The Real Big Picture Is Your Own Personal Experience

dawn-flight-by-john-fowler.jpg
Dawn Flight.  Photo courtesy of John Fowler.

I think we’re entering an era where the real big picture is just a composite of individual subjective experiences.  I’m sure this concept has been done to death by a bunch of great philosophers, but I want to lay this out in simple terms.

As we look at workplace disruptions, it seems each disruption just blurs into the next in an overall environment of unwieldy surprises that we can’t get on top of.  Amazon has begun to displace bricks-and-mortar retail, trade and immigration have let to major political disruptions everywhere, Artificial Intelligence is expected to change jobs significantly, and the gig economy is disrupting work relationships in many ways.  In each case, it is a combination of technology and globalization driving big-picture disruption.

The Ground Level View of Big-Picture Change

Yet the real-life impact is personal.  I encourage you to step away from the objective birds-eye view and consider that you yourself are affected by these changes.  These changes affect the work you do, how you get goods and services, and probably your personal life as well.  You don’t have an opportunity to sit still even if the changes are favourable to you.  And if the changes are unfavourable, you are put-upon to mitigate, resist, or take better advantage next time around.  We’re anxious and we struggle with the acceptance of ambiguity.

Now, let’s switch back to the birds-eye view.  If you are in human resources or if you are a leader in some way, you must also consider the perspectives of many employees trying to make their way in a similar manner.  You’re probably expected to help guide them.  This means that you need to foster a general environment of empathetic relationships, trust, and an awareness of context.  While some of the impacts of change are measurable and technical, first you need to help others become comfortable in their own skin.

First Build Your Own Resilience to Change, Then Help Others

You can’t help others with this until you have gone through the process yourself, and figured out where you place yourself in this crazy world.  If you’re a fast learner, you can figure yourself out before you’re obliged to teach others to do the same.  It’s like the airplane safety demonstration; install your own emotional oxygen mask before helping others.

What is most significant about this business environment is that it heralds an era where people outrank the system.  You can talk all you want about how we should organize citizens and families and employees towards their best efforts.  But if you attempt to advance a birds-eye view of people at all times, it begs the question, are you just some bird in the sky?  When people are standing on the ground and a bird sails past, under what circumstances are they concerned about the bird?

You can attempt to prescribe a vision, foster collective purpose, and create policies and systems that are somewhat universal.  But then one person puts their hand up and says, “what about me?”  And you’re stuck.  You’re stuck because you want to say the same thing.  And if you take a moment to look at peoples’ eyes, you realize we’re all thinking the same thing.

Look at the desks, the walls of the buildings, and the mouse under your hand.  These physical things have no soul.  So what’s so special about your organization?  The secret ingredient is you.

Don’t Hate Mayhem. Love Complexity Instead.

You Better Hold On. By Jane Rahman
You Better Hold On. Photo courtesy of Jane Rahman.

The strongest defense against a bewildering world is a love of complexity and ambiguity.

Elif Shafak, Turkey’s most popular female novelist, has provided a brilliant critique of our modern times.  In her TED Talk from September 2017, she expresses concerns about economic uncertainty, the impact this uncertainty has on our emotional bewilderment, and knock-on effect this has on the appeal of demagogues.

“Ours is the age of anxiety, anger, distrust, resentment, and I think lots of fear.  But here’s the thing:  Even though there’s plenty of research about economic factors, there’s relatively few studies about emotional factors.  …I think it’s a pity that mainstream political theory pays very little attention to emotions.  Oftentimes, analysts and experts are so busy with data and metrics that they seem to forget those things in life that are difficult to measure, and perhaps impossible to cluster under statistical models.”

Speaking as a workforce analyst, these are my sentiments exactly.  People like me often try to figure out what is happening inside the workplace while thinking of employees as livestock or machines.  But then the people talk, and their souls come through.  Their context and their lives prevail over objective definitions of effectiveness.  Workplace culture overpowers the declarations of those with authority.

Emotional Complexity Amidst Demographic Over-Simplification

Nowhere do I see this more than when I split a dataset into demographic categories.  The categories are usually either-or scenarios, such as age bracket, binary sex, or length of service.  And just as we find the definitive behaviors and opinions of a certain category of people, with a little more digging we find that there is a deeper human story that defies categories.  I see men taking parental leaves, older workers expressing career ambitions, and high-school dropouts with unmet educational needs.  Putting people into categories only helps find a demographic that best gives voice to the human story.  But that human story will usually speak for everyone.

Shafak, who understands human stories, notes that demagogues “…strongly, strongly dislike plurality.  They cannot deal with multiplicity.  Adorno used to say, ‘Intolerance of ambiguity is the sign of an authoritarian personality.’  …that same intolerance of ambiguity, what if it’s the mark of our times, of the age we are living in?  Because everywhere I look, I see nuances slipping withering away.  …So slowly and systematically we are being denied the right to be complex.”

To Shafak, it is the bewilderment imposed upon us by change that makes us susceptible to the simple ideas offered by demagogues.  “…In the face of high-speed change many people wish to slow down, and when there is too much unfamiliarity people long for the familiar, and when things get too confusing, many people crave simplicity.  This is a very dangerous crossroads, because it is exactly where the demagogue enters into the picture.”

Emotional Intelligence, Embracing Complexity, and Building Resilience to Organizational Change

Shafak suggests that “…we need to pay more attention to emotional and cognitive gaps worldwide.”  Those who struggle with complexity and ambiguity need our help.  We’re not at liberty to define non-complex people as the “other,” as people whose opinions we can reject in yet another polarizing simplification.

I felt this concern when I followed the James Damore incident at Google.  A programmer on the autism spectrum was fired for writing an anti-diversity manifesto, and his memo showed that he struggled with sensitivity training in a culture of diversity.  He attempted to attribute the onus of emotional intelligence to a liberal bias and the imposition of allegedly feminine social concerns.  The true lesson was not so much that bigotry sucks; it is that simplified emotions make us prey to extreme opinions.  I think we need to devote more time and energy to empathizing with the perplexed.

Shafak is insistent that we must cherish complexity.  We must value ambiguity.  We must allow ourselves to carry multiple identities and become the cosmopolitan people who can adapt to the world.  For me, I felt reassured that a deep curiosity for new information and enthusiasm for diverse views is the ultimate resistance against bad ideas.

With complexity we can have a meaningful society, meaningful work, and a resilient sense of self that allows us to move forward.  Only then can we get back to work and do our jobs well.

Forget About Strategy. Reality is a Mosh Pit

CROWD S U R F E R. By Keami Hepburn
CROWD S U R F E R. Photo courtesy of Keami Hepburn.

Strategy is not superior to tactics.  At best, strategy and tactics can be integrated as equals.  In this day and age it is looking increasingly unlikely that a senior leader will come up with one brilliant idea from the top of the organization and cascade it downward through the chain of command.  Rather, we live in a world where ground-level employees determine business success; information is diffused through friends and cube-mates; and the best ideas move diagonally through the organization’s subject-matter experts with minimal regard for the org chart.

A classic example of the disputed importance of strategy is the difference between Workforce Analytics and Strategic Workforce Planning.  I routinely use Workforce Analytics to help a variety of managers and professionals adapt to an unpredictable array of questions.  Workforce Analytics has a kind of “older sister” business practice called Strategic Workforce Planning which has been around for a little longer.  Strategic Workforce Planning is the practice of using analytics in the formal process or organizational re-design.  The re-design is intended to align human resources to internal and external context, a forecast about the future, and organizational strategy.  It makes perfect sense on paper.

In my opinion, there are three major frustrations with strategic alignment.  First, it makes a presumption that organizational strategy in your organization is in its prime.  If your org strategy is in its final approval stage or a complete re-write of that strategy is about to begin, then alignment to that strategy is a dubious effort.  Second, if any of the organization’s major leaders are in transition (both incoming and outgoing) their personal enthusiasm for the formal strategy could be in play.  To some extent, strategy is a debate amongst executives, and that debate can shift as the players are in flux.

Third, forecasting is a moving target.  In the middle of the Strategic Workforce Planning process there is an attempt to identify a future state and assess scenarios where a different staff composition would prepare the organization for that future.  However, society is changing so quickly and in so many ways that speculation about any likely future state has the shelf life of about a month.  Try writing down your predictions about the future on a piece of paper and then come back to it in 30 days.  With the passage of time you will either be humbled, or you will assert that it’s been doctored and you couldn’t have written something so clueless.  As such, alignment to strategy is brief, making the overall process less tangible and less relevant.

A good example of the struggles of strategic alignment is Uber.  Uber appears to have been built around a culture of rules-breaking on taxi licensing, grey-ethics exploitation of private information about a customer’s physical location, and a backroom culture of dot-com, locker-talk bravado.  With just a little bit of blowback from the public, Uber has been obliged to change senior leaders and reverse elements of the very organizational culture that made it great.  Good luck identifying what their sector will look like in two months, what this week’s executive team is going to do about it, and calibrating staff accordingly.  They might be fine in the near future, but we won’t really know until after the fact.

Consider by contrast an impactful tactical change which adapts to emerging evidence.  There is evidence that an equitable and inclusive work environment fosters better commitment and idea sharing.  There is evidence that workplace incivility has a dramatic impact on general productivity.  There is evidence that customer engagement is hyper-sensitive to employee engagement.  It is possible to develop a supposition that millennials are quitting at a higher rate, only to discover evidence that this is more nuanced and is really about career advancement at all ages.  These insights can have a dramatic impact on an organization’s opinion about what their core function should be, how managers should treat employees, and what kinds of employees and managers you should be hiring or promoting.

Then you would need to double-down and anticipate that even more disruptive evidence will continue to arrive at an even faster rate.  And if you did not adapt in this manner, you can bank on the fact that this adaptation is happening at rival organizations.  This brings us back to the possibility of even more leadership change and yet another re-vamp of organizational strategy.

If you are a manager, a human resource leader, or an analyst you might need to abandon all delusions that you can chart a clear path.  Rather, you are in the mosh pit of life, and your prime directive is to keep moving and not get hurt.  Keep your tempo, have fun, and follow the mood.  You cannot simply obey the directives of those with money or rank.  You must arrive at work fresh and rested, and play hard.  Every day.

How to Repurpose Leftover Turkey and Leftover Code

Turkey
Turkey.  Photo courtesy of  Jeremy Keith.

Canadian Thanksgiving has come and gone, and several households are struggling with a conundrum.  What should you do with the leftover turkey?  There are downsides to having this carcass.  It hogs fridge space, you will be eating turkey for days, and some people just hate leftovers.  I know people who are tempted to throw the whole thing in the garbage.  But don’t. Leftover turkey is a great opportunity to whip up some butter turkey or turkey noodle casserole.

When there’s nothing left other than bones, it’s time to make turkey stock. Boiling down a turkey carcass into stock is one of the great wonders of household management.  While the stock simmers, filling your home with great smells, you can accomplish something else.

With workforce analytics this kind of thing happens all the time.  Once you get on top of a major headcount puzzle, you will have spreadsheets and a few pages of code that are available for more than one purpose.  Like turkey leftovers, be bold and repurpose them.

My favorite experience was when I built an entire hierarchy of jobs in order to identify when people had been promoted.  In large organizations it can be ambiguous which job movements are upward or downward.  Often, promotions are not categorized as promotions, especially if they change departments, leave and come back, or get a job temporarily prior to being made permanent.

To get past this obstacle we created a simple reference table that identified where someone was in a hierarchical career ladder, assigning a two-digit code to 1,200 job descriptions.  It was hard and tedious work that was entirely for the benefit of the back-engine of our promotions model.  But we eventually got the promotions model to work at a level of high accuracy, after which the client was able to use the information to influence high-level decisions.  That was the full turkey dinner.

Shortly after we finished this promotions model, we got new demands for work which took advantage of the back-engine.  Our happiest client was the one who just needed the list of rank indicators for the 1,200 job descriptions.  They needed to send emails to a small number of high-ranking people, and with our organizational complexity and some turnover at the top, it was hard to identify who was senior.  What they needed was a rules-based way of identifying who should get their emails.  Looking at our rank tables, they were able to choose seven rank categories and let the code do the work for them.  In the process they uncovered that one executive had been previously overlooked.  Now they were able to get the information out to the right people.

This client got the analytics equivalent of turkey soup.  They just needed the bones from inside — the promotions query — to be boiled down and combined with a few fresh ingredients to create a new, repurposed product that met their needs.

Do you have the opportunity to repurpose your own big wins?  That time you got on top of a major health concern, did you also develop healthy habits that improved other parts of your life?  If you overcame a difficult business relationship, did you also learn what your triggers are, and how to regulate them in future?  At the end of a big project, did you go for drinks afterward and end up with a few new friends?

Sometimes it seems like you’re just working hard to make other people happy.  But if you accomplished nothing in the last year except healthy habits, self-awareness, and more meaningful relationships, would you even recognize that this counts as success?

So put on your wool socks, turn the TV to your guilty pleasures, and curl up with that bowl of turkey soup.  It should feel good.  So take a deep breath and enjoy it.

Fold the Towels First

Towels, by Michael Coghlan
Towels.  Photo courtesy of Michael Coghlan.

This is a quick productivity tip for anyone who feels overwhelmed by the over-abundance of information and obligations.  Fold the towels first.  I first developed this metaphor when I figured out how to “get around to” folding the laundry for my family of four.  There was a big intimidating pile of laundry that I didn’t want to start working on.  So, I just walked up to the pile and pulled out all of the towels, folded them all, and put them away in about five minutes.  I came back to the pile two hours later, and it was about half as big as the last time I looked at it.  There, not so intimidating. Let’s finish the rest of this work.

Similarly, I was able to apply this metaphor to large volumes of errors in spreadsheets full of workforce data.  You see, there is a high likelihood that if you look at all of the problems you need to solve, there is typically one big problem that can be solved really quickly. Think of this as a strike-attack against the intimidation factor.  Just wrap up one big problem then step away from your desk for an hour or for the day.  Come back to your list of woes, and the remaining work should seem far easier.  It works with laundry. It works with big data. And, it could work for you.

Unsubscribe to your biggest spam provider, request a deadline extension on your most unreasonable task, ask for help with that thing that is beyond your ability, or send a courtesy note to that one person you’re worried that you might have offended. It doesn’t always work out this way, but when it does work, it’s incredibly empowering.

Data Will Drive Your Car. Oil, Not So Much

Oil Rig. By Soliven Melindo.
Oil Rig. Photo courtesy of Soliven Melindo.

Are cars no longer fueled by gasoline because they are now fueled by data?  Consider how driverless cars, electronic vehicles, and Uber are changing the outlook for the future.  And reflect on how the in-vehicle computer has increasingly changed you safety, your comfort, and your ability to manage the vehicle’s maintenance.  Gasoline is so last century; today it’s all about the data.

A Financial Review article from July 2017 by Mark Eggleton plays with the idea of data as the fuel of the future.  For a century oil ruled our world, influencing geopolitics, urban design, and decisions about where to work and travel.  Today, it is data that is significantly changing our world.  However, we cannot just obey data on blind faith.  We need to look up from the GPS, so to speak, and decide for ourselves if the data we are being fed is relevant and appropriate.

We need to consider data in the context of trust.  Take banks for an example.  Although banks could do lots of things with our personal financial information, they operate within the context of trust that has built over centuries.  Regardless of whether we trust their profit motives in society overall, we do indeed trust that the information they hold will be handled in a responsible and diligent manner.  Banking is deeply immersed in a human context, regardless of whether it always seems that way.

I personally think that in workforce analytics, there is a similar concern about trust.  We have at our fingertips sensitive information that could be used for good or evil.  So let’s ask, are human resources departments actually good? Perhaps we need some time establishing ourselves, to give a better sense that when we’re wrapped up in industrial conflict and individual terminations, that we’re sincerely doing what is expected of us.  If we collect accident statistics and attendance lists for mental health workshops, do employees bank on us only using this information to make people well?  Have we truly established that the employment equity data we collect will be used exclusively for its intended purpose?  When we survey employees on their engagement experience, is the information used to create a better workplace, or are there attempts to punish those who express low motivation?  While we closely guard peoples’ confidential pay data, do we have the correct attitude towards employees discussing their pay amongst themselves?

I think it’s high time we subordinate data to the human context.  After all, if big data peaks, we are probably into the human economy.   If data is going to change the world, we need to ensure it dovetails with our history, the geography, the people and their culture.  If we get this wrong, it will be a dystopian science fiction movie come true.  That’s kind of what happened with oil.  So let’s get it right this time.

(Hat tip to KMPG’s Hugo van Googstraten for sharing the original article with me)