Addressed to the Inhabitants of Corporate America
“PERHAPS the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.”
These are the opening words of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” published in 1776, which was instrumental in inspiring the American colonists’ move towards independence. The paragraph sets up the pamphlet’s premise of questioning the legitimacy of monarchy as a form of government. But the words could easily be applied to the dominant form of management in business today — top-down command and control.
For most of us, this form of management is simply “the way things always were” and was not something to be questioned. We take for granted that democracy is a part of how our Western societies are governed, but then accept that the corporations we work in are benevolent dictatorships (and as we know, “benevolence” often goes out the window when serious dollars are at stake).
Just as monarchies are not the natural state of mankind, as people once thought, neither are corporate hierarchies. In fact, if we want to take our organizational cues from nature then we better be prepared for something far more emergent and elegant. And perhaps we should, because if nature knows how to do one thing right it’s adaptation. The number one problem most companies face today is learning to adapt to the complex, continuously shifting economic, political, and business landscape – a landscape that’s only going to get more complex and riskier.
Living systems solved the problem of adaptability billions of years ago. Organizational and economic models based on living systems principles is the only way, in my opinion, that we’ll be able to flourish in the complex future that awaits us (check out ageofthrivability.com for more on this approach). But that’s down the road. Before we can make that leap we need to collectively agree that the current way is not working. What we need is a bit of that common sense that Mr. Paine was talking about. Can we all at least agree on the following?
Stop the meeting madness! — We all know there are too many meetings, yet we keep scheduling them. For some, there are so many meetings that actual work only gets done in brief spots throughout the day and then mostly after hours. And don’t get me started on all the “standing meetings” set up for every project workstream. They’re the lazy man’s way of trying to force progress, while giving the appearance that work is getting accomplished. It’s not that we should never meet with our colleagues to advance organizational goals. Collaboration is essential, including face-to-face time, but most meetings are about simply sharing information or receiving input from others on information presented. We have tools for that – really good tools, in fact (if used properly). Reserve meeting time for real “roll-up-the-sleeves” collaboration.
9am-5pm is not natural — Working 9am-5pm or 8am-6pm (or any 8-10 hour span) is not the most productive way for humans to work. This is another byproduct of the industrial era, as it was the most efficient way to run factories. Humans, however, are not designed to work that way, especially when it comes to creative, knowledge type work. There’s a reason mid-day siestas were once a routine way of life. The movement towards allowing more flexible working hours is a positive trend, but the fact is that most companies still, in general, adhere to a set span of working hours, which can make it difficult for flex workers to fit in. The bottom line is that we need more downtime to be more productive. Trying to work through that afternoon “lunch-coma” isn’t doing you or your company any favors. Maybe it’s time to bring the nursery school practice of “nappy time” to the workplace.
The shared morning/evening commute is insanity! — Commuting...we do it together...all of us...at the same time...on the same highways. Clogged arteries of cars crawling along for as far as the eye can see – just another rush hour. Surely, if aliens were to observe the rush hour spectacle from orbit they would wonder what kind of bizarre ritual or parade it was; either that, or they would assume our fossil fuel based vehicles were just really slow. Obviously, the shared commute is tied to the set working hours mentioned above, but it’s also tied to the need to come to a shared location to work. Despite the rise in people working from home, most of us still work in offices based on the mess we see on our roads every day. As I mentioned, it’s not that we don’t need to work together in person – we do – but we need to be more purposeful about when, why and how we come together. Many of us endure the commute only to sit in a cubicle and email the person sitting right next to us! There may be benefits from the serendipity that occurs when people work in shared spaces, but that must be weighed against the frequency of fighting the daily commute and the untold lost man-hours that result from it, not to mention the pollution factor of millions of idling cars stuck in traffic.
Worker isolation is a growing problem — This is what happens when the pendulum swings too far the other way, as it’s the opposite problem of above. Many people who work from home every day are feeling increasingly isolated, as they are devoid of human contact for most of their days. This can lead to depression and lost productivity. Just because we can work from home doesn’t mean we should make it the only way we work. Balance is needed. Don’t default to teleconferences for every human interaction required to do your job. Make it a point to schedule “face-time days,” as long as they’re purposeful, as mentioned above. And when working from home, I strongly encourage the use of video for conference calls if it’s available to you. Seeing people as you interact with them, reading non-verbal clues, and smiling at each other can enormously improve the quality of those interactions and provide some of the benefits that happen when meeting in person. So, comb your hair and get out of your pajamas. It’s worth it.
Working longer does not equal working harder — This is a cultural thing, especially in America. There is much research out there about this, but it’s largely being ignored. As humans, we have peak periods in the day and limited cognitive resources to do our best work. Once we go out of those zones the quality of our work diminishes. Of course, there will be times when we have to do this. We can push ourselves past those limits when determined, but we can’t do that regularly, not without negative effects on our job and health. In addition, we need more of our time to be focused work, not just busy work (like endless meetings). It’s amazing how little time it seems is dedicated to real thinking and planning. “Deep Work,” as author Cal Newport calls it in his book of the same name, takes time and is essential for making real progress and developing innovative solutions. Yet, the corporate world is always in a “go, go, go” mode, as slowing down has negative connotations. This needs to stop and we should heed the advice in Prof. Newport’s excellent book.
Our organizational structures hinder progress — The corporate hierarchy is a relic of a bygone era. Decision-making in it occurs too slow for the current pace of business. Collaborative breakthroughs, if they occur, happen in spite of the structure. Organizations need to give up top-down control and embrace self-management. This doesn’t mean they have to dive into the deep-end right away and embrace a total self-management model like Holacracy. It simply means loosening the reins and fostering an environment that enables self-organizing teams to form; it means embracing a natural networked approach to working, as opposed to a forced structure. Loose networks, purpose-oriented communities (non-hierarchical), and structured teams/departments can co-exist in the right environment. Together, they could enable the flexibility needed without ceding all control and causing too much disruption. Eventually, the network effect will prove too strong to ignore and will influence the entire organization, empowering it to evolve. Redesigning the way organizations are structured and reinventing their basic “operating systems” is a huge topic and there has been a lot of great work done in recent years. For a unique take on how structured and unstructured approaches can co-exist, check out “A triple operating system” by Harold Jarche.
These are just some of the ways that work is currently not working – some of the more obvious ones, yet no less difficult to resolve. But we all know there are many, many more. What other aspects of work or business do you think require a little common sense?