On meaning and management

Comparing Design for Change with Design for Continuity.

Alain de Botton publishes a deck of 100 Questions for a Meaningful Life. Chosen at random, the first card I ever pulled asked: ‘When you are older, what big things will you do differently than your own parents?’


As I followed his approach, my first question was about angst; I am already older, so now what? My second was about uncertainty; is it possible to remember exactly what I set out to achieve almost three decades ago? My third question was constructive: How might a daily reminder help me remain true to myself now and in the future? And there it was. The plain song of achieving big things in small and conscious steps.

Considering the amount time that you or I invest at work is there any reason not to make work meaningful, and not to make the world better for people? This benefit comes for free. And it is free to use every day.

“The … benefit to having found work that feels authentic is that it changes our relationship to the modern ideal of achieving ‘work-life’ balance. There is a degree of pessimism about work within this fashionable concept, for it implies a need to shield life, the precious bit, from the demands of work, the onerous force. But work connected in quite profound ways to who we really are, is not the enemy of life: it’s the place where we naturally find ourselves wanting to go in order to derive some of our highest satisfactions.”

-The Book of Life.

Reminder to self: work is not the enemy of life. Particularly when work is authentic.

Any leadership role in a company–or a public service–puts one in a delicate position. Leaders feel pressure to be all knowing. Leaders feel pressure to act on the now. Leaders must be seen to demonstrate authority. Leaders worry that crises might erupt from every unguarded comment.

The essential idea of leadership is to prepare the people who work for you for what comes next. And to keep the small stuff from getting in their way. Still, the larger question of how presents every leader with the need to reach out for help. Leaders never find it easy to look vulnerable. So what should you ask for help with?

There are two options. Does this business want be better at how it acts on the now? Or might this be a better time for a fundamental change? The best answer will depend on one’s theory of business. And on how well that theory happens to be creating value for people.

If that feels like a philosopher’s dilemma, then spend some quality time with de Botton’s deck of cards. Knowing whether to think differently vs consistently will clarify corporate intentions. Followers need leaders. Like athletes on a team sport, they need to know when to play offense and when to play defense. At Big Human I ask clients ‘Well …how might you want to affect history?’ as a way to achieve a similar effect. It is a good question to spend some time with.

All complex situations–like managing a project–need to be simplified, before their complexity can be understood.

2x2 — Consciousness x Competence.Source James L. Adams, 1986

To simplify the future, a matrix of four squares can help to organize all of our key uncertainties in. The vertical axis represents what a business is conscious of. The second what that business is competent at. (isolating the corner cases.)

Known unknowns = familiar ideas that our skills are unfamiliar with.

Unknown knowns = strange ideas that our skills are familiar with.

Every project team will plan their way forward using data. Some of these data do a better job than others. So my reason for sharing the manager’s dilemma is help you bump up your level of success by seeking the type of data you need. Leading a project that aims for continuity is perfect when your strategy is all about playing defense. A good idea when your growth rates are consistently higher than the rest of your industry.

What does this brand need to know?

Known unknowns = the familiar ideas that our skills are unfamiliar with.

Let’s begin with known unknowns. A business operating in the private sector will learn, using trial and error, which sectors of an industry create value and how much of that value can be created by one company. The one you work for. Such knowledge comes quickly. Same goes for the range of product categories available in a market and your company’s share of each of them.

When a business is growing well, say at 12% every year, then the best use of its people will be to focus on familiar ideas. Known sectors. Known product categories. Known channels to the market. What seems unknown are the skills to make your version of an idea more competitive than the others in the arena of competition.

It is unusual to label a public sector organization a business, but it helps to. A for-profit business administrates work, with the needs of customers in mind. A not-for-profit business administrates work, with the needs of a taxpayer or citizen in mind. Pretty similar, right?

One key difference is that the public sector business relies on mandates rather than markets for the boundaries of its work. And boundaries help teams to avoid the duplication of services from an adjacent public agency. Any business in the public sector, will learn from experience which range of ideas are valued and criticized when they are providing service. Management teams will seek training for new skills to optimize service teams with. This knowledge comes quickly: from polling indicators or satisfaction surveys or friendly conversations at a service counter.

In both kinds of business, known unknowns can be discovered with the help of traditional market research tools like surveys, usability studies, A/B tests and focus groups. The best quantitative surveys are large in scale as a way to simulate the outside world with little, if any, bias.

It is worth noting that, traditional tools never help us to discover strange ideas. Strange ideas are what managers seek if they need change in their business results. Designing for Change is something you do if you want your project team to play an offensive game.

What does this brand know that it doesn’t know?

Unknown knowns = the strange ideas that our skills are familiar with.

When should managers seek to make the strange ideas more familiar? In a private sector business a common sign is when revenues are flat or shrinking. In the public sector a common sign is when costs are soaring. In either situation the theory of business is no longer doing a good job at creating the most value from the ideas that are familiar. These situations make us feel anxious, nauseous and may cause us to lose sleep. When managers notice their teams asking the same old questions, or re-using the same old ideas, only to produce lower performance levels, it is time to seek strange ideas.

The situation that calls for change happens soon after a manager receives a new assignment. Either through promotion, corporate re-organization, or as a role in a different company. If you have experienced either in the last years or so, change is not a source of risk- it is what your team is needing to get on with. So you start by taking inventory of the unknown knowns, in order to renovate the purpose of your firm.

What types of knowledge will our firm need to know? What are the change projects we need to undertake and implement? In what time frame? How do we learn when we can easily fool ourselves? How might we see the world as it is when we are programmed to see it as we want it to be?

Agents of change will find it urgent to import the latest technology experiment to fill the breach of uncertainty. Tech is cool, right? Just beware of this availability bias. Reports from TechCrunch, Mashable, Engadget etc. report on the emergence of technology out of its context. Never on people. No profiles from sociology. No papers on anthropology. Which leaves most of their reviews lacking any context beyond the reporter’s favourite form of critique: I turned it on and started using it …so it must be either totally cool–or totally wrong.

Beware because it is a shortcut that produces unpopular ideas, which are discarded by customers–or clients–who see through a meaningless technology as a gimmick. The most reliable order of operations when designing for change is to study people first, and get outside of the building before choosing which technologies to work with. Repeat that. Commit this two-step to memory: Study people first. Choose technologies second.

Uncertainty is what leads a manager a productive search for the culture and sociology of everyday people, who might be experiencing everyday acts, multiple times a day. These are the unknown knowns that matter.

It turns out that the hidden life of everyday people can put technology to new uses. Groundbreaking ones at that. Unlike focus groups or surveys, designing for change will require methods from cultural anthropology and other social sciences. The best studies in this space are performed with small sample sizes and in several iterations, to allow a team some time for sense making.

Paradoxically this route is a faster way to produce deliverables. It is also the only way to play offense, in your market or your mandate.

Change is not always the better choice. It is the choice to make things different. If designing for change feels awkward to you, I can advise. And support you in nimble and pragmatic ways.

If the ideas here were helpful to you, I would be grateful if you shared your applause. If you know of a manager who needs help to break the mold, help us by forwarding this message. If you have a few questions of your own, get in touch.

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