Hard Work

Perhaps I am getting a little too retrospective, or was it introspective. I forget which.

I think it is interesting how my concept of “Hard Work” has changed over time. I used to think of it as moving rocks and landscaping timbers around our yard for my mother when I was younger. Hours in the heat with all that physical exertion. Then I remember that I was also a competitive tennis player back then, and that also entailed hours in the heat with significant physical exertion. That didn’t seem to be as hard work, at least back then.

Now both yard work and tennis in the heat of a Texas summer seem somewhat equally uninviting. Right now, both seem like pretty hard work.
I think I would like to look at what hard work was, what it is today, and possibly more importantly, what it may become in the future.

I seem to recall that I also had a distinct dislike for reading text books and studying (on my own time, after school, when I wanted to do other stuff, of all things). It was hard work to both get myself to do it, and to maintain the focus on topic so I could learn and master the required topics. Now I find myself reading recreationally on those same topics, as well as many others related to my professional disciplines, and actually enjoying it. Now it doesn’t seem like hard work at all.

Using these examples, it seems that hard work is the work that we don’t want to do, but are somehow compelled to do. It may be best described as doing something which you have not fully bought into doing. Something you have to do, instead of something you want to do. I think I’ll go with that definition for now.

I had bought into the idea of spending hours in the heat practicing the various aspects of my tennis game. Initially not so much on the yard work for the then family home. Later with my own home and family, I enjoyed both the tennis and the yard work. Now, in the triple digit heat of a Texas summer, I do my best to refrain from both.

As an aside, I didn’t require my kids to join me working in the yard, as I was compelled to do. I don’t know at this point if I did them a disservice.

So far, neither of them has complained about not being required to do yard work in the heat. Go figure.

For some reason, I find myself quoting Mark Twain, a lot. I don’t know if it is just happenstance, or if there is some other type of connection. Either way, he seemed to say many things that can still be considered truisms today. He said:

“Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

But I am actually not so sure that is the case. I think it may be more along the lines of: If you do something that you buy into doing, it means that you will not consider it “hard work”.

You may be fully engaged. You may get to the office early. You may stay late. If you are bought in, and are committed to the deliverable, none of what you are doing is going to feel like hard work. You are getting satisfaction and fulfillment from the effort, and probably feel you are providing value in what you are doing.

I have found when I am engaged and committed I have internalized the assignment or objective, and I want to deliver and excel. I suspect that I am not too different from the majority of people out there. Given the opportunity, I think most everyone wants to be engaged, and to have internalized their work goals. What I have learned over time is that people probably cannot be trained or managed into this type of commitment. They need to be led to it.

I think the ability to do this is probably a learned capability.

I think back to the periods in time when my views about what was and wasn’t hard work changed. When the drudge work of studying for an exam was supplanted by the desire to walk into the exam confident in the knowledge and command of the material. Some kids seem to get this early in their educational career. Let’s just say that it was quite a way into my educational journey before I learned it. Much the same feeling as when the drudge work of the preparing for the customer (or even internal) presentation changed to ownership and the confidence that went with it, although that one came much quicker in my professional career.

People buy into ownership and leadership. If they are given a responsibility and are shown how their role plays into the greater good, the process of getting them to buy in has started. But that is normally not enough. People want to contribute. This is where the pride of ownership comes in.

Communicating the “what” part of what needs to be accomplished is only part of the process. It is the “how” part of the objective, as in how is the goal to be achieved that will either get internalization and buy-in, or probably get the function labeled as “hard work”.

If people are told what they must do, and how they must do it, there is very little for them to contribute to the function, other than being the vessel that performs the assigned tasks in the prescribed manner. They may have no pride of ownership. Without it, almost everything, regardless of how simple or easily achieved has the potential to be considered hard work.

As I said, we all have goals that we need to achieve for the greater good of the business, but I can’t help feeling that being told what to do and how to do it sounds like a definition of hard work.

Even with all of that preamble, I believe that the working environment, and for that matter all work, not just hard work is going to change. I have talked about the application of process as a substitute for judgement in business before. Good judgement is a necessary leadership characteristic. There are those that seem to innately have good judgement, and there are those that have acquired it as a result of their experiences.

Randy Pausch in his book “The Last Lecture” said:

“Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”

This is a pretty well known, and surprisingly accurate assessment of the world. What may not be as well known, is the second line from this quote. It goes:

“And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.”

But as business continues its journey from process to automation and beyond (Artificial Intelligence?), getting experience, that most valuable thing, the basis for good judgement (at least for most of us) is going to be a more and more difficult thing to obtain.

Career progressions that were once based on the recognition of an underlying business issue, and the creation and implementation of solutions to rectify them, will no longer be the norm. It will become more along the lines of being compelled to follow the steps in the existing process. As experience is gained in one step, there may then be the potential opportunity to manage multiple steps, or entire processes, or potentially multiple processes. Work will change from the creation of a solution to a problem, to the management of the existing process.

One of the issues that we seem to be facing today is that we no longer appear to be accepting, let alone rewarding the individual who does what we used to call “Thinking Outside the Box”.

That does sound pretty trite to me, but unfortunately also pretty applicable.

Process minimizes the risk of poor judgment and the variability of results. But as business appears to be creating more processes, as a substitute for judgement, that compel people to remain in the process box, it also makes the opportunity for business (or process) improvement that much more difficult to achieve.

I guess this can be an acceptable situation if you are confident that the process in place is optimal. But again, we have all seen and have grown accustomed to the idea that the rate of change in business is continuing to accelerate. The progression of work from on shore, to off shore, to automation, to the potential of Artificial Intelligence (AI) should underscore this. So even if a process was optimal at one time, it does not appear that it can remain optimal in the face of accelerating change.

I think the future of hard work will lie in compelling people to continue to use more or less fixed processes in the face of ongoing, rapid change. The process structure by its nature is resistant to change with its multiple parties, stakeholders and check points and desire for predictability, and that does not bode well for it going forward in a continually more unpredictable environment.

Perhaps the new business leaders of the future will be the ones that instead of just recognizing and solving an issue, also master the means of rapidly modifying and adapting existing processes to the changing environment. That will probably require a fundamental change in how processes are created and managed. The proverb states that “Necessity is the mother of invention”. I think that is the case here. Otherwise I think there is going to be an awful lot of hard work for everyone in the future.

Joining Them

For those of you that don’t directly know me, I can have a tendency to cause problems. I like to think of myself as a knowledge worker. That means that I tend to make my living utilizing my brain power as opposed to my muscle power. That also means that when people ask me questions, I (sometimes mistakenly) think that they are asking me to use the sum total of that brain power, experiences, training, and cognitive capabilities to provide what I think is the best response to their queries.

Many times, however, it seems that people who ask me questions are not actually looking for my response. They are looking for their response. They may already have an answer that they like, they just want me to agree with it. Sometimes I do. Many times, I don’t.

My wife, who also happens to be a very smart lady has learned that when she asks me something, the probability is asymptotically close to zero that I will provide her the response that she is looking for. Her solution to this situation has been to stop asking me questions or for my opinions all together. She now just goes ahead and does whatever it was she had already decided was best in the first place.

Sometimes I find out about it later. Many times, I don’t. I am told we are both happier with this arrangement.

In the past, this approach to business has stood me in good stead. I think it was pretty much this way for everyone. If your judgement was good, and you were right more often then you were wrong, you progressed forward. However, as times have changed in business, this approach to answering questions, or taking on assignments, has now led to me sometimes being viewed as something of a rebel in the process driven world.

As I said, initially this classification didn’t bother me, as such. I actually looked upon it with a certain sense of pride. I think part of it was that business and organizational process was still somewhat in its relative infancy as a methodology for management, and part of it was that for the most part I could still get things done. I would examine a problem, create a solution and chart a course for implementing it.

We had a business structure that was built on a Risk – Reward basis. If you had a better way of doing things and had the belief in it such that you put it out in front of the team and defended it, there was a real probability that you might get the opportunity to actually do it.

As the old saying goes: Be careful what you ask for. You might just get it.

If you were right, and you implemented a solution that did improve things, you got the opportunity to continue on your trajectory. On the other hand, if you were wrong, or for whatever reason were unable to implement your solution, it was usually some time before you got another chance to do something new.

As the inexorable tide of process continues to rise within organizations, this approach to career trajectories appears to be a thing of the past. There is less and less room for rebels within a process driven system. There is less and less opportunity, and just as importantly capability, to effect change as the purview of process has continued to grow.

I had been thinking about this dichotomy for a while.

All sorts of quotes and thoughts have come to mind.

Japanese literature has many books about the tragic heroes throughout its history. Those that chose to stay true to their ideals and suffered defeat and paid the ultimate price for doing so. Many are now revered in Japanese society for what they did. Despite knowing that they were fighting a battle that they could not win, they chose to continue to fight.

I respect that. But it is not lost on me that they didn’t win. And they got killed.

If you are interested in reading any of this stuff, there are several books that I would recommend: The Nobility of Failure – Tragic heroes in the history of Japan, by Ivan Morris, Musashi, by Eiji Yoshikawa, and Liam Hearn’s fully fictional Tales of the Otori series are all good.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is an excellent quote from Sam Rayburn. For those of you that don’t know him, he was a U.S. Representative from the 4th District in Texas. He was also the longest serving Speaker of the House in history, serving in that role for seventeen years between 1940 and 1961.

He also has a modern tollway named after him here in the Dallas area. You have to pay if you want to drive on it.

He said: “If you want to get along, you have to go along”.

Spoken like a true politician. I am not so sure if that is a really good way to proceed either, although there do seem to be many today in business that appear to subscribe to it.

I recently came across a quote by Marie Lu, who is a contemporary author of several series of young adult books. I haven’t read any of her books yet, as it is readily apparent that I am somewhat beyond young adulthood at this point. The quote struck such a chord with me that I will probably have to go out and read at least some of her books to see if they can live up to the expectations that this quote has set for me.

She said: “If you want to rebel, rebel from inside the system. That’s much more powerful than rebelling outside the system.”

Corporate organizational and process structures have now become so ingrained from a business and operations standpoint, that it is almost impossible for an individual to step outside of them and be perceived as offering anything constructive or beneficial to the business. Notice that I said almost. People such as Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, Jeff Bezos at Amazon and the late Steven Jobs at Apple all have stood as individual rebels who stepped outside the then corporate norm with great success.

It should also be noted that in order to achieve their ultimate goals that they had to stand so far outside the then corporate norm as to have to create their own new corporations and models. There were precious few if any companies that would have accepted their radical approaches to the business issues that they took on.

They didn’t seem to accept the then standard process. They believed in their own judgement.

However, many of us may not have had the absolute vision or solution on the scale that these rebels did. We may see what is wrong within the organization that we currently find ourselves in. We may see what needs to change in order to improve the business or opportunity that we are in. We face a conundrum. We know the structure or process in question is not optimal. We also know that if we rebel against it, from outside of it, the inertia of the process will more than likely continue in its present direction.

Do we stand by what we believe is correct and rebel (figuratively of course) from outside the process, or do we join the process with the hope and plan on changing it from within?

There are several people who seem to have been credited with the phrase “If you can’t beat them, then join them”. I saw various attributions which included Jim Henson (I don’t seem to remember any Muppet saying this), and Mort Sahl (a comedian from the 1960’s), but both Bartleby.com and the Yale Book of Quotes attribute the quote to Senator James E. Watson of Indiana, with its first appearance in the Atlantic Monthly magazine in February of 1932.

It seems that Marie Lu has put a new spin on a much older idea. The new spin is that Joining the system or the process does not necessarily mean the acquiescence and submission to those principles that it once did. But rather, the only way to now generate effective change for a business process or a system is now from within it.

Again, for those of you who know me, you probably understand how it pains me to say this.

External rebels within a defined business structure and process are probably going to go the way of the previously mentioned Japanese tragic heroes who may have been fighting a good and just battle in the face of insurmountable odds. While they might have been right, they didn’t achieve their goals. They didn’t survive either.

Those that went along in order to get along didn’t achieve their goals either. They may have survived but I’m not sure that really is a preferred existence.

I think the process driven structures of business today are now in such a state that the only way to effect meaningful change to them, is to do so from within them. External influence on a process has a decreasingly small effect on them. That means that you will have to join them. That doesn’t mean total acquiesce and allegiance to them. It just means that going forward in today’s business world, it appears that one of the only ways to change a flawed business process will be from within the process itself.

Meeting Volume vs. Meeting Value

I think I may have telegraphed this week’s topic with that title.

It is no secret that I have been looking at the topics of Process, Meetings and Virtual Offices and the effects that the changing norms for each of these topics have had on each other. As more process is driven into the business organization, the requirement to have more meetings as a part of the review process increases. As people who were once in the office now work from a virtual office instead of the brick and mortar organizational location, they attend more and more meetings “virtually”. Meetings are now really little more than what would once have been described as very large and elaborate conference calls. Against this new backdrop I can’t help but wonder if what was once a vital aspect of corporate culture and progress has become little more than an opportunity to answer emails and texts while partially listening to someone talk on the phone.

I think process has a place in business. It should provide guidelines and directions as to what potential next steps need to be taken in a given situation. This is probably particularly important in those disciplines that deal with crisis situations (such as critical system failures, etc.) or those that deal with repetitive situations where uniformity of approach, response and output are desirable.

I am sure that there are probably others, but for now a think that a little process guideline setting can go a very long way.

I have written in the past that process is invariably input into an organization as a replacement for judgement. The human brain, when properly applied, is a spectacular difference engine. It is capable of correlating seemingly unrelated inputs and creating leaps of faith and imagination that no process could ever hope to replicate. This is what “judgement” is.

And yet we continue to put more structures in place with the purpose of curtailing this capability. We continue to input more process into business as a replacement for judgement, and then react by trying to input even more process when it comes the time for good judgement, and there is none available.

One of the hallmarks of process is the requirement that there must be review meetings to make sure that the process is being followed. Otherwise, how could anyone be sure that the process even existed, let alone was being followed. These are events where everyone associated with the process attends, mainly it seems because the process indicates that everyone associated with the process should attend every process review.

Process review meetings are usually pretty large affairs. As we have increased the application of process to business, we have also increased both the number of meetings, particularly process reviews, and the number of attendees at those meetings.

Virtual Office arrangements have also contributed to the ever-expanding meeting numbers and sizes.

Back in the olden times, when people actually all went to a specific place to work together, it was usually somewhat apparent what everyone was doing and how busy they were. You could see them. You could see what they were doing. Even if you weren’t talking to, or directly interfacing with them you were at least peripherally aware of what was going on.

But now with the proliferation of Virtual Office arrangements, no one can be really sure what any of “those people” who are not in the office are actually doing. This phenomenon is also not lost on the people who are in the virtual office. So, what do the people in the virtual office do?

They attend more meetings.

There can be no doubt regarding someone’s work status when they are always in meetings. There is no question as to what they are doing if their calendar shows that they are attending a meeting.

Meetings have now evolved into a vehicle that allows the once “invisible” virtual office worker to not only be more visible, but to be more visible to many, many people. Since meetings have devolved from face to face events where you could see who you were talking to, to expansive conference calls where just the slides appear in front of you on your personal computer screen, and are addressed by a voice on the telephone, they seem to have grown in size.

That doesn’t mean that they are any more popular, or more useful. They are just more easily attended.

In a face to face meeting, it is readily apparent to everyone else in the meeting is doing. You can look over and see. Are they paying attention? Are they engaged? Are they making eye contact? Are they asking questions? What, if anything are they getting out of the meeting?

This is no longer the case.

We now have an ever-increasing slate of meeting attendees, most of which are no longer even in the same building as the meeting host. We have an increasing number of meetings, attended by an increasing number of people, for an increasing number of reasons. Just because we now have more people at these meetings doesn’t mean they are paying attention. Chances are more than pretty good that they are not.

The only thing that seems to be decreasing when it comes to meetings is the actual interaction that goes on during the meeting.

Since there is usually no one in the room with any particular presenter during a particular meeting, they are no longer presenting “to” anyone. They are presenting “at” them. And since there is no longer any direct ownership associated with the reception of the presented information, there seems to be fewer and fewer questions associated with what has been presented.

Meetings, events that were originally created to enable the two-way exchange of information, seem to have been reduced in importance and capability by the very technology that was designed to further enable the meeting’s reach.

I think that this has been an ongoing phenomenon for a while. I, like I am sure many of you, looked to see who is in virtual attendance at the meetings I attend. I then noted the number of questions that are asked. The number of specific items that are addressed. The number of dates that are selected or identified. The number of action items that have been taken, or given as the case may be. The deliverables that are to be expected. And the number of people who speak.

It seems that the actual number of any of the above listed events occurring during a meeting is going down. Meetings no longer seem to be events where discussion occurs. The give and take dynamic seems to have been lost as meetings have become more process driven and virtually attended. Meetings now seem to be designated times where slides are presented, and the most important aspect of the meeting is to make sure that it ends on time in accordance with the process that is being followed.

Meeting attendance seems to have evolved into some sort of barometer associated with individual activity levels and importance, where actual participation in the meeting, the value added in attending a meeting, has continued to decline.

Meetings used to be recognized as having a specific purpose. Meetings used to be designated as a face to face event. It took people out of their specific environments and put them in a meeting. While they were in the meeting they were not busy or distracted with other activities or demands on their time. There was a goal associated with the meeting.

As we have continued to implement more and more process into the business system we have generated more meetings to track our progress against the process. As we have virtualized our offices, so have we virtualized our meeting attendance. What was once a designated time to exchange ideas and leave with a goal achieved has evolved to a time to call and review charts on-line.

We seem to be meeting more, but getting less achieved at each meeting. In many instances, it seems that instead of having a goal, the meeting is the goal. Instead of challenging each other, due to the size and impersonal nature of virtual meetings, we are presented at. If we have issues or concerns, they are probably best handled off line.

In short, we seem to now attend meetings. We no longer participate in them.

I have yet to hear anyone suggest that they are not attending enough meetings. Perhaps it is time to participate instead of attend, and expect more from meetings. Asking and being asked questions, assigning and accepting the assignment of action items, and challenging as well as being challenged need to be expected parts of all meetings.

It is going to be through these attributes that value is driven back into meetings. The meeting needs to evolve away from its current spectator – presenter arrangement, and back to its original participant structure. Meeting minutes need to be taken at every meeting and distributed. If you are not going to be a participant in the meeting, you should not attend. You can read the minutes.

Reducing the number of spectator attendees, assigning and accepting action items, and delivering meeting minutes afterwards seem to be simple requirements. But meetings should be simple. They should be to exchange ideas and challenge each other. I think that is where the basic value in them lies. Not in the number of them that you have or attend.