Creating the Future of Work
This article was recently published on Learning by Shipping.
What comes next for work? Thanks to technology, we are returning to a new normal faster than most anyone would have predicted. Will things ever return to what was normal just 18 months ago? We have learned a whole new and improved way many things can work, and it isn’t likely we will go back to our prior ways as they were. While we are in the midst of a robust debate about remote work and many other details of what follows over the next months, there is a much larger opportunity ahead. The post-pandemic world will provide the impetus and tools to rethink the Corporation, and more broadly innovation, and how work is structured and how individuals contribute to that work.
An earlier thread outlined the context of the opportunity by showing the similarities to the way corporations evolved following World War II. Fresh with an influx of post-war people, and skills acquired orchestrating the victory, the modern American corporation was created. This corporation was modeled after the very culture that led to that victory. The symbols of that culture from massive headquarters to strategic planning to hierarchical management were all seeds planted before the War, but the success only proved to make that the way to get things done at scale, and to execute.
And get things done at scale was exactly what was needed. Building and managing factories, distributing goods around the world, and managing teams of thousands of people to do so. Making more widgets. The next 50 years of business served to perfect these processes until they became business canon. These highly tuned processes were about scaling and improving the inventions of the era, bringing down costs and increasing distribution. From the automobile to the microprocessor to hamburgers, corporate structures and processes, along with metrics for success, were about scale and execution. The centralized approach was optimal for execution, while the innovation happened in pockets all around the world from Asia to Silicon Valley.
Software, and then the internet, played supporting roles to the overall efforts of Corporations. They were tools to be applied, often on the side or from the basement. Even as the personal computer and then the phone made it onto the desktop and into the hands of most every single employee regardless of job, the structure, organization, and processes of a company continued to mirror those of the 20th century.
The role of software and more broadly technology is now central to what and how a company operates, and also to what a company provides in the market. Software defines businesses the way manufacturing defined post-War businesses. Of course, making things, extracting things, and moving them around the world remains remarkably difficult in its own right, but all of those businesses are now constrained and enhanced by software as a primary source of innovation and operation. Every business is now a software business. Finally.
The answer is not to change a little, but to change a lot.
Yet, we continue to operate as we always have. In fact, many companies are looking to the post-pandemic world through the lens of how quickly we can return to normal. As we’ve begun to hear, many people are not so anxious to go back to commuting, or to spend all day in conference rooms, or even to spend 24 hours traveling for a one-hour meeting. We’ve seen better ways to work.
The answer is not to change a little, but to change a lot. Whether we wish to acknowledge it or not, the Corporation itself is being disrupted. This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. The standard operating procedures, give or take a few cycles of “lean” or “reinventing”, have changed hardly at all in half a century. Then like history shows, things were changing slowly until they changed suddenly.
We’ve all started hearing from friends, co-workers, or employees that the next steps in work are not as certain. There’s a broad re-evaluation going on about jobs, careers, and the relationship people have to work. It is not only expected, as the pandemic has been (and remains) a traumatic experience, but also provides a unique opportunity for everyone to find their own answers. Whether one suffered from direct loss, personal illness, loneliness or being too crowded, too much work or too little work, extended family challenges, or any other situational stress they all add up to a significant trauma in the strict sense of that word. Recovering from such an event is never a return to how things were before, everything is different in some way.
It is expecting far too much of individuals and teams to simply treat the past year plus as a simple aberration and to just return. Most of us have already heard about or felt the pushback from back to the office orders, even in the face of improvements in productivity. To be sure it seems equal numbers of people miss elements of being at the office. There’s no doubt many bosses and executives miss the oversight that comes from an office environment, and it is fair to say the agenda for back to work is being driven from the top. But does that treat the changes and adjustments made as more temporary than they were? Importantly, does it afford a chance for the reset that is required to go back? It does not.
In the workplace, the biggest change has been the move of technology from a supporting role to a central role. It isn’t just that messaging became more important or that video meetings began to work, but that people quickly realized these can actually be superior. The next step is to take these tactical lessons and apply them more broadly to how a company is structured and operates.
In the coming months, many will claim to offer the best solution to managing the tension between returning to the old normal and adopting some new approaches to appease those wanting more. Some corporations will work hard to snap back to the pre-pandemic world as quickly as they can. Some will stridently try to find a compromise approach, the hybrid work environment or dual headquarters and so on. In great numbers, startups and newer companies have all been adopting far more aggressive approaches to the future, with fully distributed teams. These are not solutions but tactics. One does not recover from a significant trauma by making one change or one compromise.
While the near-term efforts on specific tactics are required, I want to take a much longer-term view of how work and corporations will change. I would be a charlatan to claim what follows as a strategy or worse and operational guide. At the same time, the lessons of disruption should influence us. Responding to a giant shock or significant new insight by finding a specific tactic or making one change on the side has proven to be the recipe for being disrupted, not taking advantage of disruption. Seeing the big picture and developing a new world view is how one needs to consider what is going to happen. The one thing we know is that those that believe things will return to normal except maybe for that one thing, or that we’ll do what we always did just with this one extra step, will be the ones that are ultimately disrupted. That’s how it always happens. That’s the lesson.
Some experienced an almost skeuomorphic approach to work by using video calls to emulate staff meetings, or continuing weekly meetings as though they remained productive, and so on. As the months passed, the effectiveness of these waned as did their use. It is these experiences that tell us maybe it wasn’t that those tools were missed, but that they had long ago outlived their utility. The Corporation was simply on auto pilot.
At the broadest level the next years will be about experiments, but I don’t like that word because it feels very lightweight and ephemeral. There was time when something like “buy a PC for a marketing executive” was the kind of experiment I’m talking about. I don’t literally mean an A/B test, but rather an alternate model of working — something new that is tried with all of the effort and zeal that any existing process would have been applied. The only thing experimental about it is that many different companies will be trying many different approaches all at once. Over time as people move between companies, and as companies rise and fall, a new set of norms and practices will be established. These will never be as prescriptive as some would like them to be — business and management are social sciences and for every solution there is an abundance of context that makes all the difference.
Since the easiest way to predict the future is to invent it, I want to explore how knowing what we know now can influence corporations by offering a view of how software-defined corporations will be structured and operate. We will look at this from the perspective of the entire company (the CEO view), the team view (the manager), and the individual (the me-centric view). These are the experiments that are taking place and need to take place that will get us to a new model.
Company — The End of the Corporate Waterfall
As companies rose from the War, the biggest operational change was to centralize and strategize. The lessons from the War applied to companies was to define the opposition, develop a strategy, build a plan, and execute. This entire model came to define a waterfall approach — the centralized campaign. If you’re thinking of the cover of Tufte’s book and the illustration of Napoleon’s march, then you’ve basically captured the entire strategic planning and operational process of the most successful modern Corporations.
Centralization is the optimal method to execute a known plan at scale. It requires the IQ in one place and puts that IQ to work to develop the plans, contingencies, and exception-handling tools from a group of experts. The branches or tentacles of the organization execute these plans, reporting back the results to be analyzed at the corporate level. Over the course of a fiscal year, plans are developed, rolled back out to the organization, and execution renews. Over years the process became more iterative and incorporated input from the broader organization, but no matter how much feedback or distribution of effort went on, the whole of the company was governed by this cycle or workflow. That’s the waterfall of the modern Corporation.
This is why innovation in large companies is so difficult — no matter what the innovation, it is captured by the waterfall approach of the larger entity of the corporation itself.
Then since the internet rose, we’ve seen a gradual but clear attempt to “empower” parts of a company to “do the right thing” to “innovate” or to “grow”. As necessary and well-intentioned as all of those were, those and their ilk were all gummed up by the very structure and definition of a well-run company. The waterfall process of budgets, strategy, positioning, pricing, selling, and more surrounded every attempt to break out. This is now well-known and almost tired, and by that, I mean people are exhausted. Everyone has seen empowered teams get crushed, startups within big companies come and go, or breakout efforts simply absorbed and forgotten. We know the problems all too well. This is why innovation in large companies is so difficult — no matter what the innovation, it is captured by the waterfall approach of the larger entity of the corporation itself.
The inability to sit in a room for hours on end and “hash out” a strategy while still needing to execute has shown that in fact strategy, for lack of a better word, can arise absent any strong centralized approach. Company after company just figured out what to do and delivered. Line people created new ways to work with customers. Video, email, messaging solutions to everything just appeared. Whole new offerings and approaches materialized and were lauded by executives wondering how this happened. Necessity has proven this can work. The next step is to operationalize it.
This wholesale reinvention of what it means for a company to operate strategically is the cornerstone of what startups already do. That’s why when a startup wins it so often does at the expense of an incumbent. Seeing incumbents able to demonstrate the flexibility and agility of startups needs to be a key lesson of this past year, and scaling that up and making it truly routine is the defining change.
There are three elements to the transformation.
New Product Development instead of Strategy. First and foremost, no one ever won by a better strategy — strategy is the narrative that comes after the thousands of choices made by whole companies leading to a win. Winners win because of the best product (and by product, I mean best iteration of the marketing mix, not just the technology or features, but the product, price, place, and promotion). Companies have operated as though they get one shot, and every product is a moon landing. Startups do not operate this way. They operate as though getting one good thing done is all that matters and is existential. The most important thing an organization can do is bring new things to market. New things will beat a strategy every day.
But there’s a catch, new things do not mean more stuff added to an existing product, or a line extension, or a rebranding. As important as those are, they reflect the old mindset of the long, drawn-out campaign, the mastermind plan that out-flanks a competitor fighting the same type of battle. What we have just learned is that the companies that were in the game meeting customer needs in new and identifiable ways turned trauma into opportunity. The way customers understood that something was new was not that it was the eighth supporting bullet point but rather it was the thing people needed. The myriad of new apps and tools that made a name during the pandemic demonstrated time and again that bringing new things to market works.
New products need to stand on their own and receive the attention of the full company, not buried in sustaining the existing product. We’ve learned that the biggest risk to a product is not failure to deliver more value, but failure to deliver new value and customers look for new value from new products. New products that solve new problems can be readily identified and acquired, unlike new features that are lost and buried. New products mean new revenue and business, and isn’t that ultimately the goal?
Companies have historically looked for new “billion-dollar opportunities” which gave rise to “billion-dollar strategies” and “investments”. Yet repeatedly the lesson is that the next billion-dollar product seems to come from out of the blue, and specifically isn’t attached to or bundled with something that already exists. Incumbents are fond of pointing out that “billion-dollar businesses are not made up of one hundred $10 million dollar businesses”. The reality is that the next billion-dollar business is already a $10 million dollar one, so start building it and treat it like it is the next big opportunity rather than trying to strategize a product that is a billion dollars out of the gate.
Built for the market instead of built to last. The product development corollary to strategy is to plan, architect, and engineer a product assuming it will outlast everyone on the team building it. This made sense when most every effort involved building a permanent factory line dedicated to a single product or even creating software when software was custom crafted from scratch.
No one in a successful company was ever fired for failing to think long term, and conversely too many are criticized for thinking short term. This is a remnant of the Napoleonic campaign mindset of business. Ask yourself how many 5-year strategic plans ever made sense even a year from now? If you’re being serious, ask yourself if the exercise of creating the plan really made you change your near-term execution so you could better align against some North Star. Nonsense.
What we have learned is twofold. First, the modern world has enormous flexibility in how things can be made — and for sure the pandemic has taught us many lessons about what is robust and what is fragile — but we have seen companies switch from building sneakers to building masks, from in-store to delivery, or even full online delivery of services.
All of these offerings, almost all of them powered by or predominantly software, were created in the course of weeks or months. Some will go away; others will last much longer than they needed. What we learned though is that when you build things to get into the market, everyone wins. And even better, the company keeps moving forward to the future.
Every startup knows the lesson of building a product for the market, iterating, and learning. Some call this building in public, which is a great term that encompasses the idea of building a product and learning, and providing improvements, and adjustments along the way. I just hesitate to use that because it can also mean turning building into a reality show of “listening” to customers, “A/B testing” the obvious, or self-congratulatory posts and popups for every minor change. Building in public is best used as a way of getting into market versus thinking about getting into market because we know a big company can easily market test a potential new product out of potential existence.
Yet we have been treating software like it was the equivalent of building a purpose-built factory.
Every software person knows that no software lasts forever and the software that does end up lasting a long time is a surprise. Taking a long time to build a product or analyzing the potential unknowns of a product have all been proven futile. No one knew how things would work, but everyone knew they needed to do something.
Yet we have been treating software like it was the equivalent of building a purpose-built factory. The application of APIs, no-code tools, machine learning models, and data-driven software development have shown that entire new products can be built in short order, put into the market, and grow to be successful in their own right.
Books such as the wonderful Lean Startup or manifestos such as Agile, along with the history of the web browser “internet time” era all seemed to break those efforts, but they really didn’t entirely, particularly in-house efforts and back-office operational software. On the one hand everything is mission critical, yet on the other hand tools and techniques have evolved tremendously over the past decade. Continuous Integration is now not just viable but very much the generally accepted way to build software. There will no doubt be efforts to label some new development methodology as the one most closely associated with what we’re doing differently now, but in reality, the foundation has been laid which is a public cloud and APIs.
The cloud revolution is well-understood and a huge amount of the agility that came from the pandemic was the ability to spin up and scale applications on the cloud. Companies that thought they could scale their own DCs easier soon hit the challenges of the supply chain shock and moved to the public cloud out of necessity. The other key innovation was the use of APIs. Once viewed with skepticism as a form of “outsourcing”, companies found themselves in a situation where they could use a third-party API or simply fail, and like that from text messaging, to payments, even to audio/video, adding capabilities by using consumption-based APIs became the norm (and a huge opportunity for new companies). And in the blink of an eye, the idea of a major corporation providing a consumer or customer-facing experience that used third-party APIs became normal — no team with domain-specific problems to solve built their own mapping, SMS gateway, ETL, payment infrastructure, or code telemetry systems (or a dozen others) in the crush to get pandemic-required innovations to market. There’s no reason for this to stop now and it will remain a key part of building for the market versus thinking about building for perpetuity.
Think of all the interesting software that just appeared over the past year. These were not just pure play software products but essential elements of how every business operated. It was software that defined so much of the business response to the pandemic. There’s no reason to go back to an old way of building software. The new way works.
This is not about thinking short-term, but a recognition that knowing the future isn’t possible. No amount of time in a conference room will make the future clearer than actually making the future.
Human resource allocation instead of budgets. If a company knows it needs to develop new products and it needs to get them to market, then why does it spend so much time strategizing about building a long-term investment accompanied by endless consternation over whether and how to possibly move forward? What the company needs is a new way to allocate resources to get that done. That is precisely how most every company hit a wall in the past.
The lesson is that companies should no longer fear the idea of actually giving people the resources to get something new done. The pandemic proved that companies have the resources when they need them.
The pandemic has shown that when people have resources and know a problem to solve, they make the best decisions at the time and get things done. The lesson is that companies should no longer fear the idea of actually giving people the resources to get something new done. The pandemic proved that companies have the resources when they need them.
Corporations have struggled with this for decades. They want to test the waters or do things a little bit and see how it might fly with customers. Or they want to build it, but they are worried about how it overlaps or conflicts with existing sales or GTM motions so something new dies on the vine. These and a myriad of other reasons are why there has rarely been a successful startup mentality in mature companies.
There’s an easy way to solve for this and it is rooted in the idea that the next successful business will look “small” or “insignificant” compared to something successful that already exists in a company. The answer is to give the team the resources to be successful and not worry about the implications…of success! Instead of focusing on the budgets (or costs) provide the resources to get the job done. The budget is simply the cost side, whereas the resources to get the job done mean the authority organizationally, the resources across functions and geography, and the people.
The ultimate resource are the makers (engineers, manufacturers, etc.) or the sellers (be that enterprise customers, subscriptions, ads, etc.) — in any effort if you know how many makers or how many sellers then you know where the work is getting done. Financial budgets and even operating expenses are a great tool for CFOs but they obscure what work is actually happening by conflating all sorts of other costs with those that actually do work. Only when you’re managing resource allocations will you know what a company is doing.
Every pandemic innovation we saw bypassed all the normal rules of strategic fit or alignment and no one was told to go after a solution only to have it halted at the starting line. While it felt like throwing caution to the wind, what we learned again was that given resources to get the full job done, good things can happen.
Team — The End of Endless Alignment
Any team that scaled beyond a single product can readily attest to the never-ending effort that goes into alignment or collaboration. At some level this is critical as it enables a larger effort to amplify the efforts of a smaller team. But by and large, most alignment is because of the ability of a company to have strategic effort that constantly asks about alignment. That’s because lack of alignment means there is redundancy and wasted effort.
Again, no one was asking about alignment in the urgency to get things done over the past year. I am certain there were those concerned and those that could identify overlap in efforts or inefficiencies, but once again we collectively demonstrated that getting to market and solving problems proved more valuable than the Quixotic quest for alignment.
More often than not, most problems solved by pre-ship alignment were not problems at all. The ability to create these role-playing or scenario-based problems is a key, and dated, characteristic of the heavy-handed approach to team management.
Alignment is rooted in the “factory building” mindset of product development. Today if there is some overlap in software or a customer has two paths into a company, the complexities can just as easily be addressed with software as they can be created, but action only needs to be taken if actual real-world problems manifest themselves. More often than not, most problems solved by pre-ship alignment were not problems at all. The ability to create these role-playing or scenario-based problems is a key, and dated, characteristic of the heavy-handed approach to team management.
If you’re a “middle manager” in any company with more than one product or GTM there is a good chance you spend more time figuring out the mechanics of boundaries and fitting work in than planning work, at least in the past. Yet your primary competitor is most likely a new category or up and coming company/offering that spends little time on these problems. Conventional wisdom is that scale and footprint were the best way to win versus such a competitor, yet time and again incumbents found themselves out-maneuvered by the offering unencumbered by alignment or lines on a corporate map invisible to them. The old adage of the best way to compete is to develop a product that lands between two executives at an incumbent continues to be true, that is until the pandemic when breaking those sacrosanct rules within a company showed that getting to market was a perfectly viable strategy.
As a middle manager there are three aspects to battling alignment that I believe will be associated with future corporate structures.
Creative alignment instead of puzzle pieces. The typical effort in a company has been to view teams across a division and then a company as elaborate puzzle pieces. Optimizing each one so there is as little space between them as possible while optimizing them for perfect fit. (I chose puzzle pieces on purpose since that has been a symbol for Microsoft Office for decades). Every team is chartered with their piece, and each must deliver without impeding other pieces. Beyond that, pieces are often connected — as if by magical strings — such that they also must contribute to other pieces.
This is precisely how every company evolves as it adds additional products, serves new customer segments, or adds new offerings. There is a constant struggle to add more without overlap or gaps and inconsistencies.
The problem with all of this is that it can only work for a point in time, and usually that is the point before any product is released. Managers are forced to work out the answers to all these hypotheticals before anything deleterious takes place. Too often, teams feel constrained and unable to solve the problem at hand because they simply can’t find a path to get a product made that doesn’t invade some other team’s space. If other product teams aren’t the problem, then getting alignment with other aspects of the marketing mix is the source of misalignment (such as price points, branding, etc.)
The fear of misalignment is so great that often executives would rather get nothing done than risk the existing business with a “confusing” or “complex” market message. This is all well and good until a competitor just confuses the market for them with a product making entirely different assumptions about the size and shape of puzzle pieces.
Simply left to execute, it is almost certain that every team in a larger organization will converge and build the same thing but executed differently. Innovation is not doing the same thing everyone else is doing, just in the code base or web page you manage or control.
The answer to this is not as simple as allowing autonomy. Like so many of the approaches outlined in this piece, the simple answer is too simple. There is always a layer of intent or context that must be incorporated. In this case, the focus of managers needs to be on the creative aspects of what is getting done. Being isolated and given permission to execute is not sufficient. Management must uphold its part of the bargain by providing truly creative market solutions.
There’s an old internet adage (meme?), Zawinski’s Law, that says roughly every program eventually expands to become an email client. Today that would probably be rephrased as a messaging client, or a video client, or something (there were other eras where these were word processors, HTML browsers, or photo sharing tools). Simply left to execute, it is almost certain that every team in a larger organization will converge and build the same thing but executed differently. Innovation is not doing the same thing everyone else is doing, just in the code base or web page you manage or control.
That’s where creativity is part of the equation, but beyond creativity it requires managers to be doing the work to understand what their team can uniquely contribute and why. Simply jumping on the latest technology or cloning the hot app is not helpful to the larger organization or any mission. As a manager your role is to not just identify something to build but to articulate how what is built is a contribution that your team can uniquely make.
Holistic solutions instead of features. The easiest thing for a manager to do is add more to what is already in the market and working. Customers can always let you know things they would like tweaked or made easier, customer success is a never-ending feed of features that can be incrementally improved. By and large new features are the easiest to justify under the moniker of keeping customers happy. SaaS has made this even more central to the manager mindset — “we must continue to show value for subscribers”.
This is another myth that the pandemic busted. While customers expect products to get better, they don’t expect or need them to get better continuously in small ways, especially if those small ways change or interrupt existing flows. In fact, you can often see the symbol of this challenge in the popups at sign-on or that we wake up to alert us when we least want to be alerted to new features. No one needs or benefits from this. This is particularly true for business software where almost never is a person in the mode of wanting to have new features pushed at them.
Customers want products to get better in obvious and visible ways. What we saw during the past year with the rise of whole new products to the center of our work was that customers will readily adopt new products if these products solve whole new problems. The benefit of a new entrant — a new product — is that it can effectively rise above the noise of existing products to announce, “we solve this problem”. This is often a huge frustration to incumbents who feel like they solved a problem technically but need more marketing, while the marketing team is worried about losing focus or spreading spend too thin, and sales is focused on selling some bigger strategic picture. The details of incremental features added to incumbent products are lost to new products, and rarely in today’s SaaS world does an incumbent simply add some features that prevent a new category from blossoming.
The brave manager is the one that steps forward and says, “you know, adding more features to this product won’t get us any new customers and the way we sell our product means no one will notice what we’re doing”. Managers should embrace this mindset and find ways to use the resources they have been allocated to deliver new value to the market that solves problems in a holistic and acquirable way. When managers do this and when companies realize from the top down that the company is aligned around delivering new products to market, allocating resources, and building new things that trump the idea of a master plan then we can routinely see the kind of progress so many companies made during the past year.
Management instead of accounting. Managers have been dreadfully worried about measuring performance of employees during this time. The classic Andy Grove model (one which I practiced relentlessly) of management by walking around was a non-solution in this new era of remote and video conferencing. I recall early on, Aaron Levie at Box tweeted a request for a Zoom feature that let the CEO pop their head into any Zoom the company was having just to see what was going on and what they could unblock. Alas, no such feature exists, and managers had to adapt.
And they did adapt. Strong managers looked for ways to hold people accountable to the actual work that needs to be done, rather than the ancillary metrics of work such as commits or salesforce records. No one knew early on what normal metrics would look like, so teams began to look at different ways to understand what was going on. By and large the focus turned to a much more understandable view of progress — is our product getting done or what are we selling. From that, managers began to back into new metrics and new ways of managing.
Importantly, the best managers avoided the trap of using easily gathered telemetry to manage the team, such as presence on video in lieu of hours in the office.
At the same time, so many companies were faced with employees hired during the pandemic who never saw the office and never met their teams in person. Some companies are easily more than half or even entirely new in that regard. With distributed hires, most companies will take a long time before the in-person meeting happens. Managers have become, out of necessity, incredibly creative at on-boarding, training, and mentoring. Employees have become incredibly resourceful when it comes to learning how to contribute and what it means to do the right thing.
This is not about having a giant handbook of culture or about reaching out many times per day, but rather it is about managers spending the time they otherwise would have spent ad hoc or in small slices to bring employees up to speed to contribute. The burden to managers has become even higher to do the right thing. At the same time, the biggest lesson is that all that effort to simply track what employees are doing has proven less than useful. The time spent helping employees to do the right work is a far better use of management than to be monitoring what employees are actually doing at any given time. Sure, smart and talented managers knew this, but no one would say that was the norm.
This is even more critical when it comes to bringing the team together. Most every meeting and offsite used to be about hashing out the details, assigning work, following up on work. We have learned that much of this can be automated. We learned that the social and connected side — the trust building — that teams require is the hardest to put in place. That’s why in a new operating model managers will optimize meetings and offsites for building trust and understanding across the team, rather than spending time on mechanics. The isolation of the pandemic showed that it is entirely possible to replicate the mechanical side of meetings using the software tools readily available.
Each of these manager actions is ripe for gaming or even abuse, intentional or not — the ability to substitute activity for progress is a classic problem that no new model can make go away. The truth of the past 50 years of management is that most companies are only as strong as the role of middle management. Middle management can respond, and equally important execute and respond positively, to the activities of above without really seeing minute progress. Managers can simply relabel work or account for efforts differently in an effort to gain credit in the new currency. There’s little I can write here to prevent this from happening other than to ask yourself as a manager if you’re embracing the new role of management or simply trying to show motions that look that way.
Individual — The End of “The Company Man”
In most companies, less than one third of employees are managers yet almost all of the energy and discussion goes to topics about management. The real heroes of the pandemic have been the individuals who in unbelievably difficult circumstances figured out new solutions to problems with little or no oversight because everyone was overwhelmed.
There’s a franchise near me that I go to often for breakfast. They don’t have a drive through and had to figure out contactless early on. The real problem for them was that their drinks were all self-service, and they had no facilities for takeout drinks. I happened to be at Costco, masked up with a face shield and gloves, and recognized an employee from that store. He was in the beverage aisle buying beverages by the case. Through his muffled mask, he told me that he was tired of telling customers they had no beverages and was bringing these in on his own because the owner of the franchise was still waiting to hear from Corporate about how to handle the beverage issue. Time and again this type of thinking just happened, and even though the franchise has very strict rules about products, they did what needed to get done. All is well.
Still, the most common refrain right now is that so many people are re-evaluating their own goals and approaches to work. Every founder/CEO and every executive are seeing historically high levels of attrition across all types of employees. The pandemic has been a traumatic experience and people are looking carefully at what they do next, including where they live, how much they commute, and frankly how much they will put up with.
This is completely the opposite of the investment employees made in the 50 years after the War that created corporations. That era was the birth of the “Company Man” (using man on purpose of course). Coming back from the War, perhaps after government funded education, new employees were looking for a job for life. They scored one and that was that.
While geography was a big part of that, there was also a different view of institutions and even the pace of innovation made being a company person a realistic view. Opportunities within a given geography were limited and people were mostly focused on moving from cities to suburbs rather than across the country.
It is too easy to say that the new model is one where individual employee are some sort of mercenaries or hired hands. Certainly, the worst case will be for managers or corporations as a whole to have that assumption of employees. While the company person might have mostly ended with the advent of the internet and the vast increase of knowledge and awareness of what is going on beyond the corporation, it is still fair to assume good faith actions on the part of employees so long as the management team is upholding their part of a reasonable bargain.
There are many unanswered questions about careers and being an employee. How do promotions work? What is a career path? How does one move to new roles? What does an interview look like and what constitutes a professional resume? In fact, most everything about being an employee will need to be revisited. The most experiments I know of are already happening here — from on-boarding to morale events, to sharing culture, to socializing, and more. Why did this happen? Because the individuals in a company operated as peers and figured out how to help each other in a digitally native way — the necessity, particularly of recent college graduates in their first jobs, provided the seeds of innovation.
That said, there are three areas where there will be a clear difference between being a company person and adapting to a new model. These go beyond the basics of work from home or remote and get to the heart of the “deal” between an individual and a company. These are skills to improve or develop as an employee as work changes.
Define outputs instead of expecting them. One of the first things I heard (too) often at the pandemic start was that remote work will be great, then my manager can just tell me what to do and I will do it. This might work for a short time, but overall is a fairly passive-aggressive way to operate as it puts the burden of success on your manager and provides an escape path for employees if things do not go as planned. At the same time this was going on, there were huge numbers of people just doing stuff — and announcing to teams via messaging or zoom “this is what we’re going to get done”.
The idea of looking at the entire space and deciding what you can contribute and how, and in essence announcing this to the team for feedback, is going to become a key skill. This is not the same as just doing whatever you want. Rather this is about individuals being much more engaged in figuring out what teams do and not surrendering to the “just tell me what to do”.
Many might regard this as simply a good management practice in general, and it is. It is what we tried to practice for years on the teams I worked with. It is, however, increasingly important that this be a core part of how every team comes together now. The distributed nature of a team means the ability to have a line-of-sight view to what everyone is doing is based on a foundation of everyone actually communicating, with clarity, what they are doing.
In the old corporate model, there was always a constant battle of “cookie licking” and “over-promising” that dominated how people worked. That was a way of marking territory, acquiring resources, or simply looking like a hero. As awful as these were, they were always able to be corrected because the pace of work, the waterfall process, and the endless cycle of managing up could result in course corrections. And so long as people were company people, being course corrected or having a project cancelled was just part of the deal.
This is why developing the skills to articulate what you’re building (again, not literally code but any aspect of the marketing mix) and holding yourself accountable for delivering that are key parts of remote work.
Build a network instead of joining one. One of the more amazing things that developed over the past year has been the networks of new employees at companies. These came about not necessarily by some programmatic actions by the company but by employees navigating the company themselves. The ability to use text-based tools and communicate asynchronously made it possible for the first time for introverts, shy people, English as a second language, and more to be on equal footing with the outgoing person not shy about asking coworkers for coffee to “pick their brain”. How many people have made meaningful professional connections via Twitter, sometimes even people within the same company?
Regardless of how remote an employee was, everyone was on equal footing this past year, especially as new employees to an organization. This new skill of navigating companies by online resources made figuring out a company something open to more people than ever before. Of course, being shy or feeling it inappropriate to impose remain challenges for some, but this opportunity is new and is something every company and individual can begin to tap into.
Companies run by the informal networks of employees. Yet most people have experienced the difficulty of breaking into a company when the interactions all required in-person meetings. The past year has shown that there are other ways of doing this. Just as companies evolved from the Mad Men era, we’re seeing new ways that digitally native employees will build networks.
While in an ideal world some would prefer just to be told who to interact with and when, that has never been realistic. The benefit now is in building your network, this network is tuned to the work you need to do. The way I think of this is that remote work can de-emphasize the physical org chart and lets everyone focus on the logical org chart, which is the first lesson everyone learned when joining a company anyway.
Make instead of criticize. Perhaps the most difficult legacy of the mechanics of strategy and waterfall has been the way that companies got so very good at saying “no” to everything. This did come from some good reasons like every company has finite resources. But by and large this came about because of org charts, territory, and above all the need for sticking to a strategic plan.
This idea of a technical buzzsaw, as we used to call it a Microsoft, was the ability to knock off any idea as not being strategic or not fitting within a set framework for products. I know because I was an expert at doing this.
I also knew that in the end, if you got something done then it didn’t really matter what the buzzsaw argument was. In many ways the pandemic experience has been proof of two things. First, getting something done really really matters in an existential way. Second, being a critic is really a luxury that companies have, and the crisis proved that it wasn’t particularly useful to have around.
It is easy to interpret this going forward as the classic maxim of do something and ask for permission later, but that is not the key point. The real point as an individual is to just spend your energy on making things, not being critical. Making can take on many forms, from writing, to synthesizing, to analysis, to code. Simply using energy to be critical of alternatives proposed by others has proven less than helpful.
In many ways, and why this point is the final one in this essay, is that a big part of the reason that technology was so critical to helping us through the pandemic was the ever-present optimism of technologists and makers. There’s this innate idea that doing something will help more than just criticizing the work of others or that trying to solve the problem will do more good than simply explaining how bad the problem is.
In that optimism is perhaps the best advice for contributing going forward, bring your optimism and bring your solution.
Time to Change A Lot
There’s no doubt that the experience of the past year plus will lead to structural changes in how companies are created and operated. While many changes made in haste or under incredibly difficult circumstances were less than ideal, the overall direction proved overwhelmingly positive. There’s been more successful execution, more innovation, more experimentation, and more new ways of operating than we have seen in a very long time.
It will be tempting for some to continue to believe we will return to the old normal and operate as we once did.
It will be tempting for others to search for a few changes and make those permanent and hope the rest will go back to normal.
Still others will firmly believe that some approach that picks the best changes and just adds them to what was going on will be the path to the future.
If these patterns sound familiar it is because they are the patterns of a failed response to a disruptive change. The idea that everything stays the same except for a few changes around the edges caused every incumbent to lose in the face of step-function change. The ideas in this essay might not be the best experiments to run and the suggestions might even sound ridiculous, but whatever you do next make sure to change a lot because employees, customers, and shareholders are all changing.
We’re emerging from a generation-defining event and there’s every reason to think in the years to come that the reinvention of work and what it means to be a corporation will change as much going forward as those did in the period following the return from the War.