Personal Growth Work

Short and sweet piece by Poornima Vijayashanker:

Why we struggle to set aside time for Personal Growth work

Poornima starts by listing out some of the common excuses, calling out “not enough time” as the major scapegoat. She then explore a couple of more “real” reasons:

The first, is an organizational view that views training time as a luxury.

The second, is a personal tendency to choose grunt work over growth work.

While I find the structure of the piece a bit odd, I really like the powerful distinction that Poornima creates between “grunt work” and “growth work”. Even though conceptionally it’s not that different from Dan Pink’s “algorithmic work” and “creative work”, I think Poornima’s terms are more accessible and more likely to motivate people to take a more inquisitive look at the way in which they spend their time at work, and hopefully take subsequent action to alter the status quo.

Personal Growth Work

The maddening insufficiency of being well informed

I’m continuing my deep-dive into Kegan-world and recently finished reading:

How the way we talk can change the way we work: seven languages for transformation

It was a joy of a book to read, primarily focusing on Kegan and Lahey’s “Immunity to Change” framework, which I’ll cover in a different post. This post is about a powerful insight that was buried in the book’s epilogue, but is one of my biggest takeaways from reading it.

It’s this notion of “the maddening insufficiency of being well informed” as Kagan and Lahey call it. Here’s how they explain it:

Imagine that you are a conscientious and concerned physician practicing at this moment in history. There has never been more known about the human body, not greater capacity for the practitioner to access this knowledge. There has never been such a storehouse of medical technologies or pharmaceutical sophistication. There has never been as much known about the way the relationship between doctor and patient plays a critical role in effective intervention. In so many ways, doctors have never been so well informed with respect to diagnosis and treatment.

Yet if you go behind the scenes with many doctors, they take you to a repeatedly poignant place of frustration and even helplessness: the widespread noncompliance of patients in their own treatment. No increased capacity to diagnose illness correctly, prescribe proper treatment, or communicate sensitively with the patient has any effect on this weak link in the healthcare chain: many patients won’t alter the behaviors that make them sick or take the medicine that will make them well. Imagine the frustration of a physician who has worked to master the necessary knowledge, who is profoundly well informed, in possession of the knowledge that should really make a difference – and who comes to discover its stymieing insufficiency.

Imagine you are a management consultant or a business analyst. You and your team members are frequently engaged to assess the operations and structures of organizations, to diagnose the constraints in current arrangements, and suggest new strategies and choices to help companies better realize their ambitions or even redesign their view of their purposes.

There may never be a business equivalent of the Genome Project, but within its own terms the accelerated capacity of management specialist to study organizations and their practices has been extraordinary. Because of new technologies and ever-more-sophisticated software, it is possible to array, sort, and quickly reassemble enormous amounts of data. Social science research and theory has dramatically increased the capacity of analysts to assess the dynamics of groups and individuals. […]

But again, if you win the confidence and trust of many thoughtful and conscientious management consultants, you might be surprised that they are often very concerned about the insufficiency of being well informed, about the insufficiency of knowing what it seems is just exactly what needs to be known, of knowing even what the head of the client organization feels needs to be known: a considerable proportion of the good advice consultants proffer – they will tell you when they are being deep down candid – is not followed, even when the client has been effectively involved throughout the process. The client welcomes the plans, pays for the work, endorses it as just what the company should do. And then nothing happens.

Imagine you are a junior high school teacher, a school principal or a superintendent. You have already found your professional purpose lifted from your nation’s backwaters to the front page of the newspaper and the first minute of politicians’ campaign speeches. You and your school are now being unfairly asked to provide almost every need a child has to grow up strong and healthy. You know that your school cannot do everything – but that it can do so much more than it does. You know your classroom, or school, or school system will only improve if the children within them find themselves in ongoing powerful learning relationships and learning experiences.

Yet, as a distinguished colleague of ours at Harvard often says, “Ninety five percent of what we need to know to provide excellent learning opportunities for all of our children is probably already known”. We are already well informed and it is maddeningly insufficient.

What we already know about what we need to do to make our schools more effective is a lot. We are asking teachers to reconstruct their roles, from being dispensers of knowledge and drill masters to becoming learning coaches, hosts of learning communities, and creators of student-driven learning designs. Many teachers are not making these shifts, and people inside and outside the school world take this as indication that they are not really committed to the changes. But what if they are deeply and genuinely committed to these changes – yet are still not making them?

We are asking schools leaders to become chief instructional officers and shift the bulk of their attention from technical, business, and political administration, to the key activity that is the life blood of their organizations, namely, learning: the learning of students, the learning of faculty, the learning of their fellow administrators. What if the many school leaders who are not making these changes lack neither the knowledge of the importance and the value of the change, nor the commitment to make such changes?

Despite this maddening insufficiency, they end on a positive, optimistic note:

Perhaps the new age will focus not just on the buildup of more knowledge but also on the fashioning of new relationships to the knowledge we already have. Perhaps we will learn to welcome and engage not merely our commitments to bring heaven to earth but also our competing commitments to keep hell off earth. Perhaps we will learn to move our big assumptions to a place where we have them, rather than the more customary place where they have us.

Perhaps we need leaders who are able both to start processes of learning and to diagnose and disturb existing processes that prevent learning and change, the active, on going immune system at work in every individual and organization.

If you read thus far and are still intrigued – read the book!

The maddening insufficiency of being well informed

The Theory of Constraints

This is another brilliant blog series by Tiago Forte (of “future of productivity” fame), this time on the topic of the “theory of constraints” – a powerful organizational productivity theory developed in the 1980s by Eliyahu Goldratt. While the original application was developed in an industrial context, it was recently adapted to a knowledge work context in the Phoenix Project – a business parable that I would highly recommend reading.

Tiago’s series is another adaptation of it, in a knowledge work context, putting some more historical context around it and hitting all the major implications. The first 8 parts of the series a publicly available:

  1. Introduction to the series
  2. The illusion of local optima
  3. The four fundamental principles of flow
  4. Balance flow, not capacity
  5. Drum-Buffer-Rope at Microsoft
  6. The five focusing steps
  7. Identifying the constraint
  8. Optimizing the constraint

This series is a joy to read on its own merit, but have certainly raised 3 super-interesting questions for me, considering its implications in a broader context:

  1. Resolving organizational constraints is exactly the type of “complex coordination problem” that’s often used to justify the need for managerial hierarchies. It’s interesting to follow the “role of management” in the solution that’s outlined in the series and ask ourselves: What would a more self-organizing/self-managing solution to an organizational constraint problem might look like?
  2. At least in the American work culture, the busy=valuable equation goes deeper than management’s view of employees into employees’ own sense of self-worth. Under the old paradigm, it’s management’s job to solve this principle-agent / self-interest problem. How would it get solved under a more egalitarian paradigm in which the distinction between “management” and “employees” does not exist?
  3. With the expanding use of OKRs and “goal setting” methodologies more broadly, the notion of “stretch goals” is considered a best practice (see my own post on this topic here). However, the Theory of Constraints casts a pretty big shadow over this practice, being a good example of a “local optima” or a situation in which “optimizing the part (individual performance) does not optimize the whole (organizational performance)”. Is this a polarity to be managed? and if so, what are some of the tools to do so?

End-note: sadly, Tiago decided to put a pay-wall around his future posts, which means that I’m less likely to showcase any of them here. You can pay and subscribe to his publication here

The Theory of Constraints

Sustainable Sources of Competitive Advantage

Interesting piece by Morgan Housel:

Sustainable Sources of Competitive Advantage

I often times get the sense that some of core building blocks of traditional economics, while still true today, require a non-trivial adaptation in order to still make sense in the context of the knowledge economy.

I’ve spent some time researching such concepts to some extent as part of the now-disbanded Evergreen collaborative research project, such as “competitive advantage” and its sister-term “barriers to entry“. The Wikipedia entry for the latter, for example, lists several sources of barrier to entry that are far less applicable in a knowledge economy.

The same holds true for competitive advantage.

Morgan’s piece creates an interesting adaptation of the competitive advantage idea, focusing less on physical sources that may generate it, and more on human mindsets that my help create it. It lists 5 such sources:

  1. The ability to learn faster than your competition
  2. The ability to emphasize with customers more than your competition
  3. The ability to communicate more effectively than your competition
  4. The willingness to fail more than your competition
  5. The willingness to wait longer than your competition

Learning, empathy, communication, (lack of) fear of failure, patience – all seem like things that are much harder to imitate, compared to access to funding, tech or talent…


Sustainable Sources of Competitive Advantage

Strategy as Heuristics – Take II

About a year and a half ago I shared a short excerpt from Brian Robertson’s Holacracy book which briefly describes Holacracy’s approach to strategy:

Strategy as Heuristics 

In a nutshell, the idea was to state strategy as simply heuristics using the structure of “X, even over Y”, where both X and Y are good, valuable things. For example: “disciplined process, even over swift decision making”.

While the example in the book made the idea a bit more tangible, I struggled with generalizing it into a more repeatable process.

Interestingly enough, one of my more recent posts finally started connecting the dots for me:

Polarity Management

If we accept the premise that most business challenges are polarities to be managed, rather than problems to be solved, then strategy formulation becomes the process of identifying: the most critical polarities that the business must manage in the upcoming time period, its current position on each polarity spectrum, and the direction in which it must move on that spectrum to achieve a more optimal balance between the two poles.

On the execution side, another old post provides us with a useful insights in this context:

Benchmarks and Guardrails

If we are not specific in describing the position within each polarity that we’re aiming for, we’re running the risk of the pendulum swinging too far in the direction of the other pole. Therefore, we also need a set of benchmarks and guardrails that will indicate when we are close to our desired end-state, or how we might know if we’ve accidentally crossed it.

It’s kind of cool seeing these three seemingly unrelated posts, at the time of their original writing, getting integrated into a more holistic synthesis.


Strategy as Heuristics – Take II

7 questions for the new year

In preparation for a PeopleOps dinner at First Round Capital, I was asked to share 1-2 questions that will help drive the group conversation forward. The timing was right, as I was already in a more reflective mode, and I ended up going a bit overboard and submitting more than two questions. The ones that we did get to cover during dinner drove some really interesting conversations in the group.

I’d like to share a more refined version of them with this audience, as these are questions that I’m interested in exploring in this publication in the upcoming year. Right now, I’m not intending to do any direct focused feedback aimed at answering them, as I suspect just keeping them top-of-mind, will end up surfacing some interesting insights from my standard day-to-day work and readings. Maybe that will change as the year progresses and I’ll start tackling them more directly.

The overall tone may come across as contrarian, but what I’m really advocating for is a more first-principled approach to answering them. Many PeopleOps theories and practices haven’t fully caught up to everything we’ve learned about “what it means to be human” in the last 20-30 years, and there’s very strong inertia around some key “best” practices. That being said, I’m skeptical that throwing out everything that exists today and rebuilding it from scratch is the right answer. At their core, many of them contain some fundamental truths that still hold true, so the risk of “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” is high. We should proceed with caution.

  1. What does the future of the firm really looks like? The recent Benkler piece is the best stab I’ve seen in answering this question, but it still stays super high level. But if the future of the firm revolves around “building communities of meaning around economic collaboration” – what does that really look like?
  2. How do we find and attract the best talent to our organizations? The ineffectiveness of resumes is just the tip of the iceberg. We need to take a deeper look at the entire recruiting process: from the way we figure out what we’re really looking for, through the way we position ourselves against and interact with the talent market to a more holistic approach for thinking about motivation and the way that the financial incentives fit into this broader picture.
  3. How do we effectively manage deep diversity? the current diversity discussion seems to be focused around the aspects of diversity that are easiest to measure (gender and ethnicity) and within that focus, on the business practices that are easiest to change (recruiting). But the diversity that we truly seek goes deeper than that, and actually getting value out of it goes beyond creating “psychological safety”…
  4. What will we find if we start peeling the “employee engagement” onion? Keeping in mind that it was invented by a company that’s deeply in the business of “fixing” it, but wasn’t successful in doing so in the last 3 decades. I have yet to have seen a real randomized controlled test on this, conducted by an independent 3rd-party.
  5. How can we up-level development programs? Can a program that’s purely focused on the “outer game” (skills and competencies: presentation skills, listening skills, giving feedback, having career conversations) without any attempt the change the “inner game” (the way people make sense of the world around them) have any transformational impact on the organization?
  6.  Is there a performance-development Heisenberg Principle? Can we accurately measure performance without hindering our ability to measure development/learning? What is the right balance to strike between the two?
  7. What are the various paths from Patriarchy to Partnership? In my opinion, this is a better, more nuanced description of what many people mean when they talk about getting a way from hierarchical organizations or becoming more self-organizing/self-managing. So far, I have yet to have seen a comprehensive alternative to the “managerial hierarchy”. Holacracy comes close, but is still incomplete and has some significant deficiencies. How do we un-bundle all the functions that the current hierarchy supports? and what are the alternative structures that can fulfill them?

Goodbye 2016, Hello 2017!

7 questions for the new year

OrgHacking 2016: year in review

This is my 3rd (calendaric) year writing this publication and following the tradition I started last year, it’s time for another annual reflection on the learnings I shared. Beyond the broad thematic focus of this publication, I did not have any pre-planned specific themes in mind as I was writing posts. I keep a running list of topics and articles that I find myself thinking about, so taking time to reflect on the whole year and identifying the emergent themes is a really fun exercise. For me at least 🙂

I started this year with some existential concerns about this publication. I wasn’t sure whether this habit will survive the substantial professional pivot I made at the beginning of year. But it turned out these concerns were unsubstantiated. On the contrary, things that happened at work enabled me to write richer, more in depth posts; while topics that I covered in these posts ended up informing actions I’ve taken at work. Your classical win-win.

Last year, the themes ended up being: “Org and Role Design”, “Systems and Processes”, “Culture, Values and Principles”, and “Leadership”. While the themes are never a perfect fit for the content, I also try to avoid brute-forcing the content fit by always having an “Other/Misc” category.

While last year’s themes are not a terrible fit for this year’s topics, I decided to go with  slightly more nuanced themes:

Future of the firm – macro takes on the core of this form of organization in light of other macro trends

Personal development – a meta-insights of this year, was seeing how intertwined personal development and organizational development really are

Organizational phenomena – important insights about organizational behavior that should inform organizational design

Org design blueprints – holistic examples of “organizational blueprints”

Applied organizational improvement – more bite-sized pieces of potential organizational innovations 

Decision Making – since decision making is so core to what an organization does, I figured it deserves its own category

Bizzzzzness – org design is a means to promote the broader purpose of the organization. But there are other lenses to look at the same problem which serve as important context that feed into effective org design:

Other – no need to make all post fit. These were the ones that didn’t fit any of the other themes:

OrgHacking 2016: year in review