Category Archives: Work Design

More on Germany, less on luggage

Driving hundreds of miles on German autobahns you notice things.  Like, if the highway has three lanes in one direction, the far right lane is for slow-moving traffic, the middle lane requires you to be going at least 80 mph, and the far left lane is only for the BMW’s and Audi’s that cruise comfortably at 100+mph.

But I bet you knew that already. The most interesting thing I noticed, by far, was a truck I passed that had, proudly displayed on its side, a large banner reading:

Young European Truck Driver of the Year 2007

Well that caught my attention. Unfortunately as I was passing him in the middle lane, which meant I was doing at least 80 mph, I couldn’t take a picture. But here’s a link to the story about the 2013 young European truck driver competition.

A quick Google search didn’t reveal anything like that in the US, just this competition that seems centered mostly around a particular trucking company. And there’s no comparison in terms of prizes: a new $100K + truck for the European truck champion; $5K for the US winner.

So the banner and the explicit pride of the person still flying it got me to thinking. (Actually I found out that the 2007 winner was from Poland not Germany, but still the thinking occurred.) Germany, which by US standards must definitely be thought of as a socialist state, seems to have a significantly different attitude toward work than we do in America. From waiters, who don’t expect much of a tip because they are actually paid a real living wage, to truck drivers, who are proud of their work as a profession, not a job, individuals appear to consider the jobs they are holding as important in and of themselves, not just as stepping stones to the day they become rich. Which is the feeling you get in the US. People are doing manual labor or service jobs as a transition to something else or out of some sense of desperation/frustration.

There’s many reasons, I guess, for this difference. There does appear to be a German temperament; and German business and labor unions have more adult relations than labor and business do in the US. The German education system also contributes with a dual system that considers whether individuals are better suited for university or for apprenticeship in a profession.

Whatever the reason, you get the sense Germany is better positioned to weather the secular employment problem that is beginning to hit the West and will vex us for many years, if not decades to come. For Germany, gainful employment of its citizens is a priority and a matter of national policy; it’s a social responsibility.

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On Work, Consumption, Economy and the Whole

Saul Kaplan, the founder of the Business Innovation Factory–where incidentally I will be a storyteller on 16 September–writes a Labor Day post on his blog listing what he calls 20 random thoughts on the Future of Work. (They’re not so random, really, but it’s a really good list.) Naturally agreeing with points such as

Projects are more important than jobs; and

Free agent nation becomes a reality,

I got to thinking that change of this scale will have GINORMOUS downstream effects (I’ve been told by some very reliable sources that ginormous is now officially a word!). Because if we change how we work, don’t we in fact CHANGE EVERYTHING? Saul touches on some of these broader implications when he notes that

Workforce and economic development are transformed and become indistinguishable; and

Work and social become indistinguishable

but what I’d like to do in my Labor Day post is draw these points out even more.

We cannot underestimate how important steady 9 to 5 work is to the American economy; it is that steady, predictable income that has allowed US consumers to become the BEASTS that we are. (It was part of Henry Ford’s genius to realize the connection between his profits and the wages he paid.) The US consumer has been the engine behind world economic growth since WWII. I wasn’t able to easily find a statistic on what percentage of the world economy is ingested by the US consumer–the closest I could get is the oft-cited data point on how we account for about a quarter of world energy consumption despite being in low single digits in percentage of world population. But you get some indication of the importance of US consumption to the world economy from the website of the Worldwatch Institute, which in its press release for its 2004 monograph on world consumption noted that “the 12 percent of the world’s population that lives in North America and Western Europe accounts for 60 percent of private consumption spending, while the one-third living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 3.2 percent.” It’s safe to assume the US consumer accounted for more than half of that 60 percent.

So let’s get in that trusty Time Travel Apparatus and fast forward let’s say 50 years. If the predictions about how work will change are true, then one of the implications–unless we come up with interesting new methods of compensation, question mark?–is that the steady income that drives American consumer consumption will dissipate, to be replaced with more aperiodic payouts. Presumably these payouts will average out to meet our needs and sustain roughly approximate standards of living, but not without some important adjustments. I would imagine, for example, that the average individual’s willingness to accept large revolving debt balances will weaken once she cannot rely on a regular, stable income. Similarly, companies and business models that are based on consumers handing over huge amounts of money on a regular basis, like the cable companies, may have to retool.

Many industries in fact will have to rethink. Agreeing to five years of car payments? I don’t think so!! The 30-year mortgage? Perhaps not!! It’s interesting that already in the car industry companies such as Zip Cars are introducing new ways to acquire the services of a car on a pay-as-you-go basis. And the shambles in the mortgage industry have led people to question the inviolability of the American dream of home ownership. Finally, the emergence of Cloud Everything probably will allow consumers to dispense with the need to own important consumer goods such as music, videos, books, etc.

So my hunch–a sophisticated analytical term–is that a redefinition of work will be the prelude to a redefinition of economic prosperity. Prosperity and economic growth would no longer be synonymous. I don’t know yet whether this will be a net plus or minus, although the optimist in me believes of course it will be a net plus. Certainly the world’s ecology could tolerate a break from constant growth, particularly growth dependent on mass utilization of finite resources. Again from the Worldwatch Institute, “WWF’s Living Planet Index, which measures the health of forests, oceans, freshwater, and other natural systems, shows a 35 percent decline in Earth’s ecological health since 1970.”

Nevertheless, there’s also a part of me that senses the wisdom of the view that the opposite of growth is death. Without economic growth, can we advance as a species and improve the lot of those who live and die without ever getting a chance to explore their human potential? I know many have conceptualized what they argue are more equitable economic models, but these always seem to ignore the demonstrable quirks of human nature.

Clearly, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

About Airline Fees, the Washington Nationals, and Dan Snyder

Economics has never been my strong point. In fact, anything mathematical  leaves me without clues. I was once asked to do a job at the CIA that essentially amounted to editing the work of economists, and it was the one job I felt most insecure in doing. (Although I soon learned that most economists, like most–but not all–deep or single-threaded experts, need help in putting things in perspective and in understanding the noneconomic consequences of their findings.)

But it has struck me this week that there is an unhealthy trend manifesting itself in American companies that does not bode well for the vibrancy of the US economy. It is the explosion in using fees to bolster profitability, rather than doing things to make money the old-fashioned way, by earning it through increased productivity, efficiencies, and innovations.

This hit me quite personally yesterday when I went online to buy tickets for a Nationals game this weekend.  As I started to check out, I realized I was being charged almost $15 in fees for the transaction, including a ridiculous, I believe it was $1.75 fee, to print the tickets using my own equipment at home. What is this I thought?! I’m being charged almost 15% in fees for online transactions that, by the way, have miniscule marginal costs. I immediately cancelled the transaction, and, as I was subwaying downtown anyway for a meeting, just wandered by the stadium and got my tickets there at face value.

But if you’re paying attention, you know that it’s not just baseball teams that are garnering additional revenues through the imaginative use of fees. Credit card companies were really champion performers here at least until recent legislation passed aimed at tempering them. Airlines, of course, are on a fee rampage. They made $8 billion dollars in revenues last year from fees. I couldn’t easily find an overall revenue number to compare that to, but for at least one airline the income from fees accounted for 20% of their total revenues. (By the way, we really need to get on the media for so often not providing context for the numbers they use. That is just sloppy journalism and analysis. We are often told that X activity is going to cost [insert here some really scary number], but are rarely told what percentage that number represents of  total revenues or expenses. This is not an insignificant issue, because it is this very lack of context that obfuscates the real meaning of most developments. But I digress…)

And if you want to read about a really hideous example of using fees diabolically, read this story about the beloved owner of the Washington Redskins, Dan Snyder. It just sickens you.

And it also points out the real problem with American companies getting on the fees bandwagon. You’ll notice in the article that the company Dan Snyder was running, Six Flags, went bankrupt anyway despite its excessive use of fees. Companies seem to be using fees in lieu of other and much healthier ways of increasing revenues, such as through greater efficiency or innovation. As managers and leaders, we need to rise to the challenge of doing our missions better and not sink to employing clever machinations to compensate for substandard results.

You may not think as a manager of a small group, for example, that you collect fees rather than fix and innovate. But you may very well collect fees, they are just not monetary. Every time you impose some new control step in your process to guard against a recurring error committed by some, for example, you are collecting a fee and avoiding dealing with root causes of undesirable performance.  Managing by rule-making is essentially managing through non-monetary fees. And just as reliance on fees threatens to stifle innovation in American companies, managing through rules does the same for any small group effort.

Another Commercial Break

A piece I’ve been working on concerning the future the government needs to start preparing for was just published on the Center for American Progress website. You can check it out here if you’re interested.

The Discreet Charms of the North American Knowledge Worker

Over a very pleasant meal yesterday, my lunch partner and I began to exchange ideas about how best to manage knowledge workers. Quite a challenge, we both agreed, and leaning toward hell when you need to manage knowledge workers against a deadline. This topic deserves more careful consideration, I thought, but given that I’m not in a position to do that right now, a blog posting will have to do.

How to attack the problem? Taxonomies can be useful. I’ve always said the first and extremely important step in analysis is putting things into categories. (Gathering information and studying it are also necessary, but these really are the key steps in research, not analysis.) So for your consideration, RecoveringFed offers the following schema for knowledge workers, at least certain pathologies among them, based on my 25-year career in managing them. (Caveat: These categories are largely based on managing knowledge workers responsible for writing papers. (shudder…) Many knowledge workers, (most?) are still judged against this metric, which I believe for the most part is unfortunate, because there are many more interesting and meaningful ways to measure the impact and productivity of knowledge workers. I am also hopeful that new technologies, represented most recently and dynamically by the iPad, will finally break the absolute bond that written argumentation has on our knowledge culture. All that said, many of the same issues that affect writing also apply to other presentational approaches, such as briefings or multimedia work. In the end, a knowledge worker is justified by sharing her knowledge to achieve or help others reach a desired outcome. Usually that sharing occurs within the context of a deadline.)

And now for the categories…

1. The Dustin. Stereotypically, analyst types are considered to be introverts with deficient social skills. In the extreme, some knowledge workers appear to be borderline autistics, who fail to make eye contact in conversations and lock themselves in their offices to meditate upon their work. Either they demand absolute quiet or can only work with some head-banging music on in the background. Not particularly effective in brainstorming sessions. (Named for Dustin Hoffman and his signature role in The Rain Man.)     Management Approach. Largely TBD by whether they are productive or not. But it is probably not wise to force them into settings and activities that make them uncomfortable. One rule of thumb I always used in management: I am not here to change your personality. If your parents didn’t succeed, there’s little chance any of my interventions will work.

2. The Organizer. I know you’ve met this individual. She is the one who researches the topic to the nth degree, always has a full list of conferences and seminars she can attend to get smarter, usually takes copious research notes and prepares extensive outlines, but somehow never actually makes much progress on the paper or presentation itself. Chatty organizers can be particularly problematic, because they will chat up everyone on the team with their latest research discovery, creating the appearance of progress but preventing its actual attainment. Often when they do try to reach conclusions, organizers find it quite difficult to distinguish the salient from the merely interesting. They are often unable to write for impact because they can’t see the forest for the trees. Management Approach. This is a case where more imaginative job design and collaborative work approaches can maximize the contribution of the organizer. Create the expectation that all research results will be deposited within a collaborative platform available to all. That way, her colleagues can make maximum use of her contributions. (Think about it. Shouldn’t this be standard operating procedure in almost all knowledge work?) Look at the expectations that you have on employees. Why does every knowledge worker have to independently produce a paper or briefing? If research is her strength, build upon it.

3. The Expert Pontificator. In some ways similar to the organizer, except that the EP, unlike the organizer who really does like to research and discover new stuff, usually huffs and puffs based on ideas harvested a long time ago in a galaxy far away. (I was going to call this type the Huffer-Puffer, the term I’ve used in the work place, but I didn’t think the meaning would be obvious.) There’s not much more really that needs to be said about the EP who, unlike the previous two types, is often not productive at all in my experience.  Unlike the Dustin, who just doesn’t participate in brainstorming sessions, the EP is capable of destroying them. Management Approach. It is important that you not allow the EP to dominate discussions and inhibit other team members. Talking privately to EPs about their behavior never works; they are impervious. But politely but firmly telling them in a meeting that it is time for others to speak usually works, although it may make them angry and lead them to sulk which, at least tactically, gets you what you wanted anyway–they shut up. (Remember the language: “it is time for others to speak” not “you’re dominating the discussion. let others talk.” Don’t personalize it.) Also, it is important for other team members to see you tackle the issue. As a manager you are judged by whether you tackle the hard problems directly and when you fail to do so, you diminish your leadership bank account. Another benefit accrues when you tackle the issue–the other team members become empowered to handle situations themselves because you have clearly established the norms of behaviors. In fact, perhaps the only hope of getting through to EPs and thus create the conditions that will motivate them to change is if they begin to hear the same constant message from everyone.

4. The Dominator. There is a striking difference between the EP and the Dominator; the Dominator actually knows his stuff and tends to have a low tolerance for those he considers less capable . (This is also different from the EPs, who actually like to be with people who are not capable because they are more likely to form the fawning audience.) Dominators are almost always productive because they are in fact competent; but their presence can stifle the development of other knowledge workers and lead to group think around the Dominator’s preferred solutions. Dominators epitomize the paradox of expertise–they are often the last ones to detect systemic change because they are such export defenders of the current paradigm. Dominators can be wrong but their usual expertise with rhetorical techniques can overwhelm the argument of others even when in the end they will be proven correct. Management Approach. Some of the same techniques you used with the EP are necessary with Dominators, but you need to be careful because they are productive and necessary voices on your team. Just because they are cocksure doesn’t mean they are wrong. One technique you might try is asking dominators to create Team B analysis to argue against the prevailing wisdom. If you make the task rewarding and very competitive (dominators love competition), they may actually do a very good job of tearing down their own arguments. It could just be a learning experience for them.

The next three categories in the schema deal more specifically with the productivity part of knowledge work, i.e. these types describe styles in preparing presentations against a deadline. They can be used in conjunction with the previous four categories, so, for example, you can have a dominator who is a crammer and an organizer who passes the trash. (Which gets me to think that an individual’s cognitive style can also be laid over these categories; there are many dimensions to knowledge work and I am in fact only covering a slice of it in this posting.)

5. The Vester. You’re a manager, you check with your team member who tells you that the paper due to the client in one month is already well underway. You chat about it again in two weeks and yup, we’re still on track but no, he doesn’t have anything to show you yet.  Essentially the same answer a week later; not only have you not seen anything, neither have any of his colleagues. When you and the others finally see the presentation a couple of days before the deadline, it is just not as good as you expected, there are significant conceptual issues, and the whole project would have benefited from others input much earlier on in the process. The Vester is the knowledge worker who wants to do everything privately, who keeps everything close to his vest, and yet is not always capable of executing well enough by himself,  putting aside for now the reality that in almost all knowledge work projects, the product that benefits from several inputs will be better than the single-threaded one. Management Approach. This is particularly difficult type because 1. it is common and 2. generally it is incentivized by our reward and recognition system. Knowledge workers want to be single or primary authors because they are not stupid and seek to maximize their rewards and recognition. One of the approaches I used, and to be honest I don’t know that I had as much success as I wanted, was to tell colleagues their performance would be judged not by how absolutely perfect their product was, but by whether their results were in line with what I expected from someone of that experience and background. So, for example, drawing implications out for a client is usually much more difficult than describing the possible solutions spaces. And I would point out that spending two weeks trying to get a difficult bit right was not a very smart use of their time if I or another team member could complete that particular task more efficiently. There’s much more to be said on this issue but in the interest of conciseness, which I’m afraid may already be a lost cause, I’ll move on.

6. The Crammer. This is me. This is my usual approach to working on projects. I don’t like to start writing until I know exactly what I want to say and mysteriously I often don’t know what I want to say until the night before the deadline. I’d like to think that I execute well, but I disappointed in my career. It is a high-risk approach to knowledge work. The most disconcerting part about being a crammer is that it also leads you into becoming a liar. I’ve had managers, for example, who were hoverers, who asked you every week, or more often, how your project was going. So every time, even though I may not even have put finger to keypad yet, I would invent some progress report–“yup, I did ten paragraphs this week.” When Knowledge Workers Lie!!! Management Approach. OK, some have suggested lying about the deadline. Your crammer is already lying to you; you are creating a vicious cycle. Or requiring them to turn in sections along the way. Also bad idea!! Usually crammers only do their best work when they are in that caffeinated, adrenaline surge of creativity. You may lose less hair as a manager in the short term, but the final product will suck. A better idea is to create another real deadline or event before the project deadline that forces the cramming to occur sooner. So for example, scheduling an important, desirable trip, conference that overlaps the deadline is always a good idea. I’ve also found that crammers, at least the well-intentioned ones, work better when they are teamed with another colleague who is more methodical, particularly someone you know they have good rapport with. It is one thing to disrespect a deadline; another to disappoint a colleague. Another benefit for collaborative work design.

7. The Garbage-person. For my money, the worst type of knowledge worker, at least in terms of productivity. They don’t even try to do good work, unlike the inexperienced or poor performer who actually is not yet capable of better product. The garbage-person, who in some ways is a product of the dysfunctions of knowledge work,  has decided that, because the quality control and editorial process mangles her intellectual property and/or does her work for her, it’s not worth her time to even try. So she turns in work that represents the minimum possible effort. Management Approach. Here is another type who would benefit from working in a more transparent, collaborative environment. One, the example of others work may penetrate. (cross your fingers) Two, contributing to the projects of others may be more rewarding and rekindle in them the desire to do good work of their own. But let’s not kid ourselves. The garbage-people are hard cases; they are cynics, which is  the most destructive force in a team.

My outline had me making a few more generic points about managing knowledge workers, but I’m sure I’ve exhausted your patience as a reader. I know I’ve exhausted my energy as a writer. Next post!!!

Arbitrary Work Design is a Sin against Nature

My guess is that the next 10-20 years are going to see a revolution in work design and productivity–particularly in knowledge work–that will topple the concept of jobs. I’ve written about this before, here, but I was fired up again this morning while glancing at a lovely website, Design Observer, and a recent posting there by Azby Brown, a New Orleans native who has been living in Japan for more than 20 years. (Now that must be a very creative combination of cultures.) Brown in his post talks about the lessons he has learned from master Japanese carpenters, and this passage struck me in particular:

The final conversation was about microclimates. Master Nishioka was describing to me how important it was to match a tree to its structural use in the building, based on where on the hillside it grew. “Valley trees are too wet for most uses, trees at the top of the hill sprout a lot of branches because they don’t have to compete and are very knotty, but trees from the middle slopes compete with others and have long trunks with branches clustered toward their crowns. Those make the best beams, because they’re straight and fairly free of knots.” He went on to describe how trees from the north face differ from those found on the south, and so on.

This is no doubt something that most experienced carpenters know; that the environment trees grow in shapes their function as wood. I’m also familiar with this same type of issue relative to grapes grown for wine. Winemakers increasingly are marketing their better wines not just on vintage, but on the particular hill slope the grapes grew on, for example.

And yet when we match people to jobs, well oftentimes we don’t even try. Job descriptions are created in the general, not in the particular, and although some of this production line approach may be suitable for certain industries, it is not suitable for knowledge work. If mission performance suffers, the usual management response today is to find fault first with the person, not with the job design. We would be more productive and more in balance with nature  if we reversed the response. After all, job design is generalized; the person is not–each of us is the results of a particular path we took in life, none of our trillions of steps can be retraced. It strikes me that if people are indeed our most valuable resource (jargon sigh), then we should care as much as carpenters and winemakers do to take full advantage of their individual and particular talents.

Speaking of trees, nature, and balance, the cherry blossoms were at their peak yesterday in Washington D.C.

Personalized Work

David Warlick is a North Carolina-based educator and consultant who keeps a blog, 2 cents worth. His most recent posting describes the transition education is making, as a result of the information, communications, and technology revolution, to personalized learning. As someone who believes work itself will be reconceptualized in the next decade or so, I found many parallels between education’s major transition points and where work is likely to go. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how we could ever take individuals who have learned through the process he describes and then shoe-horn them into jobs as they are currently designed.

His major points are that personalized education:

  • Will be fueled by questions,
  • Provoke conversations,
  • Be responsive, i.e. be interactive
  • Will learn from mistakes, and
  • Will lead to personal investment from the learner and contribute to his/her evolving identity

(I reordered Warlick’s points slightly and did just a little wordsmithing, but I think I’m true to his ideas.)

Personalized work follows along similar lines. What do I mean by personalized work? Most jobs today are still designed according to some archaic position description, this is certainly very common in the government environment. These descriptions are infrequently updated. (I remember at the CIA it was always a very bureaucratically fearful time when the professional job redescribers descended upon your office.) (This makes me think of another post that would be fun to work on: When Bureaucrats are Scared, but I digress.) But if you just think about it, doesn’t it seem nonsensical that in this day and age we would organize the work of our mission around position descriptions that can frequently, I think, be more than a decade old. But it’s not the vintage of the description that’s the real sin, it’s the fact that you could never find a single person who could perfectly perform all the tasks required. So because of the perceived need to order work in ways that the bureaucracy and pay system can best handle, we actually make inefficient use of people, our most important resource as we are often and unattractively reminded.

Is there another way to organize work? YES!! Innovative organizations are beginning to work with new designs that actually allow them to match tasks to the best-suited individual. And they use technology to mash the two up. Every manager needs to visit and become familiar with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. (I’ve made more than forty dollars there so far as a worker, enough to finance my MP3 purchases, but I digress.) At Mechanical Turk, large missions and jobs are being atomized into minute tasks, allowing individuals to self-select the tasks they are both good at and enjoy. What a concept!!!! I actually believe this approach could be applied to many tasks, including some missions of the federal government.

Another approach to personalizing work is to bring the aspects of game design into the work environment. It is an odd phenomenon that millions of individuals, many of whom have important positions in their analog lives, voluntarily and happily spend hundreds of hours a year playing computer games such as World of Warcraft. They solve complicated problems, collaborate and form trust relationships with people they’ve never physically met, and all for very little tangible reward. And yet some, when they come into work, mail it in. What is wrong with this picture? What is it about how work is designed that is demotivating, while game design engages individuals? Could it be factors such as immediate feedback, transparency, personalization? For more on this topic, check out recent books such as Total Engagement for eye-opening discussion on why games are not the opposite of work.

Anyway, this posting is already too long and there’s still much more to say and do on the topic. These changes are fueled by technology, but I don’t in any way consider myself a technology expert. I associate myself with David Warlick’s own description of himself: Technologists get excited by the light. I get excited by what we can shine that light on.