Well those drifters days are past me now
I’ve got so much more to think about
Deadlines and commitments
What to leave in, what to leave out…
–Bob Seger, Against the Wind
Item: Ben Farmer, in The Telegraph (UK), reports on research that shows parents’ immersion in smart phones has left some neglected children starting primary school unable to hold conversations. One head teacher said: “There is limited parent/child interaction. Four year-olds know how to swipe a phone but haven’t a clue about conversations”. Another primary school leader warned: “We are having more and more children entering our early years stage with delayed speech and a lack of school readiness.”
Item: The Pew Research Center reports “the volume of texting among teens has risen from 50 texts a day in 2009 to 60 texts for the median teen text user. Older teens, boys, and blacks are leading the increase. Texting is the dominant daily mode of communication between teens and all those with whom they communicate. The typical American teen is sending and receiving a greater number of texts than in 2009. Overall, 75% of all teens text.”
Item: According to USA Today, a study conducted for online casino Yazino found that one in four people spend more time socializing online, via sites such as Facebook and Twitter, than they do in person. The study also found that even when there is an opportunity to see people face-to-face, on weekends for example, up to 11% of adults still prefer to stay at home and communicate on their devices instead.
Item: Arvind Suresh, writing in Discover magazine, reports that Jacob Sherson, an associate professor of Physics at Aarhus University (AU) in Denmark, and his colleagues have been working on ways to develop quantum computers by efficiently manipulating atoms with lasers. They are working to transcend the challenge of developing ever-smaller transistors to crunch bits of information in one of two states, 0 or 1. Quantum computers, based on quantum systems (atoms, electrons, photons) allow bits to exist as 0 and 1 simultaneously, allowing for massive, parallel increases in computer power. One challenge in manipulating atoms is “sloshing”, where a sudden move with a laser “tweezer” may cause an atom to slosh in the tweezer and produce calculation errors. Inspired by a Danish tech radio show, Sherson decided to gamify the challenge and invite citizen scientists to find the best solution. The project, Quantum Moves, created games where players manipulated atoms as efficiently as possible. By mapping the mouse positions of successful players, thousands of scientists can solve the problem far faster than one lonely researcher trying to find the perfect algorithm.
Item: Atul Gawande, in The Checklist Manifesto, describes how Peter Pronovost, a critical care specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital decided to try a radical idea: a checklist for ICU doctors. He created a simple, five-point checklist for doctors to avoid infections when putting in a central line (first point: wash hands with soap!). For one month, nurses observed how often doctors followed each step. In more than a third of patients, doctors skipped at least one step. The following month, Johns Hopkins administration authorized nurses to stop doctors if they saw them skip a step—a revolutionary move in the hierarchical hospital environment. Over the next year, the ten-day line infection rate dropped from 11 percent to zero.
According to Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends 2016 report, US companies today have an average span of control — the number of people reporting to a supervisor — of 9.7, rising as high as 11.4 at large companies. These findings are congruent with research reported by authors Gary L. Neilson and Julie Wulf in 2012, where they noted that the CEO’s average span of control, measured by the number of direct reports, has doubled, rising from about five in the mid-1980s to almost ten in the mid-2000s.
Concurrently, virtually every survey of employee engagement shows 60-70 percent of U.S. employees are disengaged at work. The Gallup organization reported that a majority of employees, 51 percent, were still “not engaged” and 17.5 percent were “actively disengaged” in 2014. Gallup estimates the cost of disengagement at more than $450 billion per year — a staggering number.
Do managers affect engagement? Victor Lipman, author of The Type B Manager: Leading Successfully in a Type A World, devoted an entire chapter to the fact that people leave managers, not companies. He highlights the centrality of the relationship between manager and employee as a critical factor in the disengagement epidemic.
The troubled relationship between management and engagement begs a question for organizational leaders: how’s all that management control working for you?
Like staccato bursts of data from the interstellar spacecraft Voyager, the workplaces of the future are sending new messages to the people that will be soon be joining them (and in many cases, already are). The new messages are replacing the outdated memos crafted for the dawn of the industrial age, when information traveled at the speed of Morse code.
Message 1: We Trust You. This message replaces the standard subliminal workplace meme that “we don’t trust you.” Examples of bad practices abound: absurdly restrictive limits on purchasing authority, elaborate inventory controls on disposable work supplies, ubiquitous surveillance and tracking.
How about giving people the freedom to implement solutions to problems and seize opportunities in the workplace if they are equipped to do so? Brian Carney and Isaac Getz, quoting former Chaparral Steel CEO Gordon Forward in their book Freedom, Inc., describe the current reality as managing for the 3 percent. In other words, creating rules to control the small number of nonconforming employees who might misuse their autonomy, while suppressing the innovation and creativity of the 97 percent who just want to do a good job. Carney and Getz relate the story of the small company CEO who saw a secretary dipping into the office supplies for back-to-school needs, so he banned anyone from ordering office supplies during the summer. That’s the recipe for an engaging workplace!
Furiously weaving away on a large chunk of the future of work tapestry are four movements ending in the suffix “-cracy”, which comes from the Greek word “kratein”, meaning “governing power”. In the case of democracy, for example, the preceding root word, “demos”, is Greek for “people”. Democracy, therefore, is a state of affairs where the people hold the governing power. Let’s consider these four weavers one by one, in no particular order.
Organizational Democracy. Key Advocate: WorldBlu, headed by founder Traci Fenton. Key Sourcebook: The Democratic Enterprise: Liberating your Business with Freedom, Flexibility and Commitment, by Lynda Gratton.
According to WorldBlu’s website, organizational democracy is a “system of organization that is based on freedom, instead of fear and control. It’s a way of designing organizations to amplify the possibilities of human potential — and the organization as a whole.”
WorldBlu is driven by an audacious vision to have one billion people working in freedom around the world. They hold an annual summit, certify participating companies as freedom-centric workplaces, develop leadership, host a boot camp and conduct research.
As companies flatten hierarchy and expand the taxonomy of futurework, it seems clear that organizational effectiveness will ultimately depend on the choices of individuals. Individual effectiveness will dictate organizational results whether the governance system of choice is holacracy, teleocracy, sociocracy, workplace democracy, ROWE, agile management, horizontal management, self-management, wiki management, radical management, lattice management or any other approach.
The workplace of the future will demand many individual competencies (effective communication, for example), but there are other crucial, and often less visible competencies that will impact one’s ability to navigate and perform well in a highly autonomous environment. Here are twelve items for consideration.
1) Initiative. It’s virtually impossible to deliver constructive feedback to colleagues or cause positive change in process or strategy without a willingness to take initiative. Taking initiative includes the ability to speak up when necessary. Self-managing leaders have an affirmative obligation to speak up as needed–for example, when observing situations incongruent with the mission, vision or values of the enterprise. Being a good listener is not enough. The need for initiative also applies to taking action. Alexander Hamilton wrote about the need for “energy in the executive” as a requirement for good government. The same logic applies to highly autonomous individuals in organizations.
It’s hard, and perhaps impossible, to describe the workplace of the future with the language of the Industrial Age. As a thought experiment, let’s try replacing the following terms and see if it’s possible to cultivate a deeper understanding of what it means to be a human being at work in the twenty-first century.
Human Resources (see also: HR). In the 1980s, organizations replaced the old concept of a “personnel department” with the new, improved concept of a “human resources department”. Management saw the term “personnel” as overly supportive of workers in the brave new world of reengineering. As journalist Cliff Weathers noted, new efficiency technologies called for a new generation of panopticonic overseers aligned with management to keep workers (resources) on track.
A copy machine is a resource. A forklift is a resource. A parking lot is a resource. People aren’t resources. Henry Mintzberg said it best: “A resource is a thing. I am a human being. I am not a human resource.”
Most human beings would probably agree.