Posts from SXSW Interactive 2014 – day 1 5

Coherent with my interest in “the future of work”, I will try to attend as many sessions here at SXSW as possible (there’s free beer everywhere, you know) that deal with the “how” of product development, innovation and work.

I argue that these aspects of how we do what we do critically impact our capability to meet the demands of the future. To recruit and retain the best people, stay competitive and generally sing while we’re winning. These aspects are in my mind at the very centre of every prosperous and successful organisation.

So here goes: A post from SXSW day 1

What: Workplace redesign: The big shift from efficiency
Who: John Hagel from the Centre for the Edge

John opens with what he calls “The Dilbert paradox”, which basically states that if you ask executives what their top priorities are, you will hear them mention in their top three, that they’re in a war for talent. That the attracting and retaining of talent is extremely important to them. Yet then, how do we explain Dilbert, asks John. Is this popular comic’s portrait of how we experience work wrong? Sadly no. It’s all too accurate. Then are the executives not sincere when they explain their priorities? Well no, sure they are. Hence the paradox. We have contradictory data points.

When John in his research asks: “So, talent is important to you. That’s great. What are you doing about this whole talent thing then”? The answers John and his research team gets is typically:

1) We work towards attracting world class talent.
2) We work towards retaining the world class talent that we have.

Makes sense no? Yet, there’s a missing middle. You attract the talent, you retain the talent, but what do you do with the talent? What about talent development?

Typically, the bigwigs will start talking about their training programs at this point. John is of the opinion that training programs are increasingly becoming irrelevant for talent development. Rather, it’s in the day-to-day that we should be developing our talents. And I agree.

Some of us have successfully applied powerful methods such as Design Thinking with powerful results when it comes to our products and our value offer, but we have not applied Design Thinking to ourselves, says John. What about creating great work experiences? What about looking at the work environment holistically? This is still open territory, says John.

What we’re talking about here is about looking at the work environment as an integrated whole and ask ourselves “what should the work environment look like in order to support talent development?” A design thinking question, for sure.

John and his team have identified three design goals in order to answer that question:

1) Help people understand the performance challenges that have the highest impact for the company.  People don’t know usually, they are siloed and focus on their own subgoal. Teach them how they can contribute to the performance improvement of the organisation as a whole. Here I find myself in a bit of a disagreement with John, as systems thinking and experience tells me that it’s not primarily “workers” that need help seeing the whole and the part they play. It’s the executives that need help seeing the system. The very system they in many cases don’t even understand that they’re responsible for.

2) Facilitate hight impact connections: How do you connect with people in relation to your challenges and goals? Here Johns spots a trend, as we are moving towards a flow of knowledge, rather than stocks of knowledge. Knowledge stocks becomes obsolete at an accelerating rate. So the challenge is: If flow is what matters, how do you connect people and manage these flows? Here I am in full agreement with John.

3) Amplify impact of the challenges and the solutions to those challenges: Which in systems speak is basically creating a reinforcing feedback loop around the two goals mentioned above.

This here, says John, is rather different compared towards sending people on training. Focus on their performance improvement in the day to day work develops talent smarter, faster and better. And if you mean business about this, the key is people and their passion. If it’s not there, they will not learn as fast, or at all. Passion is key.

So John and his research team asked themselves: where can we find “sustained extreme performance improvement”. They chose to look into extreme sports, an area where the price to pay for not driving your performance to the next level can be actual, litteral death. I have historically asked myself the very same question and I ended up in a different area, but for similar reasons.

The common element in these areas of “sustained extreme performance improvement”, says John, is passion. So the research team looked into this “passion” thing, and stumbled upon something they call “the passion of the explorer”.

The passion of the explorer-concept have three components. Three attributes that define the people of this disposition.

1) Long term commitment to the domain: and making a contribution and difference to that domain.
2) A questing disposition: They actively seek out the next quest, in order to get to the next level.
3) A connecting disposition: Their instinct is to find someone who can teach or help.

These three attributes combined in one person creates rapid learning and performance improvement, says John. And he notes that research suggests that only about 11 percent of the US workforce are of this disposition.

John also makes the important distinction between worker engagement and worker passion. Engagement can be traced by asking questions such as:

“Do you like what you do?”
“Do you like the people you do it with?”
“Do you look forward to going to work in the morning?”

Now, let’s just assume that a “yes” to all those questions means that you’re an engaged worker. That’s cool. Yet, that might mean that you don’t want change. Because you like it right there. Where you are. It’s comfortable. See?

The passionate explorers, on the other hand, wants to get out of their comfort zone. They want to take it to the next level. So the explorers are usually rather frustrated people, as they see all of these opportunities, challenges, and of course, all of the obstacles. This suggests that “happiness” or “engagement” might not be the best metrics to understand the passionate explorer.

This resonates with me, and actually helps me understand myself a bit better. And in the Agile/Lean community, where I would place myself, there are a lot of frustrated passionate explorers who are all trying to fight against entropy and take this work thing to a new level. I know a few of them personally. And I feel rather proud to count myself as one of them.






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