At the beginning of 2017 I posted 7 questions that were top-of-mind for me at the time:
7 questions for the new year
In preparation for a PeopleOps dinner at First Round Capital, I was asked to share 1–2 questions that will help drive…
As I mentioned in the previous post, they were not meant to guide the topic selection process for the coming year, those were and will continue to be rather emergent, but as a way to create a snapshot-in-time of questions that were top of mind that can then serve as a point of reference for reflection on how they evolve throughout the year.
And in fact, only 20% of last year’s posts can be directly mapped to one of the questions. However, most of the remaining 80% definitely helped evolve my thinking on these issues in a more indirect way. Below are the interim answers and future areas of investigation around these questions:
1. What does the future of the firm really looks like?
The posts more directly covering this topic were Rhizomatic Organizations [Rao] and A Working Class Manifesto [Kilpi] but they were rather abstract and perhaps created more questions than they answered. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but still… Many of the other posts that in retrospect fell under the “Organizational Theory” theme also address this question indirectly. This is the most abstract question on this list so I wasn’t expecting a full answer to emerge in a year. However a strong connection emerged between this question and Question #3. More on that below.
2. How do we find and attract the best talent to our organizations?
I started to chisel at this question in A Compensation Polarity, The Psychological Costs of Pay-for-Performance [Larkin, Pierce & Gino], Reinventing top-of-funnel recruiting, and Book Review: Hiring and Getting Hired.
Some interim insights:
- In a knowledge economy where most roles require heavy collaboration and creatively solving high-cognitive-load challenges, standard target/goal-based pay-for-performance schemes cause more harm than good. This doesn’t mean that any form of variable pay is automatically off the table, but it can only be tied to more qualitative long-term behaviors that are difficult to objectively and fairly assess.
- We need to be deliberate and consistent in choosing our position in the compensation polarity and be able to clearly articulate it to candidates (and existing employees).
- We need to move towards a more competency-based recruiting process from the first touch-point with the candidate. But this has to go hand-in-hand with a more thoughtful selling process that allows that candidate to better qualify the opportunity. There’s an interlocking pattern in the increased commitment of both parties involved that I haven’t fully fleshed out yet.
- There’s a strong inertia/standard in the candidate/company dynamic, which means that there’s a cost to “breaking the mold” since it introduces increased cognitive load into the interaction. Explaining “why we do things different here” from the get-go is critical but insufficient, since this is not a purely rational process.
I expect more insights on this front in 2018 since I’ll be more heavily involved in recruiting in 2018 than I was in 2017.
3. How do we effectively manage deep diversity?
The only post that directly ties to this topic is Just Like Me [Delizonna]. However, the mind-share I’ve spent on this topic this year is grossly under-represented in the number of posts on this topic.
This topic has been getting a lot of media attention this past year, but it was disheartening to see how little of it was actually evidence-based. In this short period of time “best practices” emerged despite being proven ineffective or even harmful. We desperately need a more disciplined approach to tackling this critical topic.
Some interim insights:
- Increasing organizational diversity is the wrong starting point in this effort. Increased diversity without a real capacity for inclusion (for example, real psychological safety) will be ineffective at best and hugely harmful at worse.
- A better starting point is increasing the “inclusive capacity” of the organization — the ability to foster a sense of belonging for a growing cohort of people without having to compromise their personal identities in any way.
- This is particularly critical given question #1. We can’t create “communities of meaning around economic collaboration” without a strong sense of belonging.
- Building “inclusive capacity” requires personal growth and therefore heavily tied to question #5.
I am hopeful that the signal-to-noise ratio around this topic will increase in 2018 and expect to have a growing understanding of it a year out.
4. What will we find if we start peeling the “employee engagement” onion?
I’ve tackled this question directly in Enabling Engagement: A micro-meta-analysis.
Some interim insights:
- Charles Goodhart’s quote “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure” best describes the current situation with employee engagement. Consider this: what would you do when you hit “100% employee engagement” (whichever way you measure it)?
- Viewed through the lens of a continuous-improvement exercise, the absolute level of “employee engagement” becomes less meaningful compared to insights on how we can improve it. More on this next week.
- A better way to think about “employee engagement” is as a community reflection exercise aimed at identifying where we should focus next to best improve the way we’re working together.
- This goal has some significant implications to the way we should design any employee engagement programs/exercise, starting first and foremost with eliminating the dichotomous allocation of agency around improving employee engagement between “employees” and “leadership” that’s so heavily ingrained into the current survey-based structures.
- A real investment in personal development (question #5) is required to fully see the benefits of an alternative model.
5. How can we up-level development programs?
Changing Mental Models [Pfeffer] and Advise the Rider, Steer the Elephant and Shape the Path [Heath] provide some answers to this question.
This past year reaffirmed my belief that development programs that are competency-based will be ineffective in driving the change we seek. Instead they must be focused on creating and sustaining mindset shifts. I continue to noodle on this one with no clear answers yet, but a more pointed/focused question: “How can we design an environment and interventions that foster continuous mindset shifts?”. Given the critical role that personal development plays in the answers to questions #3, #4, and #7 — figuring this out will be critical for any meaningful forward progress.
6. Is there a performance-development Heisenberg Principle?
I haven’t written anything about this in 2017 but will cover it in a post next week. While I can’t prove that such principle exists, I’m growing more and more convinced that designing people programs assuming that it does will likely increase their effectiveness. Both knowing we stand and how we can get better are important. The more we can decouple efforts aimed at evaluating performance from efforts aimed at driving development — the better.
7. What are the various paths from Patriarchy to Partnership?
I tackled this topic directly in Bounded Specialization (and the limits of human collaboration) offering a piece of a path that’s focused on deliberately constraining authority dynamics across both context and time dimensions. It’s still a partial answer, but a better reframing of the challenge compared to “eliminate hierarchy” or “self-management” labels, in my opinion.
Part of the incompleteness of the answer comes from the fact that it’s looking only at the external environment. If the way we make meaning out of the world around us (our mindsets) can lead two people to act very differently under the same external circumstances, as I believe it does, that’s another part of the answer that needs to be more fully fleshed out.
An updated mental snap-shot
If we view organizations as a way of enabling large-scale collaboration efforts beyond the scale we’re currently evolutionarily capable of naturally carrying out successfully, then the key questions that can illuminate our path forward are:
- What are the principles that are underlying and driving these collaboration efforts? (directionally — where do we want to go?)
- What is the professional growth required to more easily/naturally adhere to these principles? And how can we foster it?
- What are the environmental structures that can be put in place as scaffolding for future growth and as a way to minimize the risk of any reactive behavior/growth gaps from holding us back?