Monday, May 27, 2019

Organizations as Communities — Part 2

Yesterday, in a Twitter conversation with Rachel Happe regarding the need for organizations to function as communities, I wrote the following: “Complicated solutions are yesterday’s good practices. Complex, holistic solutions are multi-faceted, emergent and constantly evolving. They can’t be pinned down by rules but have to be sensed into through open dialogues.”
This reminded me of one of my favorite frameworks — the Cynefin framework designed by Dave Snowden in 1999. Cynefin is a Welsh word meaning habitat; the framework is simple and elegant but leads us to profound insights. If we see the framework below, we can easily see where we are today as humanity and where we are headed. The habitat for organizations has moved from being complicated to complex with exponentially increasing rate of change (Moore’s Law in action) and is rapidly heading towards the chaotic. As is evident, rules, processes, constraints and good practices worked perfectly for the complicated, mechanistic Industrial Era. However, complexity requires Systems Thinking and “enabling constraints”. I interpret enabling constraints as “holding space for emergence” where constraints function as a safety net.
The Cynefin Framework by Dave Snowden
This is where things get tricky. Leaders today are geared to respond to challenges with speed and action. The hierarchical structure of most organizations places a few people at the top charged with all critical decision-making, thus losing out on the vast capacity of the collective intelligence available throughout the organization. And, ironically, in the face of increasing complexity and uncertainty, there is more pressure to deliver “results” and “do something” to allay the situation. What of course ends up happening is the putting of band-aids over symptoms while the root causes go un-examined, unexplored, and left to proliferate. While it is counter-intuitive, complexity requires us to slow down— to probe, sense, and then respond. It requires us to go from rapid-fire action to observation, reflection, and thoughtful response when the time is right.
How are communities connected to complexity, collective intelligence and “sensemaking”?
  1. Holding space for Emergence— This involves creating the conditions and preparing the soil (the ethos/culture) for dialogues to take place. This requires the capacity to be comfortable with the discomfort of staying in the liminal space, and not forcing a pre-defined outcome when a problem rises to the surface. It’s also the ability to see problems as gifts/messages calling the organization’s attention to what needs to shift. And using processes like The Circle Waythe U Process, and Liberating Structures to have generative conversations.
  1. Staying with Uncertainty — While close to the above capacity, I have deliberately called it out separately as well. Leaders have the propensity and are often expected to provide answers in times of great uncertainty and upheaval. Staying with uncertainty conversely requires leaders to strengthen their muscles for staying in the space between stories, suspending judgement, being ok with not having any answer, and tapping into one’s inner guidance till a response naturally surfaces. And as leaders develop and operate from these capacities within themselves, the core skills permeate throughput the organization with support.
  1. Creating space for Synchronicity — In the rush of solving daily challenges and focusing on short term goals, we all forget to slow down and stay with the emerging. Welcoming synchronicity require us to hold space for ourselves as well as others, to tap into our inner wisdom and allow the unfolding to happen. I can best describe it as a shift from doing to being. It’s in the in-between space when we let go of control and trust in a higher order do we begin to experience the synchronicity that come our way as guideposts.
  1. Operating from Inter-connectedness — I firmly believe in the concept of “Interbeing” described by Thich Nhat Hanh. His definition of “seeing clouds in a piece of paper” is the quintessential and an eloquent description of Systems Thinking. It is essential for leaders to operate from this space of inter-connectedness and the whole lest the fixing of a problem in one part of the system creates unintended consequences in another part, and maybe elsewhere in the ecosystem too.
  1. Sacrificing an Expert’s Mindset — Most of us are aware of the Japanese concept of shoshin articulated by Shunryu Suzuki as, “In a beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in an expert’s mind very few.” One of the fundamental capacities for holding space is to let go of the expert’s mindset, and also one of the most difficult. It means a letting go of the ego and all other credentials that has brought us to our current state of power, position, and privilege. This letting go is essential to foster openness. An expert’s mind will not be able to create space for emergence.
  1. Facilitating Generative Conversations— I strongly recommend going through and practicing the four levels of listening and conversing defined by Otto Scharmer in his book, The Essentials of Theory UA capacity and willingness to move beyond the downloading and factual to empathic and generative is essential to bring collective intelligence and creativity in the service of a greater good. In the first two situations, no new learning or insight can emerge as we stay stuck in false harmony or debate/compromise, respectively. They only serve to keep the system stuck in the old patterns and habits. The next two — empathic and generative listening — open up the field of the future and lead to emergent practices. I have included the diagram below for reference.

The next questions are: “Despite the phenomenal capacities of technology today, is technology the only solution? How important are connections in person? How critical is it for us to experience our inter-connectedness with nature? How do we balance the virtual world with the real world we inhabit?” 

I propose that in the context of pervasive complexity and ambiguity, communities of passionate, connected and purpose-driven individuals can illuminate the way forward. Communities are different from typical project teams who come together for an explicit outcome, work towards their objectives, and when the work is done, it’s done. I am not denying the value of great team work having been a part of some amazing teams myself. 
However, I am focusing on communities here because communities come together and cohere very differently. They are usually aligned around a purpose larger than each individual; membership is usually voluntary which means people go where they are drawn to go. Diverse people connect who may “normally” not have known each other, creating greater opportunities for serendipity and innovation. 
Communities allow lurkers to also exist within its ecosystem, something teams cannot do. I believe lurkers carry immense value as they often become channels of cross-pollination between communities and are a critical part of the weak-tie network making a community more diverse, resilient and porous. 
And most importantly, communities carry a sense of belonging to something beyond the self. All of these contribute to make communities adept at feeling into the ecosystem, seeing the system through different lenses, caring about the system, and responding to the emergent with deeper insight. This is what tapping into the power of collective intelligence is about.
Therefore, when an organization functions as a collective of networked communities, its ability to probe and sense its ecosystem increases manifold. It is akin to a human using all our five senses as well as the heart and the gut as opposed to only our rational ability. In the diagram below, I have tried to represent an organization as an open system connected via today’s ubiquitous technology. Imagine an organization whose boundaries are porous, giving it the capacity to fluidly exchange information with its ecosystem. Internally, the organization functions as clusters of communities which also have porous, permeable walls. The community members interact and connect through various means (some of which are shown in the diagram). This creates a system that is able to constantly sense and see itself, can connect its edges to its center and hold complexity by distributing it in the network.
This ability to tap into the collective intelligence and wisdom of the whole makes a system/organization resilient, anti-fragile, and eventually thrivable. This requires viewing the organization as a living system that has the capacity to adapt, heal itself, and thrive given the right conditions.
Technology Enabled Communities in Distributed Organizations
I admit though that this is easier said than done. I have written about some of the obstacles to building communities here. Apart from the technology and the roles of community facilitators, this shift requires re-imagining and reinventing the structures, processes, and the culture as well as the underlying narratives of an organization. All of this are the glue that hold the fabric of the organization together in its current state, and exert powerful resistance to anything that threatens the status quo. I am not saying the shift is easy at all. However, as global trends and patterns threaten to plunge us into chaos, it is time to rethink and re-imagine our organizations. It requires us to move from holding a few leaders at the top accountable and responsible for all decision, actions, and their intended and unintended consequences. 
We are well aware that complexity cannot be tackled through planning, controlling, resource management, and other known and popularized forms of management and leadership. Complexity calls for leaders to become facilitators, to hold space, to flow with uncertainty, to let leadership emerge from the collective, and to be able to sense the system. Leadership’s role becomes that of designing and holding the container for exploration and the emergence of future potential. All of these capacities come not only from experience but also from deep reflection and inner work. In the section below, I have discussed — what I believe — are some of the mindsets/capacities required of the leaders if they wish to design for thrivability.
As would have occurred to most of you’ll reading the post, the capacities mentioned above require not only deep reflection and inner work but also great empathy, curiosity, courage, and compassion. Only by holding ourselves and others with open compassion and acceptance can we even begin to create the conditions for thrivability. I’ll deep dive into these aspects in future posts.
I’ll explore these questions in my next post. You can read the Part 1 of Organizations as Communities here.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Organizations as Communities - Part 1

Today, the very definition of organizations has changed. The impact of digitization is going far beyond a few collaboration tools and platforms. Today’s organizations are no longer defined by fixed workplaces, nine-to-five working hours or even a set of homogeneous employees. Organizations have become boundary-less and often, location agnostic and virtual. Operational and business models have been turned on their heads with the advent of enterprises like UberAirbnbEtsy and Amazon. And no industry is immune to this disruptionfrom education to retail, from healthcare to hospitalitythe old business models are being rapidly upended by new ones.
We have entered the Black Swan era with un-directed and unpredictable events regularly cropping up. These complexities are continuing to exponentially increase as we enter a hyper-digital era with AI, Robotics, 3D printing, Wearables, Alternate Reality and VR, and much more looming over the horizon. Some of the key shifts were identified by Dr. Lynda Gratton in her book, The Shift, and are depicted in the diagram below:

The Paradigm Shifts
These paradigm shifts are causing wide-scale disruption in our personal and professional lives, and reflect an urgent need to rethink and re-imagine the organization in order to embrace the potentials and affordances offered by the digital era. This is not merely about implementing a few collaboration tools or putting in place an Enterprise Social Network (ESN) with the diktat to “collaborate”. It requires a complete re-imagining of how business gets done.
Organizations have to integrate the power of design thinking and emergent technology to create spaces where everyone can bring in their fullest potential and authentic selves. Going ahead, organizations of the future will possibly function as Transformative Communities connecting diverse, distributed and multi-talented individuals who will come together to move toward an Evolutionary Purpose
The need for organizations to function as communities of passionate and purpose-driven individuals is becoming even more critical in the face of unprecedented upheaval being faced at local, global and planetary levels. Top down, hierarchical, command and control organizations just do not have the agility or the resilience to meet the needs of today. As the world becomes increasingly connected and networked, it calls for organizations that are equally connected, decentralized and self-organizing.
An organization’s communities today cannot be restricted to its internal employees but would extend to include contractual and contingent workers, partners, vendors and suppliers, and also customers and competitorsthe extended enterprise. I would also add the Planet and all sentient beings since every decision taken has a ripple effect with the capacity to impact millions far away from the origin of the organization. For example, the massive expansion of palm oil plantations in Borneo and Sumatra are directly threatening the survival of orangutan population in the wild. We are all well versed with the Butterfly Effect.
Hence, this “extended enterprise” is as critical to the sustainabilitynay, the Thrivabilityof the business as any direct employee/shareholder. Its no longer enough to build an organizing that survives or is even just sustainable. The former implies a closed view/self-focus and the latter implies an organization that is just maintaining itself. A thrivable organization is anti-fragile, holds space for emergence and creates opportunities for the thriving of others, and flows with the change. 
Perhaps it is time for organizations to pause and ask:
“How can an organization be designed such that it becomes a space that nurtures, supports and enables conditions of thriving?”
The diagram below created by Jean Russell highlights the differences...

A lack of Systems Thinking and understanding of Complex Adaptive Systems coupled with the desire/pressure for limitless growth have led organizations toward the kind of tunnel vision which has collectively led us to a place no one wanted to reach.
I am emphasizing on organizations becoming communities because communities allow us to tap into Collective Intelligence from a diverse pool of people without the constraint of hierarchy, permission and rigidity. To be an evolutionary and purpose-driven organization and to engage in situations we do not have a roadmap for, it is important to seek/curate collective intelligence.
However, the underlying business processes, managerial strategies, and workplace protocols still adhere to mechanistic, Industrial Era paradigms with performance, speed and bottom line being the drivers. These lead to short term thinking, repeating of past patterns, loss of innovation, frustration and burnout, and a joyless work environment. Viewing an organization through the lens of a machine and people as cogs worked when the world was predictable, change happened very slowly, lessons of yesterday became best practices of today, and assembly line production ruled the day.
Gone is that era. The 90’s brought the term VUCA into our consciousness. And the last decade has seen a veritable tsunami of change. Technology is taking us to a world that is science-fiction-like in its possibilities. But everything will come to naught if the patterns, mindsets and underlying consciousness guiding us continue to remain static. Our organizations today are still using old maps while the landscape has dramatically shifted. Unless we are cautious, we will run the risk of using technology to amplify and empower old systems and processes (faster production, greater efficiency, higher bottom line) while the organization gradually becomes less human, and we come face-to-face with our own Frankenstein.
As we lose our humanity to the glitzy appeal of speed and technology, so will we lose our interconnectedness with each other and all sentient beings.
The power of technology is immense. The choice is ourswhether we use it to amplify our humanity and connectedness to each other and the planet or we use it to further short-term profits at the cost of humanity and all sentient beings.

In the next post of this series, I have explored some of the core competencies required to hold space and thrive in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Ambiguity and Emergence

Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity!
~Sigmund Freud
Ambiguity leads to emergence! This fleeting thought crossed my mind in the middle of a busy day with enough clarity and suddenness to make me pause mid-stream. I made a note of it, telling myself that I will mull over it later. And here is the unfolding of that thought stream... 

The dictum that we are living in a VUCA world has become so oft used as to lose all its essence and meaning. Nevertheless, it is the truth! The pace of change has exceeded anything that we may have imagined creating a strange kind of almost existential tension. As robots enter our lives, Alexa, the voice controlled speaker from Amazon goes mainstream, driver-less cars cease to be a science fiction marvel, and many more digital wonders invade our day-to-day existence to forge a completely different meaning of life and living for many of us, Uncertainty and Ambiguity loom large. Our professional and personal lives are suddenly taking on whole new shapes we had not remotely envisaged. Should we cower in fear and scuttle into our shells, or venture forth courageously wearing the hat of a curious explorer? 

Well, the corporate world is trying hard to gear up for this unknown monster called VUCA. But how does one "plan for ambiguity"? 

Here's what HBR has to say about Ambiguity in their article Leading Effectively in a VUCA Environment: 
There are a few things we know about ambiguity; it is one of the leading causes of conflict within a business unit, impossible to diagnose from a singular perspective, and its second- and third-order effects are capable of dismantling an organization. 
The description is apt enough. And perhaps also encapsulates the key reasons why we fail to thrive in an ambiguous environment. It's mostly the third-order effects that dismantle organizations. And it happens because organizations forget to listen, collaborate and remain true to their purpose. More on this later in the post. 

Diverging a bit...

IMHO, one cannot plan but stay prepared to flow with ambiguity, play with ambiguity, immerse themselves in it. As I pondered this rather obvious point, another question raised its hydra-like head. Life in general is fairly ambiguous. Yet, we flow with it. Children thrive in ambiguity. They are the quintessential explorers of the unknown, Columbuses of their own little worlds. They instinctively know the mantra to thrive in ambiguity; it's called PLAY. And from play comes learning; and from learning emerges their new realities. We go to design schools to learn about design sprints and the art of prototyping. Children build and break sand castles at will, destroying their own creations to come back and build again. Unfazed, unafraid! They are the quintessential prototype masters. It seems so effortless when we are children. 

Then we grow up. We pass through the hallowed portals of many institutions that groom us, drill us, train us, teach us, test us, score us, and if they are successful, we come out as well-trained, homogeneous set of professionals. The unruliness has hopefully been ironed out. Hopefully, the curiosity has been dampened and the disruptive thoughts suppressed. We are deemed ready for the corporate world. And our collective ability to deal with or thrive in ambiguity has diminished! The corporate world thus far has thrived on processes, planning, and power. Ambiguities have always been ironed out, and quarterly and yearly projections and targets have been decided in advance. Top down cascading of goals have been the order of the day. Everyone has to merely follow their part of the goal, and rarely do those in the bottom few rungs know the big picture. The chain of command kept everything running seamlessly. The well-oiled machines of the corporate world ran beautifully sans ambiguity in the Industrial Era. Then came the Internet, the social web, and the digital revolution with its Cloud, IoT, 3D printing and robots. Borders and Kodaks vanished. AirBnB's and Ubers cropped up.

Suddenly, the time-tested business models floundered. S&P's report brought down the longevity of organizations from 75 to 15 years. Digital revolution brought with it a whole new set of paradigm shifts that the corporate world could not quite grasp. The new paradigms turned the age old  business models upside down. Organizations that sensed the shift and could make the shift thrived. Some key factors that demarcated the progressive and  successful organizations according to me...

From Telling to Listening: The corporate world so far has thrived on telling its internal employees and its customers what to do, what to buy, and how to be. It has -- for the most part -- been a one-way monologue of laying down policies, stating rules, and selling the benefits of their myriad products and services. Then, the advent of the digital revolution turned everything on its head. Consumers became more powerful than the producers. Listening and sense-making became more important than telling. Social platforms democratized knowledge and organizations found it increasingly difficult to hide behind a facade of processes and policies. In an ever-changing and ambiguous environment, organizations that did not listen, missed the bus. They became completely irrelevant and failed to deliver what customers -- both outside and inside -- were clamoring for. They caved in and vanished. Organizations that listened reinvented themselves. And new entrepreneurial orgs appeared with an ability to tap into the unspoken, unimagined and unmet needs of the customers. They had listened! Deeply! A case in point is Uber which has not only disrupted the cab service industry but will also impact the automobile industry. Today, I see no reason to own a car with Uber at my veritable fingertips. 

From Profit to Prosperity: When we take stock of the last twenty years, we see amazing innovation and growth along side mayhem and destruction ranging from war to collapse of economies. We see the iconic rise of the likes of Malala Yousafzai with the rise of political demagogues. And we also see a collective rise of a different consciousness that wants larger social good. We see In this world of chaos, even as organizations struggle to make profit the traditional way, the call to move towards purpose and  prosperity. Today's employees -- the millennials -- and customers are asking for more than profit. They are asking for purpose, for prosperity. I define prosperity as overall well-being -- of  the self, of the organization, of the community, society and the planet. Driving top line and bottom line have brought us till here; but it is unlikely to get us much further. The need and cry for a more holistic and purpose-driven approach to how organizations operate is fast becoming a movement. 

From Market Share to Mind Share: As challenges become more and more complex, large scale and global in nature, collaboration will have to move from individuals to whole organizations. I am not talking about partner organizations working together, but generative organizations who share their learnings freely for other organizations to replicate and apply. The reason I say this is because, IMHO, profit will no longer be about market share. It will be about prosperity and mindshare, about enabling deep changes. Organizations today are on the cusp of change too... Just as we moved into the Industrial Era and a whole new breed of organizations and corporations were born, we are again at another cusp. The old world is dying and the new is waiting to be born. Organizations that can step into this new world authentically and fully will be the ones that will capture the mindshare of the human race, bring about deep and  profound economic and social changes, and give birth to a completely new world order. It may not happen everywhere at the same time, but it is sure to happen. The world is ready for it. And this revolution will be more profound than the invention of the printing press or the electric bulb. It will change the nature and order of human relationships. 

Coming back to what I started the post with -- ambiguity and its relation to the shifts. If we agree that ambiguity is the order of the day, it becomes clear why we need to listen deeply to remain relevant, to let emergence happen, and move towards creating a better world. Ambiguity cannot be resolved through telling; it needs to be heard to be comprehended, for the hidden patterns to emerge, and for the unspoken to become felt needs. Ambiguity cannot be dealt with in parts. It has to be explored from divergent perspectives, through different lenses and heuristics, and felt in its entirety. Hence, a top down, hierarchical organization where information is filtered through the chain of command is especially ill-equipped to thrive in ambiguity. Only when the unspoken and tacit patters are seen, sense making happens, and emergence takes place. And emergence leads to those seemingly small but powerful innovations and practices that disrupt the established  order of things. 

And I'm sure many more Ubers and  Airbnb's are waiting round the corner, ready to erupt and disrupt. 

Monday, August 8, 2016

SMART Goals in a SMAC World

Back after a long and deliberate break from blogging! Probably my longest thus far... Looking forward to writing and conversing with my community once again.

A couple of days back, I came across the article, The Scientific Reason Why Setting Goals can Backfire in Inc written by Rohini Venkatraman Replete with relevant data and insights, the article calls out the dangers of specific goals (SMART goals) which were and still are the darling of the corporate world, especially with the advent of MBO (Management by Objectives). Goals are cascaded down or rolled up, as the case may be. Individuals are measured against the goals achieved or not achieved (as per the manager/reviewer). The Bell Curve's existence depended on goals and still does. Organizations made and still make goal-based and goal-driven quarterly plans. This trend or practice is propelled by a strong desire to keep a control on the outcome, ensure stock prices rise, shareholders are happy, and predictability reigns. However, we also know that "predictable” jobs will be the first ones up for automation and robotization as Martin Ford mentions in his book, The Rise of the Robots.  

This process of setting goals and going all out to achieve them work very well when a large part of the external ecosystem is predictable or changes at a pace that does not have an immediate and drastic impact on the work being done. Like it was for the past fifty years till the advent of the World Wide Web, ubiquitous connectivity, and SMAC (Social, Mobile, Analytics and Cloud). And now we are entering the age of Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Chatbots. The coming of the digital world is changing organizations and the nature of our work at unprecedented speed. Predictability is giving way to ambiguity, uncertainty and volatility. In this context, trying to pre-define rigid goals can only lead to disaster and to being blindsided, as Rohini Venkatraman very aptly points out in the article.

Does that means we strike the death knell of Goals just as many organizations are doing or have done with the Bell Curve? IMHO, perhaps not! What we do need is to be aware of the dangers and the downside of rigid goals and creating a reward-structure based on stringent goal adherence. Authors of the Harvard Business School working paper, Goals Gone Wild, mentioned that the “systematic downside of goal setting has been disregarded for a long time”. This could perhaps be because setting goals and chasing them are easier than exploring and staying with ambiguity, learning on the go and remaining open to multiple and emergent realities. The challenge is exacerbated by the fact that most management schools excel at churning out command and controlbring predictability to the unknownharness and leverage all resources kind of a mindset as opposed to exploration, staying curious, and collaborating to solve complex challenges. In a world of wicked problems, complexity and emergence, rigid goals do more harm than good. Without the leeway to browse and explore, under pressure to deliver impossible targets against a deadline, the best of leaders turn into efficiency-driven, blinkered project managers. And the outcome can often be missed opportunities, rising frustration, and even the downfall of the business should the trend continue long enough.

The question then is, what is the formula for success in a volatile and complex world? Is there a formula at all?

Let’s take a look at the Cynefin framework as a point of reference. In the Complex domain, it is evident that practices are emergent and ambiguity rules. Specific goals give way to an overarching outcome. The current world we operate in falls in the complex domain. 

Against the backdrop of this shifting paradigms where the known is replaced increasingly by unknown unknowns (as seen in the Complex domain of the framework), goal setting can often be a futile exercise. Defining or envisioning one or more desired outcome, getting everyone involved, and enabling collaboration among groups of cognitively diverse and skilled individuals may be the route to get work done in this era. The critical question to ask then is, “If goal setting is not the way forward, what is”? I do not have the answer but I have attempted to provide some alternatives to goal setting in this post.

The nature of work and projects are changing. Work will increasingly get done by a set of dispersed and distributed individuals who are experts in their own space/field, and are cognitively diverse from each other. This set of individuals will likely come together within an organization to form a project team (much like a movie team comes together) and disperse once the work is done. They may also be individual freelancers coming together to complete a project bringing their expertise to the table. These individuals are not likely to be driven by rigid goals set by someone somewhere unknown to them. They will work in a collaborative manner very akin to a closed community to deliver a project outcome (in the manner of Wikipedia and Linux). As we move forward, projects and outcome desired will become increasingly more complex requiring cognitively and creatively diverse individuals to come together to deliver value. Goals will be set around the project rather than at an individual level. The success of the project will signify success for the team. An organization that fails to foster an environment where such communities can come together will very likely flounder. And those that enable such communities will innovate and thrive in the VUCA world.

I have highlighted some of the pitfalls of following rigid goals as I see it:

Can kill exploration -- Predefined goals often block the ability to see around it, especially in times of stress. Yet, it is during the most challenging times that we need to see beyond the obvious. Often, an overly narrow focus can be detrimental to innovation and  can lead to missed opportunities. Most of the well-known innovations of our time came from tinkering around and perhaps failing at some seemingly important task (remember the Post-It Notes!). An over-emphasis on goals can also take the joy out of the process, the journey towards achieving the dream.
Can reduce collaboration –- When individuals are driven only by their own goals, a culture of competition sets in. Furthermore, when bell-curve like performance management systems rule, adhering to and meeting one’s goals become even more critical often to the detriment of the overall organizational culture. This leads to a very common syndrome seen in organizations where everyone has apparently done what they had set out to do, but the client is not happy or the project outcome is not what it should have been. The whole somehow becomes less than the sum of the parts. 
Can reduce intrinsic motivation -- Goals, when rigidly defined, can reduce intrinsic motivation. The latter arises out of a combination of autonomy, mastery and purpose (as defined beautifully by Dan Pink). Stringent goals -- especially when set by someone else -- lead to reduction in inner motivation although external milestones may drive the person for sometime. But an over-fixation on goals can make people lose sight of their passion and  purpose.

Goals definitely have their values. But in a complex and changing world, enjoying the process, developing skills like pattern sensing and a learner's approach is of greater value. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Six Obstacles to Building Communities in Organizations

Rachel Happe begins her latest post, 10 Trends for the Future of Communities, with a comprehensive description of the various intersecting and intermingling streams and characteristics that inform communities, and I am quoting her below:
Communities sit at the intersection of a number of trends; social media, digital transformation, a generational shift to prioritize purposeful work, the future of work, change management, leadership and social learning.   
This is one of the most inclusive descriptions that captures the various threads and reasons for building communities in organizations. Yet, this is where organizations are struggling. In this post, I want to explore a few reasons for this struggle. I have written before about the fallibility of trying to have social learning as a bolt on strategy, on the role of social technology as an avenue for building communities in organizations, and the importance of building communities to facilitate emergent learning

The role of a Community Manager is becoming well-established with communities being perceived as platforms that have the potential to reduce the cost of communication, bridge organizational silos, facilitate cross-team conversations thus creating opportunities for innovation, knowledge transfer, expertise location, and more. However, despite of the various tangible and intangible benefits of communities, organizations are in reality discovering that establishing thriving communities and building a social business is challenging on various fronts, calling into question some of the very fundamental principles and frameworks on which organizations have been created. Here are some of the challenges:

1. Proliferating Platforms - Organizations, especially large, globally distributed organizations suffer from what I call the "unconscious silo syndrome". Most often, the inadvertent unawareness of what is happening in the rest of the organization give managers, decision-makers and other employees a feeling that "we are the new age torchbearers" and once it works in this team/project/business function, the initiative can be taken to the rest of the organization for an enterprise-wide implementation. Needless to say, it is human for all to want a bit of fame that comes with being the trendsetter and a possible organizational visionary. In reality, this leads to pockets of experimentation and duplication of effort without a holistic view of or alignment with the organizational strategy and business goals. The result is of course a less than desirable state of platform overdose, and an amplification of the offline silos onto a now online medium.

2. The "Bottom-Up" Approach - Many organizations tread on the conservative and cautious side and stay away from a big-bang launch for various reasons including skepticism at the leadership level, lack of skills in putting together a strategy for community building and management, fear of investing too much time and money without a clear idea of the intended results, and so on. The general approach usually adopted is to put in place a platform, do a bit of word-of-mouth marketing, and hope that people will start conversing and engaging on the platform. The initial few weeks, or even months, may see some traction, but it is usually scattered, disconnected and directionless. Very soon the enthusiasm of the initial few die down, the platform either becomes a ghost town or a land of thousand flowers and the expected outcome of communities and collaboration do not materialize. As Andrew McAfee, et al. highlight in their book Leading Digital...:
"...we saw no successful transformation happening bottom-up. Instead, executives in every Digital Master steered the transformation through strong top-down leadership: setting direction, building momentum, and ensuring that the company follows through." 
3. Policy-Driven Paralysis - When a decision is made to embark on a community and collaboration journey on the duly selected enterprise collaboration platform, organizations become suddenly fearful of all the possibilities of information leakage, open expression of sentiments by irate employees, sharing of sensitive and politically incorrect information, and so on. The reaction is to begin by creating guidelines and policies trying to encapsulate and articulate everything that employees cannot and should not do on the platform. The result is anything but inspiring or conducive to open collaboration. It is akin to tying people up in chains and then expecting them to do a tango. IMHO, it is time to let go and show more trust in the very employees that the organization has selected through well-defined recruitment and interviewing processes. 

4. Collaboration Conundrum - While we keep hearing the impending death knell of the bell curve, the truth is that a large percentage of organizations still abide by it for various reasons - lack of another system, familiarity syndrome, alignment of business and operational processes, management capability (or lack thereof in handling a new way of appraisal), HR and leadership lethargy, and more. The result is the creation of a tension between a competitive and a collaborative mindset. To be absolutely honest, it is very hard to be collaborative and share openly if an employee knows that s/he will be judged and measured against their peers when the appraisal time comes around. It is difficult for a manager to justify and facilitate open collaboration, and then do a rank and yank to fit a designated set of high-performers in the bell curve. And woe betide the manager who has too many high-performers and collaborators in his/her team. This false system of forced ranking eliminates collaboration, creates a sense of scarcity over abundance (be it for a specific rating or that prized project), and turns team members into opponents. Bye bye communities and collaboration!

5. Leadership Detachment - Many a times, something as critical as the building of a collaborative culture and thriving communities are left to the HR and L&D departments to drive. It is posited as "let's see if collaboration & social business works because everyone is talking about it". Senior leaders and C-suite members feel they are too time constrained to dabble in activities like communities when issues of graver import like shareholder profit, top line and bottom line figures, M&A's are awaiting their attention. However, the reality today is that without a connected, collaborative and resilient organization, all other strategy is likely to fail. Times of intense change and ambiguity as we are living in today demands collaboration and a strong leadership who will walk the talk. 

6. Dearth of Digital Skills - It is not that people do not know how to tweet or post pictures on Facebook or create a Pinterest board. IMHO, digital skills go beyond the common activities that almost everyone with a smart phone can indulge in today. Digital skills are closely related to a digital mindset, which I define as "the ability to understand the power of technology to democratize, scale and speed up every form of interaction and action." Very often, organizations -- this includes employees, leaders, managers, and everyone comprising the ecosystem -- lack this inherent capability of using technology to facilitate the building of PLNs (Personal Learning Networks) and communities. Digital skills include capabilities like working out loud, pattern sensing, sharing and connecting openly to develop a rich and diverse PLN, collaborating with a defined purpose, using technology with an awareness of its potential to promote self-driven learning, democratization of information, and so on. This mindset requires a degree of comfort with ambiguity, willingness to make mistakes, adopting a beginner's perspective, welcoming of diversity, and a willingness to learn from all possible sources. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Uberizing Organizational Learning – Thinking Beyond Courses

Designing courses is passé! In a world where the shelf-life of knowledge and skills are rapidly shrinking, where best practices of yore yield increasingly little or no return on investment, where exceptions are the norm, and constant change and flux the new normal, designing set courses using SME-defined content is like trying to build a dam to rein in the surging waves of a tumultuous ocean. We have to think agile, instant, accessible, contextual, micro-sized, real time… We need to uberize organizational learning.

Uberization” has taken off as the new term that according to me has come to stand for – disruption, innovation, lean operating model, harnessing of the affordances of the sharing economy, and a hyper-connected world driven by imagination and creativity where everything is a mobile-click away – including learning. I agree that’s a string of nouns and adjectives and sounds like I have thrown together a set of buzz words. But it’s not. If we do a bit of Googling, we’ll see the term cropping up in every conceivable context with posts talking about Let’s Uberize the Entire Economy to The Uberization of Money.

I am taking uberization more as a concept that encapsulates the characteristics listed above and, IMHO, L&D has a lot to learn from this. The concept of uberization is shaped “by combining smart-phone connectivity with voluminous real-time data on supply and demand”. Let’s pause a bit and think what this would mean to the L&D world in any organization. I’m not getting into the economics of how Uber operates; however, it is worthwhile to remember in the L&D context that Uber owns no “assets”. Agility and pull lie at the heart of uberization. Users – with a single tap on the app – can get a ride. Uber taps into existing resources providing people – both the suppliers and the buyers – with a platform to connect. The economy of “surge pricing” defines the cost. Whether that is good or bad is beyond the purview of this post. So, what do I mean when I talk about uberizing workplace learning? And what role does L&D play in the process?

Before I delve into some of the characteristics of uberization that we can extrapolate to workplace learning, here’s a few guidelines to keep in mind wrt expectations from L&D. I increasingly see a trend where we’ll have to: 
  1. Do more with less – less time, less resources, less funding 
  2. Deliver customized, just-in-time, easily accessible learning interventions and support on a continuous basis 
  3. Talk business outcomes and business performance, not learning 
  4. Assess and prepare the organization for skills needed in a VUCA world influenced by the forces of social, mobile, analytics, and cloud 
  5. Take a consultant’s approach as opposed to that of an order taker 
  6. Be the torchbearers for the new skills in the workplace (digital skills for the networked era
  7. Partner with leadership to build an agile and continuously learning organization 
  8. Tap into available resources and enable network to do the work 
  9. Build and manage communities to harness the organizational hive mind 
  10. Develop a learner’s mind – curious, exploratory, informed by a growth mindset

None of these will happen if we continue to sit in our isolated ivory towers designing courses, managing training calendars and count the number of days of training we have delivered to each employee. Business can and will ask, “So what?” We have to get out there, get our hands dirty, talk to business, read the company’s Annual Report, and figure out what is happening on the business front. I wonder how many L&D folks go through Annual Reports and Balance Sheets; however, this is where the crux of business can be understood. And whatever impacts business should and must impact how we function. Against this backdrop, technology is providing us with an opportunity to re-imagine and redefine workplace learning and our role as business partners, thought leaders, and change agents.  

Here are a few things we can start doing immediately using Uber as inspiration, if we are not on the path already.

  1. Take a mobile-first approach – Just as a ride is a tap away on the Uber mobile app, make learning just as accessible and instant. Users are increasingly expecting all interactions to happen via their mobile devices. Learning is no exception. Just as the Uber app allows a user to track the route, a learning app should allow the users/learners to see their learning roadmap personalized to their role and growth path. L&D’s focus needs to shift from designing one-size fits all courses to consulting with individual learners, their managers and HR, and carving out learning roadmaps for them. By making what matters to employees available on mobile devices of their choice, we can remove multiple barriers and enable them to pull what they need to traverse their learning journey. We can take a leaf our of platforms like Udemy or Coursera that offers a gamut of courses – all accessible via an app. Today’s workers expect a similar integrated experience – the freedom to pick and choose what they want to learn, where and when.
  2. Build communities – We are in the midst of the sharing economy which is all about open data, user-generated content, crowd-sourcing, shared value co-creation, collaboration, and more. It is no longer possible or feasible – in the face of unforeseen change – for L&D to formally design and develop all that will be needed to keep an organization at the cutting edge. It’s time to acknowledge that the learners are active participants in the system, and not just consumers of courses. L&D must move to becoming facilitators and enablers in a sharing economy and provide the right technology, tools and support necessary to allow users to collaboratively co-create value. This will not only enable organizations to tap into the collective wisdom of the crowd but will also move the organization towards becoming a truly learning org. People are at the heart of a sharing economy, and people are at the heart of a community. Organizations can no longer hope to thrive in a VUCA world without enabling the coming together of their people. I have written extensively about building communities in organizations in earlier posts here and here and here, and will continue to explore this theme further this year. The more I reflect, the more I strongly feel that the sustainability of an organization depends on giving up control and letting the network do the work. This fundamental principle lies at the heart of the success of Uber as well. L&D and the organization’s role will be to provide a highly-efficient sharing system and encourage participation. This calls for a radically different kind of thinking where the managers, leaders, L&D and HR – the gatekeepers of organizational resources including knowledge – collectively move over to the role of facilitators who inspire and empower open sharing, conversations, co-creation, and cooperation.
  3. Curate from existing sources – Tap into MOOCs, and other existing OERs. L&D needs to don the curator’s hat – a critical 21st Century skill – that requires an ability to seek, sense and share (Harold Jarche’s PKM model) relevant content for a defined target audience. Note that content creation – so far the forte of most L&D folks – is not a part of this. However, curation requires an even greater effort at creativity and an ability to connect the dots, make sense of disparate information, and pull these together to form a cohesive whole. It is not an easy skill to build and requires constant honing, deep diving into the designated area of focus, talking to and following experts in the field, using appropriate filtering mechanism to remove the chaff from the wheat, and then presenting the curated content in a format that will appeal to the end user. Moving from content creation to content curation requires Uber-like thinking – create no asset, tap into networks, connect the dots. I also liken it to developing a service-mindset over a product-mindset.
  4. Build a culture of feedback – Uber relies heavily on the ratings provided by users as well as the drivers. This mutual rating system ensures that the standard is maintained more effectively than any policing or management could do. L&D can definitely apply this to how learners/employees rate their experiences of the learning, of the engagement on the community, and encourage feedback. A culture of feedback encourages transparency, highlights inefficiencies, and make improvements an ongoing process. However, organizations with the help of L&D will have to define what constitutes feedback as opposed to baseless criticism, rants, and complaints. Genuine feedback comes with the intent to help improve, provide insight, and either reaffirms a practice or encourages change. The overarching intention is to make better. The ability to give and receive feedback is another critical skill we need to develop to thrive in a world in flux.
  5. Make it an ongoing effort – Uberization takes away the comfort of creating a one-time product (a course), launching it, and moving on to repeat the process. Uberization comes with a service-mindset. It is an ongoing effort that should eventually become the new way of doing things. It requires a constant scanning of the ecosystem – within as well as without, and gauging how external changes can impact the organization ranging from the need to re-skill existing workforce to recruiting scarce talent.

In summary, the world of L&D has dramatically changed. Just as the rules of business and leadership have changed in the networked era, so has the rules for how to enable employees to deliver with efficacy. The L&D department can no longer sit in an isolated bubble designing courses for skills that are fast becoming redundant. It is time to build an entirely new set of skills in oneself as well as in the workforce.    

Organizations as Communities — Part 2

Yesterday, in a Twitter conversation with Rachel Happe regarding the need for organizations to function as communities, I wrote the follow...