Of 100 execs asked if they understand the importance of innovation in their business, chances are, 99 will definitively claim they do. Most dearly mean it as well. There are few people in the workplace today, who don’t understand that rapid progress is necessary for survival both on a company and a personal level and who are not interested and invested in the idea of a better future of work.
Everyone is also familiar with the old Einstein adage which states that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the very definition of insanity so, between the two, it stands to reason that we can all agree on the fact that to see change and steer our future work to match the speed technology offers us, we ought to look at what we’re doing and potentially challenge all assumptions.
Big tech, digitally native companies, the darlings of the valley, they have all had the luxury to be able to design the way they work from scratch and their challenge has then been to avoid comfortable big corporation patterns -which may seem protective to the untrained eye but are actually dysfunctional and rotten-, which is difficult, but nowhere as hard as trying to change them once they have become the norm.
Most other companies live in a reality where these examples and hero stories are being waved in their faces every day and the same level of results is expected, whilst they try hard to emulate whatever part of the winning behavior that becomes the hailed cure-it-all of the day without really considering the underlying themes and being willing to experiment to change them.
Imagine two planes that work is trying to superimpose – the teams and structures of the 60s when we used to work by being in defined, rigid groups and communicate by utilizing paper and on top of it – GAFA-like-agility, irrespective of what you call it, aka today’s processes, the speed and ability technology brings in how we communicate and collaborate.
They don’t match, there’s no way to effectively superimpose them – we’re trying to fit racing tires on a T-model.
So what should we question if we really wanted the innovation and speed of success that the future of work should bring us?
The Where: Work Place/Location
The main assumption we have collectively challenged so far is the utility of having individual offices and even there, it seems we have had one big moment of questioning followed by the wrong assumption -open plan offices rule!- and then no correction once that has been debunked by science and bitter experience.
The When: Work Hours
This one is mercifully still being questioned and discussed. The idea of flexibility in terms of schedule is not new, but it has been lumped with the topic of remote working for so long and mired with the fear of possible toxicity from workers that are ill invested in the company’s well being, that it has been hard to be carved out as referring to work hours only, where the advantages are clear.
It’s likely that over the next few years we will finally rely on cloud enough to empower office work and use data intelligently enough to understand productivity patterns and match those exactly to interaction needs in the right team context. I.e. if we know John and Amanda have 3 hours a day when they are scintillating and they happen to be in the same team we may want to let them work 2 of those whenever they like be it in the middle of the night while nursing a baby or in the early afternoon on a park bench and match them for the 1 hour of common-golden-time for their meetings.
The How: Work Methods
Processes and tools. Always a hot topic these days. Technology is moving super fast and continuously offers new theories on what works best and fastest along with examples of what specific systems we need to succeed. Even if we leave the trendy terms of the new ways of work aside, some common pieces based on needs are clear across the board, we all know that we need communication tools to stay in touch, programming tools to develop software or internal data entry systems of all kinds but we’re not entirely sure which ones work best and what method of mixing and matching them gives us the most in terms of results. But are we asking the right questions? How many organizations have really audited the need for various legacy systems? Who wondered if they really need a CRM system? Who checked if they should even have time sheets? Who split their company in two so they A/B test the introduction of Scrum? Business Process Management and Improvement although fighting the good fight, remain as niche as true Organizational Design and that’s an indictment.
The Who: Teams And Individuals
I won’t say this one is “finally about people” because evidently, all the other ones are that as well, and what counts is always looking at everything from methods to mere software through the lens of how it affects our greatest capital – the humans in the organization. This particular point looks at the difference between individuals and teams and how one of the things we need to question are the assumptions of how it is that we arrive at collaboration.
It’s no secret that the way people become part of a team today is highly coincidental based on a combination between availability, key words on a spreadsheet and anecdotical evidence at best. For all the studies that show the composition of a team is crucial to its success, for all the evidence that best matched, emotionally intelligent people produce the best results the fastest, little has been done to apply that to everyday work. That is chiefly because while we know on paper what types of people work well together we have no clue who our people really are. Office workers are incredibly unscrutinized and they know it as we see them reporting feeling rightfully alienated and undervalued as a result. This is not only bad for morale but bad for our ability to use them best.
This entire area of work is sorely ripe for disruption as we have seen no significant improvement in using data, leveraging technology and instilling a genuine sense of curiosity towards the employee’s well being from the management since the industrial revolution.
The Why: Where Is the Heart
This is an example of a rhetorical question – Why do we work and why should we care about work? By looking at successful enterprises, we now know it isn’t just so we pay the bills, that in itself is only the base of the pyramid and the complexity of human motivation transcends solely monetary results so it is about finding a greater purpose.
The JFK anecdote about encountering the emotionally invested NASA janitor illustrates shared purpose, the magic of having every single soul in the organization believe in the same mission and goals. So obviously valuable but so hard to attain across the board. For leaders, being invested enough to dearly want the company to succeed requires enough courage as to be willing to do whatever it takes whether that is raising these uncomfortable questions or letting people come in late after a dental appointment or maybe even work from a village jungle replicating a Kanban board with coconut shells as long as they have WiFi and a willingness to apply their skills and their hearts to the project.
Cultivating soft skills will also help us here – we’ll comprehend what makes people tick and they will, in turn, become emotionally invested in us as a company, in what we are trying to achieve and why.
The Rest: All The Other Questions
The list above is a start, it isn’t claiming to be exhaustive in the least. There are plenty of other aspects of our way of work that we should be examining and I’m looking forward to hearing about QuestionEverythingFest’s in companies that want to show true openness and agility of mind.
Needless to say, the prerequisite here, is that one has to be willing to openly challenge and measure results don’t just change for the sake of looking different or question for the sake of the theatre that makes them look like they care. Nothing should be out of the question and no one should be above or beneath questioning it. This is nobody’s specific job but everyone’s who needs results – leadership in big organizations, management in growing ones and founders in a start-up. Those whose buck will stop if there is no progress and innovation.
We talk about the future of work in the same way that we talk about flying cars – it’s coming, it’s inevitable and it’s ubiquitous but the reality is that it’s nothing but a SciFi concept meant to soothe our present anxiety and will remain consigned to a fantasy, unless we are willing to allow ourselves to open our minds and hearts and examine everything to find what really works in how we’re working.
If you’re one of the leaders who read this article and as a result had at a “hmmm I wonder if we really need X” moment then congratulations, you’ll likely be saving on the exorbitant price tag of ignoring the questioning present in favor of the false sense of security of the past of work instead.