Like people, organizations have the capacity to get better every year. And like people, most of them don’t. Because so much of what we do and how we do it is taken for granted, we often go from year to year with increased expectations, but little understanding of how we’ll get, do, and be more. The overused but seldom practiced Einstein quote, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them,” sums this up nicely. We need to try something new this year.
In that spirit, I offer a few New Year’s resolutions for the organization. These apply equally to companies, charities, and public institutions of almost any size. They do not, however, have to be practiced together to realize their benefit. Any one of them has the potential to improve performance and quality of life at your organization. So, with the partying behind us and the year looming ahead, here are five small changes with big potential.
Challenge what is “safe to try.” So many work cultures operate on autopilot when it comes to risk. They treat anything non-standard as dangerous. Every department is buried in organizational debt (policies and processes that have piled up over the years) and few employees feel they have the right to call bullshit on this stuff. But in truth, so many things that we might attempt are safe, even if they fail. What do I mean by safe? I mean the activity in question won’t cause irreparable harm, or even harm that can’t be fixed with a little elbow grease and a few apologies. The organization won’t really feel it, financially or otherwise. And the learnings we gather will be an added bonus.
So, the next time someone says, “We can’t,” or “We’ll have to pitch that to so-and-so,” be the crazy person that says, “Hey guys, what would happen if we just DID it?” And if the answer isn’t seriously harmful, strap on your Nikes and just do stuff. Make a little mischief. Allow your people the space to do the same.
Switch to a weekly rhythm. What’s the corporate cadence? If you answered “quarterly,” you’re correct. If you answered “urgent,” you’re also correct. The fact is that most organizations suffer from the two worst ends of the timeline. On the slow end they move like molasses. “Let’s meet again in three weeks. I’ll see you at the quarterly meeting. I’ll see you at your annual review. It’s time for our annual product release.” On the other end, there’s a constant stream of real or manufactured emergencies demanding immediate action. As a result, teams don’t have a natural or a shared cadence. This is hugely detrimental. Ask any sports coach, musician, or drill sergeant and they’ll tell you: tempo matters.
In our experience, a weekly cadence is perfect for teams. It’s enough time to get meaningful work done (and for circumstances to change), but not so much that the work can lag. Adopt a weekly rhythm by holding a weekly meeting (30–45 minutes max) where the team reviews its performance, discusses what’s changed since last week on key projects/workstreams, and captures tasks for the week ahead. For a good reference, try this agenda from H1.
Ditch executive reviews. We have noticed a disturbing trend lately — one where employees view a meeting with senior management AS AN ACTUAL MILESTONE for their project. Not a technical breakthrough. Not an initial shipment. Not a new retail partner. A meeting. A meeting where someone who has less visibility than they do (but hopefully more experience) can influence the fate of their most important project. This signals two problems: first, that the organization still believes in command-and-control decision making, and second, that employees have become so immersed in it they’ve assimilated it as reality. Instead of perpetuating this phenomenon, try asking your teams to work transparently, using tools like Trello and Slack, and share their learnings and metrics regularly (weekly?) in a public place — not just for management, but for everyone. You’ll be amazed what happens next. Not chaos, but true social accountability and a lot more progress. Your job as a leader is no longer about deciding… it’s about making (and protecting) the space for healthy self-organization.
Stop relying on institutional accreditation. This is a simple one. Too many workplaces are homogenous with MBAs, or Harvard grads, or people who worked at the same consulting company. This has predictably led to behavioral and skill homogeny (as well as a staggering lack of diversity). Some of the most talented and interesting people in the world don’t check the boxes — in fact, they’ve actively avoided them. What do Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and this (relatively) anonymous author all have in common? You probably wouldn’t have hired us, as we’re all college dropouts. Start interviewing people who are making things, creating things, learning things, trying things — people who are eager and curious and know how to learn faster than anyone else. In the future, when things change too fast to master, the humble learners will rule the earth, and the experts will take a back seat.
Bring some bots into the mix. We’re in the midst of a revolution in work that will be both profound and a little scary. Don’t believe me? Watch this. Okay then. So, rather than ignore the role that bots, A.I., and machine learning will play in our future, know that there is real value in exploring their present strengths (and weaknesses) firsthand. Need an assistant? Try x.ai (or Amy as I call her). Already using Slack? Try having Howdy run your meetings. You could ask M from Facebook to book some travel for you (admittedly, M is both human and machine). Or have a chat with Cleverbot. Soon enough, there will be a bot for everything. Heck, you might even want to make one of your own and become a bot baron.
As I write this, it’s January 1st, 2016. That means we have 364 days to make our workplaces — the places we spend over 35% of our waking hours — better. And while this is a serious issue, don’t take it too seriously. Have fun with these ideas. Experiment. Iterate. Get others involved. Let 2016 be the year that we tried doing it a little differently and found ourselves on the front lines of the future of work.
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