Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

While examination and reflection are, sadly, not common staples of most operating rhythms in most organizations, there is a fairly wide consensus around the importance of continuously evolving the way we work together to the long-term success of the business, and its ability to continue to attract and keep its talent. Efforts on this front are usually labeled as managing “employee engagement” (or one of its derivatives) though I like the simpler label of “Working on Work” (WoW) to describe the efforts undertaken to improve the way we work, as opposed to efforts that are doing the work itself.

The traditional approach tends to follow a semi or annual cycle of running a survey, compiling the results and defining initiatives to address the gaps/opportunities identified. My goal in this piece is to highlight four big opportunities to make this approach significantly more effective.

One aspect that I’m intentionally leaving out of my analysis is the frequency of the cycle. I believe that shorter, more frequent reflections should be integrated into the operating rhythm in places where they don’t exist today, but I don’t think that they are a full replacement for this cycle. Some patterns take longer to be observed and some changes take longer times to be affected. Therefore, there is value in this form of macro reflection on this cadence, plus or minus a quarter. So with this short disclaimer, let’s jump in.

WoW is a never-ending, “continuous improvement” effort. And yet, it is often approached as if it is a problem that can and should be solved with a one-time effort. There is an absolute benchmark for what “good enough” looks like, often on a 5-point scale, and a view of “success” as showing an improvement in scores from one period to the next. As if when we’ll score all 5s we’ll be done and can fire half of our HR staff…

A continuous improvement approach starts at a different point: accepting the perpetual nature of the effort, it will define a distribution of our overall capacity to do work between “doing work” and “working on work” that can be refined or adjusted from one period to the next. The systems for managing work and managing WoW will be integrated, where at the moment the latter seem to mostly fall outside the capacity and direction efforts used for the work itself (OKRs, budgets, etc.). The sensing/reflecting piece of the cycle will be oriented more towards setting the right direction for the efforts rather than measuring progress. More on that shortly.

Current sensing efforts collect evaluations using a 5-point Likert scale, and analysis consists of comparing the scores either across demographics or time periods. The absolute numerical score opens the door for false precision and misinterpretations of the scores. Many organizations tend to walk through that door.

On a more tactical level, it shows up as over-reaction to changes in the scores that are not statistically significant. On a more strategic level, it shows up as inferring causality between intervention and outcome where only correlation exists. Did our new employee recognition program led to the increase in scores from the last time? Or was it the changes in personality dynamics in our employee base due to all the new hires? Or perhaps, the announcement we made yesterday about winning that big multi-million dollar contract? Unless we have a way to control for everything else that’s changed or happened at the same time period, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to determine causality with any degree of certainty.

Sensing oriented towards “focus and patterns” avoids the absolutes and reduces the risk of misinterpretation. It looks to order the different potential areas of focus from “the one we should focus on the most” to “the one we should focus on the least” since the goal is now limited to figuring out what we should do next. It also places more weight on a different attribute of the data: looking at its variability both quantitatively and qualitatively to inform how to target a potential change/intervention. Low variability in the top area of focus suggests an organization-wide opportunity that should be matched with an organization-wide change. High variability suggests that things are working well in some areas but not others, requiring a more local change and pointing to good places where potential answers might be found.

Reactions to insights surfaced in the sensing phase tend to take the shape of initiatives and projects, often as part of the HR team roadmap, in the best cases in collaborations with the executive team and managers. But those tend to ignore the power of existing organizational systems in shaping existing behaviors and perceptions. Efforts to improve collaboration will likely fail as long as individual performance bonuses are in place. Efforts to improve quality will likely fail as long as targets/goals only measure throughput and cost. The more tangible will always trump the less tangible. Furthermore, efforts tend to focus on the external environment, ignoring the powerful impact that mindsets and internal beliefs have on driving change. Yes, my manager has a part to play in me “knowing what’s expected of me in my role” (a common engagement question). But so do I. Have I sought out clarity if the expectations were unclear to me? If I haven’t, why? What underlying beliefs led to my inaction? How can I test them out and weaken their hold on me?

More effective courses of action will focus on long-lasting changes to both systems and mindsets over temporary initiatives or the addition of yet-another-program.

We like to say that culture, a fuzzy label for the thing we change when we’re WoW is “everyone’s job”. Yet that is hardly reflected in the way traditional cycles are run, perpetuating the dichotomy observed by Chris Argyris’ 25 years ago: “Employees must tell the truth as they see it; leaders must modify their own and the company’s behavior. In other words, employees educate, and managers act”. If only HR has capacity allocated towards WoW — real change is unlikely to happen.

An alternative will posit that everyone has “skin in the game” in both things being the way they are right now, and in changing them. That means that everyone must have an opportunity to both recognize their part in causing the current tension and playing an active part in addressing it. That does not mean that everyone should be involved in WoW in the same amount or in the same way. Specialization is the secret sauce of effective collaboration, but it needs to be bounded. When pushed to the extreme, rigid boundary, it becomes detrimental. Working on work should never be an extracurricular activity, bolted on top of an already full plate of the work itself, for any role in the organization.

I enjoy solving human puzzles