Working on Work

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

While examination and reflection are, sadly, not common staples of most operating rhythms in most organizations, there is a fairly wide consensus around the importance of continuously evolving the way we work together to the long-term success of the business, and its ability to continue to attract and keep its talent. Efforts on this front are usually labeled as managing “employee engagement” (or one of its derivatives) though I like the simpler label of “Working on Work” (WoW) to describe the efforts undertaken to improve the way we work, as opposed to efforts that are doing the work itself.

The traditional approach tends to follow a semi or annual cycle of running a survey, compiling the results and defining initiatives to address the gaps/opportunities identified. My goal in this piece is to highlight four big opportunities to make this approach significantly more effective. 

One aspect that I’m intentionally leaving out of my analysis is the frequency of the cycle. I believe that shorter, more frequent reflections should be integrated into the operating rhythm in places where they don’t exist today, but I don’t think that they are a full replacement for this cycle. Some patterns take longer to be observed and some changes take longer times to be affected. Therefore, there is value in this form of macro reflection on this cadence, plus or minus a quarter. So with this short disclaimer, let’s jump in. 

Approach: From “one and done” to “continuous improvement”

WoW is a never-ending, “continuous improvement” effort. And yet, it is often approached as if it is a problem that can and should be solved with a one-time effort. There is an absolute benchmark for what “good enough” looks like, often on a 5-point scale, and a view of “success” as showing an improvement in scores from one period to the next. As if when we’ll score all 5s we’ll be done and can fire half of our HR staff…

A continuous improvement approach starts at a different point: accepting the perpetual nature of the effort, it will define a distribution of our overall capacity to do work between “doing work” and “working on work” that can be refined or adjusted from one period to the next. The systems for managing work and managing WoW will be integrated, where at the moment the latter seem to mostly fall outside the capacity and direction efforts used for the work itself (OKRs, budgets, etc.). The sensing/reflecting piece of the cycle will be oriented more towards setting the right direction for the efforts rather than measuring progress. More on that shortly.

Sensing: From ”false precision” to “focus and patterns”

Current sensing efforts collect evaluations using a 5-point Likert scale, and analysis consists of comparing the scores either across demographics or time periods. The absolute numerical score opens the door for false precision and misinterpretations of the scores. Many organizations tend to walk through that door. 

On a more tactical level, it shows up as over-reaction to changes in the scores that are not statistically significant. On a more strategic level, it shows up as inferring causality between intervention and outcome where only correlation exists. Did our new employee recognition program led to the increase in scores from the last time? Or was it the changes in personality dynamics in our employee base due to all the new hires? Or perhaps, the announcement we made yesterday about winning that big multi-million dollar contract? Unless we have a way to control for everything else that’s changed or happened at the same time period, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to determine causality with any degree of certainty.

Sensing oriented towards “focus and patterns” avoids the absolutes and reduces the risk of misinterpretation. It looks to order the different potential areas of focus from “the one we should focus on the most” to “the one we should focus on the least” since the goal is now limited to figuring out what we should do next. It also places more weight on a different attribute of the data: looking at its variability both quantitatively and qualitatively to inform how to target a potential change/intervention. Low variability in the top area of focus suggests an organization-wide opportunity that should be matched with an organization-wide change. High variability suggests that things are working well in some areas but not others, requiring a more local change and pointing to good places where potential answers might be found.

Implementation: From “initiatives and projects” to “systems and mindsets”

Reactions to insights surfaced in the sensing phase tend to take the shape of initiatives and projects, often as part of the HR team roadmap, in the best cases in collaborations with the executive team and managers. But those tend to ignore the power of existing organizational systems in shaping existing behaviors and perceptions. Efforts to improve collaboration will likely fail as long as individual performance bonuses are in place. Efforts to improve quality will likely fail as long as targets/goals only measure throughput and cost. The more tangible will always trump the less tangible. Furthermore, efforts tend to focus on the external environment, ignoring the powerful impact that mindsets and internal beliefs have on driving change. Yes, my manager has a part to play in me “knowing what’s expected of me in my role” (a common engagement question). But so do I. Have I sought out clarity if the expectations were unclear to me? If I haven’t, why? What underlying beliefs led to my inaction? How can I test them out and weaken their hold on me?

More effective courses of action will focus on long-lasting changes to both systems and mindsets over temporary initiatives or the addition of yet-another-program.

Ownership: From “not my job” to “everyone’s job”

We like to say that culture, a fuzzy label for the thing we change when we’re WoW is “everyone’s job”. Yet that is hardly reflected in the way traditional cycles are run, perpetuating the dichotomy observed by Chris Argyris’ 25 years ago: “Employees must tell the truth as they see it; leaders must modify their own and the company’s behavior. In other words, employees educate, and managers act”. If only HR has capacity allocated towards WoW — real change is unlikely to happen.

An alternative will posit that everyone has “skin in the game” in both things being the way they are right now, and in changing them. That means that everyone must have an opportunity to both recognize their part in causing the current tension and playing an active part in addressing it. That does not mean that everyone should be involved in WoW in the same amount or in the same way. Specialization is the secret sauce of effective collaboration, but it needs to be bounded. When pushed to the extreme, rigid boundary, it becomes detrimental. Working on work should never be an extracurricular activity, bolted on top of an already full plate of the work itself, for any role in the organization.

Working on Work

Compensation without Intermediation [di Tada]

As readers of this blog already know, I’m constantly on the lookout for innovative compensation approaches. “How to redistribute the value generated by the organization to the people who created it?” is one of the most profound organizational questions. And financial compensation is one of the most tangible indicators of our values and beliefs systems. Any attempt to shift to a new operating paradigm without taking these two issues into account is bound to fail.

Over the last several years, Nicolas di Tada and the team at Manas Tech, a 30-person Buenos Aires-based dev shop, have carefully evolved their process for allocating pay raises. Not only did they document and share their process in:

Salary compensation without intermediation

But Nicolas was also kind enough to hop on a call with me a few weeks back and clarify some of the points that were not clear to me at first read.

In a traditional compensation review process, an autocratic decision-maker (manager), uses quantitative inputs from a performance review to set a new salary according to a predefined salary ladder. The team at Manas sees challenges, bias and limitations in all three key “design elements” mentioned above, so they set out to design a compensation review process without them. The key design principle underlying their system posits that the “wisdom of the team” would lead to a superior outcome than a process using the three elements outlined above.

Their process currently works as follows:

  • Every 4 months, the team will review its automated financial model to determine the portion of profit that should be allocated as salary increases. If confidence in future billable hours is lower than desired, the same amount will be allocated as one-time bonuses rather than permanent salary increases.
  • The process runs in 3 to 5 rounds (exact number determined at the beginning of the cycle).
  • In each round, each team member sees the base salaries of all other team members, and the total pool of salary increases that can be allocated. They can then allocate it across team members in any way they see fit. Team members cannot give themselves a raise.
  • At the end of each round, the average increase that each team member received gets permanently allocated to them and subtracted from the overall pool.
  • The next round follows the same steps with team members also being able to see the cumulative salary increases that were already permanently allocated to each team member, and the updated (lower) total salary increase pool still remaining to incrementally allocate.

An interesting challenge from a technical/algorithmic perspective has been dealing with the “fuzzy” relationship between an individual team member’s input/recommendation for a salary increase and the resulting increase, since the recommendations of all other team members have to be factored in as well. It creates an incentive to provide an input that’s different than the outcome that you think is appropriate, in an attempt to account for the impact of the other inputs.

In order to get as close as possible to the desired outcome, the solution that the Manas team landed on after multiple iterations is to only permanently allocate the average recommended increase and run several rounds of the process.

While the process does offer a unique solution to some of the greatest challenges of the more conventional approaches, it does pose its own set of challenges. The two that immediately come to mind are scalability and market dynamics.

The solution works well now for Manas at ~30 people where most people know most people well enough. But what happens where there are 200 people in the org? Simply averaging the increase recommendations in each round will require a lot more rounds since a smaller portion of teammates will have a non-0 recommendation for each individual teammate. Potential solutions can be either finding a more permissive “discounting function” that’ll require fewer rounds, or potentially following a tiered process where execs allocate the overall pool across departments, managers allocate the departmental pool across teams, and individuals allocate the team pools across individuals. Each of these comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

The market dynamics tension is a bit more challenging to resolve and the Manas team hasn’t found a one-time systemic solution to it. If we evaluate the Manas approach through a “compensation polarity” lens, their approach falls very close to the “internal fairness” pole. Since compensation market data and market seniority definitions (levels) don’t play a part in the process, it’s not unlikely for salaries to drift overtime from their market comparables and have someone in a role where they are being paid either significantly above or below what they would get paid for doing a similar role in a different company.

In sum, I’m grateful for Nicolas and the folks at Manas for taking a pretty big leap, redesigning a compensation system from scratch breaking many of the challenging assumptions in a more conventional system. It is not perfect and not without its shortcomings, but neither is the existing system, making it a viable alternative offering a plausible trade-off.

Compensation without Intermediation [di Tada]

Organizational models beyond (fixed) hierarchy [Corporate Rebels]

This one was a tough one to parse through but contained some sold gold nuggets that made it worth it. This post is a synthesis of two posts by Joost Minnaar, one of the two founders of Corporate Rebels:

How To Organize A Large Company Without Middle Management

4 Future-Proof Organizational Models Beyond Hierarchy And Bureaucracy

To the best of my understanding, they are the product of Joost’s Phd thesis where he’s exploring the way progressive organizations are choosing to organize in a way that minimizes hierarchy and bureaucracy, which he dubs as “middle managerless organizations” or MMLOs for short. While I wish the research methodology was more rigorous than case studies, Joost did aim to extend the robustness of the sample of organizations studied, from the mid-sized US-based core to include also large-sized and international organizations. 

The label “middle managerless” still seem rather hyperbolic to me, but both the problem framing, and the patterns/archetypes he identifies in the applied solutions are rather interesting. 

The organizing problem 

Building on his academic literature review, Joost defines “organizing” as solving three intertwined problems: 

  1. Strategy — the problem of organizing the strategic direction of the company and related objectives. This was traditionally done by a top-management team defining short-term (monetary) goals, and now while the structure is unchanged, the management teams tend to be smaller and focus more on defining long term objectives and curating the organizational culture as a means for steering strategy. 
  2. Division of Labor — organizing “vertically” in the company. This is broken down into Organizational Structure — the problem of decomposing the objectives set by top management into tasks and roles, traditionally done by the introduction of hierarchy (functional departments, etc.); and Task Allocation — the problem of assigning these tasks and role to employees, traditionally the responsibility of middle management. 
  3. Integration of Effort —  organizing “horizontally” across the company This is broken down into Coordination — the problem of providing employees with the information they need in order to coordinate their actions with peers, traditionally done by middle management by introducing a set of rules and procedures (“bureaucracy”); and Motivation — the problem of monitoring the performance of employees and distributing rewards for the tasks they have performed, traditionally done by middle management which assess performance and allocates rewards. 

I like this construct a lot. The one thing that doesn’t fully sit with me is grouping “motivation” under “integration of effort”, but it may just be the behavioristic language that’s used to describe it. When I use simpler, more succinct language it seems to fit better: 

Organizing means figuring out:

* The shared direction we want to head in together (organizing “direction”) 

* Who is doing what (organizing “vertically”) 

* How to complete coupled pieces of work and ensure that all work gets done (organizing “horizontally”) 

Solution patterns

Since the focus of the research is on the role that middle managers play in organizing and its alternatives, the solutions focus on the “vertically” and “horizontally” aspects of organizing where middle managers play a key role.

In addressing the “vertical” organization problem Joost identified two key approaches that differ in the way they think about the smallest organizational building block. The first views individuals as the basic building block, who then form ad-hoc teams who emerge and dissolve organically. Individuals can be part of one or more of those teams at the same time. Most Holacratic/Sociocratic systems that champion the separation of “role and sole” adopt this approach. Whereas the second views teams as the basic building block, where people self-organize into permanent teams and individuals can only be part of a single stable team at a time. 

In addressing the “horizontal” organization Joost also identified two key approaches that differ in the way the “rules of the game” for coordination between building blocks are defined. The first adopts a more collaborative approach emphasizing a sense of community, belonging and a shared mission. The second adopts a more competitive approach by introducing an internal market system for coordination, oftentimes placing a financial value on transactions and services rendered by one building block to the other. 

The combination of the “vertical” and “horizontal” organization approaches creates 4 organizational model archetypes: 

  • European Model — Permanent teams, collaborative dynamics. Companies like NER Group, FAVI, and Buurtzorg as the primary examples. Though it’s also easy to see how Spotify fits that model. 
  • Asian Model — Permanent teams, competitive dynamics. Haier being the leading example.  
  • American Model — Ad-hoc teams, competitive dynamics. Companies like W.L Gore, Morningstar and Valve. 
  • Digital Model — Ad-hoc teams, collaborative dynamics. Mostly common in open-source projects where the collaborative motivation is non-financial like: Wikipedia, Linux and (former) GitHub. 

Just like any 2×2, the real world is more complex, with multiple “hybrid” companies that fall in various places on the spectrum between these extremes. Companies may also move along on the spectrum over time, Zappos being one interesting example moving from the “American Model” to the “Asian Model” and breaking the naming convention in the process 🙂 Nonetheless, this seems like a super useful taxonomy for codifying different organizational patterns. 

Organizational models beyond (fixed) hierarchy [Corporate Rebels]

OrgHacking 2019 wrap-up

This is my 5th(!) full year of posting a weekly piece in OrgHacking (with the exception of my first deliberate, short hiatus) nearing my 300th(!) post. You can find past annual reviews here: 2018, 2017 (part 1 & 2), 2016, 2015

I’m continuing to evolve the format of this post and this year I’m splitting it into 3 parts: 

Part 1 covers my 2019 reflections/review.

Part 2 highlights my hypothesized “areas of interest” for 2020.

Part 3 lists all my 2019 posts by their emergent category.

Part 1: 2019 year in review

  • I hold my “areas of interest” for the year very loosely, so it’s always interesting to look back at the emergent themes in a year of posts. This year those were: DEI, governance, people practices, personal/professional development, hard science, collaboration, performance and accountability, strategy and broader musings.
  • I expected people practices and personal/professional development to remain key areas of focus for me so I’m not surprised that they remain strongly represented in my writing. 
  • I’m happy that I was able to share more on DEI, putting my raw 2018 intuitions into more coherent points of view and more concrete alternative paths forward. 
  • The original pieces I’m most proud of writing this year were the one on psychometrics and the one on SaaB. The latter was my first attempt in capturing a broader trend in the HR space, dissecting in, and proposing an alternative. The ones on direction-setting and culture are pretty good too (imho).
  • I expected to write more on recruiting and deliberate practice in 2019 and didn’t. I spent a single post on each (Inclusive hiring and VCoLing). Recruiting is just as broken as it was with some incremental improvements. The much-needed paradigm shift, at least in my own thinking about it, hasn’t arrived yet. Deliberate practice may also be a bit further out, but I’m actually more optimistic that we’ll see some breakthroughs on that front in the near future. 
  • I noticed two areas where my perspective of them changed over the year. A small one is captured in the leveling piece, taking a slightly more idealistic stance. But a more profound one on remote work. At Opower, I experienced the collaborative tax incurred and cultural dilution that took place after the company had gone multi-geo pretty early on: first satellite office at under 100 employees and first international office at under 500 employees. As a result, I was pretty strongly at the camp of “giving ground grudgingly” and holding on to co-location for as long as possible. I’ve since then done something pretty close to a 180°: remote/distributed work is happening, so we might as well figure out how to do it well, and the sooner — the better. 
  • The posts that were most thought-provoking for me were around governance and the highly related pieces about performance/accountability. I’m starting to see past the more dogmatic incorporation of certain practices and into the underlying principles, so things are starting to click. A good segue to the next part of this post.

Part 2: 2020 areas of interest

As I previously mentioned, I hold the intention to explore these areas very loosely, but I still see value in stating them because they provide an interesting reference point for reflection. If I take an end-of-2019 snapshot of the things that I’m curious to explore further, these ones come to mind: 

  • Organizational governance, and perhaps more broadly, the paradigms, systems, and practices to manage and distribute power in the organization. 
  • Related but somewhat separate: egalitarian approaches for assessing an individual’s contribution to the collective (aka “performance”) and to allocating their fair share of the collective value generated (aka “compensation”).
  • As a final twist, layering on remote/distributed work on all of the above and making “remote work, work”. We’re already a bit over our evolutionary skies by attempting to collaborate in groups that far exceed the Dunbar number, and now we’re adding another interesting aspect that we were not necessarily innately designed to do well. Not a reason not to do it, but definitely something that’ll require a lot more intentionality in avoiding the pitfalls and learning to do it well.

Part 3: 2019 posts by emergent category

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)


People Practices

Personal/Professional Development

Hard Science


Performance and Accountability

Strategy and broader musings

OrgHacking 2019 wrap-up

Social Motives[Fiske] + Team Leadership [Carson & Tesluk]

These two pieces of content don’t really go together, but I didn’t have much to say about each of them separately, so I decided to combine them to a single post. They do share a discovery origin story: I came across both of them doing a rather extensive academic research review in the area of social networks analysis. While they were mostly used as scaffolding to support the more relevant research that I was reading about, I found them compelling enough in their own right to make note of them and add them to my ever-growing toolbox of frameworks and mental models. 

Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

Social Motives

Susan Fiske’s social motives construct is covered in detail in Social Beings: Core Motives in Social Psychology. Fiske’s theory posits that five needs shape an individual’s propensity for social interaction: 

  1. Belonging — the desire for strong stable relationships with others.
  2. Understanding — the need to predict what is going to happen and make sense of what does happen.
  3. Controlling — the need to perceive contingencies between our actions and outcomes, to be effective, in control and competent. 
  4. Self-enhancing — the desire to maintain self-esteem. A drive towards self-improvement and status attainment. 
  5. Trust — the need to see the world as a benevolent place. Expecting good outcomes, especially from other people. 

2 & 3 are more cognitive-based motives, while 4 & 5 are more affective-based motives. 

There are some solid similarities here to SCARF (status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, fairness), BICEPS (belonging, improvement, choice, equality, predictability, status) and Wilson & Walton’s meaning-making engine (understand, self-integrity, belonging) suggesting either a shared origin or a deeper shared truth about the human condition. 

Team Leadership 

I came across this construct in a fascinating paper called The topology of collective leadership which was using Carson and Tesluk’s 2007 paper as the primary lens to look at different leadership patterns across teams, but I was unable to track down the original piece. So here’s the summary from the paper I did read: 

Carson and Tesluk (2007) observed that there is a large degree of convergence around four distinct roles that are important for team leadership:

  • Navigator — enables the collective to establish and maintain a clear purpose and direction.
  • Engineer — structures the collective and the task, coordinating the contributions of team members to meet the goals of the collective. 
  • Social integrator — maintains healthy and productive social interactions and relational processes within the collective. 
  • Liaison — develops and maintains relationships with key external stakeholders servings as both an advocate and ambassador for the collective. 
Source: The topology of collective leadership (2012)

These distinctions seem to align very well with my own experience and can potentially serve as a good template when we look to “unbundle management”. 

Social Motives[Fiske] + Team Leadership [Carson & Tesluk]

The 4 Layers of Diversity [Gardenswartz & Rowe]


As someone who follows the conversation around Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) pretty closely, uncovering old and powerful DEI content is always bitter-sweet. Bitter, lamenting the lost knowledge and the wasted time, effort and energy working with a partial knowledge-base which often generates inferior solutions. Sweet, experiencing the joy of rediscovery, coherence, and having a tool that is clearly better than what is being used today. Such was the case with Katz & Miller’s Conscious Actions for Inclusion and such is the case with Gardenswartz & Rowe’s 

4 layers of diversity 

Lee Gardenswartz and Anita Rowe have been doing work in the DEI space for more than 50 years now (since 1977). The model, in its most recent incarnation, was developed in 2003 with older versions tracing back to 1991. It is the most comprehensive model I’ve seen to date which defines the various dimensions of diversity, dividing them into 4 layers: 

  • Level 1: Personality — which I’ll further break down into the big-5: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism
  • Level 2: Internal Dimensions — age, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, ethnicity, race
  • Level 3: External Dimensions — geographic location, income, personal habits, recreational habits, religion, educational background, work experience, appearance, parental status, marital status.  
  • Level 4: Organizational Dimensions — functional level, work content field, division/department/unit/group, seniority, work location, union affiliation, management status. 

The breadth of this model makes it easier to see that the current dialogue around DEI is mostly focused on most of the internal dimensions and a handful of the external dimensions. And intersectionality is viewed as pertaining only to this subset of attributes. 

Yet, discrimination, bias and power dynamics exist, in varying degrees, across all attributes. And the promise of true diversity exists across all of them as well. 

There is another thing that I find compelling in this model: Its universality. I can’t think of a single person who was never in a situation in which they found themselves under-represented (at best) or discriminated against (at worst) in at least one of these attributes. The fight for DEI is a universal fight. We all have a reason to fight it and a role to play in it. 

The 4 Layers of Diversity [Gardenswartz & Rowe]

The Community Canvas [Pfortmüller, Luchsinger, Mombartz]


In both professional and personal settings, there’s a growing understanding of the critical role communities play in our lives. The next step after buying into this premise is to start exploring how once can be more intentional in shaping those communities and monitoring their health. Similar to culture, while there are no good ones and bad ones, there are strong ones and weak ones. What sets the former from the latter is the degree to which the various elements that shape a community are defined and in alignment with one another. While much has been said and written on the topic, none competes in clarity and comprehensiveness with the work Fabian Pfortmüller, Nico Luchsinger, and Sascha Mombartz did in creating the

Community Canvas

The Community Canvas is a framework for creating, analyzing and improving communities. It lays out all the elements that define a community in a coherent canvas format. 

The canvas is divided into three main sections, each in-turn is broken down into more specific themes: 

Section 1: Identity — who are we and what do we believe in?

  • Purpose — Why does the community exist?
  • Member Identity — Who is the community for?
  • Values — What is important to us as a community?
  • Success Definition —  How does the community define success?
  • Brand — How does the community express itself?

Section 2: Experience — what happens in the community and how does it create value for the members? 

  • Selection — How do people join the community?
  • Transition — How do members leave the community? 
  • Shared Experiences — What experiences do members share? 
  • Rituals — What rituals happen regularly? 
  • Content — What content creates value for members? 
  • Rules — What are the community’s rules? 
  • Roles — What roles can members play?

Section 3: what gives us stability in the long-term? 

  • Organization — Who runs the community? 
  • Governance — How are decisions made in the community?
  • Financing — What is the community’s plan to be financially sustainable? 
  • Channels & Platforms — What channels does the community use to communicate and gather? 
  • Data Management — How does the community manage the data of its members?

Thinking about a particular community that you are part of, makes it easy to see the framework’s strength (and minor weakness) — Themes with clear and well-defined answers are areas in which the community is strong. Themes with no-so-clear answers, present opportunities for strengthening the community. My one nit of the framework is that while it’s fairly comprehensive, it’s not perfectly MECE some themes seem to have some overlap between them so there’s a structural opportunity to eliminate this overlap and likely simplify the framework a bit in the process. 

The Community Canvas framework is supported by a set of resources such as high level 7 — page summary of the framework, a more detailed 61-page guidebook, and a set of additional templates.  

If you are a community manager, aspiring to create a new community, or just an engaged community member, the Community Canvas is a must-use. 

The Community Canvas [Pfortmüller, Luchsinger, Mombartz]