organizational psychology

Getting 1% Better

Sometimes work sucks.

Your colleagues can be morons, your bosses seem incompetent, your clients are clueless and... wait, no, not again, NOT AGAIN... someone finished off the coffee in the break room without starting a new pot.

Competence, let alone excellence, can often seem like a lost cause. In many cases, it can seem like the only way to get your organization from whatever it is today to something resembling excellence is to (figuratively) burn it to the ground and start fresh. While that path may be potentially cathartic I’d like to suggest a slightly different approach that starts with a simple idea that has the power to transform organizations of any size.

I often worry that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that organizations are comprised of people. Individual people who face a multitude of decisions everyday about how productive, engaged, and motivated they're going to be. Individuals who have their own intrinsic interests, motivations, quirks, pet peeves, conscious and sub-conscious desires, and proclivities for growth, challenge, security, and tolerance for ambiguity. What would happen if organizational improvement was re-framed in such a way that these individuals with all their strengths and weaknesses took center stage? Instead of being cogs that help run this system or follow that process individuals become the drivers and agents of positive organizational change.

In a nutshell, here's my basic idea -- if you have 1,000 people in your organization what would it look like if all 1,000 of them got 1% "better" (more productive, more inclined toward action, more reflective, more thoughtful, more engaged, more motivated, more empathetic, more whatever it is that you need more of in your organization)? And not only 1% better one time, but 1% better everyday. For years.

A traditional take on getting the organization to "work better" often includes one or more of the following: restructuring, arbitrary rules or guidelines from "the boss", requiring the use of a new piece of software or process for doing something, and threats. Each of these approaches ignores the fact that we're dealing with human beings. Human beings who have a remarkable ability to adapt, a desire to do meaningful work, and powerful intrinsic motivation toward feeling autonomous, competent, and related to each other (e.g. see Self-Determination Theory).  These approaches can be attractive because they have the appearance of making broad change very swiftly. A memo here, a decree there, some newly installed software here, some training, maybe a workshop or two and voilà, organizational change!

Not so much.

What would encouraging your people to get 1% better (whatever that looks like for your organization) look like? What barriers would need to be lifted? What changes would need to be made to the organizational environment or culture to encourage people to push themselves to get better? How do you facilitate the trust among a group of people that makes someone feel safe enough to take the step outside their comfort zone that growth requires? What kind of leadership does that require?

Answering those questions for your specific organization and context takes time, experimentation, and effort. What works for your company may not work for someone else's. A good starting point, though, are some examples of what 1% better in various areas might look like at your organization:

  • Everybody developing the habit to constantly ask "what's the next action?"

  • Encouraging people to keep a log of what they've worked on to help build momentum and a sense of progress (with iDoneThis, perhaps?)

  • Developing the expectation that you will leave a meeting crystal clear about the decisions that have been made and who is doing what

  • Starting and ending meetings on time as a matter of course

  • Being vigilant in finding and rooting out friction and small annoyances borne of inattention

  • Cultivating the ability to concentrate when working on a tough problem

  • Developing a healthy relationship with information overload and digital distractions

  • Not sending unimportant/non-urgent emails to colleagues on evenings and weekends

  • Giving a coworker the benefit of doubt when hit with unpleasantness from them

  • Leaving work each day with a plan for tomorrow

  • Not being afraid to ask a question versus toiling in uncertainty

I think you get where I'm going with this. None of these ideas have anything to do with mandates "from the top," new systems, new processes, or mass organizational upheaval or restructuring. In fact most of these may seem asininely simple. That's what's so beautiful and maddening about this entire topic -- all of our work lives would be so much better and our organizations more effective if everyone took the asinine, the simple, and the obvious more seriously. Each of these ideas are about individual people being a little bit courageous and a little bit driven to make their immediate experience at work a little bit better.

I've experienced this as a virtuous cycle, a positive upward spiral inspired by the people around me. I notice the people in my team getting a little bit better, being more on top of their game, and pushing themselves a little bit more and it causes me to do the same. Nobody likes the feeling of being left behind. I stop showing up to meetings late after the fifth meeting in a row a key decision was made without me in the room because I was late. I stop turning in projects late when the norm in the department becomes promptness. Social comparison can be a powerful force (and not just for keeping up with the Joneses). I get better, my team notices, and they get even better. And then I get better. And so on.Oversimplification? Perhaps.I'll admit, I make it seem simpler than it is. How do you handle social loafers, out of touch management, or a scarcity of resources that precludes any thought of getting better because it takes every bit of effort to simply survive? How do you go about hiring, retaining, and promoting the type of person who is energized by the idea of getting a little bit better every day? How do you cultivate the culture that supports this mindset? All of these are tough, honest, and relevant questions.

But, for now, let's just sit with the idea of what everyone in your organization getting 1% better in whatever metrics matter to your organization would look like. We’ll tackle those challenges in time but we can’t do anything if we’re not on board with the idea that we can each be a little bit better and that the idea of getting better isn’t insane. Not saying it won’t be difficult, just that it’s possible, right?

Making your organization better is going to have to start with you. Here’s a couple ideas to get you started:

  1. Assess your typical day/workflows and figure out what is less than optimal in whatever manner matters to you. Make a list.

  2. Take one item off that list and figure out a couple ways you could address it. Hate the weekly staff meeting? See if you can figure out a way to make it a tiny bit better. At the very least, you have control over your portion of the meeting and how prepared you are. Try to set a high bar for everyone else.

  3. Before you leave work today take a look at your calendar, your to-do list, and everything else you have going on and make a plan for the first 90 minutes of your day tomorrow. What can you do to ensure tomorrow will be a tiny bit better today?

Have other ideas? Share your thoughts about how you plan to get 1% better in the comments below!

The Role of the Individual in the Organization of the Future

I was recently introduced to the work of Undercurrent, an organizational design consulting firm that is really pushing against the edges of how we think about optimally functioning organizations. I’m going to do my best to summarize some of their overarching thoughts, but if you’re really interested you should go straight to the sources.

Organizational Structure for a New Era

In a nutshell, Undercurrent is a proponent of the idea that the most responsive and nimble organizations also tend to be the most effective. Given the speed and power of technology and communication in the world today organizational structures that dominated in the 70’s and 80’s are not the same types of structures that will dominate today and in the future. Instead of creating tall hierarchical structures with clear chains of command and the titles and job responsibilities that accompany a hierarchy, many successful companies are choosing a much “flatter" and in many ways, complex, structure.

Holacracy, agile squads, and self-organizing teams are all the rage and many would argue it's for good reason. With these structures (or really, the lack thereof) companies can be quicker to respond to economic pressures and opportunities. It’s easy to see how this would work for Silicon Valley tech startups but Undercurrent would argue that even well-established companies in less high-tech industries could benefit from moving toward less hierarchy, less structure, and more self-organization.

All of this is fascinating.

Independent Work and Workers

I’ve taken organizational theory and organizational development classes in my PhD coursework and I’ve enjoyed all of them. This talk of structure and overall organizational decision making is incredibly interesting to me and I know quite a bit about it — but it’s also not my bread and butter.

My bread and butter actually has almost nothing to do with people who work in organizations and yet, I think my research interests align incredibly well with the organizational structure movement Undercurrent is promoting. There are questions pounding away at my head as I think about this changing nature of work and organizational life are: What implications does all this have at an individual level? How do you develop (or hire) people who thrive (not just survive) in highly autonomous, uncertain, and ambiguous work situations?

As many of you already know, my research is currently focused on independent workers — freelancers, micro-entrepreneurs, and contract workers. People who start their own thing and keep it deliberately small (for a myriad of reasons). At this moment, I’m particularly interested in the developable skills of self-leadership and self-management for this group of people. Being able to self-lead and self-manage when you work on your own are utterly vital skills to have. Given a lot of the economic indicators and statistics that I’ve seen, I think the growth of independent work is inevitable and already a movement that has been very much set in motion. However, I know that the future of work is never going to be everybody running their own freelance careers or starting independent businesses. Organizations aren’t going away — but I think the way that we’ve thought of organizations for a long time, is.

The Collision of Independent Work & New Organizational Structures

Working in one of these holocratic or highly responsive organizations is going to become more and more like being an independent worker. Autonomy is rampant. Ambiguity about job roles and tasks is a given. A general lack of structure about the how of work is substituted for a focus on the what. As life in organizations becomes more like independent work the skills I’ve begun to identify as being absolutely vital to independent workers, tolerance for ambiguity, self-leadership, self-management, self-awareness, growth mindset, “integrated personal development,” to name a few, are also the skills that anyone working in an organization of the future will need.

How do you develop the people you already have within your organization to be a better fit for this more dynamic, fluid, and uncertain environment? What can be done at the organization level to upgrade the skills of your people? To upgrade the frameworks they use to think about their role in the organization and what it means to do good work on a moment-to-moment basis? Looking outside the organization, how do you make sure you hire people who will be a good fit for this type of environment? How can you make sure you select the people with the highest probability to thrive in an environment that looks more and more like a buzzing and roiling ant hill than an orderly and logical military unit?

I have some ideas about answers to these questions and luckily they spur even more questions within me that seem ripe for empirical investigation. When I originally stepped down this path of indie work research I was a little bit worried that I was setting myself up for failure by focusing on too small a niche. Sure, there are a lot of independent workers in the world and the number seems to be growing, but more people work in organizations. What impact could I really hope to have when I was focusing on a minority of the working population? The work of Undercurrent (and I’m sure other organizations that I’m not aware of yet) has assuaged that fear for me. I now realize that to understand independent workers is to better understand highly autonomous workers regardless of whether they work for themselves, a start-up, or a Fortune 500 company just beginning to experiment with new ways of organizing.

Organizational structures are changing in such a way that requires you to get better. Is there anything more exciting?

Photo by John