This one is going to be a little ranty. I think that’s ok 🙂
Not getting a seat, or a big enough seat, at the (executive team) table, is a common complaint I hear from many of my peer HR leaders and certainly a challenge I’ve grappled with myself. Granted, often times an interpersonal or a personal development gap for either CEO or HR leader (or both) is a contributing factor. But I also believe there are more systemic issues that are holding us back and must change. These are my Top-3:
Structure — it’s almost always the case that no matter how large the executive team is, no matter how large the company, all but a single member of the executive team is focused on the stuff the business creates (product, engineers, ops, sales, marketing, etc.) and only a single member is focus on the people who create the stuff. When stuff outnumbers people so overwhelmingly, people will rarely get the attention they deserve. Furthermore, much of the work that falls under the HR function is not really people-centric. It’s bureaucratic/administrative/compliance “organizational tax”, that yes, somebody has to do, but does it really make sense to roll it under the same person responsible for figuring out how to increase what this collaborative effort is capable of accomplishing? As Ram Charan compellingly argued almost 5 years ago, it may finally be time to split HR into two organizations led by two different executives: HR-LO (leadership and organization) and HR-A (administration).
Faux science — from MBTI-based hiring to anonymous 360 feedback surveys, so many organizational practices today seem to follow the 1944 Office of Strategic Services (CIA’s precursor) Simple Sabotage Field Manual rather than what decades of scientific research in psychology, sociology, and neuroscience taught us about the human condition. Liz Ryan does a very good job driving this point home in How Junk Science Set HR Back Fifty Years. There are so many wrong defaults in the “how to run an effective organization” (fictional) manual. Grounded skepticism towards existing practices, testing their underlying assumptions and ruthlessly eliminating/replacing practices that don’t really move us forward all have to be part of the solution.
The Dunnig-Krueger effect — Dunning–Kruger (DK) effect is a cognitive bias in which people of low ability mistakenly assess their ability as greater than it is. It is particularly strong when people have some experience with the ability (non-professional drivers are more prone to it than people who’ve never driven); and when the ability is more directly tied to their identity (most of us are probably worst kissers but better dancers than we think). When discussing topical matters that don’t pertain to their own function, executives are usually fairly immune to the DK effect. If I’m the VP of Sales and this is an Engineering issue — it should be relatively easy for me to recognize my own lack of expertise in Engineering and defer to the VP of Eng’s expert opinion. But all execs lead teams, and consider being a good manager an important part of their role (identity) so when it comes to discussing people issues, everyone thinks they are an expert.
As noted above, while I have some ideas for combatting #1 and #2, I haven’t come across anything that offers a good way to remedy #3 just yet.
In full disclosure, I have not read the book, just an article that was highlighting this particular piece of useful content from it.
Mistakes are a natural part of life. We all make them. And I don’t think any of us would want to live in a culture where no mistakes are tolerated. There has to be a path for recovering from mistakes, and the difficulty of that path should probably be proportional to the harm caused by the mistake.
Amy Rees Anderson offers this nifty framework for properly apologizing for a mistake. A key component of recovering from one:
Admit — I made a mistake
Apologize — I am sorry for making the mistake.
Acknowledge — I recognize where I went wrong that caused the mistake.
Attest — I plan to do the following to fix the mistake, on this specific timeline.
Assure — I will put the following protections in place to ensure that I do not make the same mistake again.
Abstain — Never repeat the same mistake.
Going to keep this one handy. Just like any other human, I’ll probably need it sooner rather than later.
When Google sets its sights on researching a people topic, you can be sure that the level of scientific rigor will be high. While not quite filling the massively big shoes of Oxygen and Aristotle, the work led by Veronica Gilrane on the People Innovation Lab (Pi Lab) on remote work is quite good:
We were happy to find no difference in the effectiveness, performance ratings, or promotions for individuals and teams whose work requires collaboration with colleagues around the world versus Googlers who spend most of their day to day working with colleagues in the same office. Well-being standards were uniform across the board as well; Googlers or teams who work virtually find ways to prioritize a steady work-life balance by prioritizing important rituals like a healthy night’s sleep and exercise just as non-distributed team members do.
They did, unsurprisingly, discovered that teammates on distributed teams face three types of challenges in establishing high-quality connections:
Getting connected — arranging logistics, like rooms and timezones
Being connected — ensuring technology supports the work you’re doing
Feeling connected — getting to know one another, building trust
To support teams in overcoming these challenges, they’ve developed a set of role-based playbooks (distributed employees, buddies of distributed employees, managers, leaders) though the advice in each playbook has quite a bit of overlap with the others:
Re-tool your meetings
Strategize your space
Traverse time zones
Set team vision and norms
Pretty good checklist for anyone who’s on or leading a distributed team.
I used to have a pretty negative opinion of exit interviews in the past because they seemed like a bureaucratic waste of time. The person/company has already made their decision and they’re not going to change it now, then what’s the point? In more recent years, I learned that similar to other organizational practices, my “hating” on them is not because the practices are inherently bad or evil, but because I’ve only seen poor/ineffective execution of them.
Since I strongly believe that language matters, the “branding” here is problematic as well, “exit interview” sounds cold and mechanical to me, so I’m also proposing a rebranding focusing on the aspirational purpose of those interactions: “closure and learning conversation”.
So below is a little cheat sheet, to help me, and maybe also you, run better exit interviews going forward.
How to run effective closure and learning conversations?
Purpose: A learning opportunity for the company and positive closure for the person leaving. This is a meaningful touch-point, one of the final impressions that the company/manager will be leaving in the person’s memory of their time with the company. Make it count.
Timing: Roughly half-way in between when the person/company had given notice and the person’s last day. Far enough from the notification that everyone involved had enough time to emotionally process the decision, but not too close to the last day when the person’s already 100% focused on the next thing.
Who? I see value in giving the person leaving choice here. The goal is for them to have the conversation with someone they feel they can be candid and vulnerable with. Sometimes it’ll be their manager, sometimes a peer and sometime someone outside of their org. Regardless of who it is, notes from the conversation should be captured in a centralized place so broader organizational learning based on patterns and trends can take place.
How? This is a good starting list of discussion questions:
Why did you join? What compelled you to come here and make the required trade-offs and compromises that it required?
How did your experience live up to your expectations?
What should change here to make up for the gap? What would you do differently to make up for it?
What advice would you give a new hire here?
What advice would you give us when hiring for your replacement?
Who here has been a mentor or supported for you?
What did you manager/team/company/HR do well? Is there any feedback that you haven’t already shared?
What is your best memory from your time here?
What are you hoping for in your next opportunity?
Follow-up: 3–6 month later. With a bit more time to process, reflect and gain perspective, is there anything else you’d like to share?
When Abrahams Maslow first proposed his hierarchy of needs in his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation”, he also outlined some key characteristics that self-actualized people tend to possess.
Scott Barry Kaufman set out to find using a more modern set of tools whether these characteristics do indeed sum-up to a unifying factor of self-actualization. That self-actualization factor, in turn, was found to be associated with multiple indicators of well-being, including greater life satisfaction, curiosity, self-acceptance, positive relationships, environmental mastery, personal growth, autonomy, and purpose in life. As well as multiple indicators of work performance and creativity, including greater work satisfaction, as well as greater reports of talent, skill, and creative ability across a wide range of fields from the arts and sciences to business and sports.
Out of the 17 initial traits Kaufman tested based on Malsow’s hypothesis, 10 were found to indeed contribute to the broader self-actualization factor, listed here in order from the biggest to smallest contribution:
Continued Freshness of Appreciation(Sample item: “I can appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy, however stale these experiences may have become to others.”)
Acceptance(Sample item: “I accept all of my quirks and desires without shame or apology.”)
Authenticity (Sample item: “I can maintain my dignity and integrity even in environments and situations that are undignified.”)
Equanimity (Sample item: “I tend to take life’s inevitable ups and downs with grace, acceptance, and equanimity.”)
Purpose (Sample item: “I feel a great responsibility and duty to accomplish a particular mission in life.”)
Efficient Perception of Reality (Sample item: “I am always trying to get at the real truth about people and nature.”)
Humanitarianism(Sample item: “I have a genuine desire to help the human race.”)
Peak Experiences (Sample item: “I often have experiences in which I feel new horizons and possibilities opening up for myself and others.”)
Good Moral Intuition (Sample item: “I can tell ‘deep down’ right away when I’ve done something wrong.”)
Creative Spirit(Sample item: “I have a generally creative spirit that touches everything I do.”)
Why is it that the most self-actualized people are those who are the most self-transcendent?…
Self-actualized people don’t sacrifice their potentialities in the service of others; rather, they use their full powers in the service of others(important distinction). You don’t have to choose either self-actualization or self-transcendence — the combination of both is essential to living a full and meaningful existence.
According to this research, Maslow drew some of his inspiration to the hierarchy of needs for the time he spent at the Blackfoot (Siksika) reserve in Alberta, Canada in the 1930s. Regardless of attribution, what’s interesting to me in this narrative, is that in the Blackfoot version of the hierarchy, self-actualization is at the basis of the pyramid (or in this case, tipi) supporting two higher level aspirations: community actualization and cultural perpetuity.
Michel, quoting Blackstock, explained the latter in her post:
“We have been given the ancestors’ teachings and the feelings and the spirit. We can do a couple of things with that. We can say that what we know is inadequate and that we’re not Indian enough and that we don’t know enough about it or we don’t want to pass it on. And we hold our breath and our people stop. Or you can nourish that breath. You can breathe in even deeper the knowledge of others and understand it at a deep level and then breathe it forward. That’s the breath of life,”
I’m still reflecting on this beautiful metaphor, so I’ll stop here and encourage you to do the same.
Been a while since I’ve written one of these. Not because I haven’t read any books recently (that’s rather unlikely), but because not many of them were related to the topic of this publication in their entirety.
As we learned at the beginning, all models are wrong, but some are useful. So let me say this before we depart: this book is not perfect. Mistakes were made. Perhaps I portrayed an organization differently from how you (or the organization) would. Perhaps I failed to describe a concept or distinction as well as another expert might. It’s even possible that something big is missing — something that will reveal itself to us in years to come and irrevocably transform how we organize. I can live with that. Because what I’ve presented here is enough. It’s enough to stroke that disenchantment that you feel. That this can’t be our best. That we’re capable of more. It’s enough to get started. Enough to go on. And that’s all that matters. Progress over perfection. Courage over caution. This isn’t business as usual. This is brave new work.
I chose to start with a quote from the last page in Aaron’s book because it beautifully frames the right mindset for reading the book, as well as my review below.
In my mind, Aaron’s book is the evolution of a blog post he wrote almost three years ago, introducing the OS Canvas — a framework for describing how progressive organizations (referred to in the book as “evolutionary organizations”) operate differently than legacy/traditional organizations.
The three main parts of the book cover the history of work (how we ended up working in the way we are working today), the Operating System itself, and how to go about changing the operating system in an existing org.
One of the book’s greatest strengths is its accessibility — for a general business reader, who’s curious to learn more about the “future of work” it’s a great primer and a jumping off point to more advanced, nuanced and dense content in this domain. For the sake of comparison, it is more easily read than “Reinventing Organizations”, for example. And I’ll go a little deeper on the comparison between the two later on.
Part 1: The Future of Work
The first part paints a very clear narrative of how we got to where we are today, giving a bit of a history lesson on how the current paradigms of work developed through the 20th century, describing the existential business risk that they are leading to today, and outlining a path forward based on two high-level principles: “People Positive” and “Complexity Conscious” both resonate strongly with me.
My only qualm with this section is that the abbreviated history of work paints a more linear arc than what I’ve personally found it to be. We always start with Taylor, and it’s great to see McGregor’s work mentioned. But by skipping Lewin, Trist, and Emery, the paradoxical nature of the current state of work is being missed out on. Some of the progressive practices of evolutionary organizations are based on insights discovered in the 50s and 60s. What happened over the last 60–70 years that these insights are still not common knowledge??? For a more comprehensive overview of the history of work, I highly recommend Marvin Weisbord’s “Productive Workplaces”.
Part 2: The Operating System
The second part lays out the Operating System consisting of the following pieces:
Purpose — How we orient and steer?
Authority — How we share power and make decisions?
Structure — How we organize and team?
Strategy — How we plan and prioritize?
Resources — How we invest our time and money?
Innovation — How we learn and evolve?
Workflow — How we divide and do the work?
Meetings — How we convene and coordinate?
Information — How we share and use data?
Membership — How we define and cultivate relationships?
Mastery — How we grow and mature?
Compensation — How we pay and provide?
It’s interesting to note the evolution from 3-ish years ago: from 9 elements to 12, by splitting “strategy & innovation”, splitting “people, development & motivation” into “membership” and “mastery”, and adding “compensation”.
Each element is covered using:
List of more abstract/conceptual “thought starters”
A few concrete practices capturing the element “in action”
Discussing how change in that element looks like
Descriptions of how the key principles of “people positive” and “complexity conscious” apply in that particular context.
I particularly liked that last section. The practices are only valuable if you understand and buy into the underlying principles otherwise, you end up with the “theater phenomena” where teams are going through the motions of new practices, but capturing very little of the value that they’re supposed to unlock.
Taking a step back for a bit, my perspective on the OS concept remains unchanged — Having a comparative taxonomy for the way organizations operate is invaluable in moving the conversation about the future of work forward. Organizations are complex systems and without the right language to describe them and their behavior it’ll be hard to make progress. At the same time, the current version of the OS still leaves much to be desired. Some of the elements still seem a bit odd to me (should compensation be its own element, or just a specific use-case of resource allocation?), and the different elements are treated in the book rather inconsistently. In some case, like “authority”, rather comprehensive practices are offered. In others, the practices are rather anecdotal or piecemeal. What the OS lacks the most is a way to capture the interactions between the elements, which are a complex system in and of themselves. A good example can be the relationship between decomposed dynamic roles, and compensation.
Part 3: The Change
Lastly, the third part of the book covers the theory of change in a complex system. This is perhaps where Brave New Work innovates the most. Most books tend to focus on either the What? (future state) or the How? (how to get there) but hardly ever on both. And most “future of work” books that I’ve read tended to skew more towards the What?, leaving the How? completely unanswered. Here Aaron introduces the concept of Continuous Participatory Change and six patterns that support it and are worth reinforcing:
Commitment: When those in power and influence commit to moving beyond bureaucracy.
Boundaries: When a liminal space is created and protected.
Priming: When the invitation to think and work differently is offered.
Looping: When change is decentralized and self-management begins.
Criticality: When the system has tipped and there’s no going back.
Continuity: When continuous participatory change is a way of life, and the organization is contributing to the broader community of practice.
And finally, he discusses the importance of psychological safety, the role of the leader in creating and holding space, key principles of change, and how scaling change might look like.
To wrap up Aaron’s closing words capture my overall take on Brave New Work quite well:
this book is not perfect… [but it] is enough. …It’s enough to get started. Enough to go on. And that’s all that matters. Progress over perfection. Courage over caution.
“Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. (…)
“As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.
He starts by diffusing some of the loaded reactions that hierarchy tends to trigger, reminding us that that the term itself is just a useful metaphor to efficiently explain thatthis is contained by that:
If you tell me you hate fruit, I know not to offer you an apple. It would be impossible to make sense of the world without these hierarchical relationships.
Bartlett argues that the obsession with “hierarchy vs. flatness” is an unhelpful distraction from the issue that really matters, which is power dynamics. He builds on Mary Parker Follett’s distinctions to define 3 types of power dynamics:
Power-from-within or empowerment — the creative force you feel when you’re making art, or speaking up for something you believe in
Power-with or social power — influence, status, rank, or reputation that determines how much you are listened to in a group
Power-over or coercion — power used by one person to control another
With those in mind, he defines the approach to power dynamics that we actually strive for and often hides behind the hierarchy-related language:
Maximize power-from-within, make power-with transparent, and minimize power-over
Note the directional and relative (as opposed to absolute) language that’s used to describe this aspiration. The more descriptive articulation of that aspiration is also worth including here:
Maximize power-from-within: everyone feels empowered; they are confident to speak up, knowing their voice matters; good ideas can come from anywhere; people play to their strengths; creativity is celebrated; growth is encouraged; anyone can lead some of the time.
Make power-with transparent: we’re honest about who has influence; pathways to social power are clearly signposted; influential roles are distributed and rotated; the formal org chart maps closely to the informal influence network.
Minimize power-over: one person cannot force another to do something; we are sensitive to coercion; any restrictions on behavior are developed with a collective mandate.
In part 2, Barlett outlines specific behaviors and practices in support of this aspiration, which I’ll only include here in their headline form:
Encourage your peers
Create practice spaces
Find your mentors
Make power-with transparent
Break the power taboo
Name the level of engagements
Limited decision mandates
Share the ownership
This framing strongly resonates with me and the mapping of specific practices and behaviors to the key pieces of healthy power dynamics is really powerful. The next here would be to explore some of the nuanced tensions between these practices and their implications.