factors and the culture. Physical and psychological, tangible and intangible, environment is where interactions and experiences happen. The term “climate” describes an environment’s defining characteristics.
Behaviors: Behaviors are the actions people take (or don’t take) that either reinforce or clash with the cultural norms and standards. They are what is most accessible and changeable for individuals.
Experiences: All the events, patterns, and dynamics created by the combination of business factors, culture, environment, and behaviors make up “what’s it’s like” to work somewhere – the experience. Any aspect of life in the organization, including interactions and processes, are the smaller experiences that make up the overall experience.
People: Every company deals with a unique combination of many individuals who have an influence on its organizational life. They serve in different capacities and are the key drivers behind all the other components that make up an organization’s context. People really do mean everything to a business.
It would be easy to assume these exist in a hierarchical relationship, with people as the common thread throughout: business factors create the culture, which sets the conditions of the environment, influences behaviors, and determines the outcome(s) as lived experiences (Figure 1.1
Figure 1.1. Context as a Hierarchy.
In reality, these elements interact with one another symbiotically, where changes in one area can influence or impact others, directly and indirectly (Figure 1.2
Figure 1.2. Context as a System.
From the systems thinking perspective, the double arrows in Figure 1.2
represent “feedback” to demonstrate how actions can reinforce or counteract each other, ultimately changing the overall context (Senge, 2006, p. 73). There are those that believe that you can’t change culture directly. Technically, that’s true. Because everything’s interconnected, it’s not that simple and finite. It’s possible to directly influence and change the behaviors, environment, and experiences in an organization to the degree that the culture is ultimately transformed. The connectedness of the system is also why it’s more prudent to consider culture strategically. Attempting to change just one aspect will have chain reactions that will require broader management regardless. It’s better to be prepared and manage it holistically.
Another way of looking at the workplace would be to examine the enterprise in terms of scale: at the individual, team, and organization levels. Try to complete the table in Figure 1.3
. How are these aspects of organizational life experienced at the individual, team, and organizational levels? To what degree are they consistent or incongruent with each other?
Figure 1.3. Context by Scale.
Where there’s the tendency to consider things in opposition to one another (i.e. Organizational vs. Individual needs), this table provides a view on how each component fits and interacts with the whole. To illustrate, the individual is a standalone person, a member of a team, and part of the organization – all at the same time. This is a more accurate reflection of the reality.
Every workplace has its own unique context made up of business factors, culture, environment, behaviors, experiences, and people. These determine how talent strategies and solutions apply, for better or worse.
A COMMON NEED
Here’s the context we all share: creating and managing great cultures is challenging, and it’s all being done in dynamic markets where the definition of work is changing. Meanwhile, organizations are attempting to tap into the full potential of their talent – or they should be. Everyone knows that employee mindsets have a direct relationship to engagement, productivity, performance, and ultimately, profitability and growth. Setting the conditions – purposefully managing the surrounding circumstances for the better – is not only good for business, it’s good for people.
We are social creatures, and our interactions have the capacity to be either beneficial or harmful to us. Scientific research has shown the direct impact of our relationships on our overall well-being – not just psychologically, but biologically as well. To paraphrase Dr. Thomas Lewis, professor at UCSF and neuroscientist: relationships are physical, living, biological processes between people all the time, every day. Like owning a plant, if you water it only once a month, it will die (Lewis, 2015). The effects of our relationships and experiences at work are neither intangible nor unimportant, as they too often are mistaken to be. Given the amount of time we spend working, a critical opportunity exists for organizations to maximize and harness the benefits of interactions.
Furthermore, to remain competitive, companies have to differentiate themselves through meaningful work experiences and motivating environments that are customized to their unique context. One of the top retailers in the world (per square foot sales) knows that “…if you’re not reinventing your experience every five years, you’re behind the curve…it’s not a great position to be in, where the competition just sucks more than you do” (Chu, 2014). Any organization that wants to be the best has to set its standards not in relation to others, but in accordance to its highest aspirations.
Another company was blindsided one year when they fell off one of the “Top Companies” lists. While they continued to maintain their practices year over year, they were unaware that other companies made even greater efforts and surpassed them. Lesson learned: even those basking in success should plan for and manage disruption of the status quo. They should do this regularly in order to prepare for the inevitability of change – or better yet, manage it in real time, all the time.
If an organization neglects to manage themse...