Unintended consequences of strategy-practice disconnect

Sonja Blignaut’s presentation at the SAIIE Awards brought about a lot of takeaways for me, but this one really made me think about the disconnect between what we say in upper management, and what we make those at frontlines endure.

It’s trendy to say the customer is at the centre of all you do, but more often than not, the reward system at the frontline says otherwise. No better an example exists than with call-centre reps having targets of completing calls within 2.5 minutes.

If they get a particularly difficult customer who needs more time, they risk not hitting that KPI of call < 2.5 minutes. Now imagine yourself in the shoes of such a rep with this predicament.

On the one hand, your CEO publicly says the company values client-centricity. That would imply taking as much time to serve customers as they need.

On the other hand, you need to hit KPIs related to speed-of-service to get that bonus payment you really need. The irony is that such a KPI is a cascaded down take on a strategy from somewhere in upper mangement.

Which would you choose to act on?

Microstructures within organisations

I’ve had my eyes glued onto papers about organisation design for the last few days. One of the concepts that sprung out to me was that of microstructures. Professor Phanish Puranam of INSEAD coined this term.

Microstructures are the building blocks of organisations. I’d imagine he’s referring to the teams, committees and collectives of human beings that form towards a specific purpose. They take guidance from and guides the organisation’s purpose.

How can you model a microstructure? I’d imagine it could be as simple as:

  • A full view of the team and activities it undertakes
  • Seeing the individuals who are in that team and the activities they’re responsible for

Building out these microstructures, you could then view them in overall workgroups and business units, to gauge the interactions necessary to create value. And keep going up until you’ve got a full view of the organisation’s movements.

What benefit could a practical manager get from this? Seeing the building blocks that form an organisation?

Imagine if you could track the evolution of these microstructures, the performance data gathered within, how they morph and contribute to overall structural integrity… then today’s machine-based modelling tech could tell you how to optimise it?

Perhaps the greatest human-centred benefit is driving change more effectively. They could do a before/after model of the individual and team activities impacted by process, technology or other change.

A visual approach to a process otherwise filled with mystery and uncertainty.

Rewriting the organisation rulebook

I’m going to shift gears for this post. Instead of the individual and team view, I will look at work from the 30000-foot perspective – seeing what’s happening in the whole organisation. Not hard for me since that’s my day job as a company GM.

So here are the 8 org. trends the Corporate Rebels think we are moving towards:

Here are my thoughts on each trend:

  1. Profit gives way to purpose and values. I don’t think profit will ever take a back seat. It’s a driving force for our capitalist society after all. But making a profit at the cost of community goodwill will become a big no-no in the near future. We can already see that with some activist investors like pension funds.
  2. Hierarchy gives way to networks of teams. I run a smaller org with a network of teams, but I can tell you that an official hierarchy still exists in terms of rank and seniority. But teams must form and morph as needed to serve a purpose, not solely as headcount vanity for people in power.
  3. Directive leadership gives way to supportive leadership. Do as you’re told will remain an issue as long as the concept of differential power exists. And because we’re human, it will. I think we need to balance it with tools that allow for supportive leadership. Let’s not skew too far in either direction.
  4. Plan & predict gives way to experiment & adapt. Yes, some of today’s most successful companies are those that experiment & adapt in frontier markets. But they’re a handful. The rest of us need to still plan for how we’re going to achieve success in dull, predictable markets. We can experiment a little along the way.
  5. Rules & control gives way to freedom & trust. This brings up the age-old concern of “without rules, everything descends into chaos”. People will need increasing freedom to act fast – the world is moving exponentially faster than even 10 years ago. But they will need guidelines and at times rules to keep actions ethical and guided towards the purpose.
  6. Centralised authority to distributed decisionmaking. Yes, yes and yes! The number of times I’ve wondered why I need to chime in on a decision. But then again, some wide impact decisions need top brass OKs. The key is getting clarity and logical sense behind the criticality, urgency and org impact of decisions.
  7. Secrecy gives way to radical transparency. I think both secrecy and transparency have a place in healthy organisations. Some critical and wide-impact decisions need to be a secret until they’re fully planned out. Likewise, people need to stop hiding day-to-day work matters just for the sake of keeping a one-up on others.
  8. Job descriptions give way to talent & mastery. Yes, we will increasingly rely on exceptional talents, but there’s only a finite supply of that to go around. For the rest of us, we will need some form of boundary set around our job to do it with diligence. Job descriptions can be part of that boundary-setting equation.

I applaud the narrative that this image sparks. That we need to relook at those industries where orgs are single-minded on profit before all else that’s good on earth.

It’s also becoming increasingly pointless to hire people to follow 20-30 year old rules, do monotonous tasks and play office politics. That might’ve worked in the 80s and 90s, but that thinking has maxed out its productive potential.

With more technology and know-how improving productivity, I can see that people need to change what and how they do things.

Corporate Rebels have been gathering steam in a few circles. I’ve paste an image from their site (educational purposes only) to highlight the shift these circles are driving. From my observation, these circles are at the frontier of driving organisational change.

I remember my days of trolling similar-looking circles around 2005-2010. They talked about then-abstract concepts like “digital everything”, agile, cloud, IoT, SoLoMo (social, location, mobile).

We now take their efforts for granted on a daily basis – paperless workflows in the office to turning off the lights using Wifi to calling a late-night Uber.

But I’m no longer interested in the digital future the way I used to be. We are already (pretty much) living it – as I had envisioned it 15 years ago. AI and all that – not my jam.

What seems like the next frontier is this: wholesale org. change based on sustainability principles… and making better use of all this tech that surrounds us.

Fell off the wagon – almost

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve actively worked on this site. My work as a general manager has a way of morphing sometimes into an abomination of excess responsibility.

Even customers take pity, candidly saying to me, “You are in too deep. Take a break soon.” Has anyone covered the concept of mental bandwidth? I feel mine has been on the thin side during this period of extra managerial work.

My low mental bandwidth hadn’t stopped me from thinking about ideas for here. I was struggling to conjure energy some days despite caffeinated help.

What turned some of those days around was looking to the future of how we can improve our work, not just deal with day-to-day fires.

Here were some of my thoughts:

  • How to convey thinking visually – I noticed that with my over-busy mind, I paid way more attention to visuals – I’m guessing this applies to other managers too
  • I need to apply more practical examples – my friends’ eyes glazed as I talked about work optimisation, but their eyes lit up when I related the concepts to their roles e.g. salesforce CRM administrator – how would that role work, what are the complementary roles, how would that team do certain tasks etc.
  • Work out how to explore a burning platform topic that would draw attention which I could steer to a broader platform of adaptable teams. I thought of technology change management – teams are using a lot of tech, but not well. How can we enable people? Show them the tech in the context of their role and activities.

Now for the hard part, the doing part. A few more weeks of busy, busy mind then I want to knuckle down on these. Wish me luck.

Creating headroom for deep work

As I sit here, I realise that my mind wants to relax. More work is the last thing I need after 9-10 hours at it. But deeper work must be done.

Every day at my day job is a combination of:

  • talking with 50-60 people for minutes about deals, projects etc
  • informing strategy by reading/hearing intelligence on our space
  • putting out fires – new tasks, decisions, information every few minutes

Very little time to do any deep concentration work. Work where I’m focused for more than 15 minutes without minimal to no interruptions of any kind.

And then I wonder why, when it comes to doing deep work at night, like writing a simple primer on workflow optimisation, I just stare at the screen. All that daytime activity has its purpose for my role. But it takes my finite mental energy for processing words.

I need to carve out time for proper, deep work.

Deep work is important – it’s the strategy to my barrage of tactics. Obviously at the end of the day isn’t the working out for me. So how could I make it easier? Let me investigate some action points:

  1. Wake up 30 minutes earlier Waking up earlier doesn’t help me sleep early, it just makes me tired during the day! Plus I need my 8 hours.
  2. Meditate right after getting home Yup, right after dinner, watering the plants, catching up with people at home, snack… and oh, is it 9pm already?!
  3. Carve out solid daytime for deep work What happens when you hope someone doesn’t knock on your office door? They knock on your office door.
  4. Make in-roads for deep work earlier in the day

I didn’t cross out the last point. It might work for my situation. If I can carve out 10 minutes of downtime every 3-4 hours to contribute to my deep work.

So what would I have to do to make that oh-so-tiny-period effective?

  • Outline exactly what I need to accomplish in those 10 minutes. e.g. find and write 3-4 pieces of evidence to support the “Risk management” section of the primer
  • Set a timer and commit to no interruptions. Phone face down on the desk, landline off the hook, the door closed, people advised not to interrupt

It could work. I’ll hopefully be back to building on this site’s content at a good pace very soon. This is the kind of deep work that keeps me motivated for another day of attention-arresting day in the office.

Emergent processes: what does it mean

Since my last post, I’ve built on the glossary for modern teams and reflected on philosophies shared by Jeff Bezos and Henry Mintzberg. Both have their fair share of public critics, but they are still venerable individuals in the world of leadership.

Around the same time, I started reading up on organisational development practices – again. I find that it definitely informs my research on agile team dynamics. Once in a while, I’ll read something that makes me sit up and think.

The moment I read about emergent processes was one of those. At its core, an emergent process is a non-routine business process where the knowledge and methods for making it happen emerge as it happens.

It seems like something that may be possible when your team’s laid out for parallel workflows. Different parts of the team, as they progress, shaping team-mate’s or interdependent process’s ongoing activity, as well as the team’s overall output.

I had never heard of the concept before yesterday. A quick Google search shows that the term has made rounds in academia for just over a decade. I suppose it’s time for it to shine in the actual world of work.

Dealing with admin minutiae

The last 2 weeks have been unproductive for my thinking and writing. I can do the tougher think-and-do parts of my day job on autopilot.

It’s the administrative work that takes it out of me. Here are 3 events I found little joy in sorting out for my team:

  1. Repeatedly advising on how a process or technology has changed (instructional tools are already available)
  2. Filing paper after paper after getting a new company car and various work-tech – we don’t have fleet managers or other shared services doing this for us
  3. Getting fined while in another company car – administrator forgot to renew the car’s registration and police now have AI plate registration detectors!

It seems like we operate on a comparative fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants approach to administrivia that is not mission-critical work.

So how would I solve the above 3 issues:

  1. System of record for change management – haven’t found anything robust, easy to use and “this won’t require a part-timer to manage it” enough
  2. Structured asset log – need to search by what’s in documents and make sure I have all the right docs in the first place
  3. Document action tool – like what Outlook does for email, map out a journey for the document from first save to archiving of the tasks we need to make it alive

I suppose larger companies have departments dedicated to such things, but from what I’ve heard, it’s not all roses and chocolates there either.

OK, this was more rambling than team agility. I’ll get back on the horse for the next post.

Mapping team mechanics

I wrote about mapping team operations about a month ago. Lately, I’ve been thinking about it more concretely.

Audio excerpt from “Brave New Work” podcast 02/12/2019

Maybe it’s because I recently heard a real life use case (audio clip on the left), as told by an engineer from Slack – that oh-so-trendy work chat app that many tech people love to use.

It seems that a key aspect of creating adaptable teams is being explicit about the required output and how tools & processes play into making it happen.

I’m all for that idea.

The first step would be to map out the team’s structure and dependencies. I’d refer to these properties as the team mechanics.

What’s the point in doing this? So that we as team leaders and managers can visually identify change patterns and areas of risk.

Once we have the basic output structure – activities that must be done – we can link up tools and processes that will allow us to make it happen.

Example of activities that each output area requires (source: Organizational Physics)

When a tool changes and gets added to the mix, we should be able to see how it impacts the activity and subsequently the team’s output.

When a team member is lagging in their output, we can pinpoint activities where we think they have room for change (aka improvement).

Whether team leaders would care to know this, I don’t know. But it seems in the same spirit as being explicit about the work being done.

Different direction

I’ve been spending too much time thinking lately on the plight of nerds in corporations — of them not getting ahead.

That’s brought me to a sad conclusion: it doesn’t matter.

I don’t know many nerds who would self-identify as that. And if they do, they don’t think there’s a problem with how they act in the world.

Many live in a fantasy bubble of throwing a proverbial hail mary.

“If I get this project out, the boss will notice me.”

“One more degree under my belt. It will guarantee my career climb.”

It’s a difficult proposition for me to challenge this thinking. I’m not a person of authority in the nerd world. I’m not Batman!

But I am a person of authority in a complex business. Where my guidance has helped people deal with change, risks, volatility etc.

My career so far is pharmacy. At one point, it was IT. I’ve explained the work issues I’ve faced to scientists, lawyers, techies, other smart people.

Their minds get blown, so there must be something I’m doing right.

I’m going to give a shot to help people who are often already seeking help: managers knee deep in all of what I’ve succeeded at in the past.

If I were to give this new direction a simple tagline, it’d be: Helping managers prepare for the best and worst.

Previously, I wrote 25+ articles on hiring. No one read them. I even sent a PDF of them to a manager friend. He didn’t read them.

It’s obvious the basics of management are better covered by top influencers.

For little ol’ me, my time would be better spent on something others don’t readily write about, or would tell you to get an Exec MBA for.

Now, to me, it seems like every manager – from CEO down to line manager – has to deal with turbulence. It’s just at a different scale among hierarchies.

I’ll need to brush up on Elliot Jacques’ timespan theory as it applies to how valuation of time by different levels of hierarchy affect work planning.

CEO thinks about 5-10 years. Manager about 2 quarters. Supervisor for the month. Worker for the week ahead.

But I digress. I need to focus for now.

So I’ll need to think about the issues of frontline managers. If they like it, I might work my way up to org design.

I’m already seeing it in my work where government changes, new administrative requirements, new products and services – all these are overwhelming managers.

I see a high level of rigidity in the way managers approach challenges in the context of their team.

People are in deeply grooved patterns of title, authority and subsequently behaviour. Maybe that helps for predictable results in a predictable world.

But what happens when nothing’s as it seems? You need flexibility.

Managers need to:

  1. Develop a vision of their challenges now, weeks and months ahead
  2. Understand how to reshape their resources to meet said challenges
  3. Take courage to make the necessary moves a reality
  4. Be adaptable enough to steer as they learn more vs rigidly sit tight

The goal would be to enable managers to work so flexibly, teams can break apart, form again, technology comes and goes, but results persist.

Essentially, I want to explore the nuances of team dynamics.

And the entire organisation works as a network of these teams cooperating towards a common goal.

We’ll see.

This is harder than I thought

It’s easy to say “I’m going to do this”, but putting ideas together and onto paper is another story. Do you know that frustration?

I’ve been umming and aahing for a few days weeks now as to how I’m going to get the ball rolling.

Probably trying to coin words like STEMer to be like corporate book authors wasn’t a good move. Keep it simple, silly!

I’ll have a second go at this anyway. Maybe an action plan* will suffice for now. So this is what I think I should do next on this site:

  1. Make a menu listing the core areas – Home link, the 3 areas affecting nerd success at work, work design lab, Contact DONE
  2. Populate internal structure of 3 areas with topics even if they are blank pages e.g. Non-violent communication under INFLUENCE OTHERs Too hard to process – need to rework this
  3. Populate blank pages with fundamental questions of analysis like “What is x” “Pros vs Cons” “How does it apply at work” “Case studies” This will work once I know what I’m doing. So paste into new list
  4. Review substantial (500? 1000? 2500?) words everyday to start building notes on various sections Only possible if I have 100% clarity, which I don’t right now
  5. Power through research and add notes within the relevant sections rather than notecard system (as cool as it is, I’d find it hard) – digital can get messy and hard to track through

Update 2nd December – I’ve figured out where I’m getting unstuck. The why of this content is still weak. I think it’s best to focus on “easier” concepts like “Productive Thinking” then move onto tougher topics

* I suppose there’s also the planner’s curse – plan, but fail to do. Let’s hope not.