The new way of working is broken

The “new way of working” where we are all interconnected and all available all of the time doesn’t work.

Companies are adding tools to their ecosystem every year to solve specific problems, and each tool seems to have its own notification and chat system.  Most of these tools are driving towards “real time communication” and this idea has been sold as a great feature, driving faster innovation and greater collaboration.

We already know that multitasking doesn’t work, it may even cause permanent brain damage. But we don’t need to neuroscientists to know that it’s hard to concentrate and deliver quality work when we are interrupted, and most of the tools supposedly delivering the “new way of working” are highly interruptive.

The default setting for our email system includes an icon notification, a pop up and a sound as the default notification. It’s easy enough to change but every so often a reboot will reset it to default. Imagine anyone thinking that a sound notification would be a good idea in an open plan office.

But is “real-time communication” a good idea? In a crisis it might be necessary, but most of the time we’re not working in crisis mode. In a recent Recode Decode interview Jason Fried said

…as a primary method of communication, real-time communication is a bad idea in most workplaces most of the time…People cannot get their work done at work anymore because they’re being constantly interrupted by all these real-time tools.

The constant interruptions break our focus, and it can take more than 20 minutes to recover our concentration. This cannot be good for productivity, every person I know has developed strategies to reduce the interruptions, including;

  • no sound or vibration notifications
  • removing apps with high notification rates from the desktop/homescreen
  • turn off notifications on apps (weirdly this isn’t always possible – even temporarily)
  • close email and any social media tools to allow focus
  • use airplane mode to appear unavailable
  • book appointments in outlook to do focused work – which triggers a “busy status” on skype

But could we also call on tool designers to rethink their notification systems from “push” to “pull”, perhaps they could allow us to schedule mini-breaks from notifications. Could system designers set up notification hubs where we collect the notifications for new work? Or could notifications get really smart and only appear when we’re working on the relevant project?

Imagine how much we would get done in a day without interruptions.

image via pixabay 

Collaboration

Wikipedia gives a long winded definition of collaboration, Google’s dictionary comes up with something simple; the action of working with someone to produce something. Its use has grown in our lifetime.

That upward blip in the use of the word at the end of the 1940s is due to the second meaning of the word; traitorous cooperation with an enemy. Some of the recent growth is due to the rise of social media and the experiments in new ways of working.

What is the benefit of collaborating in a team?

Better solutions.

In the theory of the wisdom of the crowds, the more people contributing to an answer the more likely you are to get the right answer. In effective collaboration a team of diverse experts bring their perspectives to decision-making.

In every major project I’ve worked in the contributions of experts from different fields has been critical to the solution’s success. I will never know as much as the collective knowledge across the company; here are a few examples.

  • Implementing an enterprise social media platform; its use as a service channel by a business investment team became the best use case collaboration to provide a service. I was looking for use cases, but didn’t even know the team existed.
  • Developing social media guidelines; we had legal and risk experts in the room, they had the deep expertise we needed to get it right, but it was a new hire from a non-digital team who pushed us to simplify the guidelines and the language.
  • Social Media Publication Platform; we had experts from IT, business, legal, and digital involved in evaluating possible tools. It sounds a bit like that old trope of six blind men describing an elephant, but in fact we had good discussions and agreed on the solution to be chosen, while understanding the limits and compromises we were making.
  • Translation; we translated some internal messaging via the enterprise social network, with contributors all using their native language and delivering the translated versions back within 3 days.

Collaboration can also provide additional capacity, if you work collaboratively you can share resources and even provide coverage in the absence of a colleague. Non-profits have been finding ways to collaborate under cost cutting pressure for years, but it can work within organisations as well.

How can you make collaboration effective?

Collaboration isn’t easy, and there is a lot in current workplaces that goes against collaboration. A HBR study reports that when teams get above 20 members, have high levels of expertise, are highly diverse, virtual, or are addressing complex tasks, the chances of effective collaboration drop. Collaboration requires trust across a team and a willingness to share knowledge, it’s easy to see that virtual teams might struggle, but the high expertise seems counter-intuitive.

Here are some factors to consider when building a collaborative team.

  1. Executives model collaborative behaviour
    When executives a visible and demonstrating a particular behaviour they will be copied.
  2. Relationship focus in the company’s culture
    Company cultures often emphasise a task focus, but in companies that emphasise a relationship focus teams find it easier to collaborate along the lines created in the company’s human network.
  3. Clearly defined roles
    Collaborative teams work better with defined roles and responsibilities, usually the roles can be derived from the person’s expertise, but it pays to specify the responsibilities. You can use a form of a RACI to document responsibilities.
  4. Team results rewarded and celebrated
    When teams have a strong joint purpose and are rewarded for the results of the team’s work their motivation to collaborate rises, yet most companies focus on individual performance and results. If you can’t re-organise your company’s formal reward system look for other ways to reward and celebrate teams that have genuinely collaborated.
  5. Skills to collaborate
    We’re used to working as individuals, we need to learn new ways of working for the collaborative era. Two techniques that are worth checking are Work Out Loud (WOL) and appreciative enquiry.
  6. Tools to collaborate
    Whether you use a company enterprise social network, a project tool such as basecamp, or a SharePoint team site, you will need some way for a collaborating team to share their work. If the team is dispersed across locations the tools become vital.

I’ve discussed the benefits of collaboration to the company, there are also benefits for individual contributors. For many people working collaboratively is more engaging and more rewarding. It’s also an appealing way of working for tech-savvy employees and millennials. Two groups your company should be trying to attract and retain. It’s a win for everyone.

Image: Together |  geralt via pixaay |   CC0 1.0 

Build an Engaged Community

CM2017_10_engaged.png

Companies are using digital platforms to connect with their consumers and/or employees. So whether it’s via an internal enterprise social media network or a Facebook page building engaged communities has become more important.

What would an engaged community look like? Lots of people active in the community and some productive outcomes.  What constitutes a productive outcome depends on the community’s purpose, it might be questions answered in a support community or successful idea generation conversations in a strategic community, or money generated in a crowd-sourcing community.

Purpose

Your community should have a strong sense of purpose, you might even state your community’s purpose right on your front page.

sharepoint community

Communities without a purpose suffer one of two fates; either they shrivel and die, or they become social only – virtual watercoolers. In one company I know of the most active community was one where employees discussed their pets. I’m a fan of pets, but I doubt the company built a enterprise social network to facilitate this discussion.

Content & Programmes

You need to feed the community with content. The Community Roundtable identified five great ideas for content and programmes.

  • member spotlights
  • ask me anythings
  • work out louds
  • photo sharing contests
  • questions of the week

Notice anything? All these examples explicitly call on the community to participate.

ask me anything

Download the free e-book from the Community Roundtable for ideas and examples on making all of these work.

Community Manager

The best community managers make it look easy; from welcoming new members, answering questions, modelling the behaviour of the community, solving any issues and providing the content and programmes to serve the community and build the purpose. It takes a particular kind of person to do it well.

Sprout Social has made a good distinction between the roles of social media manager, who functions as a brand representative for a company, and a community manager who champions the purpose of the community.

community manager

Community managers who build engaged communities can share their expertise in their own communities, and need to be rewarded for their expertise and the care they take.

Image:  networks | geralt via pixabay  |   CC0 1.0 

Work Out Loud

We’re in the middle of “Working Out Loud” week, it’s a way of working within a network to create results around a common purpose. It encompasses a set of working skills that make a lot of sense as we work in a world where collaboration and agility are growing needs.

So what does it mean?

It means building a network around an idea or joint purpose, sharing your work, improving your ideas/programme/product within the network, being generous across your network.

Here’s how it all started.

It turns out that it’s an approach that can be used by independent people, and by those working in large organisations.

If you’re trying to build collaboration practices in your company then Work Out Loud circles are worth trying, there’s a twelve week process set out on the Working Out Loud website with pdf guides for each step.

I’m sort of in two minds about this method, in theory it sounds brilliant, but I know I find it hard to share half-baked work, I think there’s too much of the “good student” in me and I want to only show the good stuff. I know, I need to get over it.

I’ve just downloaded the kindle sample of the book, so let’s see if that helps me.

Image: Chinese Whispers  |   Ricky Thakrar  |  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 

Work Out Loud


Companies, particularly large companies, are organised into departments, and departments are organised into teams. It would be a rare project where you did not need the expertise of someone outside your own team. Yet silos within companies persist. Collaboration tools are starting to break them down, but we need more than that, we need to change our working behaviour. Rather than working to a defined goal and sharing the output, we should share the work in progress and the process; we should work out loud.

Bryce Williams coined the term and defines two behaviours that combine to form “working out loud”

Working Out Loud   =   Observable Work   +   Narrating Your Work

Or to paraphrase; “show and tell”.

Promoters of the concept give a long list of benefits;

Wow, with all of that good stuff why aren’t we all working out loud? Because it’s hard. It goes against everything our education and training have taught us.

All through school we’re told to show our own work, to prove what we know, and the pressure to do this grows as we face the exams of high school and then, if we’re lucky, the pressured halls of a university with still more exams, dissertations and theses. Even courses that promise group work still reward individuals on outcome, rather than process; meaning that teams form along ability lines pretty quickly – free-loaders and stragglers are left to rot. School is predicated on individual achievement.

Work isn’t.

At work we rely on the co-operation and collaboration of others, we draw on the expertise of others and after a project is completed it can be hard to discern who was responsible for each detail. Most often it doesn’t matter who did what, in a good team the pride is shared.

The idea of working out loud fits our new reality of work, plus we have the tools to share our work, and collect feedback/input in an easy way. But the change in behaviour is still a challenge, both as individuals and as a company change.

Bryce Williams suggests some ways to think about use cases for working out loud. While I do think that systematic efforts to change people’s behaviour are needed the biggest way to stimulate this change is to model the behaviour you want to see in the company.

The behaviours I try to demonstrate to build up my own habits of working out loud are;

  • sharing updates on the ESN Playbook I’m writing as often as possible, and these are becoming more content related
  • drawing on the work of others and providing commentary (as in this post)
  • sharing work of others – and giving them credit
  • asking for input or feedback

There are more ideas for working out loud (as well as what not to do) in this great article from HBR. What will you do to build your working out loud habit?

 

 

The Year without Pants

The Year Without Pants; WordPress.com and the future of work

Scott Berkun

Scott Berkun is a consultant who got the rare opportunity to implement his own advice, he told WordPress they needed a team structure, and then worked for a little more than a year  as a team lead. In “The Year Without Pants” he writes about his time there, and examines how we work – and how we might work in the future.

I’m a WordPress fan, I’ve used it since 2007, so I should probably issue a disclaimer with this post. But although I know the tool I knew very little about the company that is said to power a fifth of the web and is behind 48% of Technorati-rated top blogs.

The whole philosophy of WordPress is to build an open source content management system that would be easy to use, intuitive, and give plenty of content options for users. Or as they say “WordPress was born out of a desire for an elegant, well-architectured personal publishing system built on PHP and MySQL and licensed under the GPL.”

The company operated as a loose federation of freelancers working remotely, recruitment is by a “build something” test, work is chosen by individuals who post their builds directly, communication is via online tools – and in a brutal display of transparency it’s all logged and searchable by everyone. The company culture is a meritocracy where co-operation is rewarded. It’s a place where you can make something cool and see it in use the following day.

It sounds great, so what problems needed solving – why was a consultant called in?

  1. limited scalability; as long as everything is going through one leader it’s hard to grow, WordPress was 58 employees when Scott Berkun joined. It was time to distribute some responsibility.
  2. limited attention given to bigger complex problems; as long as everyone chooses their own work problems needing 3 or 4 brains will probably get left behind.
  3. loss of consistency; with programmers creating their own solutions not everything worked the same way, sometimes two tools were developed with similar functions, sometimes the way one thing was built made it hard to re-use later.

The tough challenge that founder Matt Mullenweg entrusted to Berkun was to address these issues without disturbing the great parts of the company’s culture. Berkun’s advice was to introduce a simple and loose team structure – and he got to see this implemented by working there.

The job offer Berkun signs includes a creed for how to work at WordPress and begins “I will never stop learning….” and ends “Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable” it’s a powerful and inspiring statement. He enters the team learning, as all new starts to WordPress do, the ropes of customer service, although his service delivery is a fraction of his colleagues. It’s a great place to start in a company – you hear the challenges  your customers face first hand. He then goes on to form a team made up of people he’s never met, and prove that a team working together, and working intensively can solve bigger problems – and ship.

I work in a big company, one that would be a machine bureaucracy under Mintzberg’s model, so about as far away from WordPress as you can get. Even so I read the book looking for what would work for us, what lessons were transferable.

  1. Meetings
    Berkun is damning of meetings “most people doubt online meetings can work, but they somehow overlook that most in-person meetings don’t work either”. WordPress uses asynchronous online tools for a lot of communication leaving people free to work on other things and uses Skype when that makes sense. The company also sponsors week-long meetups, where teams pick a project and ship by the end of the week.
  2. Team Size
    4 people. This is the level where productivity is maximised. I recognise this, and want to avoid the temptation in future to build “representative project teams”, instead try cutting the work up and get the teams small and productive.
  3. T-shaped Skill Sets
    Look for people with a broad skill set with one area of deep specialisation, if you choose complementary “deep skills” you can build a well rounded team with high flexibility.
  4. Measurement and Gaming the System
    We are guilty of the “what gets measured gets done” mentality, which means long discussions on KPIs, lots of reports and multiple dashboards. Berkun points out that “what’s get rewarded gets done”, and gives the example of rewarding programmers based on lines of code rather than what the code does.

There was also one statement I found affirming about the power of laughter. I’m pretty sure my team laugh at me every day, so I might have cracked this one. Berkun says “Laughter… is one way to build intimacy, something every healthy team needs.” This might be the thing I agree with the most, it’s amazing how much laughing together can help build a team. The shared jokes also help in the tough times.

For me this book is a really interesting insight into the world of WordPress, I’m an even bigger fan – I almost want to work there.

Engagement on an Enterprise Social Network

We’ve implemented an Enterprise Social Network, we’ve solved a mass of connectivity issues, so everyone can access the site. We know that 80-90% of employees have visited the site at least once, which is great news. Our challenge now is how to really engage people on the platform.

At a recent event I asked what engagement meant; we talk about it a lot, but I wanted a simple, recognisable definition we could use. It’s definitely more than happy employees.

If I look towards Human Resources research on employee engagement definitions like “an “engaged employee” is one who is fully involved in, and enthusiastic about their work, and thus will act in a way that furthers their organization’s interests.” Which sounds great in theory – but not easy to apply to a social media platform, and not easily measured.

Marketers looking at online transactions talk about engagement as something akin to process completion. Here’s one definition; “The amount of key processes completed during a visitor’s lifetime prioritized and analyzed across the site as a whole or within pre-defined segments.” It makes sense for marketers who may have a pre-defined outcome in mind but it won’t fit an Enterprise Social Network.

In our discussion on Tuesday one of the participants came up with a definition that is easy to understand, easy to spot, and relatively easy to measure.

Engagement on an enterprise social network = people helping each other.

It’s simple, it reflects the vision we had when building Buzz (our Enterprise Social Network) that it would facilitate knowledge sharing and collaboration, and it’s something everyone can recognise. In fact our participants are way ahead of us, they’ve created a hashtag #buzzworks, applied when they see someone being helped on the platform.