Why isn’t work working? Most of us in advanced nations are stuck in economies with diminishing or already zero productivity growth, despite continued advances in technology; only 13% of employees are engaged despite moving into higher quality work now that automation has taken over a lot of the dirty, dull and dangerous tasks; we’re more educated and skilled than ever before, and yet we still struggle to create innovative teams. These are the three dilemmas that my fellow keynote speakers and I, at the Irish Management Institute (IMI)’s National Management Conference, sought to address a few weeks ago. During an intense and thought-provoking day, I joined Boston Consulting Group’s Yves Morieux, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy Group – Rory Sutherland, and strategic foresight company director – Thimon de Jong, to explore these issues with more than 200 business leaders.
We began by looking at how our personal and working lives have been made more complex by technology, and how social media in particular has become so pervasive in our lives that we are now ‘addicted citizens.’ Thimon shared the results of an experiment that separated people from their smart phones for just a few days, putting them into an MRI scanner afterwards only to find that the withdrawal had affected their brains in the same way as withdrawal from hard drugs. This chemical need to be always connected extends of course beyond our personal lives and into the way we work, a topic we then moved onto with a focus on the implications for productivity. Indeed, the advanced economies’ productivity crisis is rooted in organizational complexity: as the business world has become more complex, we have created structures and processes with the aim of retaining clarity and accountability in our organisations. However, what we’ve actually created is matrix structures, middle offices, and additional layers of complexity that our employees struggle to navigate. And if we’re wondering why employees are so disengaged at work, then there’s our answer: disengagement is the proper and sane response to the chaotic environment we have created.
In addition to creating complexity, these processes and practices have also encouraged overly competitive behaviours, despite management rhetoric promoting collaboration as the only way to spark the next leading product or service. These competitive environments have also amplified our risk aversion. Every process we have, from performance management to project management, signals loud and clear to people that not being wrong is far superior to being right. In what is termed ‘defensive decision making’, we are compelled to make decisions whereby we come off least bad in the worst case scenario: we will choose the boring “play it safe” option over the innovative one every time, and a boring advertising campaign that fails is the fault of a bad product, whereas an innovative campaign that fails is the fault of the advertiser.
So, that’s the long and ironically complex scenario of what’s not working in our organisations. But what did we have by way of actions our delegates could take to simplify work, unleash productivity and enhance engagement? The first action was to facilitate the process of ‘digital balance’ among employees, enabling them to switch off and avoid being overwhelmed by ubiquitous message streams and demands. Ensuring people are not overwhelmed is essential if we want them to step out of their comfort zone – the necessary precondition for sharing ideas and collaborating.
The second, poetically simple step was to understand what others do at work. Go beyond the job descriptions to really understand the content of your team’s work, how they spend their time, what their average day looks like and take that as the starting point for simplifying work, stripping out the burdensome processes that add little value and create distraction. Doing so will address both the challenge of stagnating productivity and the puzzle of low employee engagement.
Finally, apply an understanding of human psychology to the way we design and run our organisations. When creating the necessary structures to keep the oragnisation moving, use insights from psychology to anticipate how people will perceive a process and how they will react. Too often, we have turned solely to economic theory to understand how employees will respond to carrot and stick type incentives, ignoring the weight of evidence from psychology that our behaviour is governed by far more emotive systems than could ever be understood through such a narrow, singular lens.