One of the most humbling lessons from my tenure at AltSchool is that it is often the case that progressive education has leapfrogged progressive workplaces, in accomplishing some shared goals they both have in common.
My approach to tackling a new organizational challenge I just uncovered always starts with some research, to see whether other practitioners in my domain (people) have come across the same challenge and how they went about solving it. Often times they have, and building on their solution leads me to a better outcome than reinventing the wheel, making the same mistakes they have made, and learning from them the hard way.
Nowadays, I try to supplement the search in my own domain, with a search in the school/education domain. Educators are often times trying to tackle similar organizational challenges in their classroom. And what’s working well with kids, tends, with some mild modifications, to work well with adults.
Jennifer’s list is a good example. Large group discussions (often referred to as “meetings”) are an integral part of corporate life. Creating a meeting experience in which participants feel fully engaged is a challenge, regardless of whether the participants are kids or adults. Jennifer offers some good strategies that are worth considering for your next meeting or workshop.
One of the most fun aspects of curating of and writing in this publication is when a new challenge reveals hidden connections between seemingly unrelated pieces. This story is an example of a recent occurrence tying these three stories that were published more than a year ago:
About a year ago, I took a stab at synthesizing my thinking on compensation at the time:
I’ve argued that compensation is not a hidden intrinsic attribute of an employee, that should be revealed through market mechanisms, but an attribute of the company and the way it values an addition to the team, based on its compensation philosophy (and therefore, it makes total sense that different companies would value a certain individual very differently). I also suggested that a compensation philosophy is evaluated mostly through a “fairness” lens, in comparison to 4 key drivers: market, personal needs and preferences, contribution/value to the company and company success.
Recently, I ran into a compensation question that I wasn’t able to fully reconcile with the framework: Thinking about fairness in external and internal contexts. Let me try to explain. Companies often times hire employees in roles that have very different market rates. For example, the market rate for a junior software engineer can, in certain markets, be 2–3x the market rate for a junior ops person. From an external context perspective, paying these rates seems fair. But from an internal context perspective, comparing the value the software engineer adds to the company and the value the ops person adds to the company, some companies may find it difficult to reconcile the compensation discrepancy. Some companies may not see any issue here, which is totally ok, but is the less interesting use case to explore.
How can a company that experiences a tension with its values and compensation philosophy in the above situation, reconcile what seems to be at first glance like an irreconcilable paradox between “external fairness” and “internal fairness”?
Polarity management helps us see that this tension between “external fairness” and “internal fairness” is not an either/or problem that needs to be solved, but a both/and polarity that needs to be managed.
Going through a polarity mapping exercise can help a company determine where it currently falls on the polarity spectrum, in which direction it wants to move, and what may be the warning signs that it’s getting too close to one pole or the other.
If that sounds a bit too abstract — fear not! Unbeknownst to me at the time, the Buffer salary formula, is a perfect example of the way one company chose to manage that polarity:
A key element of Buffer’s salary formula is the “role” component, which is the calculated as follows:
Role: (overall base + location base + cost of living)* role value
The first three components: “overall base”, “location base” and “cost of living” are, using the distinction I introduced earlier, “external fairness” components — they are set by the external market rate for the role and other factors driven by the location of the position. However, “Role value” is an “internal fairness” component. The Buffer team explains that perfectly:
We don’t agree with the market salary data all the time (for customer service roles, for example) and so we create our own “role value adjustment” based off what we feel is fair.
So here you go: a paradox emerges in a framework, a new tool helps reconcile it, and a real-world example grounds the whole debate in reality.
Reading through old posts is a humbling experience. It’s hard not to adopt the omniscient hindsight perspective and feel a bit embarrassed by the simplicity (and sometimes dead-wrongness) of some of the posts. But I hope to experience the same feeling as I read this post a year from now. Because it’ll mean that my understanding of the world around me has continued to grow, develop and evolve.
I’m enjoying following Tom Nixon on Medium. While I don’t always agree with his point of view, of with the sometimes-controversial way that he chooses to present it, his writing, and further conversations that sometimes ensue, are always a learning opportunity.
In this piece, Tom unpacks his general criticism of Holacracy into a more nuanced point of view that addresses both the good and the bad. Having personally gone through a similar process myself, I’ve landed in a similar position.
Tom describes “Bad Holacracy” as:
when the whole effort to adopt it becomes about Holacracy. Leaders are sold on the Holacracy concept and then a project begins to ‘install’ it… In the worst cases it’s used forcefully, even when the people doing the work don’t believe it will help them. The people are considered the problem. They’re labeled ‘change resistors.’ … In Bad Holacracy, the rules are tightly held… Bad Holacracy seems to value its own processes and rules above all else, and it’s all or nothing… If adherence to Holacracy dogma is valued more highly than doing great work, living the values, and contributing to the vision, you’ve got problems.
And “Good Holacracy” as:
Good Holacracy always works in context. That means solving real issues that are getting in the way of the work and overall progress. It offers process and structure, not to constrain or for its own sake, but to open up creativity and autonomy for people doing the work.
The focus isn’t on selling people on Holacracy and coaching them to use it, but on the underlying principle of self-management. Above all, Good Holacracy doesn’t start with process… The most important thing is the inner work for people collaborating together to better understand themselves and connect to each other. To become clearer in our intentions. To uncover and work through the unconscious biases and stories from our past which shape our behaviour yet do not always serve us… If you add some strategies for org process and structure to an inner journey like this, the possibilities for people to work together to realise worthwhile ideas in the world are enormous.
As a nice bonus, Tom also shares his self-management principles (the Three A’s):
Autonomy (for people to take the initiative and make decisions)
Accountability (to keep on top of how commitments are being met)
Alignment (to ensure everything’s contributing towards an overall vision)
At a high level, Tom touches on two core principles/failure modes in adopting new ways for people to work together (aka “organizational operating systems”). You can easily replace Holacracy with Team, Agile, Lean, TQM or your own pet system:
Treating the system as dogma — viewing the practices as rules that must be followed, rather than suggestions that should be considered and adapted to the organization’s unique context.
Wrong motivation — trying to adopt the practices in order to accomplish some external business outcome (faster time-to-market, higher quality, etc.) rather than in order to better reflect our current or desired shared core assumptions about people and the way they work together.
These two failure modes will lead to the “theater phenomena” (practices adopted with no/marginal benefit) at best or to a complete “organ rejection” at worst.
Adopting a new way of working together has to start with articulating a set of assumptions about people and the way they can work together. If those assumptions are significantly different than the ones that are widely accepted in the organization, the adoption effort must be accompanied by work that exposes those assumptions and helps people grow and develop to be able to adopt those core assumptions. The specific practices that reflect these beliefs need to be viewed as means to an end, and adjusted to the unique context and the progress that the organization has made on that journey.
One of my all-time favorite quotes is a Franz de Waal quote which seems highly relevant to the topic of this post:
The enemy of science is not religion. Religion comes in endless shapes and forms… The true enemy is the substitution of thought, reflection, and curiosity with dogma.