The Problem is not a Problem: #WorkingOutLoud on the Future of Work

Sometimes we try to solve a problem that is not a problem. The ‘future of work’ may fall into that category.

Maybe the future is just different.

The pain, as described, is non specific, and it seems unlikely that a plaster cast is the answer to all possible diagnoses.

There are plenty of things that we should remember when we consider whether we have a problem at all:

  1. People are generally self organising – it’s something we are pretty good at, having developed this capability to avoid being eaten, or to hunt things to eat – people come together, to find creative and diverse ways to solve things. We’ve seen this at play as we adapted to ‘remote’ – but we seem reticent to give it the space to work as we adapt to the future, preferring instead to reimpose control. Or in the belief that ‘we’ know best.
  2. We have a sense that we are lacking something – that something is missing – something that we need – something that lets us collaborate, innovate, to have ‘culture’. And we sense that it’s something to do with being together. But we conflate that outcome of being together with the simple fact of being together. Plenty of teams have spent a lifetime together and yet fail to collaborate or have a healthy culture. In this case, the thing alone is not the thing.
  3. We believe that we have come from somewhere and need to end up somewhere else – but why is that true? What if we still have most of the journey to make? What if we are just at the start? What if there is no end? How would we know? The worst thing to do would be to stop and mark out our camp now if we have barely left the garden. Possibly the pandemic was the point of fracture alone, not the chasm to cross.
  4. We inhabit systems that benefit from the perpetuation of current power – but we rarely stop to ask how that habituation will inhibit or pollute our judgement. How many people will make a decision that leaves them personally less powerful? What if we don’t have a problem related to geography at all, but rather a problem related to power?
  5. Geographical footprints do not necessarily map against the homes of the best talent – yet we continue to exclude opportunity in the name of perpetuating legacy geography. What if two years of remote was a gift to sever our connection to ‘place’? That we risk squandering.
  6. We measure our pain in belief, and believe that we have to take action through structure. But what if what we really need is to share the authorship of the next story?
  7. Opportunity will more likely lie the other side of sub-optimisation and exploration, not back through familiarity and comfort. So why rush back?
  8. Paradigm shifts are hard to spot when you just look at the book cover – we may need to live this experience before we can judge it.
  9. The Organisation you had two years ago casts a shadow into the future: it may not be the asset that you believe it to be.
  10. People generally seek freedom (in my own research, 56% correlate this with how the Organisation that they work for will show it’s trust in them), opportunity (60% relate this to their belief in the leader that they work for), and belonging. They rarely describe ‘glass walls’, ‘formal infrastructure’, and ‘furniture’ in their top needs. So why not give them more of these things – or learn how they work?
  11. There is a difference between things ‘feeling different’, and things ‘being wrong’. There may well be a need right now – but it’s unclear if it is a known one.
  12. Other people may not have the answer, no matter how confident they sound and…
  13. Other people’s solutions are rarely your solution and…
  14. LinkedIn, Twitter, HBR and TED are just a subset of all the places we may find an answer. You already have access to what ‘industry’ knows – but what if the answer lies elsewhere? It’s the age of the generalist connector, not the general re-sharer.
  15. Do not generalise examples of failure to a generalised view of failure – and similarly do not generalise individual experience into general solutions.

What should we do?

  1. Allow diverse experimentation – to see what works locally – and globally – and decide if we are comfortable with diverse experience, or if there is evidence that unified experiences are best.
  2. Seek fairness, and understand how it is triangulated, from me to you, to other. It seems unlikely that the way forward will be one that is deemed by some to be unfair – if what we are seeking is greater social cohesion.
  3. Find shared vocabulary to explore how you will know if you are failing: what words would you hear, what behaviours would you see? Seek to build shared vocabulary before almost anything else: you can do this by analysing other people’s experiences and case studies, together.
  4. Remain curious – and open about our curiosity.
  5. Resist the need to ‘solve’ what may not be a problem.
  6. Carry out research to discover if there is a problem and… if the solution lies ahead or behind.
  7. Recognise that our brilliance, brilliant as it is, may not be the brilliance we need to solve this. So find some new brilliant people help you, and start with the ones you already have, but who may lack a voice or seat.

I said earlier that we are generally self organising, and that is true. And we are also typically prone to action: to diagnose and act. But this may be a time to observe, and certainly a time to only take decisions with short sell by dates.

This forms part of a body of articles exploring ‘The Work of Place’, considering radical interpretations of the future of work.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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