“Great organizations have one thing in common: great managers.” This was the finding on a research by Bain & Company circa 2008. The authors reported four management principles that are essential to achieving breakthrough performance.
If you're a nonprofit manager (it hold for companies of any kind), they found your 1) costs of serving should always decline; 2) market position determines your options; 3) clients and funding pools don’t stand still; and 4) simplicity gets results.
My (then) take that those principles apply to the evolution of business with the introduction of social media dynamics holds up well. Remember it was 2008, social media was still young (e.g., LinkedIn late 2002, Facebook 2004, Twitter 2006).
In fact, my thoughts that 1./ Market reputation and authority create new options; 2./ Consider the cost of not doing the right thing; 3./ Customers and markets don't stand still; 4./ Making it easy for people to sign up (and to sign off as well) still apply today, 13 years later.
The importance of these simple four point evolved along with the evolution of business. As the image of evolution of man above indicates, technology innovation created new implications:
- how we work has changed
- what is possible has changed
Building a robust infrastructure
2008 saw a leadership failure of epic proportions. I still remember where I was when I heard about the near collapse of AIG. Having spent the early part of my career in insurance brokerage and risk management, I knew a ton of people who worked at and with the company. Scary times.
When business is caught in the midst of unintended consequences, policy has to do the heavy lifting. Governance is a pace layer that moves more slowly for this reason. Along with infrastructure, which provides the constrains constancy with longer payback, it creates the stability and continuity to support commerce, which moves at a faster pace.
What's interesting is that
we don't generally build technology
with the thought that it needs to be infrastructure.
Constrains or continuity with the ability to withstand change are rarely part of the equation. We just do what we know how best at the time.
For years, I worked with companies that needed to upgrade or deprecate legacy systems. Imagine trying to get four disparate back-end systems to talk to each other for a frictionless customer experience. Companies still want to “do” digital the same ways they do analog.
Technology is often built to scale and automate. But “move fast and break things” could mean shipwrecks. Especially if you have no visibility into the system. The pervasiveness of best practices in companies means that many organizations end up doing what everyone else is doing.
Both, the exponential nature of human network effects and the scalability of these systems centralize failure. Everyone is affected in some ways. It's a similar phenomenon I described with the truck full of yogurt.
The financial crisis was a shock of global proportions and the most serious since the Great Depression. And it was also a wake-up call for more transparent systems and communications.
Weaving meaningful experiences into the work
Just when the economic prospects were looking up, the world got the COVID-19 recession in 2020. Many have talked about how the forced stop was a liminal moment. I did too. The pandemic created a threshold into the unknown.
But thresholds are not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, they're a known part of rituals. They allow us to separate our sense of self and identity (as individuals and organizations) and experience transformation.
With the help of a guide,
ritual spaces allow us
to create symbolic recombinations.
These can be temporary, like a lovely vacation where we try new foods and ways of organizing the day, or permanent, like defining moments. Business owners wondered what will stick of these changing habits, behaviors and attitudes?
Early in 2020 and for several weeks, I conducted in depth global qualitative research and analysis with a group of qualitative researchers, semioticians, anthropologists and ethnographers. Conversations and narrative are powerful sensemaking tools.
Based on early reports, I said that what's next depended on what's now. But it wasn't a straight line. Looking at the conversations in social media, with analysts, business owners, and companies, it is clear that 18 months created the conditions for a reset.
Work from home vs. work at the office is a limiting conversation. It harks back to what was already changing but not yet obvious. The pause created a liminal space for reflection. Old habits and behaviors went out the window, because they weren't working.
In some instances those old ways were actually detracting from productivity and wellbeing. It just became more evident. In fact, many of the companies that had poor environments for work, doubled-down on decisions that did not support workers in 2020. Bad culture reinforces itself.
Before the Great Resignation washes over your company, assume work from anywhere. Now, how can you create rituals as spaces to make sense of things and issues and create a sense of belonging as you navigate uncertainty?
Reflection, on top of a global pandemic, climate change and other crises (diversity and inclusion, global trade, supply chain disruptions, education, healthcare and wellness, political turmoil, take your pick) was a wake up call that we were already running on full.
A full bucket cannot handle any more. Uncertainty increases stress, anxiety, and the need to control one's destiny. You cannot add until you empty some of what's in there. For starters, and with tongue firmly planted in cheek, I'd like to revise the evolution graph to something that looks more like the below.
Women bore the brunt of the pandemic in many parts of the world. Inequality was already well-documented in workload, work roles, pay, and access to opportunity before. An increase in poverty rates, and higher job losses added to the pain.
Covid-19 accelerated many trends. Yet, it set back women's progress in the global workforce. This was also many years in the making. The slow erosion of social safety nets and necessity of care giving, and the nuanced corporate and board politics.
But also the many everyday cultural assumptions. You can find evidence in the language and behaviors. Women still had to fit into a world made for men. From car crash bias known for decades to most scientific studies. And it's not just women.
How companies treated the people who worked for them in the last year and a half will determine the course of the future. Wellbeing and quality of life are high on people's agenda. Because it's human to want to be where you're valued and people care.
So that's a key test for value.
Evolve the work itself
One of the biggest problems with change initiatives is that they don't change anything. Sometimes the initial enthusiasm for transformation initiatives is not enough to get to success. There's a rally to try to build some momentum. But then they die off. Sometimes success creates opposition inside the organization. Which is equally frustrating.
Much of my work tends to be retracing steps and figuring out the disconnects. Lasting success is not the product of a new technology, policy, or program. You build success on top of a common understanding and sense of direction.
If there's anything we've learned in the past 18 months, is that change happens, whether we like it or not. And we better evolve our work with it. There are urgent issues to address, and a renewed sense of purpose is in the air.
Therefore, this fourth reimagination of Conversation Agent, will explore two key paths:
- how we communicate
- what we decide to act on
- sustainable operating systems — circular economy, wellness and wellbeing, culture, business and capital models
- the information ecosystem — tools, media, business communications
The issues are not the problem. Why, what, and how we deal with them is. Collaboration and community building are how humans do systems — positive change equals value creation. I will introduce both elements as we get going.
I'm building the letter format as we go, and you can be part of the journey. Subscribe here for stories, conversations with me and with experts, special offers, and exclusive deals. How we work and what is possible have both changed. I'd be honored to be your guide.
My aim continues to be helping you wonder, notice emergent ideas and trends, explore more from a place of neutrality and self-compassion, and discover what would happen if you reframed familiar tropes, followed ideas to wherever they go, and have some fun with it.