Category: Better ways of working (page 2 of 7)

Reduce your costs, retain your focus

The older I get, the less important I realise things are that I deemed earlier in life. For example, the main thing in life seems to be to find something you can find interesting to work on for a long period of time. That’s unlikely to be a ‘job’ but more like a problem to be solved values to exemplify and share.

Jason Fried writes on his company’s blog about the journey that they’ve taken over the last 19 years. Everyone knows Basecamp because it’s been around for as long as you’ve been on the web.

2018 will be our 19th year in business. That means we’ve survived a couple of major downturns — 2001, and 2008, specifically. I’ve been asked how. It’s simple: It didn’t cost us much to stay in business. In 2001 we had 4 employees. We were competing against companies that had 40, 400, even 4000. We had 4. We made it through, many did not. In 2008 we had around 20. We had millions in revenue coming in, but we still didn’t spend money on marketing, and we still sublet a corner of someone else’s office. Business was amazing, but we continued to keep our costs low. Keeping a handle on your costs must be a habit, not an occasion. Diets don’t work, eating responsibly does.

What is true in business is true in your personal life. I’m writing this out in the garden of our terraced property. It’s approximately the size of a postage stamp. No matter, it’s big enough for what we need, and living here means my wife doesn’t have to work (unless she wants to) and I’m not under pressure to earn some huge salary.

So keep your costs as low as possible. And it’s likely that true number is even lower than you think possible. That’s how you last through the leanest times. The leanest times are often the earliest times, when you don’t have customers yet, when you don’t have revenue yet. Why would you tank your odds of survival by spending money you don’t have on things you don’t need? Beats me, but people do it all the time. ALL THE TIME. Dreaming of all the amazing things you’ll do in year three doesn’t matter if you can’t get past year two.

These days we have huge expectations of what life should give us. The funny thing is that, if you stand back a moment and ask what you actually need, there’s never been a time in history when the baseline that society provides has been so high.

We rush around the place trying to be like other people and organisations, when we need to think about what who and what we’re trying to be. The way to ‘win’ at life and business is to still be doing what you enjoy and deem important when everyone else has crashed and burned.

Source: Signal v. Noise

Rethinking hierarchy

This study featured on the blog of the Stanford Graduate School of Business talks about the difference between hierarchical and non-hierarchical structures. It cites work by Lisanne van Bunderen from University of Amsterdam, who found that egalitarianism seemed to lead to better performance:

“The egalitarian teams were more focused on the group because they felt like ‘we’re in the same boat, we have a common fate,’” says van Bunderen. “They were able to work together, while the hierarchical team members felt a need to fend for themselves, likely at the expense of others.”

Context, of course, is vital. One place where hierarchy and a command-and-control approach seems impotant is in high stakes situations such as the battlefield or hospital operating theatres during delicate operations. Lindred Greer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, nevertheless believes that, even in these situations, the amount of hierarchy can be reduced:

In some cases, hierarchy is an unavoidable part of the work. Greer is currently studying the interaction between surgeons and nurses, and surgeons lead by necessity. “If you took the surgeon out of the operating room, you would have some issues,” she says. But surgeons’ dominance in the operating room can also be problematic, creating dysfunctional power dynamics. To help solve this problem, Greer believes that the expression of hierarchy can be moderated. That is, surgeons can learn to behave in a way that’s less hierarchical.

While hierarchy is necessary in some situations, what we need is a more fluid approach to organising, as I’ve written about recently. The article gives the very practical example of Navy SEALs:

Navy SEALS exemplify this idea. Strict hierarchy dominates out in the field: When a leader says go left, they go left. But when the team returns for debrief, “they literally leave their stripes at the door,” says Greer. The hierarchy disappears; nobody is a leader, nobody a follower. “They fluidly shift out of these hierarchical structures,” she says. “It would be great if business leaders could do this too: Shift from top-down command to a position in which everyone has a say.” Importantly, she reiterated, this kind of change is not only about keeping employees happy, but also about enhancing performance and benefiting the bottom line.

Like the article’s author, I’m still looking for something that’s going to gain more traction than Holacracy. Perhaps the sociocratic approach could work well, but does require people to be inducted into it. After all, hierarchy and capitalism is what we’re born into these days. It feels ‘natural’ to people.

Source: Stanford Graduate School of Business (via Stowe Boyd)

Crawling before you walk

Alberto Corado, Moodle’s UX Lead, sent me an article by Rebecca Guthrie entitled Crawl, Walk, Run. It’s contains good, concise, advice in three parts:

Crawl. Do things that don’t scale at the beginning. Talk to 50 potential customers, listen, discover pain points, and then begin to form a product to solve that pain. Use this feedback to develop your MVP. Don’t fall in love with your solution. Fall in love with their problem. I’ve mentioned this before, read Lean Startup.

This is what we’ve been doing so far with the MoodleNet project. I must have spoken to around 50 people all told, running the idea past them, getting their feedback, and iterating towards the prototype we came up with during the design sprint. I’d link to the records I have of those conversations, but I had to take down my notes on the wiki, along with community call stuff, due to GDPR.

Walk. Create mock-ups. Start to develop your product. Go back to your early potential customers and ask them if your MVP (or mockups) solve their problem. Pre-sell it. If you really are solving a problem, they will pay you for the software. Don’t give it away for free, but do give them an incentive to participate. If you can’t get one person to buy before it is ready, do not move onto the next stage with building your product. Or, you will launch to crickets. Go back to your mock-ups and keep going until you create something at least one person wants to buy. The one person should not be a family member or acquaintance. Once you have the pre-sale(s), conduct a Beta round where those paying users test out what you’ve built. Stay in Beta until you can leverage testimonials from your users. Leverage this time to plan for what comes next, an influx of customers based of your client’s testimonials.

I’m not sure this completely applies to what we’re doing with MoodleNet. It’s effectively a version of what Tim Ferriss outlines in The 4-Hour Work Week when he suggests creating a page for a product that doesn’t exist and taking sign-ups after someone presses the ‘Buy’ button.

What I think we can do is create clickable prototypes using something like Adobe XD, which allows users to give feedback on specific features. We can use this UX feedback to create an approach ready for when the technical architecture is built.

Run. Once your Beta is proven, RUN! Run as fast as you can and get Sales. The founder (or one of the founders) must be willing to hustle for sales. I recommend downloading the startup course from Close.io. Steli gives amazing advice.

While MoodleNet needs to be sustainable, this isn’t about huge sales growth but about serving educators. We do want as many people to use the platform as possible, and we want to grow in a way where there’s a feedback loop. So we may end up doing something like giving our initial cohort a certain number of invites to encourage their friends/colleagues to join.

Food for thought, certainly.

Source: Rebecca Guthrie

Systems change

Over the last 15 years that I’ve been in the workplace, I’ve worked in a variety of organisations. One thing I’ve found is that those that are poor at change management are sub-standard in other ways. That makes sense, of course, because life = change.

There’s a whole host of ways to understand change within organisations. Some people seem to think that applying the same template everywhere leads to good outcomes. They’re often management consultants. Others think that every context is so different that you just have to go with your gut.

I’m of the opinion that there are heuristics we can use to make our lives easier. Yes, every situation and every organisation is different, but that doesn’t mean we can’t apply some rules of thumb. That’s why I like this ‘Managing Complex Change Model’ from Lippitt (1987), which I discovered by going down a rabbithole on a blog post from Tom Critchlow to a blog called ‘Intense Minimalism’.

The diagram, included above is commented upon by

  • Confusion → lack of Vision: note that this can be a proper lack of vision, or the lack of understanding of that vision, often due to poor communication and syncrhonization [sic] of the people involved.
  • Anxiety → lack of Skills: this means that the people involved need to have the ability to do the transformation itself and even more importantly to be skilled enough to thrive once the transformation is completed.
  • Resistance → lack of Incentives: incentives are important as people tend to have a big inertia to change, not just for fear generated by the unknown, but also because changing takes energy and as such there needs to be a way to offset that effort.
  • Frustration → lack of Resources: sometimes change requires very little in terms of practical resources, but a lot in terms of time of the individuals involved (i.e. to learn a new way to do things), lacking resources will make progress very slow and it’s very frustrating to see that everything is aligned and ready, but doesn’t progress.
  • False Starts → lack of Action Plan: action plans don’t have to be too complicated, as small transformative changes can be done with little structure, yet, structure has to be there. For example it’s very useful to have one person to lead the charge, and everyone else agreeing they are the right person to make things happen.

I’d perhaps use different words, as anxiety can be cause by a lot more than not having the skills within your team. But, otherwise, I think it’s a solid overview and good reminder of the fundamental building blocks to system change.

Source: Intense Minimalism (via Tom Critchlow)

The best teams are cognitively diverse and psychologically safe

I’ve written about this before, but this HBR article explains that successful teams require both psychological safety and cognitive diversity. Psychological safety is particularly important, I think, for remote workers:

Psychological safety is the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. It is a dynamic, emergent property of interaction and can be destroyed in an instant with an ill-timed sigh. Without behaviors that create and maintain a level of psychological safety in a group, people do not fully contribute — and when they don’t, the power of cognitive diversity is left unrealized. Furthermore, anxiety rises and defensive behavior prevails.

If you look at the various quadrants in the header image, taken from the HBR article, then it’s clear that we should be aiming for less hierarchy and more diversity.

We choose our behavior. We need to be more curious, inquiring, experimental and nurturing. We need to stop being hierarchical, directive, controlling, and conforming. It is not just the presence of the positive behaviors in the Generative quadrant that count, it is the corresponding absence of the negative behaviors.

When you’re in a leadership position, you have a massive impact on the cognitive diversity of your team (through hiring decisions) and its psychological safety (by the way you model behaviours).

How people choose to behave determines the quality of interaction and the emergent culture. Leaders need to consider not only how they will act, but as importantly, how they will not act. They need to disturb and disrupt unhelpful patterns of behavior and commit to establishing new routines. To lay the ground for successful execution everyone needs to strengthen and sustain psychological safety through continuous gestures and responses. People cannot express their cognitive difference if it is unsafe to do so. If leaders focus on enhancing the quality of interaction in their teams, business performance and wellbeing will follow.

Everyone, of course, will see themselves as being in the ‘Generative’ quadrant but perhaps the trick is to get feedback (perhaps anonymous) as to whether that’s how other people see you.

Source: Harvard Business Review

First tea, then revolution

I’m working with Outlandish this week, as part of a MoodleNet design sprint. One of their co-founders, Harry Robbins, is quoted in the latest issue of WIRED about the CoTech network of which Outlandish (and We Are Open), are part.

CoTech is just one example of how cooperatively-owned tech businesses look poised to proliferate in the UK. Their network boasts 32 member-businesses across the country. They’re boosted, too, by the recent launch of startup accelerator Unfound, the UK’s first accelerator for tech co-ops, which announced its first successful candidates last week. If they succeed, they will be following the lead of countries like Spain and Italy, where cooperative enterprise has flourished for decades. Their proponents see business structures as driving radical change: getting the fruits of innovation shared more fairly and providing better social responsibility. Funding troubles have often stunted co-ops’ growth though – but, with tentative links to blockchain technology and a newfound spirit of collaboration, that’s something that could now change.

It takes a while to get collaboration between different organisations off the ground, and CoTech has been no different. I really enjoyed the CoTech gathering at Wortley Hall (a worker-owned stately home) last year, but we’ve more work to do.

CoTech’s 32 member-businesses have around 300 workers between them, with trades that range from web development to broadband infrastructure and augmented reality. The three biggest, among them Outlandish, boast turnovers of between £1 and £2 million. They’re yet to implement the equal pay suggested at their first meet-up, but they have made progress in efforts at collaboration. They now hold inter-coop training, monthly meet-ups to hold discussions and share skills, and run internal crowdfunding using the Cobudget tool (developed by New Zealand social enterprise network Enspiral).

It’s only when you set up a co-op or something other than a straight-up limited company that you see the default ‘operating system’ of 21st society: capitalism. And not just warm fuzzy capitalism, but rapacious, neoliberal capitalism that sets out to deprive normal, everyday people of money, rights, and dignity.

Robbins argues that being a co-op creates a different set of incentives: with no shareholders demanding dividends, generating profit isn’t the primary goal. And with it not being a quick or easy way to get rich, they’re more likely to be founded with a purpose that’s socially- or ethically-minded.

He sees big openings for CoTech to grow in both their member businesses and their respective staff – and thinks a lot of the UK’s small businesses are already effectively operating as co-ops. In an overheated market for developers, he believes that a big proportion of them want to work for companies that are socially responsible, but don’t want to do the repetitive web maintenance on offer at many charities.

It’s great to see CoTech continue to get mainstream press. Interestingly, and as you can see from the photo of the Rochdale pioneers that accompany both this post and the WIRED article, traditional co-ops weren’t necessarily any more diverse than their mainstream counterparts. That’s something that modern co-ops are actually really quite good at: diversity and democratic processes.

Source: WIRED

The increase in worker-owned co-ops

This article by Eillie Anzilotti is a Fast Company ‘long read’. It’s US-focused and includes specific examples and case studies, but is, I think, more widely-applicable.

Anzilotti explains some of the benefits of worker-owned co-ops, which are increasing in number as the ‘baby boomer’ generation retires.

Because the people doing the work for the company are also the ones who own the company, they feel a greater sense of responsibility for and personal stake in helping the business succeed. While there’s still a lot of knowledge-sharing that needs to happen before co-ops go mainstream, recently, policymakers are taking notice of the benefits of worker cooperatives, and new legislation is on the way support their growth. And with millions of baby boomer-owned businesses set to change hands in the upcoming decades, this transition could be an opportunity to create more democratic workplaces across the country–if business owners, workers, and advocates can work together to convert these enterprises into employee-owned cooperatives.

Hilariously, Anzilotti calls the retirement of the boomer generation a ‘silver tsunami’ which, more seriously, provides a huge opportunity to wrest back control from organisations that exist for the benefit of the few.

But instead of selling to a private owner, there’s a real opportunity amid this “silver tsunami” to radically scale the presence of worker-owned cooperatives in the U.S. “Historically, co-ops do best when there’s a market failure,” says Melissa Hoover, founding executive director of DAWI. During the Great Depression, for instance, farmers struggling to access energy resources, set up electrical cooperatives that they collectively owned, and cooperative housing models took off in some cities. Nearly a century later, we’re living through our own version of market failure. As banks have consolidated, capital for small businesses has grown scarce. More small businesses are now closing than opening in the U.S., and jobs are consistently failing to provide livable wages to employees.

Small businesses are vital in the economy, but to really make a change, we need larger, stronger businesses. Worker-owned co-ops can do that.

Employee-owned cooperatives… create a stronger base from which a business can continue to exist, and even grow. The workers already have demonstrated their commitment to the company and the community in which it operates, and granting them ownership allows the business to continue to operate and the community to continue to reap the benefits. And because the sales are done in a way that’s transparent and mutually beneficial, the selling business owners also get a fairer shake.

The difficulty, as Anzilotti notes, is that talking about democratic control of the organisation for which you work isn’t necessarily the most scintillating topic of conversation.

“Co-ops are not whiz-bang businesses that are going to get anybody rich,” Hoover says. “They’re bread and butter types–necessary and profitable, but not sexy.” Still, communities and policymakers alike are recognizing that their shared ownership structure can provide the kind of stability that the market cannot. “We’ve seen growing interest in rapidly changing cities and in rural areas where they’re really trying to make capital investments that anchor community wealth,” Hoover says. “Business retention makes more sense than trying to attract Amazon HQ2,” she adds. “Why don’t we invest in our local ecosystem and retain what’s already here?”

I have to say that the process of setting up We Are Open Co-op has been one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. I’d highly recommend looking into the co-operatives for your organisation, whether extant or nascent.

Source: Fast Company
 

Owners need to invest in employees to have them feel invested in their work

Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, writes:

As the nature of work changes, the factors keeping people invested in and motivated by that work are changing, too. What’s clear is that our conventional strategies for cultivating engagement may no longer work. We need to rethink our approach.

I think it’s great that forward-thinking organisations are trying to find ways to make work more fulfilling, and be part of a more holistic approach to life.

Current research suggests that extrinsic rewards (like bonuses or promotions) are great at motivating people to perform routine tasks—but are actually counterproductive when we use them to motivate creative problem-solving or innovation. That means that the value of intrinsic motivation is rising, which is why cultivating employee engagement is such an important topic right now.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that people no longer want to be paid for their work. But a paycheck alone is no longer enough to maintain engagement. As work becomes more difficult to specify and observe, managers have to ensure excellent performance via methods other than prescription, observation, and inspection. Micromanaging complex work is impossible.

Whitehurst suggests that there are three things organisations can do. I’d support all of these:

  1. Connect to a mission and purpose
  2. Reconsider your view of failure
  3. Cultivate a sense of ownership

However, what I think is startlingly missing from almost every vision from people 40+ is that they should be thinking about actual employee ownership — not just cultivating a ‘sense’ of it.

Don’t get me wrong, forming a co-op doesn’t automatically guarantee worker satisfaction, but it’s a whole lot more motivating when you know you’re not just working to make someone else rich.

Source: opensource.com

Work-life balance is actually a circle, according to Jeff Bezos

Whatever your thoughts about Amazon, it’s hard to disagree that they’ve changed the world. Their CEO, Jeff Bezos, has some thoughts about what’s usually termed ‘work-life balance’:

This work-life harmony thing is what I try to teach young employees and actually senior executives at Amazon too. But especially the people coming in. I get asked about work-life balance all the time. And my view is, that’s a debilitating phrase because it implies there’s a strict trade-off. And the reality is, if I am happy at home, I come into the office with tremendous energy. And if I am happy at work, I come home with tremendous energy.

Of course, if you work from home (as I do) being happy at home is crucial to being happy at work.

I like his metaphor of a circle, about it not being a trade-off or ‘balance’:

It actually is a circle; it’s not a balance. And I think that is worth everybody paying attention to it. You never want to be that guy — and we all have a coworker who’s that person — who as soon as they come into a meeting they drain all the energy out of the room. You can just feel the energy go whoosh! You don’t want to be that guy. You want to come into the office and give everyone a kick in their step.

All of the most awesome people I know have nothing like a work-life ‘balance’. Instead, they work hard, play hard, and tie that to a mission bigger than themselves.

Whether that’s true for the staff on targets in Amazon warehouses is a different matter, of course. But for knowledge workers, I think it’s spot-on.

Source: Chicago Tribune

The virtue of rest

This article in The Washington Post is, inevitably, focused on American work culture. However, I think it’s more widely applicable, even if we are a bit more chilled out in Europe.

Many victories of the labor movement were premised on the precise notion that the majority of one’s life shouldn’t be made up of work: It was the socialist Robert Owen who championed the eight-hour workday, coining the slogan “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” For Owen, it was important not only that workers had time to sleep after a hard day’s labor, but also that they had time to pursue their own interests — to enjoy leisure activities, cultivate their own projects, spend time with their families and so forth. After all, a life with nothing but work and sleep is akin to slavery, and not particularly dignified.

Most mornings, I wake up rested and ready for work. Like most people, there are some mornings that I don’t. Unsurprisingly, the mornings when I don’t feel ready for work are those that follow days when I’ve had to do more work-related tasks than usual.

There’s a balance to be struck where it comes to work and rest, but in the United States, values and laws are already slanted drastically in favor of work. I would advise those concerned about Americans’ dignity, freedom and independence to not focus on compelling work for benefits or otherwise trying to marshal people into jobs when what they really need are health care, housing assistance, unemployment benefits and so forth.

I’m reading Utopia for Realists at the moment, which has some excellent suggestions. It presents some startlingly-simple, well-researched ways forward. I think my favourite part is where the author, Rutger Bregman, points out that people who are in need require direct help, rather than complex schemes.

The same goes with our so-called ‘work-life’ balance. What we actually need for a flourishing, healthy society and democracy is more rest. As Alex Pang, author of the book Rest notes, leisure is usually framed these days as a way to get more work done. Instead, we should value it for its own sake.

Source: The Washington Post