The Epitome of Social By Design

Context is critical for social activity. When at work (remote or physical) the vast majority of social activity is around and about the work people do. Knowing this, the work and work process are the ideal starting place for more strategic advancement of a social organization. Take organizational policies and protocols, written and unwritten. They get a bad rap but of course aren’t inherently bad as they can serve to maintain quality, efficiency and protect organizations and workers alike. However, they have a shelf life. They can spoil and the only way to know something, be it food or a rule, has gone bad is to open it up and regularly examine it. Transparency and openness are at the heart Social by Design (sXd).

Leadership could schedule policy/protocol reviews with a select group of executives to revisit periodically but then you likely exclude the people who these rules impact the most. Being transparent and open around work rules is actually a perfect opportunity to build greater social by design. Start by keeping these org-wide rules in an open space and invite continuous conversation around the work people do. It may not take off on its own as daily work can be all-consuming or a prevalent belief that criticism of the organization is wrong exists, so it’s on leadership to nudge everyone to examine and comment regularly. Interesting too is that this example actually contains ALL the principles of a social organization James and I discuss in our forthcoming book, Social By Design. Look closer and you’ll see them within.

First, the goal of social is to reduce friction – by challenging and continuously evolving the rules you’re working to remove barriers and better ensure business agility. Next, social starts with people not technology. Sure, the “space” these policies/protocols can reside in should be wiki-like but the emphasis is on people’s participation, all people as that’s who it impacts. You can’t control social is another. With this approach, leadership should encourage a very open conversation, one that will likely result in emotion and criticism but all in the name of continuous improvement. By inviting this critique, leadership may be uncomfortable throughout the process and even with the results as they could challenge the status quo. Conversation creates movement too. It’s only in open conversation, across various levels in an organization that advancements can be made. This approach also reinforces the principle that strong social cohesion is built in layers. You can start small and go slow, steadily dripping and encouraging engagements like these which create a more social organization over time or, if well connected already, it becomes a means to maintain. Finally, it is increasing conversation that is the key indicator of progress. Discussions about these rules will certainly have offshoots to other aspects of work and working together. A Pandora’s Box has opened as people will be motivated to participate and encouraged by the progress.

When small, an organization constructs – making the unwritten written but with the expectation of constant iteration as the business evolves. When done in a larger, more established organization, this action invites deconstruction, where policy/protocols become THE object social can form around to start the process of transformation to a more social organization.

In Defense of the Distrusting Manager (sort of)

The Manager question of “If I can’t see them how do I know they’re really working…?” is typically met by most with anger and frustrated eye rolls. It appears an old school, industrial-era mindset type question reeking of control and distrust. But is this just surface level?

Is what was asked, what was meant?

Sure in some cases yes, but what if it’s more:

“How do I know they’re really working on what’s important now?
“How do I know they’re really working with the best tools?
“How do I know they’re really working with the right people?
“How do I know they’re really working with the most efficient process?
“How do I know they’re really working in the right direction?

These questions certainly change the connotation to something more sincere as it’s not about control it’s about communication. However, if a manager doesn’t know THESE answers, then they need to be better about having regular, open and honest conversations. And now, more than ever since seeing isn’t quite as easy.

Culture Change? Address the system or change nothing

Culture change won’t happen without system change. Organizational norms of behavior are all grounded in the systems an organization has subscribed to – systems of decision-making, management, development, recognition, etc.

When hiring, the hire is for system fit, followed by training to ensure the system is supported and then maintained by a rewards system for those who comply. It’s systems that drive people’s behaviors and those behaviors, repeated and reinforced, lead to the beliefs that the system is correct.

Culture change efforts shouldn’t start with trying to directly change individuals, the should start with an examination of the assumptions and expectations within an organization’s very design, it’s systems, that are all subtly and unconsciously guiding people to do what they do.

When all we have is the work

For many now, remotely working, the only shared experiences are in the work we do together.

No office to go to, no commute, no hallways, or break rooms with cold coffee. No physical building with iconic brand images, unifying colors, and no parking lot. No serendipitous observations of new shirts, haircuts, and glasses to marvel at. These were, in addition to our work and tools, our social objects, the items we circled around to energize us, to comfort us, to frustrate us and humor us. These objects fueled our stories, which built our relationships, which in turn made the less enjoyable aspects of our jobs tolerable. They’re more or less gone and all that remains is the work…

I wonder how this will impact the work?

Like the Curve, Companies need to Flatten their Hierarchies

Today, to save lives, we’re being asked to practice physical distancing to the extreme. Shelter in place and self-quarantine are not normal activities and are challenging our personal needs, beliefs and behaviors by placing us in very uncomfortable and unfamiliar situations. And it’s this same uncomfortableness and unfamiliarity in organizational beliefs and practices that just might save our companies.

General Stanley McChrystal wrote an interesting article recently in the New York Times that suggests leaders let go of their beliefs and needs around communication and control. In What 9/11 Taught Us About Leadership in a Crisis he outlines 4 actions that leaders need to do to help their organizations and frankly, what it boils down to is creating a more social organization… if only temporarily.

don’t hunker down

Visibility is critical. McChrystal speaks in terms of being calm in the face of adversity but it’s about being visible in deed as well as presence. People need to know that action is taking place because it is, even if it’s not the typical “release when all the boxes are checked” or the carefully crafted, edited and perfectly punctuated communique. The time now is to keep people in the know. We all need to make our thoughts, work and ideas visible today. The conversation that emerges could spring forth new ideas that could lead to powerful solutions when needed most.

demonstrate candor

Employees are adults, not your kids. Furthermore, they can see pretty quickly when the effort to pacify conflicts with reality. It’s OK and actually welcomed to be perfectly frank or as McChrystal notes, “Today’s leaders must be honest with their people to a level that will and should feel uncomfortable.” And they need to encourage everyone to not just keep their heads down and work as always. It’s time that everyone, of every level, ask for help, show their work, share their knowledge, ask challenging questions and toss “stupid” idea out there without fear.

give up more authority

“Control is for amateurs,”says Rachel Happe. This is no time to go solo or insular. Father knows best and mama bear philosophies in an unprecedented crisis are foolish. Leadership hired talented people, it’s time to tap into them. Most of the workforce is far, far closer to the customers and clients than leadership is. Accept that they have the best way to take the temperature continually and open up communication to this information flows. Additionally, the authority must flow up and down and down and up and across. Hierarchy has no place when its all hands on deck. Let those who know best take leadership in their space.

be more compassionate

Workers, who never were remote working, now are. But that’s a fraction of everyone’s anxiety. They fear for their health, their family’s health, the economy, their job, their security, and all the while managing a disrupted household. Lending a sympathetic ear and sharing understanding words is important because strong leaders connect with people at an emotional level but also remember that ALL conversations in a business ARE business conversations. People need to talk and be heard, acknowledged and not just about work. It’s these non-work conversations that build relationships that ultimately benefit the work because people work well with people they like not just those they respect or think they should respect.


The openness, the transparency, the honestly and the trust by leaders who follow this advice is a huge opportunity to jump-start a more social organization long-term, one that is cooperative, collaborative and conversational. To go back to the status quo after this ends (and it will end) is a missed opportunity. These new beliefs and behaviors being modeled won’t remain however if they don’t take steps to modify the work systems in play; management, recognition, communication, decision-making, knowledge management, etc. The businesses that change their design in these areas to encourage sustained connection will position themselves to thrive next time (and there will be a next time).