Organisation design for remote working

The Organisation Design Community recently launched a podcast series, Making Remote Work. So far they’ve recorded around 12 episodes and have invited one guest per episode.  I got an email from them earlier last week saying, ‘Now we are thinking of creating a panel as well (it is more engaging and conversations tend to flow better) and would love to have you as part of it if you would like to.’

The email continued, ‘Until now, on the podcast we’ve had only 2 [organisation design] practitioners, the others have all been academics. We have touched on various subjects – leadership, teamwork, coordination, cooperation, history of remote, negotiations, values, transparency. We have not yet touched on Organization Design for Remote Work. Would this be something you would like to talk about?’

Having replied with something on the lines of ‘Thanks for the invitation, yes, that would be great’, I’ve spent the last couple of days wondering about the phrase ‘remote work’.

It’s easy to think it’s about the common response to the current coronavirus pandemic.  Companies are asking employees to work from home, rather than going to an office or workplace.  As Dave Cook says in his article,’ Many of us have had little choice but to resort to remote working in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. It is just days since Google, Apple  and Twitter were making headlines by ordering their employees to work from home, but you could now say the same about lots of companies.’

Clearly, there is that forced aspect of remote work – additionally, there are other ways of considering the phrase ‘remote work’.  For example, it could refer to:

  • Work that is done in a specific physical workspace location but which is digitally delivered in real time e.g. telesurgery  or robotic surgery  or drone warfare.
  • Work done physically on a work site but where the workers are remote from their homes and families e.g. astronauts, or construction workers.
  • Work that is done in ‘virtual organisations’, designed to have no, or minimal, physical space but where the workers are doing a variety of jobs, physically remote from other workers, but linked through technologies.   These virtual organisation employees may or may not work from ‘home’, e.g. Uber drivers work from their cars,  while workers at social media management company Buffer, ‘a fully distributed team of 85 people living and working in 15 countries around the world, may work from home, coffee shop, …’
  • Working conditions and/or culture, on or off a physical site that promote a sense of feeling remote e.g. distance from frontline to leader, or lifestyle of garment maker to customer of garment.    This is sometimes reflected in the language of ‘HQ doesn’t understand what’s going on’ or ‘ivory tower executives’ or in pay scales – a recent UK example is the £54m bonus payment. (Ocado delivery drivers can expect to earn £21k per year, taking each one of them 2,570 years to earn the equivalent of £54m).

These are each very different types of ‘remote work’ but across them are some common themes where we could/should be designing.  The themes are:

Perceived, and felt, fairness – which could include the explicit design of pay systems, and the implicit value placed on workers by their organisations and societies.  It’s fairly obvious that in the current situation, typically the higher paid knowledge workers are working ‘remotely’, often from home and the lower paid frontline workers are keeping society’s oils wheeled in the day to day – caring for the sick, making food deliveries, serving in essential retail outlets.  An opportunity to address, is the divide between knowledge (remote) and front-line workers reinforced by pay differentials and perceived value to society.

Cultures of community and belonging – an HBR study conducted in 2017 of 1,100 employees found that remote workers feel shunned and left out whether that is the same now that more people are working remotely I don’t know, but given the explosion of articles on managing remote teams I suspect so.

Interpersonal interaction design – this may be a new area in organisation design  but I have seen many articles on issues of building trust and relationships  in an only on-line world – for example, this National Geographic one ‘Zoom fatigue is taxing the brain. Here’s why that happens.’ If more of us are going to be working online away from the day to day/face to face contact with colleagues then we need to think carefully about ways to replicate the value of this.

Designing for innovation and creativity – Look at the many articles on MIT’s building 20 for example or why living in a city makes you more innovative and you’ll see that putting people randomly together fosters innovation and creativity.  An organisation design challenge for now is how to develop equivalent types of physical space that encourage this, whilst maintaining some of the norms of distancing we may be required to adopt. See the British Council for Offices briefing note on Covid-19 and a similar guidance note from the  British Retail Consortium.

System and process design – in a 25 April article The Economist notes that ‘The pandemic is liberating firms to experiment with radical new ideas.  Some of these will persist after the crisis passes.’   I’m seeing the systems and process redesigns they discuss happening in organisations I am working with.  I think these new designs will, as The Economist suggests, persist. They include:

Organisations being ‘forced to raise their corporate metabolism and overcome analysis paralysis’, this requires redesign of decision-making processes, delegation and authority levels, as well as changes to funding streams and budgetary controls.  They illustrate with the example of Sysco ‘a big American food-distribution firm [that] built and entirely new supply chain and billing system to server grocery stores in less than a week.’

Emboldening managers to change risk management systems in order to try out, at speed, risky new ideas ‘on larger groups of customers.’   Many organisations are swiftly designing and introducing rapid prototyping/testing systems for example Nike’s ‘deft digital pivot’ to online shared workouts or HP’s ‘acceleration of 3D as a service’.

Experimenting with new distribution channels– ‘Google has expanded the use of its Wing drones to deliver medicines and other necessities in rural Virginia’,  while Uber has rapidly expanded its Uber Eats delivery business.

Redesigning supply chains– COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerabilities of complex global supply chains built on lean manufacturing principles.

Command and control processes changing in ways as yet unclear – some aspects becoming much more authoritarian others becoming more open and transparent for example, investing in open-source software or engaging customers in open-innovation efforts.

How are you thinking about ‘remote’ and do you think the pandemic will change organisation designs and the way we design organisations?  Let me know.

Image:  Virtual team building activities

Normal or not?

‘Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’  This Winston Churchill quote is just right for now.   We are not at the beginning of the end of the Covid-19 crisis.  It is going to be with us, perhaps for our lifetimes or longer, as other infectious illnesses are.

Virologist, Guido Vanham, in a World Economic Forum interview said,  ‘It [Covid-19] will probably never end, in the sense that this virus is clearly here to stay unless we eradicate it. And the only way to eradicate such a virus would be with a very effective vaccine that is delivered to every human being. We have done that with smallpox, but that’s the only example – and that has taken many years.’

So, I’m surprised by the number of meetings I’ve been in over the last couple of weeks in which people are talking about ‘going back to normal’, or ‘the next normal’ or ‘the new normal’, in ways suggesting that they are planning to ‘tweak’ their world view and their organisations a bit,  and in doing this things will be much the same as they were during 2019 or even up to early 2020.

This is a mistake.  We have had a wrenching global shock both individually and collectively.    Organisations are reeling from it, very few will be able to go back, or forward, to any form of ‘normal’ that looks anything like the pre Covid-19 crisis.

We know, and are experiencing, the  covid-19 pandemic, which, as the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) reports, ‘has led to society-wide lockdowns across the world, bringing all but commerce and services deemed most essential to a sudden halt, large portions of countries sheltering at home and unemployment spiking.’    As a result of the Covid-19 measures, the IMF, in its latest World Economic Outlook, forecasts the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

To examine this forecast, in April this year, the EIU, launched the Global Business Barometer, which will be updated monthly. The launch survey was ‘Based on an initial online survey of 2,758 executives from 118 countries, fielded from March 26th to April 6th’.  Respondents were asked ‘questions ranging from their outlook on the global economy and investment plans to operational and risk management strategies.’ The findings make grim reading.

The EIU states, ‘the world is not going to suddenly spring back and continue as though nothing has happened. Forty percent of executives we surveyed answered it would take “less than a year” from the outbreak for their business to recover. That is cheering and we hope they are proven prescient. But 46% of those surveyed believe it will take between 1-2 years and 10% believe it will take 3-5 years. The former seems realistic, the latter disastrous.’

The EIU comments, ‘Few if any industries will be spared from the impact of covid-19 and the various policy responses to it. Some will be much harder hit than others. Tourism and travel is an obvious example, as is the consumer goods sector (outside of food and other essentials). With many factories shuttered across the globe, supply-chain disruptions and demand cratering, manufacturing is also forecast to experience significant pain in the short to medium-term.’

Leandro Herrero, in his inimitable way is clear ‘We need to feed-forward. Not feed-back. We don’t need a thermostat. We need a compass. Move North or East or West or South, but never back to normal. Because normal is not waiting for us.  …  The so called ‘new normal’ (this thing is sticky) is for creators, makers, builders. Not for decorators of the same old room. Not going back to the pot of paint to finish the ceiling, that was left behind.’

His is a call to move on from our paradigm of ‘normal’ that is not waiting for us.  Others suggest similarly.  For example, the UK Guardian notes,

‘The global impact of the coronavirus pandemic poses a fundamental question: is this one of those historic moments when the world changes permanently, when the balance of political and economic power shifts decisively, and when, for most people, in most countries, life is never quite the same again?

Put more simply, is this the end of the world as we know it? And, equally, could the crisis mark a new beginning?

Genuinely pivotal global moments, watersheds or turning points (pick your own terminology) are actually quite rare. Yet if the premise is correct – that there can be no return to the pre-Covid-19 era – then it poses many unsettling questions about the nature of the change, and whether it will be for better or worse.’

What I’m not seeing much of in my day-to-day work is organisational leaders consciously and reflectively discussing and debating these larger questions.  What I’m seeing is a bias to action to get things ‘back on track’, in much the same way as they were pre-Covid-19.

The numerous ‘R’ words from management consultants are not helpful in encouraging time for thought.  For the most part, they are based on a ‘normal’ management 3 – 5 step frameworks.  For example, McKinsey’s advice to leaders in early April was to think and act across 5 horizons: resolve, resilience, return reimagination and reform.

Now (May) they propose: recovering revenue, rebuilding operations, rethinking the organization, and accelerating the adoption of digital solutions.  (OK – no final ‘R’ word).

Bain – also in April – has Protect, Recover and Retool.  While Accenture’s advice for the Covid-19 crisis (that could have been given at any point in the last decade) is to ‘establish long-term strategies for greater resilience. Apply lessons learned … to create a systems and talent roadmap that better prepares your company for future disruptions.

  • Define long-term transformation strategies that prioritize and address antiquated applications, architectures and infrastructure, highly manual processes and underfunded cyber resilience.
  • Self-fund your transformation through small incremental programs that drive efficiency and free up capital.
  • Leverage ecosystem partners to shift to an asset-light model and mitigate vulnerable dependencies, choosing partners resilient to global risks.’

If we are reaching a turning point in containing the Covid-19 pandemic then it is time to recognise that this is as Churchill said, ‘perhaps the end of the beginning’ but the beginning of something that doesn’t relate to any prior ‘normal’.

Geoff Mulgan put the opportunity well in his piece How not to waste a crisis. He says:  ‘The next few months will bring intensive learning on how to manage the crisis, as well exit strategies. But we also need to start planning for the peace. What new methods can be adapted from the crisis? … What new ways of thinking has it thrown up?…  we should never waste a crisis. An incredible amount of thought, creativity and commitment is going into the responses around us right now. But how can we harness some of that for longer term [positive] impact?’

Similarly, economist Milton Friedman noted:

“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

Do you think this is the end of the beginning and should we avoid any thinking about ‘normal’ as we have known it?   What ideas have you got lying around that will produce real change?  Let me know.

Image: Li Zhong: Mercury Company in Full Production, April 2020


Cathedral thinking – are we capable and willing?

In March’s Gardener’s World magazine Monty Don tells of the friends who introduced him to the concept of ‘cathedral thinking’.  He says, ‘You may be aware of this, but just in case you haven’t come across it before, the argument for cathedral thinking is that just as medieval cathedrals took hundreds of years to build  – involving generations of craftsmen devoting their entire lives to the task, despite having no chance of seeing the finished work – so we should plan and participate in work that benefits future generations and the world at large, rather than ourselves and our own narrow interests and lifespans.’

Monty Don has just planted a three-acre wood.  He explains, ‘We’ve called it George’s Wood because it is intended for him, my grandson – and his grandchildren – rather than my son and his wife, let alone Sarah or myself.’

Rightly, he asks the question how do you translate this benefit for future generations, if you don’t have 3 acres available to plant but simply a ‘normal (smallish) back garden attached to a normal (smallish) house’?

He proposes that we do this by ‘thinking and acting bigger than our lives, beyond the restrictions and constraints of our garden, our street and the limited world that inevitably we all inhabit.  … An awareness that we’re all connected and part of the bigger world is a huge liberation and means that sometimes we can think big – cathedral big – in our own backyards’.

The coronavirus pandemic offers us a unique opportunity to really think through how we want to approach the future – whether we want to take a short term, quarterly results perspective or the longer, cathedral, view, thinking big – armed with a moral compass pointing at what is good for society and what is the right thing to do.

My hope is that we aim for cathedral thinking,  going for the longer view and bigger thinking and this week I listened to four webinars with speakers expertly putting the case for just that.

The first was The upside of pestilence: how the virus will humanise our organisations, one in the excellent London Business School series ‘Leading through a pandemic’, the speakers were Dominic Houlder and Jules Goddard, co-authors of What Philosophy Can Teach You About Being a Better Leader.

They make the case for teaching leaders philosophy – ably debunking any suggestion that this is a ‘dispensable luxury’.  They remind us that Peter Drucker said, ‘Management is doing things right, leadership is doing the right thing’. In their view deciding what is right is a question of philosophy.

Their hope is that  effective leaders will use this crisis to develop resourceful humans – beyond human resources, building on three sources of capital:  physical capital – the sources of production, social capital – including trust, collective intelligence, reciprocity, genuine dialogue, and moral capital – meaningfulness, the conditions conducive to leading a fulfilled life, a sense of our own agency, a sense of purpose, a sense of identity and belonging.  They ask us to reflect, for our organisations, on the question, ‘how might the moral capital of the enterprise be measured and enhanced?’

The second was Radical Uncertainty: Decision-making for an unknowable future an LSE discussion with Mervyn King and John Kay, authors of a book with the same title.

They argue that contemporary approaches to dealing with uncertainty rely on a false understanding of our power to make predictions, leading to many of the problems we experience today. Nevertheless, we have to make decisions in conditions of radical uncertainty, where we can neither imagine all possible outcomes nor assign probabilities to future events. So, we crave certainties which cannot exist and invent knowledge we cannot have.  (Chapter 1 of their book opens with the Leo Tolstoy quote ‘All we can know is that we know nothing.  And that is the sum total of human wisdom’.)  They distinguish between puzzles (solvable) and mysteries (what we don’t know).  In their view, asking the question ‘what’s going on here?’ is not a simple or banal question but the start of a reflective process, starting from a premise that we don’t know and our models may not work.

The  third webinar, was Margaret Heffernan talking in the Jericho Chambers series ‘Life After the Virus’.  In this one – Uncharted: how to map the future together,  Margaret was talking with others on her message to ‘resist the false promises of technology and efficiency. Instead, mine our own creativity and humanity – give ourselves the capacity to create the futures we want and can believe in.’

In an opinion piece for Jericho Chambers, she talks specifically about cathedral projects, saying they ‘take more than a lifetime to complete … they are conceived in uncertainty’ She gives an example, ‘CERN is a modern cathedral project, even though it was designed to discover things that might not exist, using technology no one knew how to build, on a timescale that was impossible to define at budgets nobody knew how to draft. Mired in uncertainty, it both produced enormous breakthroughs in physics and has thrown off dozens of inherently unpredictable innovations, including the worldwide web. Not planned. Never predicted.’

I also heard Margaret speak with the RSA on ‘How to map the future together in this discussion she said,  ‘I would dearly, dearly love to think that this crisis will provoke, experimentation and openness to new ideas in a way that will enhance our democracy that is the best hope I can think of coming out of this.’ (She is a strong advocate of deliberative democracy).

The fourth was another Jericho Conversation Stakeholder v Shareholder Capitalism.  Panellists debated the question ‘Will a better, more responsible capitalism emerge from the crisis – or will the heat be on to return to “shareholder value” and the maximisation of profit and returns?’

The discussion is a useful mix of optimism and pessimism on what will come out of the crisis.  Panellists hoped that it would bring a better society and offered some thoughts on how this might be fanned into life – as Jane McCormick pointed out ‘none of us has all the answers. New partnerships and fresh thinking will be required – government, business and civil society working together’.

How are you and your organisation approaching the future – is it through ‘cathedral thinking’?  If not should it be and if so, how can we foster it?  Let me know.

Image: Quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery Wartime Writings 1939-1944

Autonomy, mastery, purpose – a Covid-19 view

You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose’, popularised by Dan Pink in his book Drive:  The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. (See the RSA Animate that summarises it).

He describes motivation as an outcome of three factors, autonomy – our desire to be self-directed/direct our own lives, mastery – our urge to get better at stuff, and purpose – having a clear reason for doing something and being able to make a contribution as you do it.   In the Animate he says ‘I think we are purpose maximisers, not only profit maximisers. I think the science shows that we care about mastery very deeply and that we want to be self-directed.’

The book is largely concerned with motivation at work and the performance cultures of carrot and stick.  In the Animate, Pink suggests that ‘if we get past the ideology of carrot and stick and look at the science, we can build organisations and work lives that make us better off. … It also has the promise of making our world just a little bit better.’   He points out that ‘We have moved on to a new, more creative plane – “heuristic”, rather than “algorithmic”. In other words, we need to be creative. But the trouble is that the old carrot-and-stick model doesn’t work when you want people to be creative.’

However, his thinking applies equally well to our current coronavirus situation.  In one interpretation of it, it has a strong element of carrot and stick.  The daily update I get from my local Council say firmly, each day, ‘Lockdown measures have been extended to keep ourselves, our loved ones and key workers safe. Please continue to stay at home, protect our NHS and save lives.’

The carrot here is staying locked down helps keep us safe (As Armando Iannucci put it in the latest Big Issue ‘we’ve turned our living rooms into an open prison’). The stick is the implication that if you buck the lockdown rules bad things will happen.

What effect does this carrot and stick situation have on our sense of motivation – even at the level of being motivated to get up in the morning?

Pink tells us to look at the science of autonomy, mastery and purpose to enable motivation, creativity and higher performance, it may be equally useful to look at the anecdote and story of it.  There are so many of these coming out now as we grapple, in our different ways with the situation.

Changing the order of Pink’s framework, I’ll begin with ‘purpose’.  Rather than feeling that we are in a ‘carrot and stick’ situation we could say that we had a common purpose aimed at containing the spread of the virus and stopping our health services becoming overwhelmed, and we subscribe to that purpose.  The Civil Society arm of United Nations, for example, believes ‘that our common purpose will lift us during this difficult time, and that we can learn from and build on each other’s efforts.’

Accepting (if we do) that as our common purpose, and that part of it is to also accept the controls that go with it, there are still choices we can make about our level of autonomy. Some of us will feel fearful and powerless, others will see an opportunity for growth and learning. (See graphic above).

We could, perhaps, reframe lockdown for ourselves and say our purpose in it is, for example, to ‘explore the gift of solitude’ which is what one of my friends – in the vulnerable category – described himself doing last week as he started his 12th week of self-isolation.  (There’s a book A History of Solitude, David Vincent coming out this week.)  An alternative purpose is to explore ‘the gift of togetherness’ – another of my friends said ‘I am lucky to have all my family here so we have a ready-made social group.’

Having an ability, circumstance and/or willingness to look for even small things that provide feelings of autonomy/self-direction and intrinsic motivation maybe hard to find in this situation.

We read heartbreaking stories of loss, mental health decline and surges in domestic violence.  Yet, as a counter balance there are abundant stories of people who are looking at areas where they can feel self-directed and it is worth looking to these for examples of learning and growth.

People who have a garden or balcony, are developing their gardening skills – maybe for the first time – and to the extent that seed suppliers are overwhelmed with demand. Others are baking (no flour or yeast in our local supermarket), while others are contributing amazing acts of kindness and compassion: look at the stories on this from the North East of England, for example.

That form of self-direction illustrates intrinsic motivation – pleasure gained from an activity, divorced from any further elements. It means liking the doing. (See an excellent paper Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: Time for Expansion and Clarification.) It may be that for some people this period actually unlocks a new talent or skill – one that in the pre-covid-19 world remained latent and unexplored.  (In my case, I’m attempting to knit a lace pattern for the first time).

Pink talks about mastery as our urge to get better at stuff.  We’ve all seen masses of imaginative encouragement for that during this time – aimed at people and interests of all ages/types.   My grandsons are developing their footballing skills – they are fortunate to have a small back garden –  and are getting daily new activities from their football club.  Time Out published a list of 80 things to do at home, and there are daily new ideas coming from individuals and organisations of all types as they hone their online participation capability.   Now is the time/opportunity to try something you think you never knew you wanted to learn,  something you thought you might want to get learn or get better at or develop higher level capability.

Those hoping to maintain their high level skills are demonstrating their capacity to work against the odds: for example, Olympic athletes are improvising training at home (and sharing workouts if you want to have a go) and similarly ballet dancers are performing their routines in their homes..

What I’m wondering now, is how we can maintain the social imagination and creativity we are seeing in play.  We would gain from keeping it going as we gradually exit the tight lockdown conditions.  And how will we take forward into coming months and years what we have learned and grown, for our individual and collective betterment.

In Geoff Mulgan’s words.  Let’s ‘map out some of the possibility spaces for the next few decades: possible futures for care and health, democracy and property … describ­ing a future in which we can feel at home, and then using the power of that vision to catalyse action today to help us get there.’

How do you think we can do that?  Let me know.

Image: Thanks @ekaterinawilts  for sending me this image. I can’t track down the originator.

Let’s not future proof, part 2 (Prepare instead)

EODF Benelux, invited me to facilitate a session about one of my blogs as they are running, ‘Quarantine-inspiration-sessionsfor their members, saying In the following weeks we’d like to provide you with some inspiration and continue the conversation around the topic of futureproof organisations.’ They’ve invited me because I wrote a blog in December last year called ‘Let’s not future proof’, which struck a chord.

As a start, I’ve re-read my blog to see what I said.  In it I quoted from my book; ‘one of my five rules of thumb for designing is:

Stay alert to the future. The context is constantly shifting and this requires an alert, continuous and well-executed environmental scanning. Organisations should be aware that they may have to do design work at any point, so they should take steps to build or maintain a culture where change, innovation and forward thinking are welcomed.’

This is not ‘future-proofing’.   I extend the discussion about staying alert to the future, saying: ‘No company can accurately predict what the future will bring, but trend analysis, simulations, rapid prototyping, scenario planning, gaming, environmental scanning and a range of other techniques give clues on the context and the competitive environment. Organisations … that take the future seriously are less likely to be blindsided by events than organisations that are rooted in the present [or planning for a future they think they can predict].’  I’ve added the bit in brackets just now.

As you can see, I am fully in favour of taking the future seriously, but not trying to ‘future proof’.  The idea of ‘future proofing’ implies:

1.  A lack of ability to distinguish between complicated and complex.  David Snowden, Director of the Centre for Applied Complexity at The University of Wales and founder of Cognitive Edge is well known in organisation design and development circles for his work on complexity. Hear his TEDx talk here.   As he and others explain, organisations are not now complicated i.e. predictable,  they are complex i.e. unpredictable and they are functioning in broader complex, unpredictable systems.  (Be careful, because aspects of some organisations are complicated e.g. mass producing a component).

2.  A belief that the future can be predicted.  It can’t because we live in complexity.  (Read my blog on Futures and Horizon Scanning and/or read some of Philip Tetlock’s  work).   This is not to say that everything is unpredictable, it isn’t.  A train timetable is often predictable, but sometimes the train doesn’t turn up.  The immediate future is much more predictable than a more distant one.

Mervyn King and John Kay in their new book Radical Uncertainty: Decision-making for an Unknowable Future, talking about the 2007 – 2008 banking crisis, say ‘Because we live in a world of radical uncertainty, in which it is not possible to assess the probability or nature of any future crisis, the assessment of how robust and resilient the banking system should be is a matter of judgement’.  NOTE: There is some academic discussion on the relationship between complexity and radical uncertainty.  I’ve taken a view that radical uncertainty is a property inherent in complexity.

3.  A predisposition, coupled with inertia, to stick with the way we do things, instead of in Margaret Heffernan’s words ‘to free ourselves to explore the contours and landscapes of possibility.’  In her new book, Uncharted, she says, ‘we need to be bolder in our search, more penetrating in our enquiry, more energetic in our quest for discovery.’  She advocates experiments which are ‘what you do when you don’t know what you can do; they’re ideal for complex environments.’

An activity I often mention is Peter Drucker’s planned abandonment one.  In pre covid-19 times I have very rarely seen organisations do this, and nor have I been able to encourage them to do so.  Now we are in covid-19 times I’m seeing an amazing amount of unplanned abandonment. (I’m hoping that the unplanned abandonment will enable critical and reflective planned abandonment to emerge.)

If we take a view that organisations are inherently complex that is,  as Margaret Heffernan  says ‘they are non-linear and fluid, where small effects may produce disproportionate impacts’ and that decisions and choices are being made in conditions of radical uncertainty, then are there ways to help individuals and organisation develop in Mervyn King’s words ‘resilience and robustness of key systems [which are] an important element in coping with radical uncertainty? (Margaret Heffernan also talks about ‘robust’ organisations).

Well – the current covid-19 pandemic offers an opportunity to consider whether and how we could develop organisational resilience and robustness which will help us meet the emerging future in a state of better preparedness.

In blogs over the last four weeks (first one 16 March) I’ve written on what I am seeing of the impact of the coronavirus.  Each week unfolds new aspects that could feed into methods of developing robustness, resilience and preparedness, rather than attempting to future proof.  This week there are two:

Leadership:  I’ve been in several conversations about leadership in this situation – both national and organisational leadership. London Business School is offering a series of webinars on leading through a pandemic, but the discussions I’ve been in have been less to do with the pandemic and more to do with questions about leadership in complexity and radical uncertainty, recognising that for many organisations their leaders have been selected to handle complicated (more predictable) contexts and are ill equipped to understand, recognise and handle the volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous contexts in ways that help develop robust, resilient and prepared organisations.

The adjacent possible:  A second aspect this week that implies robustness, resilience and preparedness is that of ‘the adjacent possible’ (original theory developed by Stuart Kauffman).  Steven Johnson, in the WSJ,  describes it well: ‘The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.’  In my interpretation this considers where an organisation’s next space could be that will keep it adapting.

I’m seeing a lot of examples of this right now. One is Silent Pool Distillers a small gin distilling company who, using similar ingredients to gin, are now producing hand sanitizers.  Head Distiller, Tom Hutchings, said ‘we saw that there was a lack of hand sanitiser, so we decided to put our equipment, alcohol and botanicals to good use by creating a couple of hundred bottles for locals.  But we’ve now got an additional 5,000 bottles in production. ’ The company is hoping to increase production to supply hospitals, care homes and medical centres. Silent Pool is one of many organisations I’ve read are moving into the adjacent possible – but, how many others could have had they been exploring the possibilities and developing skills and capabilities for the unknown?

To recap:  Aiming to future proof is folly.  Developing preparedness for an unknown future is sensible.  You can do this through a variety of means including: developing leaders comfortable with complexity and radical uncertainty, considering the adjacent possible, undertaking planned abandonment activity, participating in critical thinking in various future focused activities (for examples of some of these look at the IRISS Future Risk and Opportunity Toolkit)

What’s your view on the future proofing?  Can we proof ourself against the future? Is building robustness, resilience and preparedness just a different form of future proofing?  Let me know.

Image: The adjacent possible

Covid-19: An organisation design perspective

This is not exactly the transcript of the webinar I am facilitating on 9 April, Covid-19:  An organisation design perspective,  but it is the sketchy outline of the discussion we’ll be having if things go according to plan i.e. technology holding up, people registering,  I log on at the right time, I don’t press ‘end webinar’ in the middle by accident, etc.

Real time webinars are a bit scary.  Mine is using the Webinar Ninja platform and, fortunately, they have a very comprehensive ‘complete guide on how to plan, create, and run a successful webinar’.    Its author says: ‘Let me be absolutely clear. (Their emphasis). This is a total game plan. It’s not a simple blog post, listicle, or collection of tips. This guide includes all the essential information you need to plan and execute your webinar from start to finish.’   Ok – I hope I’ve taken the point and assimilated the guidance, here’s how I’ve worked with it.

I turn to the section on presentation slides and learn that,  ‘Your presentation slides are not your workshop script. These are visual aids that supplement and guide what you’re teaching. If everything you say and do is on the slides, then why can’t your attendees just read the slides on their own? There has to be more to your workshop than that.’   Right, good.  I’d already planned that attendees will participate via the chat box, Slido, or similar.

The guidance then says ‘Begin with a title’.  I’ve got that.  It’s the title of this blog, The instruction is ‘Create a title that sounds irresistible, and create a webinar that fulfills its promise.’  Well, I didn’t think of the title, it was given to me as a suggestion by the organisers.  I’m not sure it is ‘irresistible’, (how do you measure that?), but it must be down to me to create the webinar that fulfils its promise.

The next requirement is to ‘have a learning outcome’.  Good point.  I created the presentation and then read the guidance.  I found I’d not got learning outcomes stated – but now I have:

By the end of this webinar, we will have

  • Recapped on what organisation design is
  • Looked at what we are noticing as Covid-19 impacts organisation design
  • Considered some critical questions we need to immediately ask about the design of our organisation
  • Started to discuss some actions we can take now to design our organisations for the ‘new normal’

Then comes the ‘About’ slide, I’m warned, ‘This is where many hosts run into trouble. It can be very tempting to blather on about oneself, listing your accomplishments and “sharing your journey.” Keep this part short and sweet’.  I’ve bucked the instructions by putting ‘About me’ before the learning outcome, but I have kept it short, in fact the older I get the more I trim down my bio.

The next slide is supposed to be a ‘before and after’ slide: ‘It’s important to show your attendees what life looks like with and without your solution implemented. This indirectly shows how important the workshop is, and how much their life will improve because of it.’   Oh dear, I decided to leave this slide out.  I don’t have either a solution to covid-19 or a solution to how to design organisations in the light/wake of it.  I also can’t guarantee that attendees’ life will improve because of the workshop – that seems like a bridge too far at this point.

I can’t even guarantee they will be listening to the webinar, even if they are logged on and attending. Someone sent me a delightful zoom meeting attention span pie chart (Actual meeting time attention 2%, removing of kids from bedroom 10%, etc), which seems pretty accurate in my two weeks or so of Zooming.

‘Then comes the meat of the presentation’ I’m told to ‘Break down your instruction into 5 steps/ tips/ strategies that move your audience toward the learning outcome. For each step/tip/strategy, provide 3 sub-steps, details, or important clarifications’.  OK – I’m fine on this one.  My years of teaching and instructional design seem to have made me unconsciously competent at this. But wait, I have only 3 steps (although each set has 3-sub steps).  Will this work or shall I somehow introduce two more steps?

I’m using the ‘What, So What, Now What’ model.   In my zeal to attribute it to someone, I got side-tracked by trying to find out who to attribute it to.  The choices I’ve found so far are, separately: Driscoll, Rolfe, McCandless, Borton.  The best discussion of the origins of this model, that I came across is in Chapter 2, Practising Clinical Supervision: A Reflective Approach for Healthcare Professionals, 2006, ed John Driscoll,  Elsevier (I read the chapter by ‘looking inside’,  But he doesn’t mention Keith McCandless, who has a workshop outline using it.)  Anyway, I’m not really sure how much it needs attribution.  Does it take academic brainpower, research and theoretical underpinnings to think up ‘What, So What, Now What’?  They’re pretty simple words in common usage.

Well the meat of my presentation, begins with the ‘What’ – ‘The forced move to remote working as a response to COVID19 is arguably one of the biggest organization design shocks to have hit with such rapidity and scale in our lifetimes’, says the ODC and is followed by my discussing the impact of the ‘What’:

We are considering, often for the very first time, why we have worked the way we do.  We are being forced to confront the delta between our assumptions, our beliefs, and our reality.  We are starting to ask:  Why does this process or policy exist? Is what we say what we do? Have we considered this before? The shock is provoking a conversation. That conversation is provoking change. We will not go back to ‘normal’.  (This section is adapted from Aaron Dignan’s blog on the operating system canvas).

I then move onto the ‘So What’ three critical questions that covid-19 is forcing us to ask:  What organisational values, strategies, decisions have been made or changed so far through this experience? What are the critical organisational design factors that are currently maintaining a level of business continuity?  What of our before covid-19 organisation design may continue to serve us and what may we want to discard/change/do differently?

And finally onto ‘Now What’ with five actions taken from the excellent Covid-19 Briefing Materials, McKinsey.  Oh – I just realised that it should only be 3 actions if I am following the 5 x 3 approach.  No – it’s ok. I’ve already slipped that leash.

Almost home and dry then?  I have a recap slide.  But I don’t have the suggested ‘my offer’ slide – I’ll think on that one, and perhaps slip it in when I’ve decided what to offer.  I have got the Q & A slide and (not suggested in the guidance),  and a further resources slide.

If this sounds like an irresistible webinar and you want to register for it you can do that here, and if you can’t attend, it is being recorded so if you register, you can listen to it after the event.

How do you think covid-19 is impacting/will impact organisation design?  Let me know.

What are you going to meet if you turn this corner?

Running in deserted London the other day, I was faced with a huge gold ‘What’ on a pedestal (see photo above).  It seems just the right thing to come across unexpectedly right now and it amused me as I wondered ‘What, indeed?’ to myself.

When I got home, I looked it up.  It’s part of London’s Culture Mile wayfinding tour marked by artwork installations.  The ‘What’ is the first on the route and comes from a sentence in Virginia Woolf’s novel Jacob’s Room: ‘What are you going to meet if you turn this corner?’  Each word in the sentence is at a different location on the culture mile.

In “Jacob’s Room” Virginia Woolf wrote: “The strange thing about life is that though the nature of it must have been apparent to everyone for hundreds of years, no one has left any adequate account of it. The streets of London have their map; but our passions are uncharted. What are you going to meet if you turn this corner?”

This seems so right.  I like the word ‘if’ – what are we going to meet if we turn this corner?  I’m in multiple discussions where we are wondering what and how this pandemic will affect organisations, organisation design, the way we do organisation design, ways of working.  For example, Tricordant, an organisational design consultancy, invited me ‘to join a small group of our clients and close friends as we explore: the impact of COVID-19 on our organisations and people, what we’re learning at this time, how we reorganise to shift beyond surviving, how to identify and plan for the other game changers lurking out there, and how to lead in uncertainty.’  Mayvin, another organisation design consultancy is sending out ‘Our Stories: Mayvin’s reflections during these challenging times’, and has compiled a set of useful organisational resources around COVID-19.  Interestingly, they say they are there ‘to help people to find a positive way through this unsettling time’ and to ‘keep the wheels turning so that everyone is well-placed to get back to normal once the peak of the crisis is over.’

I’m curious about their phrase ‘get back to normal’ as I don’t think there will be a back to the normal we had a few weeks ago.  I’m seeing all various speculations on the effects of the pandemic on various aspects of society and organisation.  Geoff Mulgan has a very useful blog ‘How not to waste a crisis – possibilities for government after COVID-19’ outlining what we may see if we turn this corner.

I also have three questions (this week!) on what we are going to meet, which I’ve presented in a binary way, but which are likely to be more nuanced that this:

Are we going to meet an erosion or strengthening of human rights? Human Rights has published a document that ‘provides an overview of human rights concerns posed by the coronavirus outbreak, drawing on examples of government responses to date, and recommends ways governments and other actors can respect human rights in their response.’    Similarly, United Nations experts say that Human rights must be maintained in beating back the COVID-19 pandemic, ‘without exception’.

Are we going to meet a situation where we have collectively learned the right lessons or  one where we have quickly forgotten like we did with the 1918 flu?  A useful blog from Oxford University’s Practical Ethics group discusses this question.  Ethicist, Anders Sandberg, notes that ‘The availability heuristic makes humans unwilling to consider events that have never occurred before to them or in remembered history. This is a serious problem for mitigating big, unprecedented risks since before they happen few care about them (and afterwards it may be too late).’  He says it is our ‘moral duty to pre-commit to actually learn the lessons that need to be learned’ and offers suggestions on what the lessons are:

  • Be clear on what ‘strategies work and do not work, whether in epidemiological strategy, social life or how to handle the experience personally.’
  • Document. He says ‘Asking everybody to write a COVID journal might be cute, but the real goal must be to document the things that would otherwise be lost’. This echoes Woolf’s point about London ‘that though the nature of it must have been apparent to everyone … no one has left any adequate account of it’.
  • After it has been documented the information ‘needs to be shared. Notes need to be compared, data compiled and scrutinized’
  • Have people and organisations actually bringing up the lessons and not letting go until they have been learned. If policy X is robustly better than policy Y, that needs to be loudly and clearly told.

He says,  ‘the COVID-19 pandemic is not the end of the world. But it certainly is a wake-up call. … Given the stakes, it matters to learn well.’

Are we going to meet a world where people no longer go to offices but work and connect with each other remotely?  (We are in the process of running job interviews on Skype and a colleague remarked that this method may supplant face to face interviews).  An article by Mark Eltringham,  ‘The shape of things to come for the world and the workplace’ has a wide range of links and info to that point us to various perspectives on what the workplace and the world of work might look like.  He finishes the blog saying,  ‘we are in a new normal. If that’s the case let’s make it a better one. In particular, let’s use it as an opportunity to develop better habits and display better ethics. In particular let’s rediscover our connections with others and create better spaces to share with them.’

Looking at these three questions, I see that none of them are charting the passions that go with them.  I wonder what it would take to do that?  The closest we seem to be getting right now are variations on hints and tips to avoid going ‘stir crazy’ in lockdown, the difficulties of home schooling and descriptions of the roller coaster of emotions around lockdowns.  All of these are useful in showing us we are not alone in this,  but somehow lacking what I think Woolf was getting at it wanting to chart the passions – maybe it will take another novelist to do this effectively?

What do you think we are going to meet if we turn this corner?  Will we have good maps and will we have managed to chart the passions that go with the maps?  Let me know.

Construction: Expansion/Contraction

As some things contract, others expand and vice versa. Like the ‘exploration’ I came across (photo above), we are all part of a landscape intervention that is expanding and contracting to accommodate a variety of site conditions.

The last two weeks in the UK, where I am, have been stunning in the expansion of some aspects and the contraction of others.  We are all exploring ‘site conditions’, and adapting to them organisationally, individually and collectively/societally.   I agree with a colleague who emailed saying, ‘I feel a shift in the collective consciousness which can hopefully be for the good of society and nations as a whole’.

Another colleague sent me the link to an excellent blog from Otto Scharmer, Eight Emerging Lessons: From Coronavirus to Climate Action.  One of his eight lessons is that ‘If the coronavirus crisis has brought home anything, it’s that we — each of us, separately and together — can change the system. … our mindful behavior is needed to avoid a breakdown of the system.’  We need to change the system, not break the system.

The system is inevitably changing – and it’s our responses to those changes that I’ve been noticing and experiencing in the last couple of weeks.

At all three levels (organisationally, individually and collectively/societally) I’ve noticed and experienced expansion of:

Neighbourliness:  There are signs going up on trees around my block, in the lift in my flat and Nextdoor has a new feature: ‘Find neighbours who can help or offer your support to those in need on the Help Map’.  If you don’t know nextdoor, it’s worth a look.  It’s an on-line ‘neighbourhood hub for trusted connections and the exchange of helpful information, goods, and services.’ You join for your postcode/zip code area. In the ‘About’ section it says, ‘We believe that by bringing neighbours together, we can cultivate a kinder world where everyone has a neighbourhood they can rely on’. Traffic in my neighbourhood has sky-rocketed.

Community spirit: Akin to neighbourliness, I’ve noticed a sharp rise in community spirit – a kind of ‘we’re all in this together’.  There’s a lovely piece on this in ‘The Atlantic’ that reads ‘We are witnessing people everywhere, acting mostly independently but all together, shutting our country down—a move that ensures millions will face a massive, incalculable economic hit—to give the weakest among us a better chance against the novel coronavirus. We are each sacrificing our daily routines—our gyms and coffee shops and offices—to keep health-care professionals from becoming overwhelmed… It is a collective act of almost unprecedented community spirit, a fundamental statement of how we stand together as a species.’

Creative thinking:  There are some wonderful ideas.  I love the #campathome from Northumberland Scouts, and the bingo from balconies.  More seriously, the BBC has some good links for ‘The School of Mum and Dad

Certain job roles:  Some sectors are expanding their workforces in response to the new landscape.  The NHS is calling on retired medical staff to step forward to cover and Tesco (a supermarket) is recruiting 20k people:  ‘The supermarket is just one of several taking on around 50,000 staff between them over the next 12 weeks to cope with the surge in demand as people prepare to self isolate’.

I’ve noticed and experienced contraction of:

Food, grocery and household items: as peoplepanic buy.

Community face to face gatherings:  school, music, talks, sports, churches, pubs, restaurants, many many retail shops are closed for the moment.

Security of ‘normal’ routines: these are breaking down as people’s lives are disrupted, but there’s quite a bit of info on the importance of structure and routines for maintaining mental health, for example, Get Dressed and Set Goals and The Power of Routines in Your Mental Health

Certain job roles: some sectors are being particularly badly hit.  The film and entertainment sectors are two.  An article in Forbes lists a whole lot of others.

I’ve noticed and experienced exploration of:

Social distancing:  I’ve now been involved a book club (over Zoom), group Skype/Teams calls – social and work, and we’re a few of us are about to try a cinema trip – thanks to Netflix+google hangouts, and I’m also doing a virtual 5k run.  There’s an excellent discussionof social distancing with Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki who says, ‘Social distancing has been vital to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. But it’s important that people remain connected – otherwise a long-term mental and physical health crisis might follow the viral one’.  He thinks ‘we should begin by reframing what we’re doing right now. “Social distancing” was the wrong term to begin with. We should think of this time as “physical distancing” to emphasize that we can remain socially connected even while being apart. In fact, I encourage all of us to practice “distant socializing.” Ironically, the same technologies we often blame for tearing apart our social fabric might be our best chance, now, of keeping it together.’

Learning that looking after your mental health is important/urgent:  the UK’s Mental Health Foundation has two tip sheets for managing your mental health in current times  Looking after your mental health while working during  and Talking to your children about the coronavirus pandemic and there’s a very good info piece with lots of links from The Independent.

Really getting to grips with remote working (office, school work… ):  There’s a lovely story on how BBC radio and TV hosts are keeping their shows on air from home and my own colleagues are working out things like how four people working from home can each have their own workspace, how to work with toddlers/children around and how to effectively use all the available technologies.

Trying to work out what’s going on (sensemaking): An article from Design Week is interesting on this topic.  One of several people quoted is Jo Barnard, founder of product design company Morrama ‘design studios frequently work collaboratively.  I’ve always been of the belief that sketch sessions, project reviews and design crits are best carried out in person. … There is also a potential problem of loneliness and impact on wellbeing, as creatives are forced to work remotely. Despite its challenges — and it is perhaps too early to identify all of them — this could be a chance to rethink how designers work.’

What I think could be a silver lining in all this (see the blog from the Oxford Ethics Group on coronavirus silver linings) is that it could be a chance to re-construct, rethink and change our social and other systems for the better.

Leandro Herrero asks the question: ‘What if we did that? What if we treated the coronavirus pandemic as a chance in a lifetime to surprise ourselves, surprise our colleagues, surprise our clients, surprise the market with our new ‘us’. Not survived, and tired, and happy to still be running, but unpredicted and unexpectedly better, fantastic, enhanced by a serious multiple.’ In his view ‘It’s doable.’

What’s your view?  What are you seeing being constructed, expanded, contracted explored?  Let me know.

Image: Construction: Expansion/contraction

The current future of work

Checking my library record I find I read Severance, by Ling Ma in December 2018.  It’s a dystopian novel in which ‘Candace Chen, a millennial drone self-sequestered in a Manhattan office tower, is devoted to routine: her work, watching movies with her boyfriend, avoiding thoughts of her recently deceased Chinese immigrant parents. So, she barely notices when a plague of biblical proportions sweeps the world.’  The book’s New Yorker reviewer tells us that the plague ‘that has befallen the globe is called Shen Fever—it is believed to have originated in Shenzhen, China, the world capital of electronics manufacturing—and it is contracted through the inhalation of  ‘microscopic fungal spores.’

I remembered it, as I was thinking about the impact of coronavirus on work and working patterns.   It struck me that now we are thinking that the future of work is as much about epidemics and crisis as it is about technology, but it’s the impact of technology that has been the focus up till now.   And not just the speculative future but the current future.  In William Gibson’s words, ‘The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed’.  And this week, the phrase rings particularly true.

During the week I got almost 50 emails from various organisations on their responses to coronavirus.  Holland & Barrett, for example, in rather stilted corporate-speak, says, ‘Amid the developing coronavirus situation, I wanted to take the time to reassure you of the actions we are taking as a responsible health and wellness retailer at this time.’ The specific changes mentioned are: ‘Cleaning in our stores has been intensified, with our teams requested to regularly sanitise their hands, and to maintain distance when working with customers, including encouraging customers to use contactless payments where possible. Sampling activities have also been temporarily suspended as an additional precautionary measure. …’

Marriott Hotels starts by reminding us of their core value, ‘For more than 90 years, Marriott has lived by a core value established by our founder, JW Marriott, Sr., to “take care of our guests and associates.” This enduring value guides us as we face the difficult challenge of responding to the coronavirus (COVID-19), which the World Health Organization declared a pandemic on Wednesday.’

They then offer empathy, ‘Our hearts and thoughts go out to the people who have been affected by this unprecedented event and we appreciate the healthcare workers, local communities, and governments around the world who are on the front line working to contain this coronavirus.’

Before moving on to the business specific responses: ‘we have been adapting our cancellation policy over the past several weeks to the evolving nature of this epidemic. Today, we are updating our policy to provide our customers the most flexibility we can offer during these challenging times.  … we have made some important updates to our loyalty program to provide greater flexibility when planning future travel.’  They close warmly – ‘Whenever you travel, we are waiting with open doors and open hearts to serve you’.

Bank of America is brisk ‘We are prepared and ready to help. As the situation with coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to develop, our entire team is ready and standing by to support you. You rely on us every day for your financial needs, and we’re going to continue to provide reliable access to the important services you count on.’

Various running events, I’ve registered for,  have been cancelled or curtailed.  Gothenburg half marathon organisers let us know mid-week that the event is cancelled.  ‘Göteborgsvarvet Half Marathon has been canceled for May 16, 2020 …  This is a very complex situation with many people involved. We hope you understand that we now need more time before we can give you new information about this situation.  As you understand we get a lots of questions about what will happen. Right now the information above is what we can give you. As soon as we have more information, we will share this with you.’

I won’t go on with giving more examples but reading through them, many questions come to mind:

Comms – what tone is ‘right’ for communicating with customers/stakeholders.  Who should the comms come from (some I have are signed CEO others remain anonymous)?  What should it say/not say?

Business design changes – what is going on behind the organisation’s scenes to rapidly respond to the emerging situation in terms of things like policy changes, legal clearances, maintenance of fiscal prudence, risk mitigation tracking, business process changes – specially to supply chains, promotional literature, training for staff, performance target changes …?  How easy and quick is it to make these types of changes?

Prioritisation – how are staff being reassigned at very short notice?  How is work being repacked to enable remote/virtual working?  What new skills have to be rapidly developed?  What skills are there which could be used but aren’t yet?  (Are people doing forward planning on a scenario basis for business continuity?).  Who is developing prioritisation criteria?  What is being dropped for the time being?  How is business continuity being compromised/maintained as people get redeployed onto other work or ways of working?

Leadership – how are business design changes being tracked and co-ordinated?  How is decision making being changed to respond to local conditions in an emerging context?   How are leaders managing the competing interests of various parties?

Well-being – how are the workforces concerns being addressed?  What are the plans for helping them through the coming months in the event of school closures, lockdowns, job insecurity, etc.?

There is an increasing deluge of information on handling these types of questions.

Some to consider are:  Harvard Business Review’s  series of 17 articles on various aspects of coronavirus including Lead Your Business Through the Coronavirus Crisis and  8 questions employers should ask about coronavirus.

McKinsey has got a very good briefing on the topic, COVID-19: Implications for business

Corporate Rebels has stories of seven companies who have thrived through a crisis

And if you’re looking for hope in the time of coronavirus read the heart-warming stories in Positive News.  It includes the story of ‘Quarantined Italians [who] have been singing and playing music from their balconies to express solidarity and suppress boredom during the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown’,

An important point to bear in mind now is that made by Thomas Jefferson ‘He who knows best knows how little he knows’, We know that the current future of work is changing, is uncertain, and is unpredictable.  We know that we don’t know all we would like to about coronavirus.

Let’s acknowledge how little we really do know beyond this, and hope that we know that  dogmatic certainty, knee-jerk reactions and panic are likely to be a riskier strategies than ones of continuous, reflective, critical, collaborative learning about the situation and thoughtful but rapid trying-out new adaptations to your business design as the context emerges.

What are the specific business design changes you’re making in order to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic?  Let me know.

Image: From wraltechwire

Thinking about the design of mandatory learning

Most of us are lukewarm, at best, at the thought of the mandatory learning courses required in organisational life.  For some reason they rarely hit the priority list.  I’ve just received a reminder to do one (of nine) where I’m ‘non-compliant’ and I’m not feeling motivated to leap into action on it.

People involved in organisational learning and development in the UK, like The Royal College of Nursing, in their very good guide on the topic, say that,  ‘Mandatory training is learning deemed essential for safe and efficient service delivery and personal safety. It reduces organisational risks and complies with local policies and/or government guidelines.   It varies depending on the needs of the workforce; the type of service and risks encountered; insurers’ standards; and the governance and legal frameworks in place, including country specific requirements.’  Generally, this means there are some learning courses that people have to do, like it or not.

The list of mandatory learning topics, vary depending on industry sector and organisation, but typically they include:  Diversity & Inclusion, Responsible for Information, Health and Safety, General Data Protection Regulations Essentials, Cyber Security, Counter Fraud, Bribery and Corruption Health and Safety Awareness, Display Screen Equipment.  (As an example, see those usually found in healthcare and social care environments here).

Although I’m not racing to do the mandatory course I have been emailed about, this week I have, in fact, done what feels very like mandatory learning:   I’ve learned the Latin names of ten conifers, and I’ve learned to keep my hearing aids in their box when I am not wearing them and, like many of us, I also received strong public messages offered through various channels on washing my hands often and thoroughly, and that now seems mandatory. (More on these further down).

What’s the difference between the mandatory learning I’m not motivated to do and the mandatory learning I am motivated to do?  Why is the public messaging on hand washing seeming to have an effect – if the run on soap and hand sanitizer is a good measure?

I am asking the question because I’ve been observing an on-line discussion on it, initiated by someone asking how to increase their organisation’s completion rates.  They are wondering whether/how to ‘enforce’ compliance and completion.

Before we go back to the three things I’ve experienced as mandatory learning this week, there are four assumptions I’m making.

  • we are required to do mandatory learning because it is felt – by learning & development professionals – to be either useful or necessary (or both) to our job performance
  • having done the learning course, we and/or others will be able to notice a positive performance outcome
  • we are not being required to do it mainly in order to fulfil the organisation’s mandatory learning target.
  • the known benefits of mandatory learning (to the learner and the organisation) are a good return on investment for the effort put into a) designing and delivering the courses b) monitoring and reporting on uptake and compliance c) encouraging increased uptake and compliance (For an example of toolkit for monitoring and evaluating learning and development see this one from Essex Safeguarding Adults Board).

With these assumptions in mind, let’s go back to my three examples.  I’m willingly learning the Latin names of 10 conifers because I’ve just started an RHS Certificate in Practical Horticulture course.  It’s a continuous assessment and, each week, we are required to identify 10 plants.  We have to get 100% right on this ‘ident’ as we call it. Any mis-identified get added to your next week’s go.  You fail the course if you don’t get through the ‘ident’.  Thus, learning the ‘ident’ is compulsory if I want to pass the course – and I do.

My failure to keep my hearing aids in their box when I was not wearing them, resulted in my losing one, and now having to pay a very hefty amount to replace it.  (It’s somewhere between my house and where I am currently working).  I feel obliged to spare future dents to my bank balance by integrating this painful learning into my daily practice.

I’m taking the advice of the public health messaging because I can understand the reasons for it, and see it as a sensible and easily do-able measure that contributes to helping stop the spread of a virus.

Using my experience, albeit an example of just one, there are five aspects to consider that I think are applicable to the design and delivery of mandatory learning:

  • Motivation (What engages the learner  enough to make them want to learn the topic?)
  • Meaningful outcome (Does the decision to learn whatever it is have an outcome that the learner considers meaningful?)
  • Timing (Is this the right moment for the learner to do the learning?)
  • Penalty (What happens to the learner if they don’t learn? This assumes that taking a  course equals learning the intended thing and we know what they have learned)
  • Existing knowledge (Does the learner actually need to take the course? Is it providing new learning?)

My experience over several decades of working life suggest to me that mandatory learning doesn’t take full account of these user factors.

Thinking about this I wondered whether we could try user-centric design as method to help us find some answers to the question of increasing take-up.  Sergey Gladkiy says, User-centered design (UCD) is an optimistic approach to invent new solutions. It starts with human beings and ends with the answers that are tailored to their individual needs. When you understand the people you are trying to reach, and then design from their perspective, you come up with unusual answers. UCD is both how you are thinking and what you are doing. It is all about building a deep empathy with the individuals you’re designing for. Generating heaps of ideas and building a bunch of prototypes. Sharing what you’ve got created with the people you’re designing for. Failing and trying again. And finally putting your innovative solution out in the world.’

Beyond UCD there are other design approaches we could bring to bear on the question.  So now we are thinking of running a hackathon-type event, inviting people with expertise in different design methodologies/disciplines to work for a day with the learning/development professionals plus others, including those who the mandatory learning is aimed at i.e. the users, and seeing what happens. Who knows we may come up with innovative, implementable proposals.

How would you tackle the question ‘How do you increase uptake of mandatory learning’?  Let me know.

Image:  Strong hearts are mandatory