Asking the right questions to secure your work future

by Connie Henson, Learning Quest

“You are really not going to like it,’ observed Deep Thought.

‘Tell us!’

‘Alright’, said Deep Thought….

‘Forty-two,’ said Deep thought, with infinite majesty and calm…

Forty-two!  Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?…

I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”

― Douglas Adams, The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Leadership has traditionally been about knowing the answers. Likewise, in business, we have rewarded leadership styles that exude calm certainty about what is ‘known’.

However, expectations are changing and similar to our heroes of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, we need to shift the way we think to thrive in a world where we rely on machines for answers.

Computers already have superior memory and vastly better calculation capacity than the human brain. The impact on knowledge workers is – and will continue to be – significant. For example, why do we need:

  • A finance team to crunch numbers and produce a few financial models when a machine can produce a dozen different models in minutes?
  • Doctors to memorise a few hundred diseases and their symptoms when a machine can learn thousands and quickly compare symptoms across any number of circumstances to arrive at an accurate diagnosis?

So, if the human beings’ job is not to know the answers, what is it? Is there a job for us?

One thing we positively need now and in the future is leaders asking questions to deeply understand the challenges, risks, needs and opportunities faced by individuals and businesses. We also need these professionals to understand ‘the answer’ and to work with us to figure out how to apply this knowledge.

If asking – versus telling – seems like a new requirement for you, then consider the many instances where we know the answer but can’t seem to make it work for us. For example, who doesn’t know that eating right and exercising will make us more fit? Or that faster adoption of new technology at work will give us a quicker return on investment (ROI)? Or that we really do have to reduce our emissions for the planet to survive?

The real challenge for leaders and knowledge workers today is helping people make the adaptations that are required to implement the answers.

Asking questions is one way to foster adaptation.

Did you know that neurologically questions are powerful ways to create learning and inspire behavioural change? Asking the right questions helps us overcome resistance to implementing new ways of working and living by prompting us to:

  • Think deeply about our real needs and goals and build the resilience to cope and thrive even as the world shifts
  • Develop the empathy to recognise that people may be unequally impacted by changes and figure out ways to fairly manage the losses associated with making required changes
  • Dig deeper to understand precisely why implementation is hard
  • Work together to creatively find a way through complexity and uncertainty.

The reason that this technique is so powerful is because questions cause us to think and process things more deeply. Answering questions make the insights more personally meaningful and therefore memorable.

So, what is the challenge you are facing right now? Whom do you want to engage to find a way through? What is the question you will ask today?

At this year’s DISRUPT.SYDNEY we ask questions about managing innovation, disruption and change from within. Join us at this year’s conference to hear a diverse range of views and share your own!

Dr Connie Henson is a member of the DDRG and author of BrainWise Leadership. Connie designs change leadership programs informed by the latest neuroscience research through her company Learning Quest. Follow Connie on Linkedin

Want to disrupt the workplace from within? Try breaking the fourth wall

by Natalie Hardwicke on behalf of the team at Ripple Effect Group.

You’ve likely heard of the “fourth wall” concept before. The term is used as a metaphor to describe the invisible or the imagined wall that separates an audience from a performance they are watching. For example, if you were to go to the theatre and watch a rendition of Hamlet, you would be watching actors perform as characters on a stage, telling a story and disclosing a world in which those characters live in. You as an audience member watch the performance through the invisible fourth wall – the veil of illusion that supposedly separates you from the actors, whilst the performances on stage unfold as though the wall does not exist. The actors pretend that their characters are real within the world of that stage, and you the audience are not there watching. In other words, the actors pretend the stage has all four walls up and only the world of the performance exists.

But what about those instances when actors acknowledge your presence as an audience member, or they break character? This is otherwise known as “breaking the fourth wall”. In cinematic speak, it would be when actors accidentally or purposefully talk into the camera lens, or in literary circles, when a narrator stops mid-story to address the reader. This break is seen as an interjection that suspends, temporarily, the illusion of there being a performance taking place – of lifting the veil in which the only boundary that exists between the audience and the stage is the one we imagine as being there.

Imagine, now, this fourth wall concept being applied to a workplace context. For example, employees of an organisation going to work every day and “performing” on their workplace stage. The audience, as the observers of these employee performances, are the internal departments trying to implement digital solutions onto these performers; such as Human Resources, Internal Communication, and the C-Suite team. The people from these areas seek to monitor and observe what it is that employees “do and say” on the workplace stage. However, and much like any staged performance, the story the characters (in this case, the employees) tell is one in which the audience do not control the action. They can only observe and in turn infer meaning, for themselves, of what the story being told is saying to them. Once they have some meaning, they can decide to do something with their newfound knowledge.

Let’s pretend then that you as an audience member are someone working in one of these internal teams. You watch the performance of employees and you notice that some of them are not talking with each other. As a result, you tell the Director and the writer – the people behind such performances – that something needs to change. You suggest that new props be added on stage to help make communication and interaction easier for these employees, such as placing a watercooler in the corner, and even bringing in new characters to help shape a new stage performance. The audience has essentially given feedback for what could make the play “better”, and so the Director decides to hire some “cameo” performers, and buy some new props, to help achieve this end.

Now, in writing this post, I myself need to break the fourth wall and speak to you, the reader. What I have just described to you is how some of our clients, at the Ripple Effect Group, have approached their organisation and our work. They have viewed their organisation from an audience perspective, and believe their employees need to communicate and collaborate better with one another on the workplace stage. The solution our clients have for this is to introduce social networking technology, and we as the consultants specialising in this area, have been hired as the cameo cast to help change employee performances. We are, in theatre speak, there as improvisers – so our ability to engage with employees means their current role, in this particular scene of the organisational story, is still being played as one of employee. They simply will be, from the audience perspective, acting in the role of workshop participant. So, let’s return now as the curtain call has just been made.

We as the cameo consultants enter the stage and begin to interact with the employees. We want to understand their world and the character roles they play on stage, but we also want to hear how each of them perceives the overall story being told. In organisational speak, this would be the company’s vision and its direction. When we start responding and interacting with these employee performances, we begin to realise that employees are already communicating with each other – they’re just not doing it in a way the audience can (or wants to) see. To again break the fourth wall, the employees are using shadow IT. So, what we do as cameo performers, is decide to speak to the audience directly. We yell out to them as they sit observing us, and we ask them why they want to change the stage props when, from our point of view, the story on stage is making a lot of sense.

From the audience perspective, we have just committed the cardinal sin that you’re not meant to make in theatrical performance, and that is to break the fourth wall. The audience, as a result, begin to squirm in their seats. They don’t know if they are supposed to answer us back, or whether they should be demanding a refund at the box office. The story they are now being told is not the story they paid to see – their expectations of character performance are not being met. Not only that, but the observation of us breaking the fourth wall is something the employees on the stage with us also observe. They too begin to break the fourth and act out of character – of behaving outside of the organisational employee role they are expected to be performing. They too begin to say and do things their job description says they cannot say and do, and they too start speaking to the audience directly; all the while the play itself continues to go on. The Director cannot yell “cut” as we are all still on air during the 9-5 performance grind.

What has happened, in such a scenario, is that the audience are having their assumptions and expectations challenged. Their view of reality is being disrupted. Yet, funnily enough, this is exactly what a stage performance is meant to do to its audience – whether the fourth wall is broken or not. Whenever you go to the theatre to watch a play, as an example, the message you are meant to take away is never about the explicit story being told. In other words, what you see and hear in the performances on stage is something that is intended to change you as an audience interpreter. In the organisational scenario, it would be like those internal audience teams realising that the fourth wall does not actually exist, because they too are meant to either be on stage with the employees, or they are backstage supporting the performance.

The idea of employees and consultants breaking the fourth wall – of challenging how organisations shape and interpret their own story – is a key idea that will be explored at the DISRUPT.SYDNEY conference. Come and join our workshop on “Saying what is not said: using personas to convey meaning rather than achieve a technological end

Welcome to your Cubicle, Prisoner 10997

by Simon Terry

Our organisations learn how to manage human behaviour to productive ends from many aspects of society. The history of management shows many examples where it has borrowed from coercive human relationships, such as the organisational structures of military, the practices of slavery or the corrections system, because of the shared themes of control and coping with the complexities of human relationships at scale. If we are to create workplaces that have the necessary degrees of freedom to enable people to address the complex challenges of digital networks and realise their human potential, we need to be aware of these influences and to challenge control for its own sake.

This post examines an example of how the influence runs in both directions.  The tide in the business press is running against the supposed productivity of open plan offices. At the same time we welcome an open plan prison.

Your Cubicle For Life

If anyone doubted the parallels between the modern office environment and a security state, the NSW Government just opened a new high security prison in Cessnock in the Hunter Valley. The facility has 400 beds in dormitory pods. The radical innovation of the new facility, which has been borrowed from Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, is that it has done away with cell walls and with privacy. Anyone will recognise the formats of those pods as cubicle arrays in an open plan office.

abc cubicle
(Photo Credit: ABC News)

As with any open plan office, the facility has no privacy and a focus on monitoring of behaviour.

Correctional officers monitor inmates around the clock from first-floor corridors overlooking the pods and with infra-red cameras for night monitoring; and Immediate Action Team officers are stationed within the facility to provide a 24/7 response to critical incidents.” – Cessnock Advertiser

A key focus of the new facility is to use the new openness and flexible spaces to foster interaction and relationships between inmates.  Instead of sensory deprivation, the inmates will now need to deal with an excess of human interaction.

“For many that is culture change. The previous thinking has been minimal interaction with inmates.” – Newcastle Herald

The pitch is not that different from co-working giant, WeWork’s own residential facilities, WeLive. Of course, WeLive facilities have a scheme that includes colours other than grey.

“From mailrooms and laundry rooms that double as bars and event spaces to communal kitchens, roof decks, and hot tubs, WeLive challenges traditional apartment living through physical spaces that foster meaningful relationships. Life is better when we are part of something greater than ourselves. Whether short term or long term, WeLive has flexible options designed to meet your needs.”

And so the lines between those space concepts blur.

In any case, employee engagement is the focus of the modern office. Productive use of time will be carefully managed in this new open plan environment.  Employees will be guaranteed 5 hours of productive work, which is more than most open plan environments:

“The inmates’ days have been carefully structured in a way that focuses on intense participation and access to education, employment, programs and activities.” – Cessnock Advertiser

Recruitment processes for this new office will also be intensive to ensure an appropriate cultural fit and to sustain the desired levels of engagement in a vibrant collaborative culture. Like any good employee fit process, those who fail the test are subject to exile but we won’t discuss where.

“Mr Severin said inmates will be carefully screened – and if they don’t fit the profile, will be placed elsewhere.” – Cessnock Advertiser

So, the real rationale for the new office appears to be its low cost and rapid construction. Never let real human relationships interfere with a low cost property strategy, right?

It is only a matter of time before the innovations in Cessnock cross back into our living and working. Expect to see technology giants leading the way removing flexible working, requiring their employees to use their working for greater productivity and to restore human relationships.

Is it such a distant step to living facilities in a subtle elegant shade of metallic grey? Or to WeWork’s laundry room bars? We will just need to remember that privacy terms and conditions apply and this lifestyle will be available only to approved applicants.

Simon Terry will be speaking at DISRUPT.SYDNEY 2018 to elaborate on these themes in his talk “If your company was a country, would you live there?

 

Is “deciphering deception” the talent skill of the future?

By Sharna Wiblen, The University of Wollongong

This year’s DISRUPT.SYDNEY includes the Australian launch of Digital Mike – a real-time rendered photo-realistic avatar, and in light of my interest in the intersection between talent management and technology, I’m both excited and apprehensive about the role of avatars in the future of work. Numerous questions, queries, concerns and comments arise upon critical reflection of all of the talk about avatars and the implications of these technological innovations for talent management, and more specifically, the skills and capabilities valued in the talent of the future.

Talent management, from a foundational perspective, is a judgement-orientated activity where humans make judgments about other humans. While personal views of “talent” influence strategies, policies and processes, so to do technological innovations. The influence of technological advances on our understanding of the skills and capabilities deemed valuable within operational and strategic contexts is not a new phenomenon. The transition away from proprietary systems to human resource and talent management modules of larger vendor designed enterprise systems led to the reshaping of organisation’s understanding of talent skills whereby technical, rather than contextual, knowledge increased in value.

We have witnessed significant changes in how organisations attract talent since the advent of LinkedIn and are now appreciating the importance of digital footprints and online reputations (https://thesocialindex.com/). Consequently, there is greater value attributed to skills associated with marketing and personal branding. Transitions to digital workplaces enhance the imperative need for talent with requisite digital and social skills because digital disruption not only influences where and when we work but also the skills required.

Westworld, the TV series,  incited personal and professional reflection about “who” and “what” is talent within the show’s context. Which skill set is more valuable and therefore imperative for talent? Is it the individual’s that “turn on” and/or “fix” the android hosts or those individual’s that possess the skills to shut down and “turn off” the hosts when they go rogue?

While the embodied cognitive agents shown in Westworld are pre-programmed, and “guests” are (largely) aware of their technical status, what if avatars advance to where we are unable to tell the difference between what is real and what is fake?

Digital Mike affords a glimpse into the future, where such judgments about reality may blur.  While I am amazed and impressed by the avatar demonstrated in Digital Mike’s invitation to DISRUPT.SYDNEY, I also start to ponder the extent to which society can accurately distinguish, in real-time, whether the face they see is real or an individual’s avatar.

And this invokes numerous (exciting and daunting) questions about the intersection between this technological innovation and talent management: Will organisations value individuals who create real-time, life-like, computer generated avatars? Will organisations of the future be searching for talent that are to recognise what’s real and what’s fake? Will the ability to decipher deception, such as the use of undeclared real-time and life-like avatars, be a key talent of the future?

Lastly, can we imagine a future where we pronounce that “It’s not what you know – but whether you know that who you know is fake or real?”

If you’re similarly intrigued by technological innovations, sources of disruption, and the changing face of talent management, then join us on Friday 22nd September 2017 in Sydney.

Dr Sharna Wiblen, a foundation DDRG member, researches and advises on the intersection between talent management and technology. Follow Sharna on Twitter: @SharnaWiblen

Reimagining the Digital Workplace

by Natalie Hardwicke

Imagine you want to open the best research and education institution in your city, such as a University. You’ve noticed that existing learning environments do not cater for teacher or student needs in the digital age. As a result, you decide to design and build the most innovative of all office and teaching spaces; one that promotes collaboration using the latest in digital innovation and teaching technology. You outsource to various vendors who will build the institution and its IT infrastructure on your behalf, whilst you get busy hiring academic and non-academic staff and advertise to potential students. Once everything has been built – the faculty offices, lounges, lecture theatres, tutorial rooms, eating locations and learning spaces – you officially ‘open’ the doors to your new facility.

You start enrolling students and the academic faculty start designing courses. At the start of semester, you sit in your office and look down at the institution you have created. You see the students coming and going but soon enough, you start to notice something. The students do not seem to be using the multimillion-dollar collaboration space you built especially for them. Instead, they’re working out of the café across the road. You also notice that your academic staff travel frequently for the partnered research projects they have with industry sponsors, causing you to worry that your school’s knowledge is running out the door free of charge. You see the arts students working at different hours to the business school students, and even though your facilities offer the latest in Apple products, everyone seems to be bringing their own devices. Overall, you realise that the students and teachers are not using your facilities ‘as intended’, so you talk to your administration to discuss what you can do to ‘fix’ this issue. Perhaps you need to train people for how and why to use your facilities, or maybe even introduce a policy in an attempt to get people to use the facilities in specific ways.

What has essentially happened in this scenario is that technically, and theoretically, you achieved your vision of creating the best teaching and learning environment in the city. Strategically and pragmatically, however, you have failed. In your desire to create something you saw as valuable, you forgot one main ingredient: the people. It is the social and cultural aspects of your institution, not merely its technological environment, for which your vision would ultimately derive its meaning. The technology itself – whether digital or material based – was never going to dictate how and why people worked. As stated by the philosopher Alan Watts:

There is a ‘constant’ called the University in which nothing stays put: students, faculty, administrators, and even buildings come and go, leaving the university itself only as a continuing process, a pattern of behaviour.

Both technology and people change alongside one another, so to favour one element, the technology, is to disregard the other element that both creates and consumes the first. The University analogy is the same for the Digital Workplace in which we expect IT to be used in a specific way which means we often forget to ask basic questions such as ‘How do people use technology?’ or ‘Where does technology come from?’ We can use a self-driving car as an example to illustrate this point. Someone has to program the car to decide whether or not in an accident the car saves the life of the person on the street or the lives of the people inside the car. It is not technology determining this moral dilemma, it is the programmer of the car itself.

When technology ‘works’, we also tend to forget about it as we go about living our lives. When we need an Uber ride, we do not consciously think of ourselves as reaching for a piece of hardware (our phones) and engaging with software. When we go home and watch our favourite TV show on Netflix, we do not tell ourselves we are streaming content from the internet. With Uber, we are trying to get from A to B and with Netflix, we just want something to watch whilst we eat dinner. Technology in both scenarios is seamless and unobtrusive. This is how people engage with technology in the world – it is a somewhat hand-in-glove relationship. We live in buildings, wear clothes, drive cars and cook food in our kitchens. We cannot do any of these everyday tasks without technology, and yet we seldom realise that we are engaging with technology throughout these processes. The same is true for the digital workplace and how employees work.

If organisational decision makers do not understand the unity between people and technology in their workplace, they will continue to experience the unrealised potential of both their employees and their IT. Instead of abiding by the traditional ‘build it and they will come’ mantra, decision makers need to reflect on how they themselves interact with technology in the world. The digital workplace is calling out for more empathy in this regard, so that instead of imposing a world of work on employees, we try and cater for how employees prefer to work, and IT is one solution for this type of accommodation.

For more information about the role of people in the digital workplace, come along to the Ripple Effect Group’s workshop on “The NEW Digital Disruption: Where people matter more than technology”.

Exploring why and what digital means for a company board

by Paul Galland, GAICD

The Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) recently published an article entitled, “4 questions directors must ask to lead their organisations through the digital age”. These questions discuss how to define and measure disruptive change, how to fuel the transformation change of the organisation, shifting leadership mindsets, and how to pre-empt the next big change that occurs. Taken together, these questions primarily address the how and what for directors to become more effective in addressing their digital value.

No doubt these questions are of high value to ask any board. However, they assume a fundamental aspect; that directors collectively understand and appreciate the value that digital offers in their organisation. I would like to add a fifth qualifying question: “Why should your board become more active in the digital discussion, and what is the board members doing to educate themselves on the disruptive forces impacting their own industry and society as a whole?”

In my work in strategy, I often meet senior executives and board members who like to jump right into a detailed ‘what’ and ‘how’ analysis. Their passion and confidence in their opinions provide fantastic insights. Yet I also notice how little organisational context and expectation alignment has been done to justify these opinions.

If there is no agreed to context about where the board believe the organisation is on its digital journey, it is then difficult to provide clarity to the 4 key questions mentioned in the article. The alternative is to outsource thought leadership to an advisory or consultancy firm, but that is in essence abdicating individual responsibility to the performance (read strategy / growth) duties of a director.

If you are a board member reading this, challenge yourself (and your board) on your own knowledge of digital disruption. For example, ask yourself if you believe this new digital age is led by technology? If you think it is, question this assumption of why you believe this is so.

If there is one truism I have learned from over 20 years working in the technology sector, it is this. Technology advances are ultimately led by people; their change in buying habits together with changes in how they perceive and rate business value is relative to their purchasing power.

These purchasing habits have significantly changed in the past ten years and are here to stay. They underpin a consumer / customer mega trend that is disrupting the very nature of how we define and prioritise our strategic intent.  Do we innovate into new markets, continue to maximise our price discrimination strategy, or perhaps both in parallel?

The ever-rising force of technology innovation is a result of this purchasing mega trend. Both these forces are now creating a closer and closer bond we generally call, digital disruption.

This bond has in turn cemented a significant change in the business-to-customer paradigm. Customers are for the first time (in a long while) able to dictate the terms and value to which technology investments are made by companies. In response, companies are becoming more agile to ensure these technologies that customers expect, become supported by their organisations.

This is quite the opposite approach to the more traditional product-to-market view of competition. It has somewhat flipped to more of a market-to-product view, as companies race to roll-out their support of technologies that customers trial first.

So, if a board (and their management team) is simply reacting to this market-to-product view by racing to roll-out technologies their customers ask for, they are not truly engaging in a proactive discussion of digital disruption. They are instead seeing digital disruption from only a technology lens and missing the people equation all-together.

What I’ve described above is just the tip of the iceberg to addressing the fifth question I posed earlier. What will enable the board to better experience the digital disruption in ways that accentuate this technology-people bond unique to their organisation?

One approach to accelerate a board becoming active digital participants is to establish their own digital platform in which to conduct their board affairs. A platform with the sole purpose of identifying, recording and analysing digital value for the organisation.

Working in collaboration with their management team, a digital platform can deliver significant governance improvement between board and management. Better governance, in turn, increases the chances that the digital strategy will be delivered successfully. Conversely if directors are not on that digital journey with management, and to borrow words from the article, “[technology] has the capability to destroy your business if you do not do anything.”

This year’s Disrupt Sydney is exploring digital disruption from the angle of board governance. There’s both a presentation and workshop that will cover this subject in greater detail. We hope to see many of you there participating with us.

And if you like this read, I describe more of this concept within my blog, “Why a digital role for company boards is a game changer

Have you ever caught an Uber with a puppy?

by Ella Hafermalz

I’ve tried and failed to catch an Uber with my puppy. You have to quickly message your driver to ask if they’ll accept you with your pet. My pup and I were rejected repeatedly before giving up and going home. The next time we had to get somewhere I booked a taxi in advance. The taxi driver arrived on time and was happy to help.

Getting around town with a puppy is a pretty niche problem, but what about people who have other requirements, like a child seat or space for a wheelchair?

Taxi companies are required to provide a solution for customers with these needs. But Uber with its slippery relationship to regulation has no such obligations inflating its costs.

Why should the puppyless bear the cost of cleaning Ubers? Fair question…but applying this logic to other kinds of needs reveals a gloomy step backwards in how we treat one another.

For example when you stay at a hotel you pay a little extra to fund a wheelchair ramp that only a few guests need. Airbnb properties don’t have to offer this kind of access. That represents a saving that Airbnb passes on to you in the name of innovation.

Now imagine a future where Airbnb is so successful that hotels go out of business. No properties are required to provide wheelchair access. They only have to uphold a general commitment to inclusion and respect.

Of course there are still a handful of properties in every city that are wheelchair accessible. Low supply plus a captive market equals higher prices – and a niche market is born.

Perhaps a new business starts up to cater specifically to customers with wheelchairs, or guide dogs, or babies, or puppies. In this future everyone is catered to…for a price. The user pays, or stays home.

Distributing the cost of accessibility seems like an achievement that we should be proud of. We need to continue to protect transport and accommodation options for those who don’t fit a standardised mould. Getting around with specific needs shouldn’t be a luxury.

Regulations are not just a ball and chain holding back innovation. Sometimes they can make it easier for us to look out for one another. As we build the future let’s not forget past battles hard won.

Dr Ella Hafermalz is a postdoctoral researcher in Business Information Systems at the University of Sydney Business School.