Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Zombie memories threaten our ability to handle uncertainty

What do we even mean by 'normal'. It's an important question as we navigate the oceans of uncertainty that have risen all around us in 2020. It's important because we are starting to bid 2020 goodbye (and good riddance) and ask each other what we think will happen next.

The simple act of asking what comes next reveals the crux of this challenge. We want predictability. We want to be able to repeat experiments in which A causes B. Reliably.

But perhaps our use of digital proxies for familiar ways of doing things are giving us a false sense of normality. We have built ourselves little islands of routine in which a mirage of normality can be maintained and while that aligns with our aversion to uncertainty, it leaves us at risk of convincing ourselves that life is becoming more predictable than the evidence around us would suggest.

Normal - in psychological terms - "means ways of being, and doing, things that are familiar. Things that we are used to doing, in the ways we are used to doing them," according to Dr Rowena Hill, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University. She researches the human aspects of emergency management and disaster.

Aleks Krotoski in her BBC Sounds podcast Digital Human (series 20, Normal) coins the rather wonderful term Zoom-bie Apocalypse, echoing the way that ingrained behaviours forced Zombies back to shopping malls in the movies, so we congregate in Zoom calls trying to echo behaviours from our old world - the after work drinks, the dinner table chat. All of it more stilted, juddering and dislocated, digital proxies of actual social moments.

As Aleks points out, we are uncertainty averse. Our use of digital social proxies is a work around for us - offering us the ultimately unsatisfactory comfort of old familiar certainties.

It would be foolish to expect anything other than the unexpected in 2021, no matter what the comfort we may find in Zombie memories of our past lives.

The smart thing is to prepare for still more #contextshocks in which the consequences deliver new contexts in which new needs will emerge. The smart thing is to work to make yourself responsive, to play your part in learning from those new contexts, selecting how to respond to those needs and in doing so creating the future you both intend and can embrace.

#ResponsiveOrganisations (as I have published before) must task themselves with discovering and selecting the new needs they best serve and testing their way to serving them - accepting that IS prediction in our ocean of uncertainty.

2020 has been good for those with the deepest reserves. But living off your fat may not be the best preparation for what comes next.

2021 is likely to favour those best adapted to handling uncertainty, those ready to ditch the proxies and workarounds. Those with least to lose by admitting they don't have certainty - and prepared to test their way forward into what comes next.


Thursday, November 12, 2020

Distributed working can drive a personalised approach to employee experience

Optimising employee experience for business benefit is an emergent trend of our increasingly digitally-connected but physically distributed work forces.

Gartner's Future of Work Trends - with data gathered in April this year - already identified 16% of employers admitted to increasing the gathering of passive employee data collection. For example: virtual logging/clocking in and out; computer and phone use; use of email, internal communication and chats; and location or movement.

The data is available to far more than 16% of companies. Working from home has rocketed to closer to 50%. There are ethical questions of course. The same ethical questions facing us as consumers. How relaxed we are about having our every key-stroke captured, stored, diced and used to serve us depends very much on the discernible benefits to us. Increasingly we want to understand what's in it for them, too.

But employers can use this passive employee data more effectively for carrot than for stick.

Given the reported 'burnout' experienced by many - the increase in monthly hours worked (with estimates running at 20-30 extra per employee per month), the physical and creative downsides of parking behind a computer all day, given all this and more, there are new opportunities emerging for data-driven, employer-led wellness interventions.

We are fine when our car tells us it's time to take a break after two hours in the driving seat - perhaps passive data can be used to enforce mental and physical screen breaks? And if, from aggregating data the employer can understand more about what makes an individual effective, even applying some of the A/B testing techniques so readily applied to us as live, real-time consumers, then perhaps demands on us, styles of communications, engagement in meetings, workshops, pitches et al, can start to be designed to suit end user needs with the kind of specificity we have long enjoyed as customers.

Welcome to insight-led, experience-centred, employee and workplace experience. We just have to treat employees with the same respect we have come to understand the customer must be treated with.

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Consensus starts with acknowledging shared beliefs

Win, lose or draw, unless we start realising we have more in common than there is to drive us apart, the real losers will always be the electorate.

As I write the result of the 2020 US Presidential Election is not yet in and thought to be going right to the wire.

And while it is easy to be swept along in hyperbole and vitriol, take a moment to remind yourself that most of us - all around the world - are more like each other than we aren't.

Let's start with what we all agree on. My guess is Democrat or Republican, Brexit Supporter or Remainer we all agree on things like:

  1. Health and happiness for all
  2. Prosperity for ourselves and neighbours.
  3. Caring about and wanting to protect our families and neighbours.
  4. Food, clothes and shelter
  5. Education for all.
These are just some top-of-head thoughts. I'm sure you can think of others.
Some folk went to the trouble of listing these a few years ago... you may be familiar with them:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all (...) are created equal, that they are endowed ....with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
To solve the problems facing us needs all of us, coming together.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Culture and identify in the new future of work

Preparing for the new context of the Future of Work goes beyond the challenge of managing our connections and enabling old processes.

In previous discussions I have identified the limitations of Covid19 innovation to date in this space: A backlog clearing exercise in which the old 'important but not urgent' list suddenly became tagged 'urgent' too: A huge outpouring of effort to build what our experience of old contexts had suggested we need.

The context changed with Covid19 - making distributed working THE way of working among those ordinarily housed in offices. The 'go' button was hit - and hit hard - on tools to deliver productivity in quite traditional processes.

Now the context has changed again. Now it's not a matter of making the best, to patch up a response to muddle us through until we could go back to normal. Now there is the realisation that this new context is here to stay.
Sustained, distributed working comes with a new set of challenges to overcome.

One is cultural.
Where does culture reside when the office is shut? If I think of this from a network perspective, culture is an emergent property of the interactions within the network. The interaction, rather than the position of the nodes (and certainly not the physical position of the nodes) is the primary driver. 
How we enable those interactions has the biggest impact on culture not where we choose to work. With distributed working culture risks being diluted across space and time - and potentially by disconnected leadership.
If an interaction is planned, formal, one-way, hierarchical etc, the culture will reflect all of these.
If the interaction is adhoc, informal, two-way, flattened etc, a different culture is likely to emerge.
The current tools at our disposal tend to the former (I'm very open to hearing alternative views on this) and given the urgenct need to enable somewhat more open, flat, innovative ways of working to handle extremes of ambiguity, it is time to get out of 'backlog' mode and design towards the needs of this new context.

Another relates to our identity
What of the nodes - the people - you and I?
The way in which we, very social, naturally co-operative humans, handle our new distributed - increasingly isolated - paradigm is critical.
How can our digital tools and processes map to key human needs essential to our identities - such as:

1. Our sense of autonomy.
When lockdown very clearly constrains our freedom, our sense of control over our own lives and our ability to choose, our technologies - and how we design our use of them, must seek to restore these elements. The paralysing communication defect of slide presentations devoid of anything more than a voice over - and little sense of audience feedback - is one example where design is yet to catch up with the needs of the new context. We need our audience to respond to us, we need to see their smiles and nods. And if the bandwidth can't cope, we have to virtualise a proxy.

2. Our sense of relatedness. Social distancing is breaking down how much we feel others may care about us. This is an area in which distributed and diluted leadership is having a negative impact. And it's a two-way street. Can we become comfortable signalling our need for a little TLC via digital means? Face to face an empathetic leader creates some of their greatest impact by recognising this and responding to what they recognise. Tools that alert and inform, perhaps even via automated emotion tracking in facial and written comms, could help. But be warned - appointing a minister of fun or similar happiness monitor is unlikely to get the result you seek. Happiness is most often an emergent quality of a well-performing team. Delivering more effective tools to collaborate will drive greater team cohesion (and therefore more sense of care about each other) than any amount of time-boxed merry making.

3. Our sense of competence. In times of huge ambiguity, acknowledging and rewarding all learning experiences can help us feel this sense of achievement. Tools reflecting the small, achievable goals in agile, desops and devops should be considered for broader use across rapid, iterative, MVP-disciplined ways of working. Master what is in front of you. Learn what needs to be learned to solve this task.

Tools and processes reflecting these three areas (psychologist call it the ARC of happiness) can help secure a positive sense of identity at a time when our identity is under significant threat from the ending of the work/home divide. 

In order to sustain creativity, the level of cultural connect that makes a collection of people more than the sum of its parts, our design of the Future of Work must be informed by a reality which now looks set to be with us for years rather than months.

Friday, October 23, 2020

The economy's job is to create a safe and just space for us!

Every time a politician or newscaster refers to 'our' need to save the economy an alarm bell rings in my head. It should in yours, too.

The role of the economy is to prioritise the creation of a safe and just space for humanity.

It's not to deliver GDP or shareholder value. They follow.

If you follow the wrong kpis, you behave the wrong way. The UK's Johnson government is not alone in getting this wrong. It's a global narrative which has grown with the adoption of GDP as a measure of success. A, literally, toxic measure for the planet. Your people can be dieing early from pollution with close correlation to GDP rising, for example. Hardly a wise relationship between resource and need.

As we continue to hurtle headlong through what the UN decribes as The Decisive Decade we have to reclaim this narrative in order to re-establish the correct order or things (expressed in diagram form, here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/never-all-economy-stupid-david-cushman/.

As identified in Doughnut Economics and enshrined in the UN Sustainable Development Goals,
Our role isn't to save the economy. It's the economy's job to create a safe and just space for us!

The stories we tell, the language we use, it has deep power to shape the way we think, respond and behave. I am hopeful that it has the power to transform how we see our relationship with the ecosystem we reside in, too.

So let's start challenging our politicians and our media each time we hear them use the language of subservience to the economy.  It is not your master, we are its. It only exists to do our bidding - to allocate resources as effectively as possible to create a safe and just space for us.

The 'economy' is what emerges from all the interactions of resource and humans. We can shape towards more positive (safe and just) outcomes for us only when we realise our ownership of it and take back control.

That starts with shifting our point of view, changing the way we talk about success, encouraging new measures of success aligned to the unveiled reality that we are the masters of the economy and we control it to do our bidding.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash


The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?