Last week I was speaking at an event for an energy company in the Nordics.
The night before the event we were having dinner together and I noticed people avidly checking their phones for the latest score in a sports match of seemingly national significance. When I asked what sport it was I was surprised to learn that it was a chess match. How could a potentially slow-paced game attract so much attention in real-time I pondered?
Now contrast this with another sports event, when FIFA took football (soccer) to the USA. They were asked to shift the pace of the match from two 45-minute halves with a break (standard football timings), to more of a basketball format, with 20-minute sessions and three breaks. The US television channels claimed that an American audience shouldn’t/couldn’t/wouldn’t watch 45 minutes straight without a breather.
While these are just anecdotes rather than careful analyses of each of the countries or cultures in question, they do hint at something we should perhaps pay more attention to in our lives: pace.
This is something I’ve examined in myself in recent years, when I’ve thought about what I’m good at and why I struggle with other endeavors. One example is when I first started speaking at events. My biggest challenge was to talk at a slower pace so that I could be clearly understood, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t do it.
I eventually realized that the speed at which I spoke was innately tied up with the speed at which I approached just about everything in life, perhaps under the impression that that made me more productive. This meant that in order to speak more slowly, I had to practice just ‘being’ at a slower pace. I made myself walk slower, breathe slower, eat slower…. and only by doing all of those other things was I finally able to master presenting at a coherent speed.
It turned out that what I really needed to do was step outside of my comfortable pace of being, and learn to operate in another rhythm. It was a realization that for me, made the difference between excelling at something that was critical for my role, or continually falling short.
Now, pace isn’t something we talk much about at work, but perhaps it should be. We all have a natural pace that makes us great at certain things, but holds us back in other respects.
Maybe take a moment today to consider your natural pace – are you a chess match or a basketball game? And then practice ‘playing the other sport.’ What does it feel like when you simply walk a little faster or slower? What would you be better at if you sped up or slowed down at work? It may be that getting comfortable with a different pace, a different rhythm is the key to helping you master something you’ve been grappling with for years.
 Surely a turn of phrase that gives away how little I know about sports, let alone writing about them
 I appreciate the advertising community may have had something to do with this narrative
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been learning the art of Improv. For those of you who have never experienced such joy, Improv is a form of completely unscripted theatre or comedy, where a group of fully-grown adults create a story, characters and some kind of plot completely in the moment. As we walk onto the stage we have no idea who our character will be, where the scene is, or what the relationship is that we have with each other And yet, somehow it works. Somehow, we create something that is coherent, makes sense and sometimes – just sometimes – is hilariously funny.
Now, if this were a team in an organisation, we would consider it doomed to fail: No goals, no clarity on team roles, no accountability – no chance. But in this domain it succeeds. It got me thinking about what it is that makes it possible for Improv to… well, just work really, and what that could then teach us about creating successful teams in organisations. It all starts with three simple rules that allow everything else to follow freely:
#1 Listen to offers
The first time I got on stage to do an Improv scene my mind was screaming to me: “Say something. Anything. For the love of God fill the silence!” The result: disaster and a very public way to learn the hidden beauty of staying quiet and listening. And so comes the first rule: listen to what others are offering. The only way that something unscripted can work is if you are truly listening to all the cues your team are sending you about where you are in the scene, who your character is to them, and what the hell’s going on. Likewise, they need to be listening out for every possible piece of information from you so that you can all create something together.
There are many parallels here to what we see happening in teams. I can recall so many meetings in which it’s seemed like we’re all working off a different script. And why? Because that’s exactly what we were doing. We were armed with our own individual scripts about what we wanted to achieve, our foregone conclusions about the matter, ready to force that on others whether consciously or without even realizing that’s what we were doing. Next time you’re in a meeting with your team, try leaving the script behind. Make a conscious effort to focus and hear every ‘offer’ made by the other person. Every sentence, every word.
#2 Accept offers
The most awkward moments in Improv are when one actor makes an ‘offer’ in terms of what’s going on in the scene, for example: “Hey, great to bump into you. We always seem to see each other at this same park” only for their fellow actor to reject that offer and instead pursue their own agenda: “This isn’t a park it’s a school classroom, what were you thinking?” There’s really nowhere good to go from that point. It’s a clear rejection and now you are both completely lost somewhere in a… school parkroom? Or a park school class? Huh? When this happens in Improv it’s painfully visible and the chaos that ensues is immediate.
Once again, having learned this the hard way in performances, I’ve become particularly aware of it in other realms of life and work. How often do we listen to someone’s idea (offer) only to reject it, either subtly by moving the conversation back to our own brilliant idea, or by outright declaring it impossible due to a set of constraints reeled out too quickly to be a true response to what we’ve just heard?
I think the reason we find this so hard is because it requires us to be vulnerable. In a scene, if I accept someone else’s offer in terms of where we are or what our relationship is, then I have to put more thought and energy into responding than if I were to simply shut it down and force my own idea – inevitably one I’m more comfortable with. It’s unknown territory and I can’t guarantee I’ll sail through it. Likewise, exploring someone else’s way of thinking at work means letting go of our reassuringly familiar reality to step into theirs. It’s uncomfortable. As a leader, you may feel you need to add value by having the vision and providing clarity of output. You may feel that if you’re not driving the meeting or the project, then you’re not doing you role as a leader. However, the two are of not mutually exclusive at all.
Next time you feel yourself inclined to say no to an idea – to reject someone’s offer – perhaps take a moment. Acknowledge that it feels a bit uncomfortable and then stick with it. It may be that the discomfort lasts only a few moments and is the path to something you never thought possible.
#3 Make other people look good
Every so often, I’ll be in a scene and see an opportunity to throw in a line so witty it’s sure to have the crowd thinking, ‘God she’s hilarious’. And every time I’ve given into the temptation it’s resulted in a soul-destroying awkward pause. Now, while this is no doubt useful feedback about the quality of my jokes, it’s also a fairly unanimous experience in Improv. Why? Because Improv is about teams, not stand up comics, and any attempt to elevate yourself over and above your fellow Improvisers just destroys whatever it is you were creating together.
And so comes the third rule: make others look good. The logic is pretty simple when you think about it: if everyone does it, then everyone ends up looking good. Lovely. So what happens if we take this approach in our teams? If we all go in agreeing that our role is to make our team members look good rather than being our individual best?
This doesn’t mean that individual performance is completely negated, but that in an environment in which no one superstar (or stand up comic genius) is sufficient to succeed, we all embrace working together. We all help amplify the performance of others and bask in the great feeling that comes with knowing that they will do the same for us. This is how we can unleash additional value, enabling others else to shine and then building on that ‘greatness’.
These rules are pretty simple. But what resonated with me was how incredibly important they are in any successful collaboration – whether it be a friendship, a relationship, a project team or maybe even an Improv group. And that they are mutually reinforcing. Follow one of the rules avidly and you’re sure to find yourself deploying the other two: really listen to the other person in your team and you will find yourself immediately more likely to accept their offer and help them look good.
In increasingly unpredictable and unscripted worlds, perhaps now is the time to truly embrace improvisation.
In 1932, philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote an essay titled In Praise of Idleness. He was writing at a time when only the most affluent in society had the opportunity for leisure time while the poor laboured away in dirty, dangerous and dull work. Today, the situation is quite the opposite: for the first time in history, the most skilled, highest earners in society are working the longest hours. But why is it that those who can afford the most leisure are now taking the least?
It turns out we still have much to learn from the old greats such as Russell and Keynes. Both had distinct yet complementary philosophies on the meaning of work that may help us understand why affluent knowledge workers, with above average pay cheques and already high standards of living, are slaving away to the point of burnout.
The first message is that as a society, we have had a vested interest in seeing work as virtuous. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, the virtues of work were extolled by the affluent, upper classes who, according to Russell, preached ‘the dignity of labour [to the poor], while taking care themselves to remain undignified in this respect.’ The dignity of labour ‘kept adults from drink and children from mischief,’ by distracting them with 15-hour work days. This ideology was reinforced by religious beliefs that the poor were far more likely to go to heaven than the rich, thus their gratification was coming, just posthumously. So what does this mean for today? According to Keynes, despite entire populations moving into higher skill, higher paid work, ‘we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy.’ We ascribe status now to those who make valuable contributions to the success of organisations and our ‘busyness’ has become a proxy for that level of contribution. Perhaps then, if we are to resolve the challenge of long working hours, burnout and stress, we need to remind ourselves of the meaning of work, its role in our own lives and in society as a whole. Now that we don’t need work to prevent us all from becoming delinquent on gin and to get into the afterlife, maybe we can reassess how we spend our time?
A second message from the works of the old greats is that how we spend our leisure time is also a point of contention. Both Keynes and Russell stressed the importance of leisure time in pursuing academic and creative interests. According to Russell, the small leisure class in previous centuries ‘cultivated the arts and discovered sciences; it wrote the books, invented the philosophies, and refined social relations […] without the leisure class, man would never have emerged from barbarism.’ Today, we might argue that these activities take place within institutions such as universities, businesses and NGOs. However, Russell warned that when ‘studies are organised […] the man who thinks of some original line of research is likely to be discouraged,’ making it an inadequate substitute for real leisure time.
While our context has changed markedly since the 18th and 19th Centuries, perhaps there is still something to take from this. How can we liberate people to pursue their passions, experiment and innovate under the necessary pre-condition of ‘no required output’? Some companies such as Google and 3G have attempted this with their ‘20% time to play’ rule, allowing employees to spend the equivalent of one day a week following up on an idea they have had on the understanding that it may come to nothing. But maybe, instead of creating rules around when and how much work time people can spend in liberated, free-thinking, we need to accept the fact that people need to be absent, disconnected and unrestricted if we want them to come up with new ideas. In short, we need to acknowledge the value of leisure time and ensure that work does not encroach. Likewise, we need to reserve energy as well as time for the pursuit of leisure or else, according to Russell, ‘pleasures […] become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on [… as a result of our] active energies being fully taken up with work.’
Keynes predicted that we would all be working three-hour days by now. We’ve perhaps ended up closer to Russell’s depiction of ‘a large percentage of the population idle, because we can dispense with their labour by making the others overwork.’ We simultaneously have people working extended hours and persistent unemployment. Could our ineffectiveness at addressing the skills mismatches behind this phenomenon be in part because we can make the skilled overwork? Both Keynes and Russell expected it to take some time to transition into a society that can accept and create value through extended leisure, without blindly pursuing more and more work as an end in itself. But perhaps it’s worth remembering Russell’s departing line: ‘there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.’
Keynes, John Maynard. “Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren”. (1930): n. pag. Print.
Russell, Bertrand. “In Praise Of Idleness”. (1932): n. pag. Print.
Ten years ago I took my son to East Africa to stay in a Masai village. I reasoned that time with these mighty warriors would be a good anecdote to his rather cosy suburban life.
On the second day at the village, our Masai guide walked with us into the surrounding countryside. Then something surprising happened. The silence of this picturesque place was pierced by a strangely familiar sound. From his belt pocket the warrior took his ringing mobile phone. This was not something I’d expected.
Four years ago I had been asked by the female students at London Business School (LBS) to speak at their annual Women in Business Conference. I spoke for around 30 minutes on the way that large corporations could make a positive difference in the world – a topic I had explored in a recently published book. In the Q&A session that followed I expected to be asked about corporate social responsibility. Instead, I was quizzed about how I had managed to be a mother and also build a relatively successful career as a professor and business woman. This was again something I had not expected.
Yet these unexpected experiences had something profound in common. They were both ‘weak signals’ in the sense that they both alerted me to something I had not really or deeply considered. They also heralded something that would become more important in the future.
I had not realised the scale with which mobile phones were being rolled out across East Africa and indeed that they contained the possibility of transferring money. And I had not realised how deeply worried young women were about the life choices they face.
Both these weak signals had a profound impact on my thinking. The first led to the creation of my Future of Work Research Consortium – dedicated to analysing the impact of trends in technology, demography and society on corporations and the people that work for them. The second helped me understand the huge impact that Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece in the Atlantic would have when she wrote about her personal challenges in ‘having it all.’
I’m not sure it’s possible to actively seek out weak signals – often times, serendipity seems to play a key role. But here are some ideas:
– Don’t turn your back on what seems hard to comprehend. Frankly I was amazed by the questions at the LBS event. What was wrong with these women that my personal life was so interesting to them? Yet as I reflected on what had happened I began to realise that I had inadvertently tapped into a deep seam of anxiety. I began to realise that young women are genuinely concerned about their future, and as a commentator about the future I needed to understand this and indeed learn more about it. I’ve learnt to be very sensitive to people or ideas that don’t fall into my way of thinking.
– Be prepared to get off the beaten path. I had not expected to learn about technology through a family visit to East Africa. Yet by getting out of my normal routine I was faced with new experiences that presented me with weak signals and new insights.
– Mix with different people. It’s easy in a busy life to spend lots of time with people similar to ourselves. Yet often the ‘weak signals’ are found in unexpected conversations. So these days I try to spend time every week with people who are different from me. People who don’t necessarily walk the paths that I do, and whose experience of the world is profoundly different from mine.
Looking ahead is such a wonderful thing to do – and weak signals can be just the way to do this.
Imagine you were looking forward to working into your 80s. What sort of working life would you want?
My guess is few of us would want a life of relentless 9 to 5 or more likely 8 to 6 with a couple of weeks off for holidays. We know implicitly that this is a regime that would see our intangible assets denuded. How would we keep abreast of rapidly changing skills with such little time to step out and learn? How could we keep our health and vitality at its peak with such little time for rejuvenation? Indeed, how could we find enough time with friends and family?
Perhaps that’s why the gig economy is seen as such a promising development. Imagine selling your resources – house, car, skills, or time in a seamless easy way. Imaging having the ability to step off the corporate ladder and change the way you work at anytime, providing a window of different and more flexible work. The benefits certainly look appealing. But of course, the gig economy also comes with its challenges. Our society is still not quite set up to support people who do not have a steady income stream and permanent contract. Try, for example, applying for a mortgage without proof of future income. Or saving for a pension with an irregular cash flow and no employer contribution. These drawbacks mean that few people see the gig economy as their main work activity or as a long term choice – but view it instead as part of a wider portfolio.
For those who plan to build this kind of portfolio in future, and benefit from the real value of the gig economy, they will need to take four important actions:
– work on transitional competencies. Moving from one type of work to another is not straightforward as it often means redesigning broader lifestyle choices and habits. These transitional competencies are developed through building a broad and diverse network – somewhere within that network will be people who have made the transition. Being surrounded by people who are similar to you will simply hold you back from changing. If you want to be part of the gig economy find others who are already there.
– build synergies between types of work. One of the joys of a portfolio life is variety – but this variety can come at a cost. When work activities are very different from each other then there is a ‘switching cost’ and cognitive abilities and working style have to switch between tasks. The more similar the task the less the switching cost. So try to build different job tasks from a platform of similar skills and competencies
– don’t build up tangible asset dependency. Working in the gig economy can bring variety, space and autonomy – but oftentimes people shy away from doing this type of work because they and their family have become addicted to a certain flow of money – holidays, cars, and general consumption. If you want to bring flexibility into your working life you have to ensure that you don’t develop spending habits at the top of your earning cycle. You must also be clear about what is essential for maintaining the standard of living you and your family need, and ensure that you are developing skills in lucrative fields that will deliver the commensurate income.
– realise you can’t have it all. There is much talk today that people (specifically mothers) can’t have it all – a family, big job, happy partner. Perhaps the same is true for putting together a portfolio of work. Most highly paid jobs come with 24/7 availability and pressured work. Gig economy jobs tend to have more autonomy and freedom. That’s why they tend not to be paid so well.
The gig economy has real promise to bring options to a working life. The question now is, are you ready?
This week, Republican candidate Paul Ryan was confirmed as the new Speaker of the US House of Representatives. However, his acceptance of the post was on the condition that he would travel less than previous speakers in order to preserve valuable time with his family. Of course this type of demand from such a high-profile man garnered a lot of press attention, as notions of family time and flexible working remain rooted in the ‘working mum’ domain in many countries, industries and companies. It’s still (sadly) rare to hear as may working dads negotiating school drop offs with busy work schedules, as working mums. So, will Mr. Ryan’s bold statement be a catalyst for change?
My work at the Future of Work Research Consortium highlights time and again the importance of role models when it comes to shifting an organisation’s culture. No matter how many policies and practices HR may devise around flexible working and work/life balance, if those at the top aren’t using them, then those attempting to climb the ladder will take this as a signal that they shouldn’t either. Having leaders simply avail of flexible working options isn’t enough either. They need to use the options in a way that is visible to the rest of the organisation. One of the most interesting comments I heard recently from leaders at a Professional Services firm was that they were working flexibly and assumed that others in their teams were doing so as well. However, this was not the reality. Their teams were often unaware that they were taking this approach as the leaders weren’t communicating about it and hence the signal that this kind of autonomy in working style was accepted and, lo and behold, normal was not being received. Mr. Ryan’s very visible commitment to work/life balance will hopefully act as the cue to his team that making time for family is not a barrier to success.
That is the implication for his own team, but what about the wider American and Global audience? What impact can this action have on a larger scale? These are tougher questions. While Mr. Ryan has the bargaining power to make such demands, the average American worker does not. Moreover, he has previously voted against providing paid family leave for federal employees, which has made him an unlikely advocate for a cultural shift in favour of work/life balance. It’s promising to see signs of his change in views on this and we will have to expect that as a matter of course, he will now work for these rights to be extended broadly so that it is both socially acceptable and financially viable for all dads – and not just those in powerful political positions – to exercise the same choices.
So, can Paul Ryan move the needle on work/life balance? My view is that he can certainly change one important aspect of the dialogue. We need more male leaders to demonstrate their desire to be actively involved in their children’s upbringing and highlight the challenges they face in juggling responsibilities – and of course the flexibility they avail of in order to strike a balance. Making this a conversation that managers have with all employees, rather than a request working mums submit to HR, will be a significant step in achieving work/life balance and gender parity.
Historically the answer was simple – money. That’s why the HR function of most companies goes to such extreme lengths to design pay packets (bonuses, team-based rewards, stock options and so on) and to decide through antiquated performance management systems who gets paid what. Indeed, it’s why they’ve been persuaded that senior leaders really are worth up to 200% more than the pay of an average employee.
Yet we have known for sometime that although pay might indeed be a valuable asset for an employee, it’s unlikely to be the driver for their motivation. Indeed, years of research have shown that this valuable asset turns out more often to be a source of dissatisfaction rather than a motivator. Most people don’t work harder, or more creatively or cooperatively because they are paid more.
So recently the search has been on for more ‘intangible assets’ that could be really valued by employees. Perhaps it’s the opportunity to work more flexibly, or the chance to work for a boss that likes you, or to work in a convivial open plan office that employees value. And indeed, perhaps it’s this combination that results in employees being engaged rather than disengaged.
I think – to use a simple metaphor – we are barking up the wrong tree. Let me explain. Over the last couple of years my colleague, the economist Andrew Scott, and I have been asking a simple question ‘What happens when most people live to 100 years’. It’s been a fascinating exploration. One undeniable truth is that if you live to 100 then you will probably need to work into your 80s. Now there is no doubt that over the course of a long working life money is indeed crucial – no one wants to look forward to an old age lived in poverty. So money is a valuable asset that a company can give to an employee.
However, across a long life this tangible asset, whilst important, has to be balanced by equally important intangible assets. It seems to me that chief amongst these crucial intangible assets is the type of work an employee is given to perform. Work that is valuable both now and as a hedge against the future has three crucial elements:
- It is interesting and allows workers to engage their mind and creativity
- It has developmental potential – particularly to in terms of capabilities that are ‘portable’ in the sense that they can be used beyond the current job
- It is non-routine so is unlikely to be substituted in the short term by robotics or Artificial Intelligence
For the sake of simplicity let’s call this ‘good work’. Now let’s play a mind game. Let’s assume that a leader in a corporation acknowledges that the intangible asset of ‘good work’ is as valuable to an employee as the tangible asset of money. If this were the case, what would we expect to see happening within the corporation? Here are five ideas:
- We would expect jobs to be analysed with regards to the extent that they are composed of tasks that are interesting, developmental and non-routine. We could even imagine that these job characteristics are rated against a common currency – let’s call this unit a ‘tang’.
- So when an employer is advertising a job, they are able to show both the financial assets the job is valued at (salary, bonus, stock options etc.) and also its ‘tang’ assets (interest, developmental potential, non-routine)
- When an employee is deciding on whether to take a job, they can balance the tangible and intangible assets it creates. They can decide, for example, that they are prepared to take a higher ‘tang’ rated job at a certain point in their career, even if the salary is lower. Or indeed take a higher paid job whilst acknowledging that the ‘tang’ value is low.
- It could be that managers who are particularly skilled at designing jobs for their team that have a high ‘tang’ value are celebrated for this sculpting skill.
- We might expect that if the ‘tang’ value of a job falls below a certain level then the whole job has to be re-designed to increase the ‘tang value’ by adding tasks that are interesting, developmental or non-routine. This re-design could be initiated by the manager, or indeed by the worker who is performing the job and who is encouraged to broaden the scope of the job to envelope more ‘tang’ rich activities.
Right now it is still money that dominates the negotiated relationship between an employee and employer. Let’s widen the conversation to include an equally important asset – good work. Perhaps by understanding the value of work with as much finesse as we currently understand the value of reward systems, we can begin to give employees a better choice about the deal they want to strike.