Technology alone will not solve your organizational challenges
I recently participated in an online open innovation session on the future of work by Everything Omni, a UK-based group geared towards “future-proof work and a workplace for today’s uncertainty.” I was quickly in my head. Not for the content. It’s provocative but still approachable. I find myself overwhelmed by collaboration tools, specifically virtual whiteboards. People move ideas in, out, up, and down while I’m still trying to get the hang of the dashboard. I suddenly felt like a stranger in a strange land.
Certainly, a big part of me longs for face-to-face interaction and tactile comfort with sticky notes and erasable markers. But the uncomfortable experience made me reflect on the myriad models, methods, and tools introduced in recent years to revolutionize the way we work. To wit: one problem organizations face is a lack of organizational alignment around why these new technological innovations are so mission-critical. Unclear purpose and lack of comfort and expertise with What?, where, whenand why work that can cause delays, misunderstandings, redundant work, and one-time workarounds. These and other frictions can make the work experience distracting, inefficient, and frustrating — and can also contribute to burnout.
As we debate the big philosophical questions surrounding the future of work, perhaps it’s time to take rigor to the fundamentals of organizational life, whether in the office, entirely from far or in the middle. Agreeing on well-defined and widely practiced standards that reduce unnecessary complexity and conflict is essential to a desirable and productive workplace. Before expecting technology whizbang to create nirvana in the workplace, organizations must explore cultural norms and core operating principles and practices that promote or limit productivity.
In my experience, deviance and dysfunction arise when the three basic foundations of organized functioning are not respected: groups, meetings, and communication. Each element is interrelated and highly complementary. For example, a highly active team is inherently better able to communicate and more productive in meetings. In other words, a shortage in one area can derail others.
I have never encountered an organization without a team. Some see them as a cure. However, a recently Harvard Business Review article by organizational psychologist Constance Noonan Hadley and professor of organizational behavior Mark Mortensen point out the worst record in the history of teams. The authors note that although the teams have have long struggled to fulfill their promise As a form of organization, they face exceptionally high barriers today, partly because organizations are constantly forming groups without a clear idea of their purpose, how they should structured and managed, and the expectations members should have for their individual and collective roles and responsibilities. For their part, Hadley and Mortensen propose “group action,” an alternative group concept in which participants share a goal and work independently but occasionally gather together. (Think of programmers, writers, and designers who contribute to website redesigns without the formality of a rigid team structure and meetings.)
Before expecting whiz-bang technology to create nirvana in the workplace, organizations must explore cultural norms and core operating principles and practices that promote or limit productivity.
Whatever your organization’s preference for team building, your organization should choose carefully from a range of options, and everyone should clearly understand why the company chose a structure. this particular structure over another and what is expected of everyone involved. Start with desired outcomes and cultural norms, then articulate principles to empower action, and finally, provide the skills and tools needed to succeed.
For example, I met an organization committed to creating and formalizing a high-quality team culture. In the model they created, a cross-functional team requires a fee, a charter, and a champion. Fees determine the exact challenge the team will tackle. The charter outlines membership, expected duration, time commitments, decision-making authority, and other governance issues. A champion is someone with enough positional competence to do something with the team’s work product. Although cumbersome at first, the requirements ensure clarity of the task and the rules of the road, along with some assurance that the job will not be a productive exercise with little impact. When it works, it embodies the adage “slow is smooth and smooth is fast“It is another way of saying that doing the hard work on the user interface ensures smooth operation down the road and ultimately gets you to your destination faster.
Configuring the workgroup is just the beginning. Meetings are another meeting. I wrote about meetings before, and countless others have written articles on how to get better ones. However, people still praise the gatherings for lack of concentration and inefficiency. The expectation that people have an instinctive ability to organize and facilitate teamwork has been negated by the overwhelming evidence that they do not. What is needed is a commitment to building the skills necessary to conduct meetings well. There’s no shortage of models, tips, and training to do so.
Even in the most forward-thinking organizations, people want to know what the meeting is supposed to accomplish, what their role is in it, and if rallying everyone around their desks or screens. is the most effective and efficient way to get the desired results. Has a decision been made? Or is it the purpose of sharing information? Did people have a chance to opt out if the above points are not clear? Asking these questions can be a quick diagnosis for what you get as right – and wrong – in your meetings. Running poor meetings drains energy and creates mediocrity.
Daily communication is still an area for improvement. Procter & Gamble has long invested in training its managers to create one page memo. Then Amazon passed six-page memo as a must-have replacement for sliding floors. I prefer two pages as a good balance between brevity and depth, but regardless of length, limiting it creates discipline in both writing and thinking. Should there be an exception? Of course. However, changing the standard must be a deliberate choice for specific reasons. The core skills of clarity and brevity will still apply. Picasso’s Proficient in drafting skills boost his confidence and free his mind as he ventures into the realm of abstraction.
Even if your organization relies on short snippets on a messaging platform, each note will get the most bang for its buck. For example, although texting has become commonplace, National Public Radio reported that most people don’t text well. Determine what “good” looks like in your chosen medium and promote best practices.
Once upon a time, there was a layer of governance in organizations that masterfully handled many of these tasks. Then called secretaries and now administrative assistants, these individuals can manage schedules, create agendas, take notes, organize files, etc. Yes, there is gender discrimination. in their selection and pay, and the work is sometimes seen as simple, beneath the talent of highly qualified managers. However, having people who understand the purpose of these seemingly simple tasks and execute them well will ensure consistency and quality, reduce friction, and promote flow in the system.
Now, trained admin support is gone for all but the top executives. Tools have been democratized so that people can do more and more for themselves, even if they don’t do it particularly well. The savings from eliminating administrative positions are easy to quantify, while the costs of inefficiencies and resulting frustrations are much more difficult to quantify, although no less real. Previous changes in organizational technology and protocols are increasing, and comfort with direct traditions makes it easier to hide cracks in the system.
The current changes are happening more suddenly and dramatically. With distributed teams and hybrid work arrangements, even the most basic required skills and configurations are changing. As Constance Noonan Hadley, who co-wrote the team article mentioned above, told me, “We have to ask how we optimize for a new world of work, because it’s happening. I know from conversations with my executive students that there is a tension between how we think the work is going on and what is actually going on. Organizations must adapt to address it.”
Unless your organization accepts agile, nimble or tilt methodology, or make a leap to an alternative model, such as social regime, that forces a rethink of the fundamentals, you can carry a lot of unchecked baggage. Accept the need for change and discard previous assumptions. Team structures, meetings, and communication are great places to start. Try these five steps to uncover the pain points that may be plaguing your organization.
Specify your “center of effort”. Identify activities that engage employees the most and where collaborative work is needed for business goals. Have an open, democratic conversation to remove the distortions that come with top-down views. Be open and honest about what is working and what needs to change. Consider incorporating collaboration in key performance indicators (KPIs) and reward structures.
Start with small things. For example, if rambling meetings are a problem, ask for an agenda and time limit for each meeting. Stick to your plan for at least three to six months to ensure you get through the tough early stages of applying.
Equipping people with the “how”. Make sure your people understand the new methodologies, processes, practices, and tools you’ve chosen. Go beyond the three-minute video tutorial. The team-centred company mentioned above has invested in training to support expertise for every manager capable of leading a team. Skills building sessions also demonstrate management’s commitment to doing the right thing as a team. Go for proficiency, not simple competence.
Lead by example. Show your staff that an older dog can learn new tricks. Tackling an unfamiliar process or application can be an opportunity to build relationships and model a growth mindset — for example, getting yourself mentored by a junior employee.
Set up feedback loops. Practice regularly”stop, start, continue“—An organizational model for generating meaningful feedback—creating a process of engagement, evaluation, and continual change that keeps practices fresh.
How to get started? Summon your team around a virtual whiteboard—just make sure everyone knows how to use it.