Payroll systems are the Russian winter of corporate strategy

2016 USARAK Winter Games, by U.S. Army Alaska (USARAK)
2016 USARAK Winter Games.  Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Alaska.

Is there something about payroll systems that cause everyone who mucks with them to be destroyed?  It’s as if payroll systems have deep dark secrets, requiring years of study to allow people to interact with them safely.  Indiana Jones achieved a doctorate before his most epic physical quests.  How much do we need to learn about payroll systems before attempting to make improvements?

In last week’s blog post I provided a summary of the Auditor General’s report on the Government of Canada’s Phoenix payroll fiasco.  Whenever I read about the Phoenix fiasco, I shed a tear for anyone who has goals.  Payroll is supposed to be one of those things that happens automatically in the background.  The rules are clear, the numbers are known, and most of the decisions have already been made.  All that’s required is that we upgrade the software every few decades.  What could possibly go wrong?

But it is exactly that presumptuousness which is fatal.  Have you ever talked to a payroll person?  These are people who quietly persevere doing intelligent work with no glory.  They are careful, and they discourage foolish moves.  Do they know something I don’t about the risks of screwing everything up?

Payroll Systems are Like Russian Winter

I came up with Nazi Germany’s invasion of Soviet Russia as the right metaphor to describe the Phoenix payroll fiasco. It is a great allegory that demonstrates how grand plans can be ruined by a complex landscape and the blindness of arrogance.

There’s a really good article about winter combat produced by the U.S. Army.  It’s titled Fighting the Russians in Winter: Three Case Studies, by Dr. Allen F. Chew, December 1981 under the Leavenworth Papers series from the Combat Studies Institute.  It covers three major battles, the third of which is the battle between Germany and Russia in the winter of 1941-42.

With winter combat, preparing well in advance is key.  Combat engagements in the freezing winter are sensitive to whether troops have “…appropriate clothing, weapons, and transport for that harsh environment.  Acclimatization and pertinent training are also essential.”  Appropriate transport means pony carts, as the animals keep warm when busy.  For appropriate weapons, landmines malfunction when the detonator is encrusted with ice.  Burning campfires with charcoal instead of wood reduces the visibility of the plume of smoke.

The Soviets also had larger numbers of trained ski troops because they had learned from their engagement in Finland a few years earlier.  Skis are critical for covering longer distances without getting exhausted.  This lesson was available to anyone who did their homework.  For the Russians, this homework was like an overview of yesterday’s lecture.

Also, defense has the advantage.  Soldiers on the offensive must expose themselves to freezing winds in addition to oncoming gunfire.  Attackers also lose the element of surprise because sound travels better on the snow’s crust.  Those who stay-put are more likely to win.

There is a theme that you must hang back a little, and look for small tactical tips that make a big difference.  Leaders must seek out this information and reflect on what this means for efforts big and small.

The Cold Teaches You Humility in Leadership

Leadership and strategy are all about the embodiment and communication of the most suitable emotional state and mindset.  With winter combat, what is most important is having humility, knowing there is so much to learn.  There’s a traditionalist saying that we stand on the backs of giants.  Those who came before us learned their lessons the hard way, and we must heed their lessons.  Particularly if they lost.

…perhaps the most important lesson is simply the folly of ignoring the pertinent lessons. …the highest German commanders were slow to profit from Russian examples [of the past] because of their feeling of superiority, and some refused to learn until they went down in defeat. There may be a message for others in that conceit. [p. 41, emphasis added]

These lessons echo the Phoenix payroll fiasco, as Phoenix was an epic blunder of arrogance and the negation of contrary evidence.  We can interpret that the size and importance of a major project can warp a leader’s ego.  Unwieldy efforts can be intimidating, and in order to move them forward you may need some bold and reckless courage.  But that’s an emotional posture that you would need to choose, logically.  If you actually are a bold and reckless person whose courage comes from an illogical abandonment of information, then you’re in a pickle.  Instead of advancing emotional strength, you may be advancing emotions that are relatively stronger than a hobbled intellect.  And that spells trouble.

Phoenix was most significantly damaged by the failure to identify that centralizing payroll processing in Miramichi resulted in a skills and productivity dip amongst new staff.  The phenomenon was real, and incoming information that this skills dip was a material problem turned out to be something that could not be overlooked.  Executives negated the evidence, and small problems became part of a landscape that could not be overcome.

A more reasonable goal is to not be destroyed by the landscape.  You would develop this goal because you observed from experience, and from your homework, that the environment is humbling.

Maybe you, too, can adopt the chill demeanor of a payroll representative wearing wool socks by the fire when it’s winter outside.  Who wants to go outside and play?  Not me.  I think I’ll sip hot chocolate while looking out the window, watching the snowfall, ever so slowly.

Keeping Old Things Beautiful

Tower Bridge (HDR), by Adriano Aurlio Araujo
Tower Bridge (HDR).  Photo courtesy of Adriano Aurlio Araujo

We need to get excited about maintenance, according to a great counter-intuitive article by Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel.  The authors propose that we should give “maintenance” higher priority in our society.  By maintenance they are mostly referring to government-owned physical infrastructure; ensuring it is functioning, well-maintained, and not closed-down for emergency repairs.  While the authors also tip their hats to computer infrastructure, the connection to public transit keeps the idea tangible for everyone.

The article asserts that “Americans have an impoverished and immature conception of technology, one that fetishizes innovation as a kind of art and demeans upkeep as mere drudgery.”  They highlight that while “innovation” describes the art of doing something new, technology broadly-defined should rightfully consider technology that is mid-life or old.

Many of the coolest stories in business shine a light on this misunderstood area.  There are vulture funds that pick up the assets of distressed companies and refurbish the “old” company into something new.  There are entrepreneurs that buy old, depreciated assets at bargain-basement prices and in the process net high percentage returns on the asset they got for cheap.  There is a company in my region that tried to close down their business, held an auction to unload their old equipment, and discovered that auctioning is an incredibly lucrative business to get into.

But those stories are a little too sexy; let’s get back to drudgery.  It turns out that a large number of engineers and computer programmers are devoted to maintaining something that has already been created.  In addition, maintenance workers are often paid less than those who are closest to ribbon-cutting ceremonies, IPOs, and product launches.

Workforce Management and the Maintenance of Human Capital

The connection to human resources is that people are trying to articulate how we should think of employees as “human capital.”  The phrase itself invokes a metaphor that the people who show up every day are a treasure that you invest in and get great work out of.  Perhaps we should extend the metaphor into the importance of human capital maintenance.  Do we have opportunities to conserve, re-build, renovate, and polish-up our pre-existing cadre of staff?  If you think about it for a while, examples abound:

  • When employees are injured, there is significant value to intervening early to help them stay at work or return to work sooner. The “return to work” field is a specialized field which has a knack to it, and major employers take these efforts seriously.
  • It is well understood that new hires have higher engagement than longer-serving staff.  By default, the implication is that if you want to improve engagement, your greatest opportunity is with longer-service staff.  At the crux of workforce analytics and employee engagement is the opportunity to refresh the workplace experience of those hired long ago.
  • In the c-suite, there is the recurring challenge that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” (Drucker) However, it is understood that workplace culture changes very slowly. This tension implies that those who want to advance a strategy must have significant understanding of the longer-serving staff who carry the workplace culture.  Perhaps looking to the wisdom of longer-serving staff is an easier way to predict which initiatives will take hold in the pre-existing culture?
  • When attempting workforce analytics and workforce planning efforts that align to strategy, stale strategy documents and longer-serving executives can be your only opportunity for alignment. New executives and new strategy documents can have a long runway, in some cases with a perpetual churn.
  • Long-serving staff tend to learn a number of shortcuts that allow them to achieve their work goals more easily.   This grab-bag of quick-tips, tacit knowledge, and mature social networks are a troublesome source of high productivity.  Workplaces fear the retirement of long-service employees who understand the physical and organizational machinery in a manner that is undocumented.  In such cases there is a demand for knowledge management, the active cultivation of repositories of information where tacit knowledge is curated and transferred between newer and longer-serving staff.
  • As millennials age, our struggles to understand this generation are going to shift. It’s not so much that we don’t know what they’re thinking (they tend to just tell us).  Rather, what will their experience be as millennial managers, dealing with the next batch of young whipper-snappers in Generation Z?  This multi-generational transfer of energy and wisdom will demand a workplace culture of humility and curiosity.  Workplace traditions can emerge in just a couple of years, and can evolve around the behaviors of employees young and old.  Yet it is not so much the best perspective that matters; it is the ability to move a diversity of perspectives amongst peers.

As the shine comes off workforce planning and workplace analytics as a novelty, we are obliged to take our practice into a mode where great work is done quietly, well, and with a known value.  As we look at the legacy of buzzwords that came before us and the shiny new practices to come, there is a new opportunity to understand the boundary between engineering drawings, breaking the ground, and replacing broken parts.  Cultivating and maintaining people, their knowledge, their relationships, and the workplace culture are key to delivering strategy.  There is an opportunity for your employees to age gracefully and keep delivering the goods.

Pay Equity need not be a beast of burden

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I sometimes get self-conscious about being more supportive of feminism than some of my women colleagues.  Sure, I have lots of tools at my disposal to help make a difference.  And yes, it is part of my job in Human Resources to make things fair and reasonable.  But is this really my fight?  Should I really be getting excited about it?  I’ll give an example.

In April 2018, Tracey Smith from Numerical Insights blogged that the Gender Pay Gap is NOT the Same as Pay Equity.  It’s an interesting read because there is some truth to it, but the devil is in the details.  I have worked on a several efforts to equalize pay between men and women, and I can confirm the pay equity exercise is narrow in scope and changes salaries far less than some would hope.

The problem is branding.  It’s too popular.  It has become the yoke that carries all the hopes and dreams of the broader equality conversation. We need to expect less of this one solution, and allow for some levity. We need to give pay equity permission to wear sweatpants to the convenience store and grab a slushie, without paparazzi snapping photos for Stars Without Makeup.

Some Problems Are Not Solved by Pay Equity Alone

Smith references the predominance of males in some professions:

Certain STEM-based professions (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) are naturally male-dominated because the graduating classes are male-dominated. That’s the hiring pool, so through no fault of any company, these STEM companies will be “more male” in the specialized jobs.

She also notes it is common for fewer women to apply for management jobs, implying women are self-selecting away from these roles in child-bearing years.  As a result of men self-selecting into higher-paid professions and higher-ranking roles, this creates average salaries for men that are higher.  Smith asserts that this is not a measure of pay equity, and that’s true.  The smaller number of women in these roles might be paid equal to their male counterparts, so pay equity might have been achieved already.

But let’s step back, consider the larger picture, and match problems with reasonable solutions.  If there’s a shortage of women graduates from STEM disciplines, we should consider reserving an equitable number of college and university spaces for women in these fields.  If women are less likely to put themselves forward for management openings, workplaces can cultivate leadership styles that are less critical, are more encouraging, and are time-structured to get people home at a reasonable hour.  If the problem is career growth during childbearing years, a suitable remedy is maternity leave provisions and government-funded child care.

Which tools should we consider if we want to achieve broader equality between the sexes?  My favourite tool is, “all of them, now.”  Does that sound better?  It makes far more sense that ridiculing pay equity for its shortcomings.

Battles Over Pay Equity Legislation Are More Than Meets the Eye

Smith also noted that the United States recently cancelled legislation to require the reporting of average salaries by sex.  The government expressed concerns that the reporting obligation would “lack practical utility, …[be] unnecessarily burdensome, and …not adequately address privacy and confidentiality issues.”  There was something fishy about this quote, so I cut-and-pasted it into a Google search and got something totally different.

In a Washington Post article, reporter Danielle Paquette described this cancelling-of-legislation as the Trump administration reversing an Obama-era rule to shrink the gender wage gap.  That article notes Ivanka Trump originally supported the Obama-era measure, but after she consulted experts, “worried that it wouldn’t work as intended.”  We have since learned that the only expert consulted at the White House is the President himself.  The Obama-era official who brought in the rule and leaders of women’s equality organizations panned the decision.

The Post article quoted Nancy Hammer, who spoke on behalf of the Society for Human Resource Management:

She recommends that employees go to their human resources department if they’re concerned about their paycheck, giving their employer a chance to explain or fix the issue.  Otherwise, Hammer said, “to really do it, you’d need to practically report on every single employee.  That’s not a practical way at looking at this issue nationwide.”

It’s ironic that she thinks it’s impractical to report on every single employee. Moreover, she asserts that for women, as individuals, to approach their human resources department to fix unequal pay without government or union backup, is totally practical. I would note that Nancy Hammer is a lawyer speaking on behalf of HR generalists.  The correct professionals to consult about this work in Compensation, and in North America their profession is represented by WorldatWork.  Also, employees are legally allowed to talk to each other about their pay, despite of the fact that HR often discourages such talk.

Pay Equity Analysis is Not Onerous

Under conventional pay equity plans, employers do in fact report on every single employee, bundled by job classification.  This data-bundling includes average pay and headcount indicators of whether a classification is predominantly made up of men or women.  This data, combined with other sources, allow employers to do a simple statistical analysis to measure pay inequality and take appropriate action.

The analysis is done either by consultants or in-house by HR departments.  The analysis is made available to regulators, union representatives, and litigants alike, under appropriate confidentiality protections.  The process involves slightly more work than creating a new pay structure in the first place.  It’s not practical to do it this way nationwide, because it is done at the organizational level as is normal for pay structure design.  The cancelled legislation obliged employers to report simplified data that was consistent with this approach.

Activist Campaigns Even the Score with the Trump Family

Let’s go back to Ivanka Trump speaking against this legislation.  In July of 2018, Ivanka Trump closed shop on her fashion brand.  Sales were flagging.  In particular, sales were way down at Nordstrom and Hudson’s Bay Company, two of the companies targeted by #grabyourwallet.  For those unfamiliar, #grabyourwallet is a consumer activist campaign that calls on people to refuse to give money to the Trump family.  The campaign was a response to the Access Hollywood tape revealing that Donald Trump thought he could accost women sexually, in public, without recourse, because he was rich and famous.  Some women felt otherwise, hence the campaign.

Let’s return to how women advance their own careers.  If women are reluctant to advance themselves into situations that make them vulnerable because the environment makes them unsafe, maybe the best remedy is to foster and support an activist base that keeps men on their toes about abuses of power.

And if a company is openly unsupportive of women’s equality, one possible remedy is for an activist base to reduce it to rubble.

But don’t try to do this alone.  Team up with others to bring more than one solution.  Pull your car into the convenience store and pick up your old friend in the sweatpants.  As she hands you your own slushie she smiles and says “I found your wallet.”  And drive onward to the next adventure.

The Thank-You Note – The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Pelikan Fountain Pen, by David Blackwell (=)
Pelikan Fountain Pen.  Photo courtesy of David Blackwell.

Do you remember the last time you received a thank-you note?  It felt special, didn’t it?  Strangely, we feel nervous about sending these kinds of notes.  Do thank-you notes actually accomplish anything? Aren’t we supposed to focus on getting real work done?

I pride myself on making a productive contribution to my workplace.  One of the most powerful impacts I have is when I find people who want to use Excel better.  I give them a few tutorials to upgrade their skills, and send them off as a more productive player.  I want more people in our human resources office to open spreadsheets and crank out the numbers themselves.  It lessens the burden on me, and creates an environment where everyone talks freely about the numbers.  And voila, we have the research-influenced workplace.

What is baffling is when people send me thank-you notes and Starbucks gift cards for devoting my precious time to help develop their skills.  Don’t they understand that I am manipulating them to achieve my own selfish goals?  Don’t they understand that I’m an economist?  Who are these social workers and coaches and creatives types, to think they can bring me into their magical world with nothing more than a few words of gratitude?  My cunning plan has gone horribly awry.

What Exactly Are the Rules of Gift Exchange?

Generosity and gratitude are a common source of misunderstanding.  I once got really curious about gift exchange.  It started out as an attempt to understand social norms, but I ended up reading anthropological research about gift-giving in archaic societies. (Of course I did).  I read a couple of books on the topic, including Marcel Mauss’ The Gift (W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 1990).  This “gift economy,” just to introduce the Wikipedia page on the topic, makes huge distinctions between the market behaviours of commercial transactions and non-market gift exchange.  This is important to understand, because showing up at work every day is a market activity.  But if it’s a good workplace, colleagues act like they are in the same tribe.

Gift exchange has many subtle rules that are similar across cultures and across time.  There is usually a time lag between gift-giving moments.  The giving of a gift places the other person in debt, and the gift must be repaid for fear the relationship could be severed.  There is a tendency towards reciprocity and balance, and attempts to profit from the exchange are mostly taboo.  The dynamic fosters qualitative relationships, as opposed to the quantitative relationships of market trade.

Also, those who are obliged to accept charitable gifts feel a sense of being poisoned and stigmatized, as they are unable to keep things even.  You can subjugate vulnerable populations by staying one-up on them with gift-giving.  Who says anthropologists can’t learn a trick or two from economists?

Thank-You Notes are Undervalued

I see thank-you notes as a key part of gift exchange.  The notes acknowledge an exchange of good-will.  They place, in writing, that gratitude has been established.  There is the implication that a favour might be returned one day, or paid-forward to a third party.  Thank-you notes formalize that an emotional thread has been established between giver and recipient.  Society is a web of such threads, and we weave ourselves into this web as it entangles us in obligations, for better or worse.

In an article at the British Psychological Society, Christian Jarrett reviews research conducted by Amit Kumar and Nicholas Elpey on expressions of gratitude.  The researchers asked participants to send thank-you notes to people who had contributed to their lives in a meaningful way.  The researchers then followed-up with the recipients to ask how they felt.

“The senders of the thank-you letters consistentlyunderestimated how positive the recipients felt about receiving the letters and how surprised they were by the content. The senders also overestimated how awkward the recipients felt; and they underestimated how warm, and especially how competent, the recipients perceived them to be.” (Emphasis added)

These misjudgments discouraged people from sending the thank-you notes in the first place.  The authors note that withholding this gratitude is to refrain from “a powerful act of civility.”  The notes benefit both the recipient and the sender, as the sender is perceived to be more competent.

Is Formal Recognition a Meaningful Workplace Practice?

In addition to hand-written notes and kudos emails, some workplaces have formalized recognition programs that distribute points between employees.  All employees are given points to distribute to someone other than themselves (just to be clear), and there’s an electronic system to keep score.  Top givers and top receivers are profiled on a periodic basis, and sometimes points can be cashed in for swag or experiences.  A quick internet search reveals programs such as Kudos, Achievers, Point Recognition, and Terryberry.  Terryberry has a great infographic detailing the benefits of these programs, referencing credible sources at the bottom of the page.

In terms of effectiveness, recognition programs cause higher customer satisfaction, better employee engagement, and staff turnover that is about 24-31% lower, depending on the study.  To clarify, if your turnover rate used to be 8% and it dropped to 6%, that’s a 25% reduction in turnover.

These programs net a massive value proposition.  If a company spends 1% of payroll on these programs, 85% see a positive impact.  Delta Airlines saw a 564% return on their investment.  Massive percentage returns are often the result of an incredibly low denominator.  That is, if Delta spent 1% of payroll and saw a 6.64% increase in productivity, that is consistent with a 564% return.  But it’s nothing to sniff at.  If you know of people trying to earn more than 10% per year on the stock market, you would have to acknowledge that recognition is far more impactful than anything being pushed to you by bankers.

Incentive Plans and Recognition Programs Are Very Different

A key detail that must not be missed, is that recognition programs bear little resemblance to formal incentive plans.  In Alfie Kohn’s 1999 book Punished by Rewards, he details how performance-contingent rewards (i.e. do this and you’ll get that) cause behaviours that largely decrease business effectiveness.  When you offer an employee a 10% target bonus for exhibiting certain behaviours, they tend to minimize risk, abandon creativity, game the system, and express severe outrage when they get less than the maximum bonus.  And so, this 10% bonus achieves approximately zero return on investment, and possibly a negative return.

The issue is that people don’t like to be controlled by overlords, and incentive plans are inherently controlling.  Incentive plans have a scientific legacy that they are designed by people who make no distinction between humans and rodents.

By contrast, recognition systems are expressions of warm-feeling and a sense of emerging qualitative relationships between peers.  When you exchange thanks with peers, you love them a little.

So, reflect on your week and think about those who helped you achieve your goals.  Get past that misinformed sense that expressing gratitude will create discomfort.  Establish those threads of good-will between peers, and weave together an archaic society of those who can keep things even.  It makes you more competent.  It makes you human again.

Clothing Choices and Management Discretion are Closer Than You Think

Floral Shirts at Balthazar Buenos Aires, by Robert Sheie
Floral Shirts at Balthazar Buenos Aires.  Photo courtesy of Robert Sheie.

How many shirts should you own?

I am pretty sure the number is 24.

It took me considerable time and effort to come up with that clever calculation. And it makes sense for me.  Is it right to prescribe rules for others in terms of how they should organize their workplace clothing?  Especially when the math is clever?

In an April 2018 article at Quartz at Work, Leah Fessler describes the new dress code at General Motors.  It was cut down from 10 pages to two words: “dress appropriately.”  Mary Barra, the CEO at GM, had to work directly against GM’s bureaucratic corporate culture – including her own human resources department – to bring this simplified code into place.  One senior leader emailed her to object to the new rule.  That manager received a phone call from the CEO, after which they worked things out. (The rule remains in place) Barra found that first-level managers needed to learn how to develop their own in-house opinions of what constituted “appropriate,” and they each asserted some localized interpretations.  She thinks this practice helps develop first-level managers.

When I apply my own judgment as a human resources analyst, I sometimes think I have the capacity to create comprehensive rules-based systems that are best for everyone.  My first concern is, how many dress shirts should I own?  Based on the best advice, I have chosen to hang my shirts one inch apart, so they don’t wrinkle in the crush.  I have space in my closet for 24 shirts.  I can go four weeks before I have to do laundry, giving me lots of flexibility.

I replace shirts when they are three years old.  Over three years there are almost 160 weeks.  If I wear each shirt once every four weeks, I will wear each shirt 40 times.  At this pace my shirts wear-out at the same pace that they go out of style.  There are subtle shifts in patterns, colour, and cut, such that after three years a garment looks dated.  Those 40 wears cause them to get threadbare at the cuffs and shiny at the collar.

If I’m granted the authority to assert rules about clothing, I have a high likelihood of advancing my own strengths in clever mathematical calculations.  For example, if you replace shirts once every three years, and there are 24 shirts, this means that you are replacing eight shirts per year, or two shirts per season.  I make a ritual out of it, noticing the passing of the seasons and the fact that it’s okay to buy two shirts when I pass through a favorite store or find a deal.  It’s a ward against impulse buying because I know if I’m allowed to buy shirts right now.  And at any point in time, one-third of my shirts have been purchased in the past year.

It’s a great calculation and I recommend it to everyone.  If I’m ever given the authority to do so, I might just impose this calculation on others.  After all, I have put a lot more thought into this than others, and the math makes a lot of sense.  Do you work at an organization where one person did a bunch of calculations and obliged everyone else to follow rules that comply with the formula?  It’s pretty common, when you think about it.

In an April 2017 article in Harvard Business Review, Bill Taylor compares the outcomes of businesses that have rules-based systems against those that are largely discretionary.  On United Flight 3411, when a doctor of Asian ethnicity was bloodied by security to clear space for an overbooking, the viral video and its after-effects erased $1.4 billion from the company’s stock value.  Taylor cites an in-depth analysis (which is behind a paywall) that found that “The problem wasn’t with United’s employees, but with a ‘rules-based culture’ in which 85,000 people are ‘reluctant to make choices’…”

By contrast, I am not reluctant to make choices.  I have been granted significant freedom to advance workforce analytics in the manner I think is best.  And if you gave me a shot at it, I could save employees an awful lot of money.

If I spend $80 per shirt, with 40 wears this adds up to $2.00 per wear in purchase cost.  Ironing it yourself can save money, but I spend about $2.50 to have it ironed for me.  The combined purchase and ironing cost adds up to $4.50 per wear.  My wardrobe is carefully designed such that my cost-per-wear for office attire is $10 per day.  If you haven’t done cost-per-wear calculations, you may want to give it a try.  You may be surprised.  A $400 leather jacket might be worn 400 times, which is $1.00 per wear.  That’s a bargain.  Good leather-soled shoes have a similar calculation.  By contrast I only wear suits twice per year, and men shouldn’t keep a suit beyond ten years.  In one decade I’ll never get more than 20 wears out of all suits combined.  It costs me well over $25 to walk out the door wearing a suit, which is an unjustifiable luxury for me.  Hence I am not tempted to buy suits.  By contrast, if I wear a sports coat every day I get a large number of wears, bringing down that garment’s cost.  And I can wear each dress shirt twice, halving the cost-per-wear of my dress shirts.  Walking out the door in a nice crisp shirt is an obsession for me, so getting this right every morning really sets me up with a good start.

I particularly like the shirts that I bought at the department store Nordstrom.  Nordstrom has a single rule for customer service, which states “Use best judgment in all situations.  There will be no additional rules.”  Nordstrom has the highest sales per square foot in the retail industry.  In Bill Taylor’s article he cites research by business theorist Mark White who finds that organizations that grant employees more discretion, out-perform rules-based organizations in “service, empathy, and capacity to do the right things in difficult situations.”

It may be that judgment is a skill that is best learned with practice, and rules inhibit the ability to practice this skill.

We must choose between culture and efficiency, but strangely, pushing the power to the local level is a boon for both the bottom line as well as culture and workplace wellbeing.

You have two options if you want to be just like me.  You can make your own calculations and your own decisions about what works best for your own wardrobe.  Or you can feel the addictive influences of power and slowly impose your personal judgment calls upon others.  The irony is that the boundary between these two ways of living is not clearly marked.  You will only discover it by experience, through mistakes, and some kind of internal personal discovery.

Can you recognize that moment when you figured out what’s best, and then made a separate judgment call on whether to impose your views?  Can you remember a time when you did not make the distinction?  What did you learn about yourself?  Because that’s what employers are really struggling with these days.

What If You Can Do It All?

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Costumes. Photo courtesy of Joel Kramer.

Adaptability is turning out to be a smoldering-hot skill-in-demand.  And lucky for me, I just discovered that I’m part of a newly-defined category of high-functioning misfits.  There are people who have a diverse range of interests and must stay in that varied space to function at their best.  That special thing where I change obsessions all the time is not a flaw. Instead, I can simply join the subculture of people who cherish adaptability.  Maybe you can join me?

The TED talk by Emilie Wapnick is called “Why Some of Us Don’t Have to Have One True Calling.”  Her talk takes-apart of the presumption that we must find that one thing we’re passionate about and strive to be the best at that one thing.  Yes, there are people who are specialists at heart.  But that style doesn’t work for everyone.

For those who change interests frequently, Wapnick has coined the phrase “multipotentialite.” These people have multiple areas of potential strength into which they can grow in irregular busts of enthusiasm and learning.  Multipotentialites have three super-powers, which happen to be powers that are desperately needed in the smart machine age:

  1. Idea Synthesis. Combining two or more fields, generating an innovation at the intersection.
  2. Rapid learning. As experienced newcomers they “go hard” into each new learning area.
  3. Adaptability. Morph into whatever is needed in every situation.

Idea Synthesis

I discussed hybrid skills briefly when reviewing Josh Bersin’s forecasts for 2017.  Bersin asserted that combining two unrelated skills was an emerging trend in the future of work.  Job descriptions where employers demand a single skills bundle are falling out of favour.  Instead, people will rock their workplace by bringing together two or more skills that aren’t normally seen together, such as coding skill and sales.

At research universities it is understood that the best research is often found at the overlap between disciplines.  In a 2003 article in Science Magazine, Elisabeth Pain notes:

Multidisciplinarity has a LOT to offer to early-career scientists in terms of opportunities and excitement. The Human Genome Project, the World Wide Web, and the boundaries of the infinitely small are only a few of the fertile fields where new research is flourishing. Those scientists who have taken the plunge swear by multidisciplinarity and will even say that you won’t be able to survive in science if you don’t keep an open mind to the advantages afforded by multidisciplinary approaches.

If you have ever been on a cross-functional work team, you may have noticed some special skills are required; trusting the expertise of those in other areas of knowledge, taking for granted there is no tradition or external reference, and working towards common language with the absence of jargon.  I find that common language is particularly interesting.  I was on one project where almost everyone had a different professional vocabulary, a different software language, and a different mother tongue.  I had to speak slowly and clearly, putting relationships first.

Emilie Wapnick, in addition to her TED talk, has a great website called “puttylike” (with a mailing list) which includes a brief overview of how she has helped people identify their hybrid expertise and turn it into a “renaissance business.”  She encourages people to bundle their interests under an umbrella concept, identify how two concepts can be woven together, and name the lens through which they look at the world, with that lens being their unique offering.

Adaptability and the Growth Mindset

Adaptability is becoming an critical skill.  Natalie Fratto in an article in Fast Company asserts that adaptability “…will soon become a primary predictor of success, with general intelligence (IQ) and emotional intelligence (EQ) both taking a back seat.”  Fratto thinks the current interest in emotional intelligence has happened already making the next new thing compelling.

Fratto links adaptability to the concept of having a growth mindset, the idea “that your qualities can improve with effort and experience…” according to another article in Fast Company.  By contrast, those with the old status-quo view have a fixed mindset, which presumes our qualities are stable over time and our previously-accumulated knowledge and record-of-wins is a reliable measure of future worth.  People with a fixed mindset are not keen on receiving feedback, are judgmental of others (making performance stereotypes), and don’t put effort into helping people grow.  In the Fast Company article, Rusty Weston quotes Carol S. Dweck when discussing her book on the topic Mindset, the New Psychology of Success.

“As you might expect, growth oriented managers are more likely than fixed mindset managers to accept feedback or embrace change. ‘The irony of a fixed mindset,’ says Dweck, ‘is you want to be so successful so badly is that it stands in the way of going where you want to go.’”

Angela Duckworth has also created a quick video that explains the two mindsets clearly.

How Fast Can You Learn?

Josh Kaufmann is the author of The First 20 Hours: Mastering the Toughest Part of Learning Anything.  I tried to read it several years ago but I learned so much from the first thirty pages I put it down and moved on.  If you have even less patience than that, his TED talk covers the same topic.  Kaufmann offers a rebuttal to the book Outliers in which Malcom Gladwell cited research that to accomplish world-class performance you need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

There was a flaw in the way Gladwell’s writing influenced public thinking.  Yes, you need 10,000 hours to become exceptional, but what if you only wanted to be “good enough” at a certain skill?  Kaufmann found that in that case you only need to commit 20 hours.  But you must apply these 20 hours in a particular way.

  1. Deconstruct the Skill: Define the skill and break it down into smaller pieces. Many skills are a package of several sub-skills, so identifying and learning sub-skills in sequence will move you quickly towards the packaged skill.
  2. Learn Enough to Self-Correct: Learn just enough that you can self-edit and self-correct.  In keeping with permission-to-fail you must be allowed to try things out, occasionally fail, learn and reflect on the mistakes, then try something different in a continuous loop of learning.
  3. Remove Practice Barriers: You need a devoted time and place where nothing pulls you off-course. No internet. No kids. No work. Just you and your learning.
  4. Practice At Least 20 Hours: Persevere, don’t give up if you’re feeling stupid and frustrated after a few hours.  Getting past that wall is a major performance barrier, so just keep going.  In this case it’s just perseverance: a good IQ will not save you.

Kaufmann finishes his TED talk by performing a medley on the ukulele, after having just spent 20 hours learning that one skill for the first time.  He’s not going to sell an album, but he was pretty good.  Well done!

For me, changing obsessions makes work seem like a series of action films.  I see a future in which teams of people with unusual talents are carefully put together, in a manner that resembles movies like Ocean’s Eleven, Seven Samurai, and the first part of Lord of the Rings.  The teams develop their way-of-talking, their manners, their code that none of them truly works in isolation.  They change as individuals in a manner that co-evolves with the world they are taking advantage of, the world they are shaping.

Then they’re done.  And onward to the next adventure.  Onward to the next obsession.