Working Human

[In case you didn’t catch it… this is a re-post from my guest blogger contribution to the Bulldog Drummond blog on June 19, 2012]

Does this look engaging? (photo by jurvetson via Flickr)

For far too long, we’ve been operating under management philosophies that undervalue being human. The Industrial Revolution did a lot of good things for the world, but the organizations designed to support manufacturing businesses common in that era are not one of them. They are hierarchical and rigid and have little allowance for human variation. Even in their friendliest form, they are paternalistic, placing the burden of responsibility on a select few in positions of authority.

Mechanistic terms and phrases used to describe people and how they work together like: creative engine, mental horsepower, well-oiled machine, weakest link, and human capital are woven through our everyday language. I’m all for the creative use of metaphor, but I think in linguistic terms, the ubiquity of these terms points to an underlying framework that is decidedly not human. At the heart of the industrial view of the world is a reductionist philosophy that leads people to break everything down to the component parts and attempt to optimize the fit and performance of each item in isolation. The problem is humans are not that simple. We can understand how molecules stick together and how synapses fire, but they don’t actually work in isolation of each other. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. People have soul, and heart, and passion.

The effect of not having a human-centered framework for workplace design is decidedly negative. According to the Gallup Management Journal, only 29% of U.S. workers are engaged, while 56% are not engaged, and 15% are actively disengaged. That is, when people are treated (even subconsciously) as machines, they don’t perform at their best. They might do what they are told until they no longer have to, but they are not inspired to create, build, or serve in ways that leverage their full potential and deliver great value.

Join the Human Revolution

Most organizations we know today are built to be stable and predictable, using rigid specifications honed by financial metrics. But there is increasing evidence that this type of organization doesn’t do well in environments that are transforming, ambiguous, or complex (Think: Dinosaurs). See more on this comparison in The Connected Company by Dave Gray. So this is a call for organizations of all types, whether they are businesses, governmental agencies, community groups, schools, or sports teams, to rethink their fundamental principles of organization and shift from industrial age thinking to a human-centered design that helps people thrive.

This shift is intimidating. It’s about losing control and building trust. It’s about helping people grow versus boxing them in with rules and boundaries. It requires a belief in the innate greatness of human kind versus a bureaucratic defense against slackers and cheats.

But the rewards are substantial. Organizations of all types struggle with low creative output, poor service, and declining productivity. Optimization and consolidation can only squeeze performance on the margin so much. For sustainable high performance in service, innovation, invention, or productivity, people must be at their best. And to be at their best, they must be well.

Even in stable environments, where companies make big investments in predictable consumer patterns (like retail or automotive), people perform better when they are treated like people, not cogs in the machine. The Gallup/Healthways Well-Being study demonstrates a very clear economic advantage of employee well-being when you understand the impact of absenteeism, illness, and low engagement on a company’s bottom line.

Before Engagement

Progressive organizations are already committed to the idea that employee engagement drives high performance. But many of these companies still approach engagement with command and control tactics. In response to a slippery company culture concern, I recently heard a very successful business leader say, “Give me 120 minutes with our managers and I’ll tell them how this is supposed to work.” Sorry, but you can’t order people to be good leaders. Or be creative. Or give good service. Or invent a new technology. They have to want to do it themselves and make very difficult emotional, social, and intellectual trade-offs to get there. See a comprehensive view on this point by Daniel Pink in his book Drive.

So while engagement is a great leading indicator for high performance, it’s a lagging indicator of wellness. That is the capacity to give discretionary effort and highly valuable contributions depends on individual wellness. If you are not well, it’s very difficult to be fully engaged.

Viewing wellness as a foundation for high performance makes it more clear what things an organization should have in place to help people perform at extraordinary levels. This is where things start to get messy, because in the traditional relationship of employee and employer many of the requirements for wellness are considered private or “none of your business.” But if learned one thing in graduate school, it came from professor Charles F. Luna: Things that matter are messy.

photo by sanchom via Flickr

Being Fully Human

Many people associate the term wellness with physical health. It’s not hard to understand that proper nutrition, rest, and exercise lead to higher levels of energy. So let’s just start there: What is your organization doing to help your people in these areas? Do you have recess? Do you make people take time off? Do you provide healthy food options as snacks?

But don’t forget that physical health is only one piece of the wellness puzzle. Well-being is about being fully human, which also includes dimensions of mental, social, spiritual, and emotional health. Philosophers have worked on the definition of “being human” since the beginning of recorded history, and probably before then. Aristotle, Maslow, and more recently a slew of companies like Daily Feats, Me You Health, and Kairos Labs have outlined broad models for well-being.

The desire for wellness is not a new phenomenon for us humans. Conventional wisdom is dripping with advice for how to live a good life. Phrases like an apple a day keeps the doctor away; peace (complete with two finger gesture); never go to bed angry; early to bed early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise; etc. are “rules of thumb” developed over generations to show the way to balance, fulfillment, and happiness. Research on happiness has boomed recently. I’ve even seen it stated that happiness is the new currency.

So wellness is not new, but it’s very elusive. For many of us it’s very hard to pay attention to all aspects of wellness simultaneously and adjust our habits to get there. Worse, much of the conventional wisdom or common sense tactics for living well are not tested, and some are quite simply wrong. See more on positive habit formation by Timothy Wilson in his book Redirect.

Work is Life

I think the biggest failure by organizations in this regard is the separation of “work” and “life”. Work, as we’ve defined it for centuries, is a burden to bear, not a form of pleasure. And Life is something you do when you are not working. So we “work for the weekends” and then “live it up” only to “get back to the grind” on Mondays. Shoot me now.

Certainly many people along the way have enjoyed their careers and found joy in their efforts. But the dominant mindset of corporations and institutions is to root out all “softer” elements of working under the banners of focus, optimization, and efficiency. Office cubes, assembly lines, warehouses, and even schools and hospitals have been designed to remove critical human needs like friendship, beauty, and laughter, so workers can focus and get shit done. Most corporate policies, procedures, practices, and routines are built on the same blueprint of efficiency and optimization. But all work and no play, makes Jack a very dull boy (Check out this great scene from The Shining to see what I mean!).

There is hope in world of work. Companies like 3M, IDEO, and Google are famous for their humanistic values and have great results to show for it. Zoom out and this transformation seems overwhelming. So you’ll probably just stay the course and ride this out until retirement sets you free.

Zoom in and focus on just one thing you can do tomorrow to start working like a human. Take a walk in the middle of the day. Eat grapes instead of a bag of chips. Personalize your desk with a plant or drawing from your favorite 5 year old. Every little thing counts, but you can’t count unless you do something.

Okay, get moving!

 

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The rise of the atomic organization

Human kind has had a long love affair with hierarchical organizations, and I think they still have their place in the world, but given the number of large failures of this type of organization lately, I’m with the group (Gary Hamel, for example) who thinks it’s time to expand our options and do some serious experimentation with fundamentally different organization models.

Much of the interesting discussion around this topic centers on social networks.  Great people like Rob Cross and Clay Shirky have shown that there is considerable power in the emergent relationships we all have around us.  Esteemed management consultant Jon Katzenbach and his colleague Zia Kahn describe the informal organization as an overlay to a traditional organization chart that acknowledges the way things really work.  I’m sure they are all on to something big.

Yet, one of the best tests for how an organization functions comes when people ask, “can you show me the org chart?”  Despite many efforts to engage in peer-to-peer activities, “bottom-up” feedback, and a kinder-gentler management philosophy, I find the “org-chart test” often reveals that power and authority still reside at the top of the house.

My experience at IDEO has shown me something quite different is possible.  As my colleague Bob Sutton says, IDEO does not play by the same rules as most businesses (or non-profits for that matter).  See Tim Brown’s blog about how IDEO uses design thinking to create innovative outcomes.  For the past few years, we’ve been trying to understand more about the conditions that enable design thinkers to thrive.  One significant output of this work is a concept called the “atomic organization” which is not simply a social network, but a fully different paradigm for organization behavior.

It’s ambiguous and slippery, but it’s not chaos.  It is a governed, open system with rules, deadlines, and high performance outcomes.  But there is nobody “in charge”, there’s no corporate strategy, and there’s an amazing amount of transparency and interconnectedness.  Ask for an org-chart at IDEO and people either laugh knowingly or simply don’t get the question.

Atomic ExampleSo we asked dozens of people here to draw their version of IDEO.  The synthesized result is a formal structure with consistent parts and rules that show a right way and a wrong way to organize, but a fundamentally different premise of control.  This approach works from the individual out, much like an atom has a nucleus with electrons orbiting around it, and atoms bond together to create molecules, people at IDEO exist at the center of their org-chart with several orbits full of people surrounding them.

This type of organization is both planned and emergent… it can evolve, grow, and contract.  It can be used to get decisions made and others to act.  Atomic organizations have gravity and density, and can be added together to create organizational mass and aggregated impact.  They make it possible to have multiple leaders of the same business unit, include “non-employees” without calling them outsiders, exist at a scale that is comfortable and manageable for the people within, yet still has incredible reach.

So who’s in charge?  That depends… what’s your question?

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