Strengthening Our Social Supporting Muscles

I hurt my shoulder swimming (yes, you can get hurt swimming). Apparently I have a labrum abrasions (see picture) causing me to have painful movement, too painful to swim. Surgery on my shoulder is an option but may be unnecessary. So physical therapy has been my course of action and as I’ve learned it’s not my shoulder joint that needs to be fixed, rather it’s the small, little known muscle system around the shoulder that were too weak all along. This weakness caused me to alter my swim stroke and thus damage my shoulder. So of course this got me to thinking…

Approaches to performance improvement efforts are similarly surgical in nature. We directly attack the problem itself. But when the performance issue is say less tangible, like improving organization communication (collaboration, cooperation, openness, or transparency), we initially target individual or group behaviors and begin working on the people directly.

Typically it goes like this:

– We need to be more agile, adaptable, innovative…

– We need to collaborate more, open up and be more transparent

– Let’s buy Yammer… or Slack… or Jive. Or

– Let’s “create” a CoP so people will talk and share and innovate more… or

– Let’s revisit our knowledge management approach… or

– Let’s have the c-suite blog more… or

This approach is a mistake. At worst it is an expensive, morale killing failure and at best it is so slow it stumbles on for months or years with weak support.

Communication, collaboration, cooperation, etc. in the organization, like my shoulder, are really supported by little, unseen systems:

– Who gets to talk to whom and when?
– What gets rewarded and recognized?
– Is management leadership or overseer?

Just think, if I have surgery on my shoulder but return to swimming with the same underdeveloped system (muscles) that supports the movement (shoulder), it remains weak and I will eventually fail again.

Similarly, if we just implement a new technology or target individual/group behavior change and the system that supports the new behavior remains unchanged (weak) the new behavior too will eventually fail again.

Address the system which will alter the behavior and change the culture.

70:20:10 As a Reveal Not a Roll-out

Jane McConnell conducted a survey not too long ago to try and figure out what the greatest challenges were in the workplace. The top two that she discovered were related to:

  1. finding information to do the work and
  2. changing the mindset towards more collaboration and cooperation.

See her results and interpretation here.

She is very much focused on the “How To” from these findings and stated “I feel our industry is communicating too much theory and not enough operational and workable ideas today.

I couldn’t agree more.

Unfortunately most companies will turn to some new tech as their operational idea. However, the rate of change far exceeds the ability of a single tool or approach to keep up. The solution lies in strategy and more specifically a people-centric strategy not a tech focused one.

The two areas Jane surfaced are not exclusive of each other really as both are learning related but I’ll say up front, what I propose is not a quick fix – sorry, but it is workable. The answer lies in supporting greater informal and social learning made operational through a 70:20:10 framework. But unlike an initiative, you do not roll out 70:20:10, rather you must reveal it. Remember people already learn from doing their work, and they learn through and with each other. A 70:20:10 Framework not only makes this more apparent, it amplifies these activities, encourages them. Small, powerful changes at different entry points build and transform the system over time. In other words 70:20:10 IS a Catalytic Mechanism:

organizational mechanisms that are extraordinarily powerful at aligning a business behind a chosen strategy.

70:20:10 lifts the divide between learning and working by creating new behaviors around cooperation, openness and sharing. 70:20:10 shifts power into the hands of employees because, as noted in Jane’s findings, strong central power is not the answer in complex work environments.

Revisiting Jane’s two findings with a 70:20:10 lens:

  1. Finding (relevant) information is best done in trusted networks that add valuable context
  2. Collaboration is an outcome of greater cooperation (through connection)

Here’s a workable idea (a small powerful change), that I’ve promoted before that will increase social activity among employees:

Promote a development plan make-over that reduces training time allocated or training dollars significantly. Goals remain the same, but formal learning opportunities are constrained, can’t be first option. Then open up dialog on “how can we do this?” Create the space for better connection (tech aside). Make mentoring and coaching more a part of the planning. Encourage people to share their sources of new information. Model open question/answer opportunities. Frankly these things have been happening all along, in small sets. Now we work to expand them.

However, beware, 70:20:10 is more than a strategy, it can be an organizational change agent which disrupts the status quo.  70:20:10 won’t just help people better meet the demands of today’s work it can change the very nature of work.

Advancing The Social Organization Through Systems Change

The current approaches used to move organizations to be more social are struggling. The first phase was in using social technology. We quickly found out that the idea of “if you build it, they will come” didn’t work. Phase two focused rightly on “culture change” through social leadership initiatives. This is a top down approach which emphasizes that if organizational leaders change, then the behaviors will trickle down the hierarchy. Of course leaders REALLY have to change and this is not an easy task as most leaders are on top because of the current system, in short what’s the motivation to change? Phase two also includes more grassroots approaches, like I have taken, where we work more subversively (or as Jane Bozarth says, as a Positive Deviant). This is when you engage in small experiments, identify where collaboration is healthy, and take a performance consultation approach to leverage social approaches to solve problems.

Each of these however are slow change processes because they readily accept the current system as is and work within it. The system however is very resilient and has an incredible elasticity; it can stretch but can very easily bounce back to status quo.

I don’t disagree that each has merit (with the exception being tool first) but the slow pace leaves room for doubt and in an age of rapid change, these approaches may not always be fast enough to enable an organization to thrive.

Systems->Behaviors->Culture

So, if social can slowly change the systems, can the system be changed to rapidly encourage social?

I was recently revisiting an ancient text (OK, ancient as in 1999) and it dawned on me that we may need to focus less on people and more on the systems they work within. By breaking pieces of the system we can change behaviors and ultimately transform the culture. Jim Collin’s wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review that year that set the stage for his book, From Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t. This article was our introduction to Big Harry Audacious Goals (BHAGs) and the idea of Catalytic Mechanisms:

” [Catalytic Mechanisms are] the crucial link between objectives and performance – they are a galvanizing, non bureaucratic way to turn one into the other. They are the devices that translate lofty aspirations into concrete reality.” (from 12manage)

The article revealed to me that the real reason we fight and claw to gain a social foothold with our current efforts is not because of resistant people (alone) but because we are trying to work Social into the current organizational human systems (systems that drive attitudes and behaviors). These long-established, often unconscious systems of Communication, Recognition, Rewards, Career progression, and Organizational Learning (to name a few) do not support wide-scale social. In fact, I’d argue that most reinforce the exact opposite of the transformation being sought in large organizations. It’s no surprise then that the resulting inhibited culture is so resistant to changes.

Jim Collins’ idea was to meet a clearly defined, tangible, yet highly audacious goal. However, my idea is to use Catalytic Mechanisms to change behaviors and meet the goal of increasing the less tangible – creativity, transparency, openness, collaboration, cooperation, and innovation… all attributes of a social organization.

What exactly makes up a Catalytic Mechanism? According to Jim Collins there are 5 elements of these actions that:

  1. produce desired results in unpredictable ways.
  2. distribute power for the benefit of the overall system and uncomfortable to traditional power holders.
  3. have teeth
  4. eject viruses
  5. produce an ongoing effect

Whereas most initiatives are direct hits to the problem being addressed, a Catalytic Mechanism is more of an indirect one that ripples across an organization like a pebble striking a pond. Or to continue the water analogy;

If you want to move a river, you don’t grab the water. Rather, you alter the landscape around it and the river reroutes to a new, more desirable course.

Catalytic Mechanisms Reroute

Take for example the traditional systems of rewards as a place to start. Sales contests are common, and typically these appear as “sell X quality of something by X date and receive X“. There is no question this is effective as people are motivated by both the challenge and opportunity for monetary reward. A sales person or team meets the goal and wins the prize. They are rewarded but the organization is not. Leaders only reward the outcome and ignore the process but it’s in the process that we have the greatest opportunity to advance to a more social organization.

The social sparking mechanism that is missing here is a required transparency. And transparency has teeth! 

By requiring a transparent process (the how) the traditional reward system is altered and serves as a catalytic mechanism to shift the organization more social:

  1. unexpected benefits: could reveal unethical practices and accelerated adoption of new best practices.
  2. Knowledge hoarding practice loses power, all sales teams improve as a result.
  3. Has teeth: No reveal, No reward.
  4. Unethical practitioners revealed and reprimanded and those not wishing to help peers/org grow are exposed and likely move on.
  5. On going culture shift as each subsequent contest would require new approaches to better the last, and openness becomes normalized.

Could we not do the same for recognition? Internal communications? Management and leadership? Imagine requiring that individuals on a career path to management must demonstrate effective coaching or mentoring before they advance. Connecting with and growing people becomes the new core skill of a manager.

A series of small but powerful placed system changes (Catalytic Mechanisms) targeting the social transformation we seek, may just be the answer to the problem of slow change due to a resilient, inhibited culture.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised?

I’ve been privy to a few conversations lately around organizational “social” behaviors and tools. Most of this has come through people in leadership roles reflecting on their organizations and the work they do.

One, a Dean at Syracuse University, expressed that the students “were already doing these things” (PKM, network building, etc) and a corporate leader who stated “we are doing a few of these things now” (social tech for organizational collaboration). In both cases it was sadly apparent there was no data just subjective observation, gut feeling and certainly no larger strategy to support these behaviors as being critical.

What’s Going On?

One thing is the fact that social tech is becoming increasingly commonplace, resulting in people slowly opening up and using the tools. Its become normalized and the long held leadership fear of social tech or that it’s mere folly has subsided. This is both good and bad news.

Good – because as we know, social always finds a way. People are playing around and getting more comfortable inside organizations using these tools in small teams and in productive ways.

Bad – because 1. the pace of adoption is slow and disconnected. Slow adoption means we are a long way from the real vision; work adaptation or working socially as the default. And 2. Executives, particularly old school executives (more common than not), are now “flippant”. The pace is comfortable, it feels safe in small pockets. But safe is not transformative. Safe, small and slow is not a revolution, never has been.

The Social Evolution?

This all reminds me of Karl Marx and what he wrote about the inevitability of a Communist revolution by the working class. Critics said that if it was inevitable, then one didn’t need to rush things, it would happen when the time was right. So rather than some massive, upheaving, social revolution are we just to see organizations incrementally reach plateaus? Is the “Future of Work” and “Humanization of Organizations” really to be more a slow slough forward vs. the a rapid change we desired and hoped for?

But then again, maybe it’s not about how we light the fire it’s where we light the fire.

Hope Lies with Youth

I think this slow level of advancement is the reality for most large organizations, the ones getting all the media attention about digital transformation. However, it’s the small, budding companies who inherently get social because that’s how they MUST work; people over process, flexible systems, cross pollination of skills, late night pizza in the meeting rooms.

If we want to incite a revolution, it starts with here, with the small and mostly invisible. It’s a revolution where a connected culture is maintained to prevent social atrophy, not try to reverse it. Helping small, growing organizations to NOT follow in the footsteps of the big ones is the real transformation we should be working on.

Simple ≠ Easy

There is a lot of talk today about making work more human. This is a simple statement and it has universal appeal. I mean, who is arguing to make work more robotic? It speaks to meaning in ones work, passion, connection, and collaboration. For organizations it’s about openness and transparency – a whole bunch of warm and fuzzy, right?

It’s a simple idea, “communicating”, but unfortunately in most organizations it’s not easy to put into action.

Maybe the suits in this cartoon already feel they communicate with the employees… through newsletters, broadcasts in internal blog posts or emails, annual meetings, or through the mid-level managers and expecting and assuming trickle down. But we all know this guy meant conversing when he said communicating.

Asking “what if?” like “why?” or “why not?” are simple questions and yet each has the ability to change the direction of an organization or shake its very foundation. Ask and act and you may soon find you’ll be fighting tradition, the status quo, hierarchy, and/or fear of change. If you decide to move simple forward, standing your ground and digging deeper to support these ideas and utterances will be hard work, it’s not going to be easy.

Simple and easy regularly and wrongly get paired together.