Can Remote Work Usher in a New Era of Creativity?

Distributed working requires a whole system change. It requires trusting people, it requires removing unnecessary management, and it requires a seismic shift in how we collaborate with others.

This post is a version of a talk I gave for Qube as part of their Remote Working Thought Leaders Summit. It brings together some content from recent posts with some additional thoughts.

My personal take on innovation is that we sometimes focus too much on adding technology rather than removing barriers to reveal the things that people truly value.

A good example at the moment is that it’s easier to speak to a consultant or your GP than it ever has been before. By necessity COVID has forced them onto the phone rather seeing people face to face. The barriers around them have been removed, if only temporarily. This has largely been achieved without new technology.

My second take is we sometimes focus as organisations on searching for ideas rather than great problems to solve.

And given the Bank of England has forecast the deepest recession in 300 years plus we have a rapidly ageing population, increased automation of jobs, a creaking welfare state and the challenges of achieving net zero. I’d say we have enough problems to keep us busy. 

One of the things I’m wondering and the purpose of taking up your time is I’m thinking about how remote work can play it’s part in helping us tackle some of those challenges.  How could it increase our mental bandwidth so we can solve the great problems of our time?

As a side story – just after the UK lockdown started I found myself undergoing emergency surgery. I was nervous about going into hospital during the what was predicted to be the worst period of the virus and it was only my partner and some paramedics who forced me , quite literally , into an ambulance. 

So I had eleven days in isolation, major surgery and my family and friends were unable to visit. I had a lot of time for self reflection, and to observe from the inside how systems operate during periods of genuine crisis. I also had to have eight weeks off work for the first time in my career. 

I’ve been interested in remote working and have written about it and experimented with it for the past six years. So it’s a source of some frustration that I missed the beginnings of the biggest workplace experiment we’ve ever seen!

And I’m scared we are going to mess this once in a lifetime opportunity up.

I think it important to understand that this hasn’t been a true remote work experiment, rather it has been an enforced work from home experiment. We have to take into account the stress and turmoil that many people have been living with and the impact on their productivity.

However, COVID-19 has shown us what we can accomplish when we don’t project plan something to death.

Just days after the virus was declared a pandemic many companies managed to get upwards of 90% of people working remotely. Jobs that we never imagined could be performed remotely— jobs which I know people were told couldn’t be performed remotely – suddenly and successfully were handled from home.

The diagram from Matt Mullenweg illustrates the challenge of remote work quite well. Matt has outlined five levels of distributed work that are useful to reflect upon and I walk through them in my previous post.

Importantly Matt says that’s there’s a pain barrier at levels 2+3 where things can be more chaotic and less productive than being in an office. My take is a lot of companies are struggling to move forward from the chaos and it’s because of this: we lack the necessary collaboration skills or the incentive for collaboration just isn’t there.

Truth is — most of us simply don’t have strong in-person collaboration skills. It’s only recently that collaboration has been measured at schools.  Interestingly it found that on average across OECD countries, girls are 1.6 times more likely than boys to be top performers in collaborative problem solving. If you’re above the age 30 – it’s likely you won’t have been taught it at all.

Our companies are not great at collaboration , internally, with partners and with communities. Almost all of our organisational targets and performance frameworks reward short term outcomes rather than the purposeful thinking and patience that collaboration requires.

So our companies must invest in and nurture collaboration skills. 

Let’s briefly look at communities.

People have begun supporting and caring for one another to an unprecedented extent, with community led groups popping up to address needs in ways that organisations simply can’t.

To return to my point earlier – this has been achieved by taking things away not by adding new things in. Communities have stepped into the gaps left by institutions. 

I’m inspired by the work of the Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman who challenged the practice of adding more into communities with his idea of “Shared Spaces”. His concept was simple. Remove all traffic lights, signs, and road markings. The results were the opposite of what most people expected. The traffic moved slower, people paid more attention, and accidents ultimately declined.

Monderman’s theory was that increasing traffic regulations reduces personal responsibility

As he said “The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something. To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”

So trusting communities to do the right thing – to work with each other to solve problems – has to be a foundation of our next normal.

What we’re seeing is a huge desire for something else – both in our working lives and in our communities. We’ve started thinking about what a set of principles for collaborative working would look like that helps us move to another level.

The reason our organisations and our politics will often reject these models is that they threaten the existing order. Hierarchical and status obsessed cultures are incompatible with relationships based on equality, empowerment and collaboration.

Many people are claiming to have successfully rolled out remote working because they’ve got Microsoft Teams. That’s just the technology.

Distributed working requires a whole system change. It requires trusting people, it requires removing unnecessary management, and it requires a seismic shift in how we collaborate with others.

We won’t reach nirvana by accident – only through design.

The Complex Task of Simplicity

If you want to make things truly simple to use by your customers, you will nearly always have to make your organization take on more complexity – Gerry McGovern

Yesterday, I delivered a talk at a conference that was aimed at getting organisations ‘back to basics’.

The problem, I proposed, was that we live in a complex world and many of us just can’t help trying to help tackle every issue.

  • Climate Change
  • Wellbeing
  • Income inequality
  • Health

That’s often in addition to the core reason we were set up in the first place. The problems we were set up to solve were once quite simple, but as organisations get larger there’s more technology, more people, more regulation. We put together processes, controls, reviews, and structures and these factors together create a great amount of complexity.

There’s a paradox here. Although we appreciate the benefits of simple customer experiences and great design in our everyday lives, we often forget all about it when we walk through the door at work.

My contention is we have stopped seeing it. We don’t even recognise how complex we’ve become.

There’s some science to explain how we may have become ‘complexity blind’.

Our brains cope with complexity by identifying key features and filtering out unnecessary detail. On seeing that the space you enter has walls, a floor and a ceiling, you know you have entered a room and can usually ignore the details. You can find where to sit quite easily without getting all distracted by the view out the window or the pictures on walls. This is an example of what the French psychologist Jean Piaget termed a “schema”. Schemas can be useful because they allow us to take shortcuts in interpreting the vast amount of information that is available in our environment.

When your working day is crammed full of meetings and emails it’s easier to just screen out the bullshit and the complexity and just , well,  try to cope.

And sometimes we don’t just take mental shortcuts – we take physical shortcuts too.

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Desire paths were beautifully described by Robert McFarlane as “paths & tracks made over time by the wishes & feet of walkers, especially those paths that run contrary to design or planning”, They spring up when humans vote against design – with their feet.

But desire paths exist within our organizations too, when colleagues make illicit shortcuts through bad policy and procedure to make their working lives a little easier.

Sometimes there are very visible signs of complexity , such as long lists of KPIs or structure charts that look like a company is preparing for an invasion of Europe rather than serving customers.

Last year Sky admitted that they had identified over 2,000 KPIs within their business. They took radical action and reduced it to just 30. Interestingly , they did this by cutting the people involved by 84%. They admitted the KPIs fulfilled no purpose whatsoever and  were just in the business because “someone liked them”.

How can we simplify complex organisations? 

As Steve Jobs said, simple can be harder than complex. Most of our organisations default to the difficult for a reason – it’s easier.

Being simpler means spending more time in problem definition, and more time observing what users need and how they behave. Einstein believed that the quality of the solutions we come up with will be in direct proportion to the quality of the description of the problem we’re trying to solve. Not only will solutions be more abundant and of higher quality, but they’ll be achieved much more simply.

Simplicity also means saying no to things and doing less. Many of an organization’s activities are misaligned from , or have poorly defined, strategic objectives. We often anchor around the wrong thing. That’s why some big institutions have no chance – they are hit by random plans and transformations rather than anchoring around purpose and iteration.

This takes discipline though as it means killing vanity projects and saying no when something doesn’t fit into the plan

It also means taking a different view of design – and removing activities rather than adding them in.

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The Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman challenged this thinking with his idea of “Shared Space”. His concept was simple. Remove all traffic lights, signs, and road markings. The results were the opposite of what most people expected. The traffic moved slower, people paid more attention, and accidents ultimately declined.

Monderman’s theory was that increasing traffic regulations reduces personal responsibility, the need for drivers and pedestrians to pay attention to what is happening around them.

“The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something,” Monderman says. “To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”

What would our organisations look like if , when faced with a problem, we focused on removing things rather than adding them in?

What if every time we added a new activity we abandoned an old one?

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The second of the Bromford Design Principles is abandon activities that don’t add value. I’m going to put my neck on the block and suggest it has been the least successful of the nine principles we introduced. Yesterday certainly reminded me that should be my personal focus in 2020.

Ultimately simplification means making it easier for your people to get things done and for your customers and other partners to work with you.

As the world becomes more complex, simplifying strategy, leadership, decision-making and all of our communication becomes more important than ever. It should be our number one focus – but it certainly isn’t.

Being simple – it’s complex.

 

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