Study Beyond Your Industry

What could you learn from an operations manager at Schipol Airport, or an analyst at HSBC, or the man who schedules the trains for Network Rail or the process guy at the Department for Education?

I bet their problems are not that different from yours, but they will have some very different solutions to them, solutions that might make you sit back and think.


James Lawther, Stranger Danger (March 2014)

One approach for seeing possible improvements for your work is to study beyond your industry. To explore outside the lines. To look at how other job roles are changing. To learn how other organisations are tackling change, progress and improvement and making this part of their new approach to work. To see what business and civic leaders are thinking through, planning towards, and taking account of in how they deal with the world.

Methods of becoming a student beyond your own work are:

  • Subscribe to a magazine or series of blogs written by people in a very different field. Selecting “the one right one” to study is less important than selecting something and starting.
  • Attend a conference in a different industry. What are the current challenges? How are these being addressed? Who is doing interesting things?
  • Read cross-industry and big picture publications like the Economist, Fortune and BusinessWeek. There’s a bit of everything in those pages, with lessons and ideas that can spark new ways of seeing for your work.
  • Set up lunch-and-learn meetings with people in your city from a different industry. Friends in a different industry. Colleagues of friends. Complete strangers. Even the so-called Captains of Industry have to eat every day; what could you learn from a discussion with one of them?
  • Take a sabbatical to another firm in your city, beyond something you have done for the last decade. Note that this is at the shock-and-awe end of the scale in terms of seeing a very different work reality.

Studying beyond your industry is another way of increasing uncertainty (which is a good thing), and thus helping to break the ingrained patterns of thinking which blind us to the possible.

Shopping for Inspiration

Learning what others have done with the new tools and resources available to them provides inspiration and challenge on what could be possible in your work, team and organisation. I call this shopping for inspiration. The intent doesn’t spring from a slavish desire to merely duplicate the exact technical configuration in your own organisation—blind to the cultural and organisational differences between them and you—but rather as an eye-opening experience to see what you haven’t seen as possible before. It’s about a-ha (but not this one). It’s about challenge. It’s about provoking new ways of seeing. It’s about forcing a recalibration of what could be possible.

The core principle of shopping for inspiration is that if someone else has already done it, then you could too. That means it is possible, but not that it is necessarily applicable to your work or organisation however. Applicability requires judgment and thoughtful analysis, but that step can come later.

Shopping for inspiration is easy in our networked world:

  • Look at the case studies available from vendors. They’re everywhere.
  • Use YouTube to find video interviews with other organisations doing something with the new tools and resources of interest to your work. Many conferences are starting to video record their sessions, and post these for later review.
  • Attend a local user group meeting in your city, to network with others. Start with a search on Meetup.
  • Join a for-fee professional networking group in your city or country. Step Two runs the Intranet Leadership Forum in Australia, and there are others that I’ve spoken at including J.Boye and IntraTeam. These are examples; there are others.
  • Sign-up for a multi-day conference with a strong customer track, and attend as many sessions as you can to learn.

Shopping for inspiration is another way of introducing uncertainty into an established setting, which is a good thing.

Seeing With Your Eyes Closed

On a day that I’m giving a workshop, I like to arrive at the location a couple of hours before everyone else. Sometimes the room has already been set out in a particular fashion, but other times the room is a blank canvas. When the room and furniture options are new to me, I will stand at the front of the room, close my eyes, and look. I’m trying to see in my head what I want the room to look like – in light of the interactional patterns I hope to engender through the day. Where precisely should the tables be? Where do I put the chairs? Sometimes only small changes are possible based on the shape and layout of the room, while at other times, larger changes are possible. Seeing with my eyes closed can be for just one minute, but sometimes longer.

It’s not just at a workshop either. On one project I was going to be interviewing academics about their needs from the new SharePoint-based intranet, and the room I was given for interviews was a tutorial room at the university (think meeting room with tables down the middle and 12+ chairs). Again, seeing with my eyes closed allowed me to say to myself that I actually only wanted one table in the middle of the room, and two chairs. This would create (or force) the interactional style I wanted for the interviews: one-to-one, direct, personal, focused. So I moved all the other tables to the edge of the room, stacked the chairs away, and laid out the room the way I wanted. The academics entering the room may have been expecting a normal tutorial room, but what they got instead was a custom-designed interview room. And yes, I did put the room back to its previous layout when I’d finished.

Sometimes I wonder if the designers of customer experiences in retail operations and airport check-in areas do the same. Each have a particular set of objectives in mind, and unless it’s a brand new store or airport, an existing layout – with supporting routines, training curriculums, and expected responses from staff. But what is today doesn’t have to be what is tomorrow. Someone has to look at the current setting and lay out a new vision – a new line of sight, a new way of seeing possibilities and opportunities beyond what is currently formed. Mixing in some of the new possibilities – cameras that can track product being put into a customer’s shopping basket, or machine-based check-in stands (or mobile apps on a device that is tied to an individual account) – allows a re-imagining of what could be. And hence someone is able to imagine a store with no need for checkout lines or an airport with no need for check-in agents.

Seeing with your eyes open will blind you to the possibilities of what could be, because you are visually captured by what already is. Seeing with your eyes closed creates new vision.

Improving Things for Knowledge and Information Workers

Knowledge and information workers don’t produce physical product. They are paid to use their brains – leveraging a domain of knowledge, ways of thinking, ways of approaching a problem, ways of creating solutions to problems, and so on. There’s a mental process at the core of how such people deliver value, even if there’s a physicality to how that value is delivered (such as a document, report, slide deck, article, etc.).

The “factors of production” for knowledge and information workers are intangible and largely invisible. Yes, there is likely to be a computer and smartphone (among other devices), some apps, a line of empty coffee cups, and … perhaps some pens, paper and Post-It Notes. But these are only supportive of the knowledge and information process, not primary to them. The primary tools are mental thinking models, learned patterns of approaching a problem, and concentration to build mental models and solve problems in the mind.

How do we improve the productive capacity of a knowledge and information worker? It’s a tough question since so much is intangible and invisible, but my answer is that strengthening the processes that form the intangible and invisible is the primary way of doing that. Which means:

  • Better ways of thinking about problems, such as better questions to understand the problem domain, better content mastery in the domain itself, and better ways of structuring what you hear and learn. Idea mapping, mind mapping, and even dialogue mapping provide tools for doing this. As do checklist to prompt and guide thinking, so as to ensure nothing is neglected.
  • A greater ability to concentrate and focus on problems and finding answers to problems. This could be clarity on what the problem is (hence reducing mental confusion), or a concentration-friendly environment in which to work with few interruptions and distractions. Like seeds in the garden, mental models and ideas need quiet space in which to grow and develop, and interruptions break them very quickly.

If we accept the above as being true, then the prescription for most knowledge and information workers would be:

  • Health and wellbeing are essential. You can’t perform at work if your body is stuffed. Fresh air. Walks. Exercise. Good nutrition. Enough sleep. Etc.
  • Providing the space and place for practicing knowledge and information processes is essential. Such work spaces should prioritise focus, concentration and quietness when required, and the ability to interact with others as and when needed. But interruptions, disruptions, and unwarranted / unwanted background noise are minimised or eliminated.

I have spent much the past couple of decades consulting on approaches for strengthening collaboration, and I do believe good tools and better approaches help with knowledge and information work. But there is an equally – or more so – complement to opportunities for collaboration, and that’s space for solo work. Of ceasing to talk and starting to work.

P.S. So the nuance is about relative importance, and that you can’t have all collaboration nor all concentration in the quietness. Both are required. But open offices, social media, enterprise social tools, apps with relentless notifications, group chat tools and more … have pushed the modern worker too far into the realm of collaboration. We need to find a new balance that actually works.

P.S.S. Ask yourself this question: What would enable me to improve my work? In 2018, is the answer more collaboration, interaction, distractions, disruptions and interruptions? Or something else?

Information Theory and Uncertainty in Collaborative Teams

Information theory says that new information reduces uncertainty. That something additional reduces the set of possible actions or outcomes. That as more information is gathered, collected, captured, understood and refined, uncertainty is reduced to such an extent that certainty rules the day. New information is not needed because there is no uncertainty remaining – everything applicable or beneficial has been gained.

In the early time slices of a new team or group – which could range from minutes to weeks depending on the velocity of interaction and information sharing – team members develop a shared base of information. There is a lot that is unknown initially, but through discussion, conversation and argument (and good old fashioned working together), what people know is shared and a new shared sense of what is develops. At some point, everything that is known is shared and either embraced or rejected by the team. I think of this as the team being saturated with information; nothing else can get in, because the absorption capability has gone. In information theory terms, there’s no uncertainty left to resolve.

A team or group in this state can be identified through the following patterns:

  • A default position of “But we’ve always done it this way.” Reduced information uncertainty has lead to certainty, or rigamortis.
  • Reduced communication and interaction between team members, because everything is already known.
  • Lack of creativity and innovation, or of being stuck in a rut. That’s because all the idea fuel has been used up, and it’s just the fumes that remain.
  • A greater passion for the past than the future.
  • A sense of resignation, of going around in circles. And hence reduced communication attempts – “What’s the point?”
  • “Doesn’t everyone do it this way?”
  • A blindness to changes in the environment that affect the team or group. A rigid adherence to the status quo.

Hence the question becomes, when working with a team or group to re-imagine effective work, is how to break through this barrier of information certainty. The one core principle is to re-introduce uncertainty into the social system, thus forcing a re-calibration. For example:

  • Send the team or group to within-industry or beyond-industry conferences.
  • Introduce one or two new people into the team or group. These new additions should have strongly held views, however, or they will likely become acculturated quickly (engulfed in the established order).
  • Appoint an external advisor or coach to work with the team, to help the team identify recurring patterns of thought and action. It’s better if the team leader invites the contribution of such an individual though, as it adds strength to the new information entering the system.
  • Refactor the entire team, by replacing more than half of its members.

The degree of forced re-calibration depends on how non-performant the team or group has become, and how important it is to get back to effectiveness. In severe cases, appointing a new leader and replacing at least half of the group with new people (and thus massively overloading the social system with uncertainty) is the fastest and most effective pathway. That’s why, for example, a business under duress will often appoint a new CEO and do an almost clean sweep of the senior management team (and board of directors) – with GE in 2017-2018 as the poster child of this.

Backlash Against Group Chat

Group chat offers a particular approach to communication between people, characterised by rapid fire interaction, short sentences or thought fragments, and a fun and lively tone. This approach has several implications, such as:

  • The conversation space tends toward chaos, disjointedness, and dis-organisation. People weigh in on multiple, simultaneous and at times overlapping conversations within a given channel, and even across multiple channels. It is very easy to lose track of the essence of a conversation, and become caught in the vortex of apparent urgency. The nature of the medium calls for immediate feedback and interaction on new ideas, which results in an interrupt-driven always-connected work style. The focus on the hyper-short-term steals time and space from thinking on deeper issues and longer-term concerns for the team and its work.
  • The fast-paced interaction feeds the fear of missing out and contributes toward feelings of loss of control. Many Slack users, for example, find themselves impulsively and habitually checking their Slack channels to catchup on activity since they last checked in. Since topics are often discussed with too many words, over too long a time duration, and by people who are not even involved, responsible, nor accountable for decisions arising, active discussions become emotionally and cognitively overwhelming.
  • Short sentences and incomplete thoughts fired rapidly by multiple people into a conversation space undermines any semblance of a coherent line of argument. Such conversations are fragmented, shallow, and not good for depth of thought and insight. Some issues—many even—require a more thoughtful analysis and line of argument to be developed and written coherently in a longer document, whereas Group Chat merely has everyone endlessly chatting about it.
  • Social signals and team dynamics within a conversation space become confused in Group Chat. For example, is silence and non-participation in a topic an indicator of consensus, disagreement, or just that a team member isn’t currently available (and that the team should wait until they are available)? Conversations can quickly be commandeered by the noisy, quick-witted, and verbose members of the team, which when pushed to the extreme, can become workplace bullying and harassment.
  • A “discuss everything” principle can create the sense of always being in a meeting; or as one executive described it, “an all-day meeting with random participants and no agenda.” Always waiting for someone else to respond to your one line comment gives a convenient excuse for not actually doing the work to fully form your own ideas. Another executive commented that “you are constantly tempted to converse on Slack instead of thinking or planning or doing other work.”

In summary, Group Chat can become a significant driver of the fear of missing out, frustrating conversation dynamics, continual interruptions, mental and cognitive fatigue, and the elimination of time to think. Recent research into the use of social media among young people and adults has highlighted the mental health problems that result from frequent use (see here and here); there are already signals that such dynamics apply equally to adults in the workplace due to Group Chat tools.

Over the past couple of years, we have seen the above (and more) charges levelled at Slack. How long until we see an equivalent stream of concern about the usage of Microsoft Teams?

Don’t Get to Perfect Too Soon

Getting to perfect too soon reduces the available space for collaboration. Perfection signals that the current effort is good enough or refined enough, and that the opportunity for input, direction, crazy ideas, left-field thinking, new ways of looking at a problem and the like has gone. For instance, documents without any spelling mistakes that are beautifully printed in full colour – and yet called “draft” – are just a daft way of trying to engage others. The form of the idea is too perfect, creating a barrier to collaboration and interaction and input and argument. Something less perfect would be more perfect to create a space for collaboration.

Open questions, fuzzy lines, loads of question marks and crossed out words, ideas and thoughts signal a lack of presumptuous final clarity that engages the mind and heart, opening the pathways for contribution. For having a say. For providing your two cents. For saying let’s go back to the beginning and ask the why / where / when / who / how questions again (and again) (and again). For reaching out to someone different to ask for their input. For touching base with someone beyond the immediate team to seek their perspective. For scheduling another whiteboard session, another Post-It Note wall attack, another long walk to figure out the relationships, driving rationale, intermediate steps and necessary resources of people, activity and energy.

To create a space for collaboration, think:

  • Handwritten notes, not manifestos beautifully laid out and produced on the new colour laser printer.
  • Hastily drawn whiteboard brain dumps with different colours and handwriting styles, not the printed version from a mind mapping app.
  • Meetings with an intent to think and work together, not a minute-by-minute agenda that makes the whole thing presupposed, pre-planned, and an exercise in rubber-stamping the dream of another.

Less perfection. Less presumption. More space to really work together. Greater vulnerability in openness to new ideas. More trust in motive and intent. Better collaboration.

That would be perfect.

BlackBerry KEY2

BlackBerry introduced its new smartphone, with a physical keyboard (hat tip, Vowe). I have fond memories of my BlackBerry days, and there are still activities that I did with my BlackBerry Bold – such as live blogging conference talks – that I have never tried with an iPhone. That keyboard made it possible.

Distractions at the Office Mean That Remote Workers Outperform

Brian writes about why remote workers outperform office workers:

… one study found that the number of people who say they cannot concentrate at their desk has increased by 16 percent since 2008. Also startling: The number of workers who say they do not have access to quiet places to do focused work is up by 13 percent.

It should not matter where people are getting the work done — as long as they are focused and working hard each day.

More: Remote Workers Are Outperforming Office Workers–Here’s Why

I have written about open plan offices before, which introduce major distractions into work life. See:
Open Plan Offices Close the Brain (April 2014)
Open Plan Offices: The Increased Noise Cancels the Collaborative Benefit (September 2013)