I was having a conversation with a friend about Ikigai the other week:
And found myself reflecting on why this particular interpretation of it feels so complete.
The 4-part framework and the distinction between aspects that had to do with you and aspects that had to do with the world/others reminded me a lot of Ken Wilber’s four quadrants model which I was introduced to three years ago in the context of culture:
Wilber argues that we can look at any aspect of the human experience through four perspectives which are the combination of an individual vs. collective perspective and an interior vs exterior perspective.
Interestingly, when I overlayed the Ikigai construct on top Wilber’s 4-quadrants model, I got a near perfect fit:
I believe this may partly be the reason for why this framework is so compelling.
The Likert scale is a commonly used question structure in surveys, in which the survey taker is asked to rate their agreement/disagreement with a series of statements on a 5-point scale ranging from “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree.” For the purpose of this post, I’ll expand the definition a bit to also include:
The more “direct” version which asks for a 1-5 rating on a certain attribute/prompt
The more “indirect” version which replaces the wording with a “Focus on Least” to “Focus on Most” scale, or any other set of labels.
Any variation in the number ratings: 7 is the second most common variation, after 5, but some prefer an even number of ratings to force survey-takers to choose a non-neutral answer.
The Likert scale is also commonly used in feedback forms that are aimed at driving continuous improvement and development at the organizational and personal levels, such as employee engagement surveys and performance/effectiveness reviews.
To understand the challenge of using the Likert scale in that context we need to first make a distinction between three types of feedback, courtesy of the folks at Triad Consulting:
Praise (appreciation) – aimed at showing the receiver that you see their good work and connect, motivate and thank them for it.
Coaching (developmental) – aimed at helping the receiver expand their knowledge, sharpen a skill or improve a capability.
Evaluation (assessment) – rating or ranking against a standard aimed at helping the receiver align their expectations and know where they stand.
One of the fundamental elements of Quantum Mechanics is a principle known as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. In simple terms, it states that there’s a limit to the precision by which certain pairs of properties of a particle can be known (measured) at the same time. For example, the more precisely you’ll measure a particle’s speed, you’ll know its momentum less accurately.
It’s been my experience that a similar relationship exists between developmental and assessment feedback. The more accurate evaluatory feedback you give, the less effective it will be as a developmental feedback. And the more accurate developmental feedback you give, the less effectively it can be used to assess someone’s current performance.
With these ideas in mind, we can now make our case: the Likert scale is an evaluatory construct since it produces an absolute rating which is then compared to a standard: historical ratings, peer ratings, or a threshold (above “3.5” is “good”). But if our goal is to learn, if our goal is to help people and organizations improve and develop – we may be hurting ourselves by using it.
So what’s the alternative? Good question. Properly phrased open-ended questions can effectively be used to provide developmental feedback, but they are very costly to design, and they are very costly to answer. I suspect that some of the motivation for using the Likert scale structure, to begin with, was the fact that it’s very lightweight. A good alternative might be stack-ranking the various attributes that we may have used a Likert scale for in the past. For example: from the one we should focus the most on to the one we should focus the least on. This approach moves us from the absolute to the relative and therefore, while not perfect, does avoid some of the common pitfalls with the old solution.
As I mentioned in the previous post, they were not meant to guide the topic selection process for the coming year, those were and will continue to be rather emergent, but as a way to create a snapshot-in-time of questions that were top of mind that can then serve as a point of reference for reflection on how they evolve throughout the year.
And in fact, only 20% of last year’s posts can be directly mapped to one of the questions. However, most of the remaining 80% definitely helped evolve my thinking on these issues in a more indirect way. Below are the interim answers and future areas of investigation around these questions:
1. What does the future of the firm really looks like?
The posts more directly covering this topic were Rhizomatic Organizations [Rao] and A Working Class Manifesto [Kilpi] but they were rather abstract and perhaps created more questions than they answered. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but still… Many of the other posts that in retrospect fell under the “Organizational Theory” theme also address this question indirectly. This is the most abstract question on this list so I wasn’t expecting a full answer to emerge in a year. However a strong connection emerged between this question and Question #3. More on that below.
2. How do we find and attract the best talent to our organizations?
In a knowledge economy where most roles require heavy collaboration and creatively solving high-cognitive-load challenges, standard target/goal-based pay-for-performance schemes cause more harm than good. This doesn’t mean that any form of variable pay is automatically off the table, but it can only be tied to more qualitative long-term behaviors that are difficult to objectively and fairly assess.
We need to be deliberate and consistent in choosing our position in the compensation polarity and be able to clearly articulate it to candidates (and existing employees).
We need to move towards a more competency-based recruiting process from the first touch-point with the candidate. But this has to go hand-in-hand with a more thoughtful selling process that allows that candidate to better qualify the opportunity. There’s an interlocking pattern in the increased commitment of both parties involved that I haven’t fully fleshed out yet.
There’s a strong inertia/standard in the candidate/company dynamic, which means that there’s a cost to “breaking the mold” since it introduces increased cognitive load into the interaction. Explaining “why we do things different here” from the get-go is critical but insufficient, since this is not a purely rational process
I expect more insights on this front in 2018 since I’ll be more heavily involved in recruiting in 2018 than I was in 2017.
3. How do we effectively manage deep diversity?
The only post that directly ties to this topic is Just Like Me [Delizonna]. However, the mind-share I’ve spent on this topic this year is grossly under-represented in the number of posts on this topic.
This topic has been getting a lot of media attention this past year, but it was disheartening to see how little of it was actually evidence-based. In this short period of time “best practices” emerged despite being proven ineffective or even harmful. We desperately need a more disciplined approach to tackling this critical topic.
Some interim insights:
Increasing organizational diversity is the wrong starting point in this effort. Increased diversity without a real capacity for inclusion (for example, real psychological safety) will be ineffective at best and hugely harmful at worse.
A better starting point is increasing the “inclusive capacity” of the organization — the ability to foster a sense of belonging for a growing cohort of people without having to compromise their personal identities in any way.
This is particularly critical given question #1. We can’t create “communities of meaning around economic collaboration” without a strong sense of belonging.
Building “inclusive capacity” requires personal growth and therefore heavily tied to question #5.
I am hopeful that the signal-to-noise ratio around this topic will increase in 2018 and expect to have a growing understanding of it a year out.
4. What will we find if we start peeling the “employee engagement” onion?
Charles Goodhart’s quote “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure” best describes the current situation with employee engagement. Consider this: what would you do when you hit “100% employee engagement” (whichever way you measure it)?
Viewed through the lens of a continuous-improvement exercise, the absolute level of “employee engagement” becomes less meaningful compared to insights on how we can improve it. More on this next week.
A better way to think about “employee engagement” is as a community reflection exercise aimed at identifying where we should focus next to best improve the way we’re working together.
This goal has some significant implications to the way we should design any employee engagement programs/exercise, starting first and foremost with eliminating the dichotomous allocation of agency around improving employee engagement between “employees” and “leadership” that’s so heavily ingrained into the current survey-based structures.
A real investment in personal development (question #5) is required in order to fully see the benefits of an alternative model.
This past year reaffirmed my belief that development programs that are competency-based will be ineffective in driving the change we seek. Instead they must be focused on creating and sustaining mindset shifts. I continue to noodle on this one with no clear answers yet, but a more pointed/focused question: “How can we design an environment and interventions that foster continuous mindset shifts?”. Given the critical role that personal development plays in the answers to questions #3, #4, and #7 — figuring this out will be critical for any meaningful forward progress.
I haven’t written anything about this in 2017 but will cover it in a post next week. While I can’t prove that such principle exists, I’m growing more and more convinced that designing people programs assuming that it does will likely increase their effectiveness. Both knowing we stand and how we can get better are important. The more we can decouple efforts aimed at evaluating performance from efforts aimed at driving development — the better.
7. What are the various paths from Patriarchy to Partnership?
I tackled this topic directly in Bounded Specialization (and the limits of human collaboration) offering a piece of a path that’s focused on deliberately constraining authority dynamics across both context and time dimensions. It’s still a partial answer, but a better reframing of the challenge compared to “eliminate hierarchy” or “self-management” labels, in my opinion.
Part of the incompleteness of the answer comes from the fact that it’s looking only at the external environment. If the way we make meaning out of the world around us (our mindsets) can lead two people to act very differently under the same external circumstances, as I believe it does, that’s another part of the answer that needs to be more fully flushed out.
If we view organizations as a way for enabling large-scale collaboration efforts beyond the scale we’re currently evolutionarily capable of naturally carrying out successfully, then the key questions that can illuminate our path forward are:
What are the principles that are underlying and driving these collaboration efforts? (directionally — where do we want to go?)
What is the professional growth required in order to more easily/naturally adhere to these principles? And how can we foster it?
What are the environmental structures that can be put in place as scaffolding for future growth and as a way to minimize the risk of any reactive behavior/growth gaps from holding us back?