Blinded by the Illusion of Control

The most important systems are inherently unpredictable.

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Self-organizing, non-linear feedback systems are inherently unpredictable. They are not controllable. They are understandable only in the most general way. The goal of foreseeing the future exactly and preparing for it perfectly is unrealizable. The idea of making a complex system do just what you want it to do can be achieved only temporarily, at best. We can never fully understand our world, not in the way that reductionist science has led us to expect…

Systems thinking leads to another conclusion, however – waiting, shining, obvious as soon as we stop being blinded by the illusion of control. It says there is plenty to do, of a different sort of ‘doing’. The future can’t be predicted, but it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being. Systems can’t be controlled, but they can be designed and redesigned. We can’t surge forward with certainty into a world of no surprises, but we can expect surprises and learn from them and even profit from them. We can’t impose our will upon a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.

We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!

| Donella Meadows, Dancing with Systems


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We are not settling into a ‘new normal’ vis-a-vis the office. We are all over the place, as Emma Goldberg writes in The Worst of Both Worlds: Zooming From the Office:

For months, the putt-putt course sat unused. The beanbag chairs lay empty. The kitchen whiteboard, above where the keg used to live, displayed in fading marker “Beers on Tap” from a happy hour in March 2020.

But on a recent weekday, over in the common area was a sign of life — fresh bagels.

As employees at the financial technology start-up CommonBond got Covid vaccines, and grew stir-crazy in their apartments, they started trickling back into the office.

“We call it Work From Work Wednesday,” said Keryn Koch, who runs human resources at the company, which has 15,000 square feet of sunlit SoHo real estate.

[...]

Asana, which makes collaboration software, recently gathered its executives for a discussion planning for the office’s official reopening. Half the participants were at the San Francisco headquarters, and the other half joined by videoconference. The remote workers, including the company’s chief executive, started to lose patience as people in the room talked over one another and made side comments.

“We were joking that if we didn’t like what somebody was saying on the screen, we could just mute them,” said Anna Binder, the company’s head of people.

“We all had such a terrible experience that we made a decision at the end of that meeting that all executive meetings going forward will be in person,” she continued. “Or they will be fully remote. We’re not doing the in-between.”

[...]

So Asana chose to label itself “office-centric hybrid,” with bosses articulating that at some point most people will be expected back at their desks. CommonBond calls itself “remote first,” with its chief executive farther from the Manhattan office than the junior workers who come in on Wednesdays. (“Our center of gravity is the Zoomisphere,” said David Klein, the C.E.O.) Both companies rejected the choose-your-own-adventure approach, where people have no sense of where their managers want them to be.

So we see a range from some (unnamed) who have shifted to 100% remote, some are ‘remote-first’, others are ‘office-centric hybrid’, and, bringing up the rear, all office, all the time.

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One of the potentially smart things companies might try to entice workers back: converting open office space — which almost everyone hates — to private offices with doors. Those who share a home with family or flatmates might find respite in a quiet place to work heads down, in peace.

Taken to the most extreme: what if some of the unused office space was turned into something like Airbnb rooms, so those who have moved outside of easy commuting range might come into the office for a two- or three-day onsite, working and not-working in the office. This could be coordinated with team members for once a month intense working sessions, too.


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In 5 New Rules for Leading a Hybrid Team, Lazlo Bock displays a bias toward Back-Into-The-Office, although that may be just aligning with the HBR crowd (like Hubert Joly, below). Here’s his five new rules:

  1. Make work purpose driven.

    Purpose matters more than ever. Our research at Humu shows that people who don’t feel their work contributes to their company’s mission are 630% more likely to quit their jobs than their peers who do.

  2. Trust your people more than feels comfortable.

    Bock settles on what we might call ‘bounded autonomy’.

    Encourage managers to offer direction, not directions. To help hybrid teams succeed, managers should clearly outline the milestones they’d like their reports to hit — and then let them figure out how to get there.

  3. Learn in the small moments. Send people -- and your self -- nudges.

    If team members are eager for opportunities to learn and their manager would like to build mentorship abilities, we might deliver a nudge to the manager ahead of their next 1:1 that offers recommendations for how to have a growth-focused conversation with a report. After six months of receiving these types of personalized nudges, 90% of teams at a Fortune 500 company told us they noticed their managers making clear improvements.

    I am leery of nudges, because they can escalate into pushes, but anything to improve managers.

  4. Provide clarity. Be more decisive than feels comfortable.

    While you should offer your people autonomy, you also shouldn’t shy away from putting a stake in the ground. When it comes to company direction, policies, and values, being clear is the kindest thing you can do — even if your decision is unpopular. When people know what’s happening, they can make the best choices for themselves. It’s ambiguity that is more punishing.

    Actually, I don’t think ambiguity is the issue, it’s uncertainty.

  5. Include everyone. Take a long hard look in the mirror.

    Part of the reason people don’t want to come back to offices is likely that they weren’t inclusive spaces to begin with, particularly for people from underrepresented backgrounds, introverts, and newly hired employees. Use the shift to hybrid as an opportunity to identify cultural gaps, and to set new norms to create a better, stronger culture.

    I always worry about ‘stronger culture’ which can be a cover for decreasing diversity of opinion. But when Bock uses it, I think he means a healthier, more accepting culture.

One last takeaway:

Leaders today are operating against a backdrop of unprecedented uncertainty and amid nearly two years of teams being cooped up at home. Those conditions are not likely to change in the next 12 to 18 months — instead, leaders need to change.

And the sooner they change, the sooner we can start the hard work of a new way of work, one that is not based on the bronze-age division between management and the rank-and-file.

Over at PostShift, Cerys Hearsey offers us a timely insight in Embracing Seasonality in Change Efforts:

Approaching the end of the year is naturally a reflective time - change programmes can instigate very open and honest conversations with participants about what is working and what is not, with a view to starting the new year with clarity and alignment on direction of travel. One of the most important activities here is to challenge the existing KPI structure, and nudge towards embracing more meaningful measures. Something along the lines of OKRs, which allow and encourage more cross-functional exploration rather than keeping use in our own lane and encouraging teams to pull together rather than doubling down on their own performance.

Run a retrospective on the year - take all of the insights you have gathered all year, and reflect on how you have grown as a team! Revisit your team agreements, talk in broad brushstrokes about how you’ve improved, delivered, dropped the ball. It can be very cathartic in processing team tensions as well!

Another important activity at this time of year is building more social fabric for the team - the social aspects of change work are often put to the side throughout the year so that the focus is on the doing of hard work. Our team bonds take a battering, we slip into bad habits, bend promises and take our colleagues for granted. Winter is a great time to repair and strengthen the team for what happens next!


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Putting Your Corporate Purpose to Work | Hubert Joly

Reminds me of Michael Porter analyses, all looking backward and cherry-picked.

Science reveals the fascinating link between lying and technology | David Markovitz

The results suggested people told the most lies per social interaction on the phone. The fewest were told via email.

The 37-Year-Olds Are Afraid of the 23-Year-Olds Who Work for Them | Emma Goldberg

Subtly yet undeniably, as generational shifts tend to go, there’s a new crop of employees determining the norms and styles of the workplace. And they have no qualms about questioning not just emoji use but all the antiquated ways of their slightly older managers, from their views on politics in the office to their very obsession with work.