19 Sub Questions on ’The Future of Work’

Yesterday i shared a series of questions around the first two elements of this framework – it’s an enquiry framework for Teams to explore what type of ‘future of work’ they desire. Today, i’m adding a second layer of sub questions under the first section. I’m republishing the whole piece as i have also edited and adapted the main body text.

Location – Where We Work

QUESTION about SPACE – “What do you want to do with your ‘Space’?”

This question considers your relationship with architecture and geography: it’s often the first aspect considered when exploring the ‘Future of Work’.

Potential Outcomes could include:

  • Reducing owned Space
  • Adapting owned Space
  • Sharing owned Space with others
  • Removing owned Space altogether
  • Developing a more fluid relationship with Partnered Spaces

Sub Questions:

  1. Will your ‘future work’ require the same, or a different amount of, space? And will that space itself vary from the legacy functionally defined model ?
  2. Is the footprint of your ‘Space’ a long term or short term question? Does the answer differ when you answer from an economic, legal, or cultural perspective? And what is the balance between these three forces?
  3. Does your relationship with built space define your, enable you, or something else?
  4. What is the relationship between space and effectiveness? How would you articulate this?
  5. Articulate and explore how culture and space are related – is there a ‘culture particle’ that lives in the carpets, or is it something else, or held in a different way?

QUESTION about BELONGING – “How will people ‘belong’ to your Organisation?”

We don’t just join an Organisation legally: we also come to ‘Belong’ to it – a socially moderated feeling of being part of something. This question asks how that relationship is formed.

Potential Outcomes could include:

  • Maintaining a purely Employed model of Belonging
  • Developing an Engaged model, where Employment is complimented by more fluid types of bond whereby people come and go as opposed to staying then leaving
  • An Aligned model, where people never ‘join’, but they do ‘belong’ – Partnerships
  • Connected models where people never directly work, and are never employed, yet nonetheless contribute to success – our Communities and Networks fall into this space – and may need to be recognised, catered for, and even rewarded.

Sub Questions:

  1. What does it mean ‘to belong’? And why does belonging matter, if indeed it does?
  2. Is your ‘future work’ likely to need a stronger, or weaker, sense of belonging?
  3. How long does it take to belong – and do you need to meet in person to do so?
  4. Can ‘meeting’ be separated from ‘working’?
  5. If people cease to belong, do they automatically leave – or can you turn up yet not belong? And if so, how would you know? And what would the cost be?
  6. Map out what ‘belonging’ would look like in your future of work model.

QUESTION about PLACE – “How do your people find, or construct, their sense of Place?”

An Organisation maintains a discrete sense of ‘Place’ – the sanctified space of the office. As our relationship with ‘space’ changes, so too does our sense of ‘place’. This question explores how that sense of Place is created, and how we can maintain, or build upon it, when people may be more distributed.

Potential Outcomes could include:

  • Exploring whether existing Roles suit the future state, or if they are linked to legacy space
  • Considering the role of Artefacts as we disperse – and how they tie us to Place
  • Exploring the role of Rituals – and how they evolve, are scripted, or change, dispersed – and what we need them for and why

Sub questions:

  1. Can a sense of ‘place’ exist without an office – or with an evolved type of office? And if it can, will be be stronger, weaker, better, or worse?
  2. Is sense of place an individual, or collective, phenomena? And in either case, how is it generated?
  3. Will you need to engineer, or support, ‘belonging’ in your future of work – and if so, who is responsible?
  4. How will you know if you are succeeding or failing?

QUESTION about OWNERSHIP – “Who will be the Owner, or Guardian, of your future ‘Place of Work’?”

Space is always owned, and hence controlled. As you evolve your ‘Work of Place’, consider how the space is arbitrated and moderated.

Potential Outcomes could include:

  • Looking at the role of Leaders at every level, and the balance between enablement and control.
  • Exploring the role and purpose of your Communities – what you seek from them, and how you connect with them
  • Considering the place of Alumni and the relationships you maintain
  • Looking at who controls Space – in a hybrid model will there still be desks, or will space itself be democratised?
  • Looking at who controls Time – will the future be 9-5 or mixed, and if so, how will it be fair?

Sub questions:

  1. Does everyone need to ‘work’ the same way in your future of work – and if not, how will you ensure fairness?
  2. Will the pattern of work be fixed or fluid? If fluid, how will you ensure it does not set solid?
  3. If hybrid, and elective, how will you support it?
  4. Is there any missing capability -and if so, is it a ‘known’ one we can give, or an emergent one we must learn?
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8 Questions on the Future of Work

I’ve been working on an enquiry framework to explore ‘The Future of Work’. Today i am sharing a first draft of the first half of that. It’s based around 8 questions – and for each i include context and an exploration of four sub questions or considerations. This work is shared as part of #WorkingOutLoud and it may not always read easily – but it is rapidly evolving.

I am sharing two of the four main sections today: ‘Location’ and ‘Agency’ (the other two are ‘Mechanisms’ and ‘Identity’). For each i set a broad ‘context; and then share the four questions. Under each of those are a series of ‘Potential Outcomes’ which is really still my notes on the detail. So again, this is shared really as part of #WorkingOutLoud and i hope of some value.

Framework for the Future of Work

Location

Often the primary area of enquiry – where work happens – and hence the first of the four areas we explore as part of the ‘Framework for the Future of Work’.

Location – Space

QUESTION – “What do you want to do with your ‘Space’?”

CONTEXT – Considering your relationship with the legacy architecture and physical location – often the first dimension that Organisations consider – although probably not the most significant.

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES – Reduce Space

Selling or fragmenting – move from central to local model – consider ‘head office’ as theatrical space with lots of stages for communities to claim.

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES – Adapt Space

Remove zoning – shift ratio of ‘desk’ to ‘meeting’ space – expand support structures (coffee – technology – comfort) – democratise ownership – bring outside community in – create stages and performance spaces – create playful space etc

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES – Share Space

Replace or supplement ‘owned’ space with ‘open’ space – or ‘rent’ space through cafe partnerships. Distribute space into local community.

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES – Remove Space

Erase the physical footprint of the Organisation. Free up resource, but discover the need to find new foundations for culture.

Location – Belonging

QUESTION – “How will people ‘belong’ to your Organisation?”

CONTEXT – Exploring mechanisms of ‘belonging’ beyond ‘contract’ and ‘space’ – how will people join, connect, be effective? Asks if you should take a forward facing view to the mechanisms of connection – moving beyond legal or geographical.

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES – First Dimension – Employed

Consider evolving nature of contracting – for time, value, or effort – look at fluid policies of holiday, even fluid leadership models. Consider what ‘employment’ gives you, and ask ‘what are we unable to buy’?

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES – Second Dimension – Engaged

Consider engagement before, or beyond, employment – mechanisms of safety, scope, recognition and reward

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES – Third Dimension – Aligned

Those who run next to you – experts in a shared knowledge economy – no contractual engagement, but nonetheless contributing to your effectiveness and success. The new Guilds and networks. Ultimately may include AI generated texts and personas.

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES – Fourth Dimension – Connected

Inter-organisational secondments – consider ‘purposeless’ contracts – storytellers – alumni – graduates – tribes. Consider nature of connection – through contract, through story, through experience, even through competition or opposition – consider how Org ‘belongs’ in it’s geographically local community -and global virtual ones

Location – Place

QUESTION – “How do your people find, or construct, their sense of Place?”

CONTEXT – Touches upon mechanisms of joining and belonging – and asks if you should take a forward facing view to rituals, artefacts, and space, to find news ways to create the ‘place’ of work.

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES – Create or Evolve Roles

Consider Ambassador roles – consider how to help people ‘walk’ through the virtual – consider ‘connectors’ – create space, experience, and opportunity to mingle

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES – Consider Artefacts

Consider artefacts of Place – from mugs to badges and pot plants – consider where your storytelling spaces are – where does your institutional memory lie and how is the folklore heard?

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES – Create or Evolve Rituals

Do you need to script, learn, or adapt the rituals of engagement and belonging? Are there legacy aspects to unwind – how much of your ritual is about safety as opposed to ‘joining’.

Location – Ownership

QUESTION – “Who will be the Owner, or Guardian, of your future ‘Place of Work’?”

CONTEXT – As we adapt our Spaces, and culture, we must address arbitration – how things are moderated and controlled – from who tells you where to sit, through to who tells you when to work, or take a holiday

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES – The role of leaders

How is work allocated and arbitrated? How do you balance loads and ensure fairness when you lack physical oversight? Who gains voice and who loses it?

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES – The role of Communities

Ties into your Knowledge strategy – personal vs distributed knowledge – where are your ‘sense making’ spaces – do you need more synchronous or asynchronous space and how does your technology, and capability, support this?

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES – The role of alumni

How are people engaged beyond employment – what bonds do you retain – even mechanisms of remembrance, recognition and reward.

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES – Arbiters of Space

Who decides ‘where’ you sit – control of resources – purchasing – IT policies and provision – shared vs personal spaces – will you have ‘desks’ or ‘zones’ or simply ‘spaces’

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES – Arbiters of Time

Is ‘time’ your mechanism of engagement? Who controls time – holidays – working hours – are roles time based or value based?

Agency

Agency describes the relationship between ‘self’ and ‘system’, the ways that people can invest themselves in work. It’s one of the four key areas we explore in the Framework for the Future of Work.

Agency – Investment

QUESTION – “What do you want your people to invest, beyond their time?”

CONTEXT – A broad question to consider investment beyond time – what are your aspirations for knowledge generation, capability and capacity – ties into strategies for innovation and approaches to change. Essentially this is about determining the Dimensions, and Currencies, of a more Socially Dynamic Organisation.

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES – Knowledge

Desire to access tacit and tribal knowledge – a mix of technology and permission – how will you find it – how will you earn the right to hear it – how will you recognise it and respect it – who owns the outcomes – what can you mine and what must you buy – how will you codify the transient – and how will you decommission the redundant?

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES – Network

Relates to permeability – will you ‘own’ all of your capability, or will some be permeable through your walls – do you employ people for ‘self’ or ‘self plus network’ and how will you earn this right? – how is this impacted in the distributed Organisation – what is relationship between network and space?

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES – Space

In a distributed Organisation, we rely on people investing their space – so how will you trade in that – what support (financial or material – how will you ‘rent or borrow’ that space – which rules apply – and are you mindful of the intersection of personal and official space and the risks and challenges – do you need rituals around this. What about Community spaces – coffee shops and co-working – will you just ‘rent’ these, or invest in them – can you give certainty – buying blocks of time or coffee etc – are you squatting or partnering?

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES – Self

For collaboration, co-creation, innovation, even change, we need an aspect of investment of self – or at least we do if we move beyond utilitarian investment – so what is your view of ‘self’ – relates to questions of safety and control. Which ‘self’ do we expect people to bring – is this the same, or different, from before?

Agency – Power

QUESTION – “How is ‘power’ visible in your Organisation?”

CONTEXT – Distributed Organisations are connected through technology, which democratises hierarchy by giving access and connection – you lose control of both power and story. This changes almost everything – and highlights the need for listening space and skills as well as ‘sense making’ capability – human and technological.

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES – Evolve and adapt Roles

How much power is held within roles (formal system – job titles) and how much in more fluid social structures – is there opportunity to invest in these?

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES – Consider the Story

Are you able to hear, or articulate, the competing narratives of the Future of Work – create space and opportunity to do so – and analyse how they relate to power. Do this within intact teams, and cross functionally.

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES – Access Tribes

Explore the degree to which your Organisation is tribal and hence Domain based – will your vertical structures serve you well in a distributed context, or do they constrain you?

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES – Democratise Change

Consider the degree to which change itself is democratised – how is it initiated, by who – and should that be reversed – what is sacred and what is simple dogma?

Agency – Control

QUESTION – “What are your existing mechanisms of Control?”

CONTEXT – Consider which mechanisms will stand up in your new reality.

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES – Adapt Rules

How will your rules adapt – how reliant are you on rules – who will rewrite the rules?

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES – Rebuild Culture

How will you be ‘together apart’ – what is the new intersection of physical and social – how do dynamics change as your relationship to Space changes?

Agency – Boundaries

QUESTION – “How separate will ‘work’ and ‘life’ be in your future work?”

CONTEXT – The Future of Work may involve a greater diversity of working patterns, philosophies, and approach – how able are you to accommodate and recognise these?

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES – Consider balance

What is expected of people – how will that expectation be felt equally – is anyone disadvantaged or enabled more so than others?

POTENTIAL OUTCOMES – How broad is your net?

Can you accommodate wildly differentiated answer to this – some people 9-5 and others fragmented?

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Framework for the Future of Work

In a series of articles i am exploring the conversation about the ‘Future of Work’, moving beyond a simple conversation about ‘where’ work happens, into a broader examination of ‘how’, and even ‘why’. The overarching narrative here is about the evolution of Organisations as our basic system of productivity and effect – we have Organisations to get things done – but ‘how’ they work is up for grabs.

The Pandemic has fractured parts of the older narrative of ‘office’ and ‘home’, but it’s simply an extension of a broader shift in the balance of power, and nature of engagement, that has been playing out for some years.

Today i am sharing a simple ‘Framework for the Future of Work’ which is intended as a starting point for discussion, couched around some core questions.

The four quadrants represent different aspects of enquiry:

  1. LOCATION of work – an examination of ‘where’ we work. This incorporates most of the current narratives around ‘remote’, ‘office’ and ‘hybrid’.
  2. MECHANISMS of work – an examination of the mechanisms by which we are effective in our work – incorporating questions of collaboration and innovation, but also the strategies and mechanisms of scale and optimisation – both things that our legacy Organisations excel at.
  3. AGENCY is an exploration of the ‘self’ in work and represents the notion that our engagement is now a discretionary, and multi dimensional, feature.
  4. IDENTITY seeks to understand the new landscapes of ‘self’ and ‘system’, where each starts and ends, and how the two relate. This is an examination of why we engage, our purpose and beliefs, and the varied economies that relate to this.

This is not a definitive list: i think we can set up a series of Frameworks, some of which may give us conflicting or contrary answers, but the value sits in our ability to reframe the conversation away from simple location.

One final context before the detail: in ‘The Socially Dynamic Organisation’ [2020], i explored the origins of our existing legacy Organisational design with it’s roots in the Industrial Age and the principles of Scientific Management. One premise of this work is that our Organisations are entirely made up: they are not forces like gravity nor physical like rocks. Instead, we invented them, dreamt them up to serve our needs. In times of change, we must envisage the new. We must invent the Organisation fit for the Social Age.

Let me build out the four sections in a little more depth:

When considering the quadrant of Location – where we work – we look at four factors. ‘Space’, ‘Place’, ‘Ownership’ and ‘Belonging’. The easiest way to understand Space and Place is to consider your own house as either a set of map coordinates and a description of the building materials, or as your family home. Grid coordinates are ‘space’, home is ‘place’.

So our first question would be this: as your Organisation considers the Future of Work, are you primarily examining your owned Spaces, or your sense of Place. An Organisation that focuses on Space will think about leases and offices. One that thinks about Place will consider community, and connection. A Place based Organisation may have strong geographical links, but no actual office. By contrast, a Space based one may have a lot of infrastructure, but no true home or sense of belonging.

The next part of Location considers ‘Belonging’ itself, and asks the question ‘What is the nature of Belonging in your Organisation?’. Is it contractual and legal, or social and tribal, or both? It raises questions of ‘how do people join’ and ‘how do people belong’? An Organisation that has a focus on Belonging is one that values meta-structural connection, interconnectivity (which again i have written about widely in ‘The Socially Dynamic Organisation’). An Organisation with a more legal and hierarchical narrative around Belonging will see the challenge as one of Teams and structure – and hence will tackle change and adaptation looking through this lens. So which are you – structural or social belonging?

Finally, Ownership: the legacy office was owned by the formal Organisation – but what is the model of ownership in the new? A question may be as broad as ‘Who will be the Owner, or Guardian, of your future Place of Work’?

An Organisation that democratises ownership may see offices as part of their future, but ones with fewer formalised spaces: highly reconfigurable, flat and level (from a power perspective), where Estate Management may be more related to event management than building management. Places with a high level of connection to community – through both location and even e.g. art and decor.

This the of Organisation, which sees Ownership in a more fluid way as part of the Future of Work, may well be more permeable too: so whilst our legacy offices had battlements like a castle, the new ones may be more like community hubs, or shared ownership. This hits two benefits: it connects the Organisation more locally to Community, whilst also bringing the advantages of permeability of knowledge that we can access.

I will build out the next sections over subsequent articles.

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The Future of Work – what Binds us to the Past?

Last week i shared an introduction to a new body of work around ‘The Work of Place’, exploring perspectives on the Future of Work. The intent of this work is to move beyond the primary analysis of ‘where work takes place post pandemic’ – a conversations about offices and hybrid working – and into a conversation about what the ‘place of work’ is, how we are effective, and some of the ambitious visions and efforts to discover or invest new mechanisms and systems of work.

We are bound to the past for a whole range of reasons, some of which i have tried to capture in this illustration: the past is what we know, and also what we are tied into. Or to put it another way, the past is not simply a story, it is a system, with tangible, structural, legal and social ties. We are literally held within it’s arms.

In ‘The Socially Dynamic Organisation’ [2019], i talked about how Organisations cast a shadow into their own future. Hence to invent the new ‘place of work’ will require us to disentangle or unwind the shadow – we must free ourselves from the past to find the future.

One broad narrative is this: Organisations have learnt how to be effective – which we can define as knowing what to do, at scale, and optimising their ability to deliver that, in a controlled way that minimised deviation – and have then nested within that effectiveness. They accrete systems of power (hierarchy), craft stories (culture), build infrastructure (control) and find comfort (belonging and belief). They find purpose. Hence, to act against the system, to seek new ways of working, is an act of violence against all of these aspects of the system.

This is almost the easiest facet to understand, and it’s this which frames and contextualises much of the media narrative about the ‘future of work’ – and partly it is this which directs the conversation to be one of geography, one of place. So we come to understand the debate to be about ‘return to the office’, about ‘remote’, ‘hybrid’, or ‘office’.

In reality the future of work can potentially be better couched in terms of ‘collaboration’, ‘belonging’ and ‘scale’, or (if we feel bound to stick to threes), ‘engagement’, ‘risk’, and ‘power’.

We could expand a couple of terms on this sketch in greater depth: ‘Maps’ relates to our systems of understanding. As we learn, we create our mental landscape, we draw out maps – but our future navigation is then held in that relative space – in relation to ‘what we know’ and where the dragons lie. This itself can lock us into vertical systems of understanding.

It may be that we need to consider new maps – and the process by which we find them. Will we simply walk into the unknown and seek to illustrate them – or will we buy them or borrow them from someone else?

Will we follow the crowd? There appears to be a great deal of risk is current media narratives that polarise the debate into ‘where we work’ – and correlate it closely to culture, power, and control. Some Organisations seeking to demonstrate gravitas by insisting it’s ‘back to the office because we need a serious culture’, others seeking to show that they are listening. Many, i suspect, as lost as the rest of us.

In reality, we should be experimenting fast, and finding great comfort and tolerance for ambiguity – charting a future that is based around enabling technologies, most likely more fluid structure, new models of productivity, and more discretionary engagement.

In ‘The Socially Dynamic Organisation i painted what may be an extreme view of this: Organisations that consciously erode their vertical segmentation, their domains, in service of being lighter weight, more permeable, and able to change – because they have structurally fractured aspects of that constraint.

In this work i hope to use question frameworks to help re-phrase, or vision, the challenges. To give us an opportunity to ask about which narratives are more ‘true’ than others – what is our relationship with space – how is our notion of ‘place’ constructed – and how does it persist – who controls it – how do we collaborate now and what is our relationship with technology, and so on.

I will continue to #WorkOutLoud as i do so.

In 2020 i wrote ‘Finding your Campfire’ as an emergency guide to remote work, with the tagline ‘being together apart’. I intend ‘The Work of Place’ to be a companion volume in this.

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The Future of Work – The Work of Place

Around the world, both very publicly and quietly in private, Organisations are struggling to figure out what the future of work looks like.

It’s a challenge that conflates a number of elements: where will work take place, how will work take place, what will happen to culture, how will we lead, how will we control, where will identity lie, and will this be a competitive or innovative advantage or hurdle?

Sometimes the debate is couched in predominantly geographical terms: will we be ‘in the office’, ‘remote’, or ‘hybrid’, implying that our challenge is simply one of where we breathe and how often we commute.

It’s not.

There are more fundamental questions at play, not the least of which is to ask exactly ‘what’ an Organisation is, and ‘how’ it is effective, as well as ‘how’ does it change and ‘what’ should it change into.

As i explored in ‘The Socially Dynamic Organisation’ last year, our legacy Organisations are largely (structurally and culturally) an artefact of the Industrial Age. They are remnants of the structure that dug things up, melted it, and sent it around the world.

These organisations are optimised for place, expert at consistency, conformity, and replicabilty in service of scale. And they almost universally want to change.

The future is no secret: more for less, greater permeability, less control, more individual agency, speed of innovation, deeper fairness, and a long list of similarly attractive aspects.

The challenge is that you cannot have the new without first burning out the old. And this has become mixed up in, and sometimes confused with, the ‘return to work’.

The one dimensional question of ‘where’ we work is naive: the zeitgeist is clear. Aside from some machismo and outliers, it will be a mixed model. Understandably and fairly some Organisations will get people ‘back’ to the office, and will tell a story of how their culture relies upon it, how they cannot function without it. As i say, that is fair enough, although it does belie an underlying mindset of legacy instead of innovation.

There are then those who will be deceived into believing that ‘hybrid’ or ‘remote only’ is the answer: it is not. If you are lucky, it is the foundation of an answer.

Essentially the fundamental challenge is one of Organisational Design, in service of three key things. Firstly, how we belong, secondly, the mechanisms by which we are effective, and thirdly, how we innovate and change. These three aspects lead out into a broad array of secondary and tertiary questions: how do we lead, how do we control, how do we learn, and so on.

But it is at heart a question of vision: can we envisage an Organisation that is different from that which we own today, and are we willing to pay the price to build it?

Last year i published ‘Finding Your Campfire’, exploring how we can be together apart, as a remote work survival guide. Now, as we look beyond the pandemic, the question may be how we learn to be together again: where, how, and why.

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Learning: Navigation and Sense Making

Within a Scaffolded Social Learning approach we seek to balance structure with exploration by using a series of ‘spaces’ and ‘gateways’, thus helping to maintain tempo. Within this, i have been using language around ‘Navigation’ and ‘Sense Making’, and the sketch shared today is intended to help people visualise what we find between these two things.

‘Navigation’ is our more formal space: if we are bringing resources, perspectives, or content into a session, then this is where it would lie. This is where the narrative structure lies e.g. if there is a particular topic or theme to travel through. Meanwhile, ‘Sense Making’ is what we do in more open sessions, supported but unstructured discussion, the co-creation of meaning. Between these sessions, what we are given and what we create, what we hear and what we say, we find a truth. In my own work i now typically do equal numbers of each session – one ‘sense making’ for every ‘navigation’, in recognition of the very different behaviours and stories of each space.

The thing to consider is which ‘truth’ do we find? We can explore the tension between ‘my truth’, which i construct in my head, and ‘your truth’, which may be reflected in mine, but crucially is not the same as mine.

This is part of an implicit recognition that Social Learning Approaches do not generate one ‘truth’ but rather a story that forms the shadow of many – our truths.

One may argue that there cannot be ‘truths’, but rather one concrete truth. Well, perhaps that’s true in things that can be measured as absolutes: a kilogram or a mile, but when it comes to belief, which is really what we are generating when we think, there may be many. Recognisably similar or wildly divergent, hidden or shared.

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Foundations of Social Leadership

My work is iterative and evolutionary, developing in response to new thinking, new research, and simply in response to discovering that parts of it are wrong. I share this work and thinking as i go, and this space, on the blog, is my primary #WorkingOutLoud space. Today i am revisiting some of my core work on Social Leadership.

I first published ‘The Social Leadership Guidebook’ in 2014, with a major revision to the second edition in 2017. About 40% of the text was substantially rewritten, and the overall body of work ended up about 20% longer as i added in more work on taking the ideas into practice. Four years later i’ve shared this work all over the world, and developed a substantial new collection of ideas around the context, ‘The Socially Dynamic Organisation’.

Increasingly i see Social Leadership within this broader context: our broader society (context of the Social Age), our structures of social organisation (‘Community Builder Guidebook’ and ‘Trust Guidebook’ etc), our models of Organisational Design (‘Socially Dynamic Organisation’), and mechanisms of effect (‘Social Learning Guidebook’ and ‘Learning Science Guidebook’ [unpublished at this date]).

In this work i often talk about how our legacy structures of understanding- epistemology of knowledge, structure of organisations, philosophy of connection, measurement of value etc – may themselves be outdated. This trap is equally true within my own work: by writing in the verticals of ‘leadership’, ‘learning’, ‘culture’, ‘innovation’, and ‘change’ i may be restricting myself – my thought and effect – artificially.

That’s one reason why my work is all sketched: it’s not simply that i am a mediocre artist so much as that it can be scratched out and redrawn, overlaid, pasted, or traced.

This inherent imperfection in my work is a gift – it provides me with space to re-think and re-do that is often lost if we are trapped in the delusion of perfection – the perfection of ourselves or our thinking.

On the flip side, it’s disorientating when everything is in flux, especially if one retains the notion that there is ever a ‘destination’ or completion to this journey. ‘Knowing’ is not an arbitrary state, not a digital one, but rather a constant flow. So you’d better find a way to enjoy the journey.

The illustration above represents the nine core aspects or ideas of Social Leadership that i used in the model: originally they were clustered into three broader categories (‘narrative’, ‘engagement’, and ‘technology’), but i no longer find those terms useful.

I am currently guiding a group through this Foundations work, and using it as an opportunity to consider, and evolve some of the explanation and thinking around the nine terms. It’s not likely that i will drop one altogether, but some need recontextualising or working: for example, since the original work on ‘Social Capital’, i have come to look in far greater depth at the idea of Social Currencies – so my research and practice has allowed me to add depth, but also to uncover new aspects of ignorance – where are these currencies traded, how, what is the regulation that applies etc.

I will continue to share this work as it evolves, alongside the parallel effort i am making to update and revisit my core work on ‘learning’ itself. I don’t have plans at this stage for a third edition of the Social Leadership Handbook, preferring instead to build out the work on the Socially Dynamic Organisation, as well as the newer ideas around Quiet Leadership and Humility, but beyond 2022, who knows…

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Shifts in Organisational Learning – The Nature of your Strength

One of the innovations that allowed the Apollo spacecraft to journey to the moon was the development of a new generation of gyroscopes that formed part of the inertial navigation system. Essentially they formed part of a system that allowed the spacecraft to accurately know when it was moving, and how: how it rotated, when it tilted. Where it was.

To fly a spacecraft, a plane, or indeed to walk to your local coffee shop, two things are important: firstly, to know where you start, and secondly, to know where you are now. You can ascertain ‘where you are now’ either by looking around you (to give you an absolute measure), or by tracking all the details of how you move (to give you a relative one to your starting point.

For example, if i take one hundred steps in a straight line, and say fifty centimetres in each step, then i know for sure that i will end up fifty metres from where i started (a relative measure). Or i will end up in the street (and absolute observation).

As we evolve our Organisations, we may need to ask where our gyroscopes are – or to ask how we know where we are going, or where we have landed.

Gyroscopes are handy if you know where you want to end up, but for Organisations, there are no gyroscopes: there is instead simply the Known, the Visible Potential (what we can imagine), and the Occluded or Denied.

Organisations also differ from spacecraft in another critical way: they may need to crash.

Or to put it another way, they many not benefit from always remaining upright: if we consider the ‘known’ to be our vertical, and the operations of the Organisation today to keep us aligned to that, our challenge may be to tip over. To shift towards either the known space of potential, or into the unknown.

One of the paradoxes about learning to ride a bike is that it seems really hard until the point when you do it, and once you can do it, it’s very difficult to deliberately fall off.

Our legacy Organisations have learnt to travel in a straight line: they are optimised, codified, and structured to keep doing so. They can dream of different futures, but may be denied the ability to travel to them.

The illustration is a simplification, but intended to illustrate this: does your strength lie in the known, in the visible potential (which is the typical place we seen to innovate ‘in the light of what we can imagine or see’), or can it tip into the actively occluded (the space that is shielded from us by the things we already know to be true?

Organisational Learning is part of this challenge, because it is a reasonable assumption that ‘what we know’ is part of this challenge, and ‘what we can learn to do or be’ is another part of it.

Possibly we can even chart the steps to change: to understand with clarity our strengths, vision, and where shadows lie, to understand our structure, constraints, and appetite, to understand our agency, constraints, and momentum.

It is the easiest thing in the world to talk about adapting an Organisation: it’s even easy to move into motion. To build new teams, procure new technologies, to engage consultants and to create LinkedIn videos. It’s easy to desire or aspire. But it’s very hard to lose balance: to throw ourselves truly into this new space. Because it means to get lost, to tilt, to be out of balance, to be sub optimised, to be uncertain, to be confused, to fracture established power and control, and to lose sight of both our starting points and destination.

So, as ever, we veer into the realms of bravery: are you brave enough to change, where change may require us to fall, and even fail?

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Broad Shifts in Organisational Learning – #3 Through The Cracks

I am using a series of posts to explore broad shifts in Organisational Learning (as part of a wider discussion around the evolution of the Organisation itself). I find it increasingly difficult to separate conversations about ‘learning’ from the other strands of the Social Age, considering leadership, Org Design, technology, culture, or change, as ‘learning’ has fundamentally shifted from static to dynamic, from central to dispersed, and from owned to co-created. Today i am considering one of the tensions: that between structure and space, between control and freedom.

Organisations are built from a range of materials, principles, and commitments: from bricks and silicon chips, from rules and law, from engagement and loyalty. From belonging.

But there is nothing magical about this mix: indeed, the recipe we used yesterday may be unfit for tomorrow.

Take some of the fundamentals: in ‘The Socially Dynamic Organisation’, a book that explores the evolution of Organisations from a structural perspective, i talk about Organisations being entities of power and control.

Our legacy Organisations, based around vertical pillars of structure, bound by rules, and codified power, are strong. Specifically they are strong in known respects: able to be productive, safe, and controlled against formal and visible threats, and able to exploit a narrow range of opportunity.

Most modern Organisations, i would argue, are seeking to evolve into something different: still strong against yesterdays needs, but also able to identify opportunity, to build and deploy new strength, to be efficient, productive, and adaptive, whilst also often being smaller and faster. They want more, but to pay for it with different currencies.

This view is the foundation of the sketch i share today: that we need to engineer in more space: space between us, space around us. And to be connected in new ways across and within that space.

Legacy Organisations are transparent in that their rigid bonds are held in Org Structure charts, written rules, and within societal laws and norms. They also exist in opaque structures of folklore, social tribal rules, and tribal culture, but essentially the hard edges are visible and clear.

As part of our revision of Org structure and culture, part of what we may wish to do is to engineer in more space, and more fluid connection, both in the formal visible sense, but also to allow for social connection and spread. The question may be to what extent this process is managed, structured, and controlled, and to what extent is it emergent and ad hoc.

Our temptation to own it may simply make it part of the formal, but left to chance it may become local and social, yet not interconnected and globally purposeful or effective.

This, perhaps, is our space of innovation: to build the Organisation anew with new materials, and new spaces. Some formal structure, some social innovation, some formal connection, and some social fluidity. To create a structure overall more generalised and capable, more adaptable, and yet safe enough.

The notion of ‘safe enough’ is a challenging one: how safe do you want to be? Safe and static, or safely in motion? Our legacy notions of risk may work against us here: if we mitigate risk and stick to known byways, we remain safe yet stagnant in a constantly evolving context. At best we simply miss opportunity, at worst, we fail and fracture.

There is an industry of Change that would start with structure, and there is some value in that. But if i were to bet, i would bet on culture, storytelling, folklore and individual agency. And i moved from betting to investment, i would be seeking out those who exist at the intersection who, with the right support, technology, trust, and opportunity, may engineer the Organisation that we need.

There are many peripheral elements of this challenge: new materials to build with, new opportunity to seize: our enhanced capability with data and analytics, our predictive and analytic engines, our socially collaborative technologies, and indeed the legacy of the pandemic – the fracturing of dogma itself.

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Broad Shifts in Organisational Learning #2 – Gaps

Our conception of a challenge can frame our response to it: are we adapting within a known framework, or innovating a fundamentally new framework? Essentially a question we should ask is whether it is more efficient and effective to adapt the old, or whether we should build anew. It’s a question we should ask around our overall approach to Organisational design, and learning in particular.

Is the old adaptable – or should we renew?

Organisations cast a shadow into the future, from their past: they hold legacy strength to face known challenges that keeps them safe – but that very safety may not only preclude their ability to change, it may occlude their ability to even see the need.

In this series of sketches i have been considering this challenge: ultimately it may lead us to a set of questions we should ask ourselves, or others, and in turn into action. But let’s start by considering where the gaps lie: this is not a definitive list, just a set to start with, that considers the CONCEPTION of the challenge, our CAPABILITY that we hold or need to face it, the SKILLS we carry, and the STRUCTURE we exist within.

Skills and Capability have an uneasy relationship: one view is that skills are individual, and capability is what they deliver, but the relationship is doubtless more nuanced than that. In the broader context of the Social Age we should ask the degree to which capability is an individual, or distributed social, effect, and where it is owned, as well as how we can engage with it.

The old path may be that we built capability, developed skills, and owned the whole package through employment and measurement, but today we may be engaging with distributed capability that seemingly builds itself within hidden social communities, and we rent capability according to need, in a dynamic marketplace that permeates the walls of both our, and other, organisations.

This relates to our conception of the challenge: do you, or your leaders, or your teams, have the vision needed – and is that vision held within legacy frames, or unconstrained in new ones? We are all constrained by what we already know, but we can also be deluded by what others say (or what HBR tells us). Truly independent thinking may be something we believe that we have, but may be more elusive than we would like to admit.

Alongside vision is our understanding of opportunity – do we simply see a problem space that extends from our ‘known’, or does the future hold opportunity, and if so, can we conceive it, and are we able to articulate it. And should we even try? Is opportunity likely to be clearly defined in a rapidly changing ecosystem, or should we instead be seeking opportunity clouds or spaces – broadly defined parameters of opportunity, and building the skills (and capability) to coalesce these into defined pathways?

Some elements of capability are clear: the rise of metadata – the conversations about mining and exploiting our internal capability, the prevalence of new technology, but what may be less clear is the interconnection – the ways that these fibres weave together into a strong sail, as opposed to a tangled knot. It’s easy to procure capability, but it’s extremely hard to find synthesis and synergy. 

Whilst dreaming is easy, it’s extremely hard to be excellent.

All of this loops back to structure, something i explored in great detail in ‘The Socially Dynamic Organisation’: structure is not the purpose of an Organisation, but it is the most visible aspect. Structure enables us, but also constrains us. Not only our action, but our thinking as well.

Adaptation, the change we seek, will require change in structure: probably away from the monolithic and vertically segmented sort, to a more diffuse, smaller, and reconfigurable one. This is hard on so many levels, but primarily because power in the modern organisation is intrinsically rooted in structure, to to change structure removes people’s power, and with it their safety, security, and pride. Change is always an act of violence against structure, and hence power and people.

Perhaps the answer is to lead with purpose, and only later tackle structure: if we lead with structure we provoke immune responses.

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