I am happy to find myself at a new inflection/reflection point. After working most of the time over the past decades as a tech analyst, I have decided to focus on my obsessions: the ecology of work, the anthropology of the future, and cultural sociology. By cultural sociology I mean what Raymond Williams was focused on, as Dan Hill describes it:
processes of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development; particular ways of life, or patterns of living; and practices of cultural production, embodying and articulating what we stand for as society.
I have taken on some new work that draws on all these interests, and I expect I will be quite busy, but a better kind of busy than reviewing yet another work management tool.
I am eager to keep Work Futures going, as well, and to do that I am trying some new things. First, I am going to adopt a new model for the free and fire-walled posts here at Work Futures. I expect one or two free posts a week.
Free-for-everyone posts starting today and for at least for some time will come in a new 1-2-3 format: one longish section touching on some issue or topic for ten paragraphs or less; a second section with two one-paragraph commentaries; and a final section of no more than three links with one-sentence explanations of why you should care. This format will make it easier for me to write these posts, and quicker for people to read them.
Behind the paywall posts will be longer, in-depth explorations of issues that require more research and analysis. Coming issues include an addition to the Paradoxes of Engagement series (the negative impact of ambivalence toward bosses), new essays on Minimum Viable Work, book reviews (like Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks), and some new work on defunding management (a parallel to defunding police). I will be pulling posts of that sort — now freely available — behind the paywall.
Some new behind-the-paywall posts will be briefly accessible to non-paid subscribers, but only for a few days, as a teaser. Get’em while they’re hot!
I touched upon this HBR piece back in 2019 when it was published, but returned recently following a 2021 mention: How to Give Your Team the Right Amount of Autonomy by Deborah Ancona and Kate Isaacs. The authors offer great advice in the form of 'guardrails': rules-of-thumb that can be applied whenever needed.
One is a guardrail called Simple Rules:
If you fear that throwing out bureaucratic rules will mean that people don’t know how to make decisions, here’s a guardrail: Simple rules.
Simple rules, a term coined by Donald Sull and Katherine Eisenhardt, are just-in-time structures that help leaders deal with blockages and behavior run amok. When a bottleneck arises, leaders at all levels identify the problem and come up with a simple rule to help address it, and then step out of the way.
Microsoft recently implemented a simple rule to handle bugs that build up during the software development process. Engineers used to wait to fix bugs until the end of the development cycle. But inevitably, after they fixed the first set of bugs, they would discover more — and more. Morale would plummet, and launch timelines dragged out. The simple rule of a “bug cap” was put in place, calculated by the following formula: # of engineers x 5. If the bug count ever rises above the cap, the development team stops working on new features and gets the bugs under the cap. Now the company can get products out the door faster, because the software is always in a healthy state.
Sull and Eisenstadt provide a deep analysis of the benefits of simple rules:
A growing body of evidence shows that simple rules match or beat more complicated analyses across a wide range of decisions. Simple rules outperformed state-of-the-art statistical models in forecasting the likelihood that customers would repurchase in two out of three industries (and tied them in the third). They matched sophisticated algorithms in effectiveness at allocating funds across asset classes. And they tied or beat complicated approaches in a range of nonbusiness applications, including identifying where criminals lived, picking winners at Wimbledon, and guessing which of two cities had a larger population.
Perhaps the best support for simple rules is that they can be easily applied and quickly. A manager does not have to reconsider all the interconnections of their company’s strategic plan when confronted with a request from a front-line worker to try an experiment that could provide immediate benefits. They only have to recall the simple rule, ‘capital can be expended when it can provide benefits immediately (rather than paying off in the long term)’.
So smart managers will convert abstract strategy into simple rules that inform tactics. And the smartest companies will develop the smallest set of simple rules: minimum viable rules.
A mention by Bryce Covert led me to Susan Lambert’s Low-Paid Women Want Predictable Hours and Steady Pay that ties together the pieces of policy needed to disincent companies to overemploy high-paid workers and underemploy low-paid workers:
To do that, the government must reform the Fair Labor Standards Act. Enacted in 1938 — decades before women’s labor force participation became the norm — the law established a minimum hourly wage but did not guarantee minimum weekly hours for any job (though unions may bargain for minimum hours). This reform would encourage employers to make full use of their hourly employees instead of overhiring, at low cost, a pool of on-demand shift workers.
The law also did not mandate that salaried workers get overtime pay. Requiring overtime pay for professionals would encourage employers to minimize unnecessary face time and to hire assistants to reduce the demands on professionals.
Such sweeping changes to labor laws might be politically impossible today, in an environment that is friendly to corporations and indifferent, if not hostile, to workers. But they are essential. They would press employers to hire one worker for one job, easing work-life challenges at both the top and the bottom of the labor market. That would create more entry-level professional positions for college graduates and better-paying jobs to lift low-income families into the middle class. It’s what women want and what our economy needs.
‘One worker for one job’ has a nice ring to it.
understand the negative impact of leadership ‘hero’ behaviours, at the expense of ‘processual’ behaviours - i.e. inclusive social interaction with all relevant stakeholders. The latter is very much part of how things must be done in a modern digital enterprise, so the ongoing admiration and rewarding of ‘hero’ leadership in some corporate environments is not just bad for workers, but ultimately bad for the organisation’s ability to grasp and embrace digital change.
The researchers stress ‘processual’ leadership as the opposite to both heroic leadership and post-heroic ‘collaborative’ leadership [emphasis mine]:
we consider a processual view to be an alternative to the romanticism of leader-centred and post-heroic approaches. The processual view re-theorizes leadership ‘as a fluid process emerging from the communicatively constituted interactions of myriad organisational actors’ (Tourish, 2014: 80). Power and agency are neither concentrated in the hands of one leader nor equally shared in a collective. Leadership is socially constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed by all organisational actors as they interact over time (Tourish, 2019). A processual leadership meaning focusses on the dynamic interactions of fluid relationships that enact social reality (Putnam, 2013). Such dynamic and fluid interaction between leadership and followership inherently generates ambiguity, contradiction, and conflict (Tourish, 2014). To develop leadership practices that are attuned to a complex, indeterminate, and ambiguous world (Carroll et al., 2008), scholars call for a mindset development about what leadership means by questioning and revealing the underlying assumptions about the nature of the social world (Kennedy et al., 2013). Putting such a leadership meaning into practice, however, is not so easy, especially in the face of lingering idealized assumptions and related expectations created by dominant conceptions of leadership at the organisational level (Ford, 2010).
I intend to return to this topic — emergent leadership — in a longer post in the future (for paid subscribers).
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Kyle Lewis and Will Stronge say we should demand more than just flexible work. We should demand less work: ‘now surely is the moment for workers to fight for rights that enable not only freedom in work, but also freedom from work’.