How to work with other people

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It’s easy doing things when you don’t need to work with anyone else.

There is no need to consult, persuade, argue, manipulate, coerce or flatter someone to get what you want.

But that’s what we need to do in real life – groups of people can produce more if they work well together than an individual toiling on his or her own.

So what is it that will make this process of working with others easier?

It might make sense to start with how you see yourself and your relationship with others. The Johari window is a technique that helps do this.

It’s a 2×2 matrix that looks at what you know or don’t know compared to what others know or don’t know.

The picture above is an adapted form to see what can be done rather than what is already in place, which was the purpose of the original work.

First, there are things that you and the person you need to work with know. This is a common space, where you can both discuss, agree or disagree based on common knowledge.

It is a collegial space where you can feel like equals.

Then, there are things that others know but you don’t know. These can be character flaws, research findings, inside knowedge about business politics and so on.

These are your blind spots, the things that will come back to bite you. For example, if someone knows you get angry in meetings, they can prod you to explode and undermine your credibility in a crucial setting.

After that come things that you know but others don’t know. This is where you get the opportunity to share, teach and perform.

Done well, people will appreciate your effort. Done badly, you will come across as superior or egotistical.

Finally, there are things that you don’t know and others don’t know. You’ll need to work together to explore the way ahead.

It seems like a good way to think about working with a new team or a new person is to work your way around the matrix.

Figure out the things you have in common, identify and eliminate blind spots on all sides, learn and share information with each other and work together to create new ideas, knowledge or capability.

Sounds simple.

But, is it easy to do?

What will make your change program succeed?

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Some people want to change the way things are done, some people like things the way they are, and some people aren’t really bothered and are just waiting for the working day to end.

Changing the way things are done is not just about saying that there is a better way and so obviously everyone should do it.

For example, if you want to try and be more energy efficient, you could just set the room temperature controls to 18 degrees C, lock the panel and leave.

You will, however, get complaints. Lots of them. From people that are too warm, too cold or liked having control. Some enterprising ones will work out how to hack your controls or subvert the temperature sensors.

When it comes to small or large programs, whether it is choosing to lose weight or changing your entire IT system, what are the factors that will make your program succeed or fail?

It turns out there is a formula. David Gleicher created the first version and Kathie Dannemiller made it easier to understand and use.

Kathie’s version says that three things must be in place for change to be possible. These are:

  • D: Dissatisfaction with how things are now
  • V: Vision of what is possible
  • F: First, concrete steps that can be taken towards the vision

Working against these factors is R: Resistance to change.

The formula says that D x V x F > R.

Or in words, the product of the three factors needs to be greater than the resistance to make change possible.

It’s a nice formula, but there are a couple of problems with it.

First, can it actually be used like a formula? What units do you use to measure D, V and F, and then what do you actually multiply?

Someone needs to do some dimensional analysis, or in simpler words, work out how to convert the factors to a common unit (like litres or centimetres).

But that would probably be a waste of time. Instead, a more useful representation may be to use a force field framework as shown in the image above. There are driving forces that move you towards a goal and hindering forces that block movement.

If you have more forward forces than backward forces, you are probably going to move towards your change goal.

The second problem with the formula is that it assumes you need to know where you are going and what you should start doing in order to change.

That is not necessarily the case. The only factor that is really necessary is Dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Instead of Vision and First steps you might have options and experiments. Jason Little has an interesting blog post about experiments here.

You might try a number of things out, see which ones face more or less resistance and work towards an approach that makes you happier (or less dissatisfied).

Perhaps we should keep in mind George Bernard Shaw, who wrote “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

How to create intelligent systems

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If you have a complex problem to solve, do you need to build an equally complex system to solve it?

Most people, when they think of systems, visualize technology – robots, artificial intelligence, connected machines and autonomous vehicles.

A more general definition of systems includes the people that use the technology and the processes they follow when using it.

Complex systems include things like governments, religions and companies.

How does a large, complicated company come into existence?

Well – it probably didn’t start out large. It started as a small company once doing something simple. For example, General Electric, one of the largest conglomerates in the world, can be traced back to Edison and his lightbulb.

This idea forms the basis of Gall’s law, a rule of thumb from the book “Systemantics: How systems really work and how they fail” which says “A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked”.

The reverse also appears to happen. A complex system built from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to work. You need to start again with a simple system.

The main problem with building a complex system straight away is that a system is simply someone’s approach to solving a problem – the system itself doesn’t solve the problem.

A complex system built without constantly testing whether it is doing something useful can end up doing hardly anything useful at all.

This is why many modern approaches to programming are “agile”, solving simple problems first and putting out software that people can try out to see whether it is actually useful.

A related observation from the book is that very efficient systems are dangerous. Loose systems, systems that hang together with some slack tend to grow larger and work better. An example of this might be the growth of the world-wide web.

The book is a slightly tongue-in-cheek commentary on systems theory, which has moved from a “hard” systems approach where people believed every situation could be mathematically modelled and solved to “softer” approaches that take into account the reality that people doing what they think is right have the inherent capability to mess up any system designed by a technocrat.

Intelligent behaviour is not something you design into a system but something that emerges from the way in which the system is arranged.

The only approach that has been shown to produce intelligent behaviour so far is evolution, and so it makes sense to prefer it when creating a new system.

How to close the gap between knowledge and action

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How do you know what you know?

You’ve probably been working for a while, and by now have a number of views on how things should be done.

You know the right order, the correct approach or the most effective way to do things.

You might feel that what you learn and figure out on the job – the practical stuff you do there – is where real work is done, and academics in their ivory towers have nothing much to add to how you do things.

Or, you might be an academic, engrossed in research and evidence. You might know the ways that work across organizations from your research and know the precise way in which to articulate an idea so that it expresses a contingent truth.

Except, you lose most listeners at the word “contingent”.

This creates a barrier between the people who create new knowledge and the people that do work. It’s probably no exaggeration to say that most work done in organizations is based on ten to twenty year old research and methods and very few organizations are really at the cutting edge of what they do.

As John Maynard Keynes said, “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

Except today he would probably say practical people.

Writing in the Oxford Review blog, David Wilkinson outlines three main reasons for the gulf between knowers and doers.

1. Most people can’t get to the research or understand it when they do

Academics write for each other in peer-reviewed journals locked away behind paywalls in precise, terse and technical language.

Most people don’t get this language and what it means for them.

The Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman gave a beautiful example of this. Look at the sentence “The radioactive phosphorus content of the cerebrum of the rat decreases to one-half in a period of two weeks.”

What does this mean?

What this sentence means is that the atoms in the rat’s brain, and your brain disappear and are replaced all the time – the very fabric of your body, the atoms that make you up are no longer the same as they were before.

The mind you have now is no longer the one you had a year ago – all its bits have been replaced. But you’re still here, thinking and feeling and with memories.

Your consciousness and feelings and emotions come out from arrangements of atoms – a dancing pattern of atoms if you will – and are not the unchanging fixed entity that you think you are. Instead the “you” that you are emerges from this pattern of atoms.

It takes time and reflection and discussion to take apart and understand these concepts – time that people outside of academic rarely have.

2. People who do are busy and need to get things done now

People who do things need to worry about clients, deadlines, office politics and the need to ship and invoice now.

What they need are solutions that are practical, tested and effective. They haven’t got the time to discuss elaborate theories or ideas that apply only in very specific cases.

They also expect a healthy dose of “common sense”.

They way in which academic knowledge comes across doesn’t easily fit these requirements – it needs to be translated and explained and there often just isn’t the time, resource or appetite to do this properly.

This also means that many decisions and actions taken by organisations are based on gut-instinct, hunches and methods that have worked in the past rather than based on evidence and data, which is how academics would prefer that they did things.

3. Knowers and Doers simply have different objectives

An academic needs to do research and get published. That is their main objective and they get funding and support to create new knowledge, not to make it easier to access or more practical to apply.

A manager or worker in an organisation needs to get things done. Their main objective is to satisfy a customer.

The two are looking in completely different directions, and when they do come together the work they do needs to meet these dual aims of being applicable and practical while at the same time being novel and publishable.

These are not easy aims to reconcile.

Are consultants the answer?

Perhaps this is why consultants that are able to bridge the gap between research and action are so useful in organisations.

Well trained workers that have done a research based degree or have continuing links with academia can bring new ideas, approaches and methods into organisations that are tested and evidence-based.

Much of the ways in which organizations work – from operations to risk management to sales and marketing has been exhaustively researched and are well understood.

The challenge is to get and use this knowledge more effectively on a day-to-day basis.

How to create organic growth in your company

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How do you grow your company organically in today’s competitive marketplace?

A McKinsey survey looked at approaches used by companies and found that high-performing firms used a combination of three strategies:

  1. They moved investment and money into high-growth activities.
  2. They created new things to sell and new ways of delivering value.
  3. Tney worked on making how they did things internally better.

It appears from the survey that the best performing approach is one where firms focus on creating new products, services and business models, but also ensure that they allocate resources effectively and work on optimizing their own operations.

That sounds easy enough, so what stops organizations from doing this and setting off on a growth track?

There are three reasons, according to another article from McKinsey:

1. Inflexible structures

Your organization needs to have the right structure to enable growth, with the right teams, leadership and strategy in place to effectively serve its target market.

Simply working within an existing structure can mean that ideas and innovation can get lost in the unending stream of existing priorities and concerns.

2. Unscalable processes

A related problem is when existing processes just cannot keep up with new opportunites and demand.

If you have a bottleneck in your organization – perhaps when it comes to pricing, turning proposals around, evaluating opportunities or in your manufacturing systems, that will become an increasingly large problem as you grow.

3. Unprepared people

A growth strategy can come as something of a surprise to people in organizations used to doing things in a certain way.

This can slow growth down considerably – not because people are being difficult, but just because by being cautious and adding what they feel are reasonable checks to the process, they can end up slowing and even derailing the entire initiative.

So, what does this mean for us?

An organic growth strategy takes time, focus and investment.

Like growing plants, you need to prepare the ground, seed it, provide them with resources and keep away predators.

And then you need to wait.

What do you need to learn to keep your job?

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You know that AI is coming for you, right?

A third of current jobs will be done by computers over the next 20 years. If you want to know if your job is at risk, type it in here.

There are a number of changes happening in the world of work – and these are foundational changes – changes in the very nature of society itself, enabled by interconnected technology.

Technology is enabling a move from the traditional industrial approach of cramming everyone in a large space and giving them small tasks as part of an assembly process to networks of smart people working together to create value.

The choice facing us in the future might be as stark as either choosing to learn more and create value that cannot be done by a computer, or learning how to clean and maintain the computers and automated cars that do the jobs that we used to do.

In an article in the McKinsey Quarterly, Amy Edmondson and Bror Saxberg point out that most organizations focus on the money, leaving it to their employees to worry about learning.

This might have been ok in a world where all people had to do was “do”, but not in a world where they have to “think”, “create” or “decide”.

It’s not enough to get a traditional education and then come into the workplace and never open a book again. In modern organisations you have to be ready to learn all the time, and learn while doing your job.

The military is very good at this. As Josh Bersin points out, they only really do two things: fight and train. Most of the time, they train.

They make a big deal of sitting (or probably standing) after an exercise and working through what worked, what didn’t and what they would do differently next time.

Learning doesn’t have to be classroom based and formal any more. For individuals, the amount of information and support out there to learn almost anything is staggering.

Just take Coursera, for example. This site has free courses that you can take that range from programming and management to abstract painting and dinosaur paleobiology.

Organizations have to create the conditions that enable people that work in them to learn. That means giving them time and space to experiment, research, get feedback and think.

The skills needed are not just technical ones, but also social – skills that make it possible to work collaboratively across organizational boundaries.

The challenge is making learning part of the daily routine – you need to learn as you race along doing your job day to day.