Let’s talk about #PresentOfWork

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“Books about the future of work make the same mistake : they fail to look back at the history of work or more precisely the history of books about the future of work and how wrong they were.” (Scott Berkun – The Year Without Pants).

Interested in management and the impact of the advent of digital in the our life, I am largely exposed to many thought leaders and fellow professionals discussing about one perceived intersection between both : the future of work. Great hopes are discussed (let’s do X, it will be so much nicer afterwards), radical positions are taken (let’s get rid of managers), some arguably dystopian visions are delivered (holocracy) and dangerous promises are made (innovative socio-technological solutions will solve your organisation problems).

In all fairness, I fully understand the seduction of intellectual projections, I have been recovering from this propensity for the last couple of years myself. Yet, ever since I’ve discovered Agile management methods, I have learnt a very valuable principle inherited from lean : focus on today’s problems.

I am not fully convinced that while discussing about #FutureOfWork we are discussing solutions for the main problems organisations are facing today.

Disrupted industries, unite !

I am not denying that that the world is undergoing massive changes. It would be rather challenging to find today any industry not being disrupted by innovations. Automobile with self-driving cars, services with digital platforms, banking with blockchain, marketing / branding / communication / raising teenagers with social networks, manufacturing with robots, knowledge work with algorithms and big data : the list is scary and endless. It is very tempting to draw on all these items (and their combinations as Mc Afee and Brynjolfsson remind us in the Second Machine Age) and speculate on how the future of work will be different and transform the way we earn our living.

Having said that, no matter how many new innovations come along, be it technological or social, in its nature, work and its challenges will remain the same : how do we create value to delight our customers while improving productivity (to save cash and invest on new products) all the while developing and engaging the teams (so that they provide five star service to our customers and bring new ideas for our services and products).

I can see many problems in the challenge above of #PresentOfWork that the promises of #FutureOfWork does not explicitely tackle.

1. Delighting the customer

First thing first : the customer. The great thing with the advent of digital : it has put the customer back where she belongs, i.e. right at the center of the business. Customers now have choices they never have before. They are super informed. What they want : top quality service, solving one precise problem, when they want, where they want, with a seamless experience they enjoy and don’t waste their time with.

Notice the first item : quality. Quality is the match between the provided service and what the client expect. #FutureOfWork zealots, in what could be identified as a push-technology mode, may give the impression that customers want innovation (social and technological) first and foremost. The reality is that customer wants quality, i.e. a product/service that solves their problem and match their needs. As Scott Berkun wrote.

The word “innovation” is used to mean many different things, which is part of the problem. Executives and consultants throw it around like magic dust, hoping to cover their ignorance of why products and companies have done well or failed. But it’s clear most companies fail not because of their lack of inventiveness; it’s their lack of basic competence.

This does not mean that customers does not expect Wow effects, they surely do. Yet, what they want first is not to be disappointed with basic features by the product or service – which she takes for granted. Refer to the Kano product development model.

I can’t think of any feature of #FutureOfWork focussing on improving quality. I have an hypothesis to explain it : it is not a sexy subject. It has been around for 50 years, it requires discipline, observation, listening and thinking : it is hard to make it look glamorous and sell it as a pillar of better days to come. Yet, quality is massive issue today and it will remain a massive issue tomorrow because this is one of the key issues for the customer. 

2. Creating value

The 21st century workers conundrum : how do we make sure we create value for the customer ? In a de-materialised world and massive corporate organisations (my 2 cents : there will still be massive organizations in 50 or 100 years time) how do we make sure that we are creating value ? How can one tell how much value there is in the document she is working on, the code that she writes or tries to fix, the new feature he is designing, the marketing campaign she is discussing, the meeting being held ?

We need to think hard about how we create value for the customer. In order to do so, we need to fully understand the problem we are trying to solve for her. This requires us to see the problem she is facing before jumping to solutions. At the time of this writing, there is no management mode or internet connected thing that will help people in seeing the actual value in what they do or in aligning their work with the project/organisation/mission they are contributing to. I can’t count all the teams I have been coaching who didn’t have a clear idea of the value they were creating for the customer.

Likewise quality in the previous section, I am not sure which principle of the #FutureOfWork precisely tackles that very issue.

3. Improving Productivity

When the barriers of entry become very low, new competitors can come from any place at any time with any new disruptive business model. Any company has to take this challenge into account. This will be even more so in ten or twenty years from now. Therefore, improving productivity (i.e. creating more value with less resources) will become an even greater issue. There are two strategies to achieve this objective : incremental with daily small steps or radical, with a master plan. We are back to the revolutionaries Vs evolutionaries debate.

We tend to be more impressed by the former but if we look closely, history has shown in the last years that  the latter is ever so present in successful companies of the 21st centuries. Toyota of course but also digital giants (Amazon, WordPress, Etsy, Pixar, Facebook etc …) are example of companies focussing on daily improvement strategies all the while working on disruptive changes.

These productivity improvements are part of the work and are based on measures. The actual process of improvement is actually based on discipline implementation of the scientific method : problem definition as a gap of performance, hypothesis of causes, counter-measures, and check on actual data to validate the solution and the acquired knowledge. This actual problem solving process to improve productivity tends to be overlooked as it does not seem to be a “strategic” issue, yet this is the core of it. As an interesting example, my friend Stéphane Schultz, french blogger and consulting star on the digital topic, wrote a small essay to discuss leadership lessons from Ed Catmull (Pixar CEO) book : he does not even mention continuous improvement strategy while Catmull insists in Creativity Inc. that this is the core of his strategy :

“It was at that time that I happened upon one of the most valuable lessons from the early days of Pixar. And the lesson came from an unexpected source – the history of Japanese manufacturing (…) I soon discovered that the Japanese had found a way of making production a creative endeavor that engaged its workers – a completely and radical and counter intuitive idea at the time. Indeed the Japanese would have much to teach me about building a creative environment.”

4. Developing and engaging the teams

This probably is the most interesting topic. As explained above, we want to engage and develop people so that they provide five star service to our customers and bring new ideas for our services and products. As a starting point we may keep Dan Pink 3 dimensions of engaging people in mind : autonomy, mastery, purpose.

As in the point above, there are two possible approaches here. The first one is promoted by Eric Schmidt and implemented at Google : hire the best, i.e. graduates from the best universities. The basic assumptions is that if you hire the best people, provide them with the right social and technological context and leave them alone, they will deliver stellar performance. This is an hypothesis I see promoted by many #FutureOfWork advocates, Gary Hamel or Steven Denning among others. If the hire the best people strategy worked, I wouldn’t have had such a hard time as a manager aligning highly skilled software engineers with customers and business problems, and get them looking beyond technological choices. Besides, regardless of its relevance, I am not very comfortable with as it is a rather static statement : people are either the best or they are not. There is no room here for concepts such as becoming, development or learning. In a context of numerous radical changes, it is a rather bold proposition. Unless there is an underlying assumption (the best people also are the ones the more likely to learn efficiently), an assumption heavily challenged by the work of Chris Argyris.

The second approach is the one advocated by open source community and lean management. It basically says : if you are ready to learn, if you can have the discipline of practice to improve, then we can have you with us, to learn with us, while we go towards that direction and solve that problem. This  developing average people into mastery vision is embodied in that Fujio Cho quote, one of my favorite ever :

We get brilliant results from average people managing brilliant systems. Our competitors get average results from brilliant people working around broken systems.”

This validates the approach whereby you can engage regular people while developing their skills (mastery) as they solve the right challenge the way they see fit (autonomy) aligned with the company strategy (purpose).

A tangential issue with the first assumption is the leave alone hypothesis. In The Talent Code (Greatness is not born, it is grown), a mandatory read for anyone interested in people development, Daniel Coyle thoroughly explains three things about talent and excellence : 1/ it is a practice and this is hard work 2/ it has to be ignited for people to be ready to put the long hours in 3/ it requires a coach.

I don’t see many items in the #FutureOfWork framework mentioning this third dimension : coaching. If you leave people alone how can they make sure they are moving towards the right direction ? We know since Daniel Kahnemann work that cognitive biases and the urge to listem to System 1 (jumping to solutions) are obstacles to knowledge work and proper thinking, no matter how clever we are. Kahnemann actually illustrates one of the biases (the optimism bias) with his own experience with a team of fellow researchers. We know that it requires us to take a step back, to be challenged, in order to make sure we tackle problems in the proper way. This is the very core of Lean thinking as brought to us by Taiichi Ohno : we need to fight our misconceptions using scientific method to make sure we have a clear understanding of reality (Ohno insists especially for clever engineers). My 2 cents : #FutureOfWork will be as dull as #PresentOfWork if people are not coached into proper thinking.

Many #FutureOfWork supporters advocate the community and the peers relationship as a solution to tackle this coaching issue and to help and develop people. An hypothesis  mostly based on their own experience. This may work for some people (it has worked for me) but the fact that it works for me does not mean it shall work for anyone – it took me 10 years to figure that out. My perception is that the historical model of one-on-one coaching seems to me a far more robust and validated approach.

Challenging #FutureOfWork

My question to #FutureOfWork supporters is this : how do you know that #FutureOfWork solutions solve today’s challenges ? What are the experiments you made validating this hypothesis ? If #FoW aims at tackling future challenges, how do you know this will actually be the ones to address in 20 or 30 years time ?

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