Archive for the ‘philosophy of work’ Category
LEED-like certification for human-spirit-sustainable workplaces
- Site location
- Water conservation
- Energy efficiency
- Indoor air quality
Businesses and organizations with the highest ratings display them as a sort of badge of honor for the public to see.
What if there were some system to measure and rate the culture within a company or organization? Since we worry about bullying at school and we’re starting to recognize bullies in the office and toxic corporate cultures, does it make sense to start thinking about organizations that sustain people rather than beat them?
For instance, what if any organization was judged by these four categories:
- Bias toward collaboration
- Employee engagement indicators
- Mix of top-down messaging with true conversation
- Ratio of CEO-pay to rank-and-file pay
It would be difficult to measure many of these, especially since most of the categories seem so subjective. And yet, would it be impossible to measure? Would it be worthwhile to measure? Are we already moving in that direction?
In Minneapolis/St. Paul—like any set of cities—insider talk has long identified those cut-throat corporate and institutional cultures that routinely toss human capital to the side. Insider talk also identifies those bosses, managers and C-suite people without empathy and/or ethical moorings. New employees are generally forewarned when they sign up.
Of course, business is still about earning a living for the people involved even as the organization serves some human need. So don’t think I’m championing some communistic collective. Profits will and must be made to help society move forward.
But as we move toward fuller employment, workers will become more choosy about where they spend their days. And those cultures that have a less sustainable ethos will not be the winners.
I’m not convinced I’ve identified the right categories to measure. What categories would you include?
Image credit: Kirk Livingston
Joe Knew Where His Success Came From
Pity: so many memorable stories.
Like the story of Joe Lueken. A couple years ago Mr. Lueken turned down the opportunity to make buckets of cash by selling his Bemidji-based grocery store chain. Instead, as he retired, he set up an employee stock ownership program and transferred the company to his workers.
He was a philanthropist who stocked shelves and took his break with the other workers in the break room. And—most telling for me—the people who worked for him had great respect for him. He was a guy whose work ethic and his caring demeanor touched lives. And it seems—at least from my reading of a couple of articles—he did so with joy.
Mr. Lueken died on July 20 after a long battle with cancer.
As we watch the explosion of CEO salaries and look with wonder on the board members who agree to these ridiculous payouts, it’s hard not to wish many of the current batch of muckety-mucks had worked for Joe. Maybe his humanity would have rubbed off.
Image credit: StarTribune
Open(ish) access for tight-lipped companies
Technical people can learn something from advertising people.
My creative director friend presented advertising concepts by first showing how his agency team came up with the idea. His presentations took a bit more time, but along the way he restated the problem, showed visuals of how competitors attempted to solve the problem and then revealed stumps of ideas that never really worked. Then he got to the solutions he hoped the client would pay for.
My friend’s process placed his solution in a context that helped those around the conference table understand why the solution made sense. As he spun out his process, he verbally brought these people with him so they were nodding “Yes” long before they signed off on the solution.
Many of my clients guard their proprietary information with fierce protections. And rightly so: their processes keep things running and bring in the coin that satisfies employees, stakeholders and shareholders. But in a search and share economy where like-minded people find each other more and more often, is a firewall surrounding all information really the best way forward?
The right information presented at the right time (that is, just when someone needs it, which typically coincides with a search for that information) affects buying decisions and brand loyalty. Interestingly, your technical people are right now busy working through the context that, if properly presented, would draw others to your product.
People are searching for your information.
If only they could find you.
My more innovative clients are finding ways to help their problem-definers and solution-makers talk more publicly. And as these discussions move outside the corporate walls, they best ones are finding ways to combat the PR department temptation to suck meaning from the words. Because sharing useful information happens person-to-person. And useful information will always have something of an unfiltered quality to it.
How is your organization preparing to share details with those who can help you move forward?
Image credit: Kirk Livingston
Work or church or bowling: It’s easy to mistake why we’re here
First a quiz:
- My company exists to give me a job. True or False?
- My church exists so I can feel better about myself once a week. True or False?
- I’m part of a bowling league so I can practice bowling and maybe get better. True or False?
Lately I find myself using “club” to describe those organizations that have turned so inward they have forgotten their purpose. Sometimes clients forget they got into the business to help customers live better lives. Sometimes they spend their days fixated on managing up. Sometimes pastors think all these people show up to take direction, fill the offering plates and carry out the pastoral vision. Sometimes parishioners show up thinking this hour will medicate me—I’ll be inoculated from the mundane horror of daily life for about a week.
Of course, none of this we say out loud. We also try not to say these things to ourselves. But our attitude gives us away.
When I teach college writing classes and we talk about finding jobs, we spend a lot of time talking about how work is thing we do together for others. Work is not a thing set up for the sole purpose of getting money. If you think the former (work is about helping others) you’ll have an enduring, meaning-making attitude that will help you accomplish stuff in the real world. If you think the latter (work is for me to get money/fame/prestige), you will never be satisfied. Might as well trade derivatives on Wall Street.
It is true that we each stand at the center of our world. Philosopher Robert Sokolowski calls that stance our “transcendent ego.” And that’s just how we experience all there is to experience in the world. But it takes a maturing person to step away from the giddy, teen-age fiction that all of everything revolves around me for real.
Is it time to call your club back to the central purpose—the purpose that people signed up for in the beginning—making a difference in the world? If it is, you’ll likely have uncomfortable conversations with your friends in the club. You may even cause current programs to jump the tracks. But that’s ok: that’s what happens when we refocus on the bigger purposes of why we are here.
That is a work that helps all of us in the club.
Image credit: Kirk Livingston
When Adjuncts Escape
Helen De Cruz has done a fascinating and very readable series of blog posts (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) tracking the migration of philosophical thinking from academia into the rest of life. As low-paid, temporary workers (that is, “contingent faculty” or “adjuncts”) take over more and more university teaching duties (50% of all faculty hold part-time appointments); smart, degreed people are also starting to find their way out of this system that rewards increasingly narrowed focus with low pay and a kick in the butt at the end of the semester.
Ms. De Cruz has a number of excellent interactions with her sample of former academics (at least one of whom left a tenured position!). I love that Ms. De Cruz named transferable skills. What would a philosophy Ph.D. bring to a start-up? Or a tech position? The answers she arrives at may surprise you.
I’ve always felt we carry our interests and passions and skills with us, from this class to that job to this project to that collaboration. And thus we form a life of work. Possibly we produce a body of work. We once called this a “career,” but that word has overtones of climbing some institutional ladder. I think we’re starting to see more willingness to make your own way—much like Seth Godin described his 30 years of projects.
The notion of “career” is very much in flux.
And that is a good thing.
Of particular interest to me was the discussion Ms. De Cruz had with Eric Kaplan. Mr. Kaplan found his way out of studying phenomenology (and philosophy of language with advisor John Searle!) at Columbia and UC Berkeley to writing television comedy (Letterman, Flight of the Conchords, and Big Bang Theory, among others). If you’ve watched any of these, it’s likely you’ve witnessed some of the things a philosophical bent does out loud: ask obvious questions and produce not-so-obvious answers. And that’s when the funny starts. It’s this hidden machinery that will drive the really interesting stuff in a number of industries.
Our colleges and universities are beginning to do an excellent job dispersing talent. That thoughtful diaspora will only grow as time pitches forward.
Image credit: Kirk Livingston
Take Two Books and Call Me In a Week
I’ve been reading Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception (NY: Penguin Books, 2012) and Debbie Millman’s How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer (NY: Allworth Press, 2007). Both books convey hope that work can look different—more personal and more meaningful—than any corporate recruiting brochure can ever let on.
Mr. Godin’s message is consistent with his blog and other books: find a way to not submit to corporate overlords and their pre-packaged (wonderful) plan for your life. Make your own way. Along the way he hints that owning your work can happen in a variety of ways (even if working for the man). I’ve always appreciated Mr. Godin’s sense that art is about making connections and doing new things that spring from one’s brain/desire/compulsions/passions applied to a real-world problem. I would argue that kind of passionate living can happen in a big company or on your own—but we must all keep a sharp eye out for when life and work become rote ruts (which require re-routing).
Ms. Millman’s book is an absolute delight to read because it consists of 20 conversations with designers whose work has set them apart for years. People like Stefan Sagmeister, Neville Brody, Paula Scher, Emily Oberman, Bonnie Siegler, Paul Sahre, James Victore, Massimo Vignelli and Milton Glaser. The genius of Ms. Millman’s book is two-fold: asking penetrating, questions (1) and then standing aside (2) to let each designer spool out their answers in the way they choose. I’m certain each question and answer was edited, but Ms. Millman’s book gives a sense of hearing the very crux of what drives each person’s creativity in their own words. Their answers provide lessons in the habits of artists, how to combat the woo of popularity and the lapses into isolation. Some of these designers have succeeded and failed and succeeded and failed—so look also for lessons in starting over from scratch.
I’m no graphic designer—maybe you aren’t either.
And I’m no artist (perhaps you are?), but Godin + Millman together provide a satisfying set of snapshots that keep anticipating the very personal work your problem-solving can accomplish. The advice and hope from each book make me want to look for problems to work on that take advantage of what I love doing.
Both books present forward-looking ways of relentlessly defining, redefining and doing your own work. And make no mistake: again and again it is the work itself that pulls these talented people deeper into their talent and continued relevance.
What is your work today?
Image credit: Kirk Livingston
Especially #6: Ship it.
I like Mr. Godin’s expansion of “artist” to include anyone trying to make a connection (full definition here). If you are trying to create, you’ll find these six habits useful.
The satisfying work of relating
Some of us find great joy in the work itself: left alone to turn the block on the lathe or write the intro paragraph—we get a tad giddy. Like we know what we are doing (more or less) and this process is stimulating and fun and I can see stuff taking shape.
A friend with a VP-of-Meetings type brain would often jab me with his love of meetings:
Meetings are great. I don’t know why people hate them so. We get so much done.
When he said this I assumed they were great for him because he enjoyed telling others what to do. And his lackeys went and accomplished real stuff. Were meetings great for his lackeys? I have my doubts.
But for many of us, it is difficult to get that sense of getting stuff done with people. Conversation is a messy business that seems to typically lead into a wilderness of tangents and false starts rather than to a place where real stuff happens. Washington is the current poster child for conversation thwarted at every turn.
Must it be that way?
I can’t prescribe a cure for Washington (though targeting the removal of big money would be a positive first step), but here’s a few suggestions for helping each other hatch big ideas and get stuff done:
- Listen. For real—really listen. And repeat back what your colleague says to make sure you get it and to give yourself time to process what your colleague said. Resist the temptation to formulate a counter-argument while appearing to listen. Listen for potential.
- Ask your colleague to say more. Gain clarity for yourself and your colleague. Work out the idea together through a volley of responses.
- Breathe. That’s right, take a breath so you can stay in the moment and hear your colleague. They might just do the same for you.
- Use your words to precisely parse an idea. It’s easy to get sloppy and quickly dismiss ideas (and people, for that matter). Instead, tease out the potential idea you saw. Give it some kindling and fan it and get the fire going.
- Say it out loud to get something done. Pulling together an idea that is scattered before a team is sort of like nailing it to the wall for all to see. Once everyone sees it, they can respond. Grabbing the idea and saying it aloud can often feel like work accomplished. It feels that way because it is exactly that.
We do well to pay attention to what our colleagues are saying. And the more attention we pay, the more wealth of ideas and practical insights we might just find. In fact, some people work this way all the time:
When we toss things back and forth, there is no compromise at all. That is when it is magic.
–Millman, Debbie. How to think like a great graphic designer. (NY: Allworth Press, 2007). From Emily Oberman & Bonnie Siegler/ Number 17, p.96
Also: consider returning to David Rock’s Quiet Leadership and check out his tidy six steps
- Think about thinking
- Listen for potential
- Speak with intent
- Dance toward insight (Permission + Placement + Questioning + Clarifying)
- CREATE New thinking
- Follow up
People are never tools or things we manipulate to achieve our desired end. But honoring each other by listening and talking—that’s how real stuff gets done in the real world.
Image credit: Kirk Livingston
How do you say “Fridley” in Irish?
To those who live as if words are worthless and refuse to see the role of systems in building wealth, let us now gaze on Medtronic’s deal to buy Covidien. What does $42.9 billion get you these days, besides a cohesive portfolio of medical devices and a bunch of intelligent workers and systems? Smart people are speculating it also buys freedom to spend foreign profits without worrying about more taxes, which may amount to a roughly $20 billion future spending spree.
Of course corporations will seek the best deal for making money—that is the project of corporations—and will surprise no one. Do Minnesotans worry a beloved company born and bred in Minnesota is growing up and leaving home? Of course. But the significant investment Medtronic has made in their operations in the state should cause worriers to back off a bit. A quick driving tour through Fridley and Mounds View reveal a rather permanent corporate presence.
But then—of course—stuff happens and things change. Which produces anxiety in hard-working people.
What I find interesting is that while the deal involves a significant exchange of money, it also changes a key definition that then dodges a set of tax requirements. Note this: becoming an Irish company is mostly in name only. The StarTribune quotes Eric Toder of the Urban-Brookings Tax Center as describing the newly formed Irish company an “accounting fiction.” So while Medtronic will always be a Minnesota company, it will become an Irish company. And there is money to be saved in being an Irish company. By cutting this deal—by pronouncing these words in international legal documents—a new thing happens at Medtronic that will please shareholders and worry local workers. JL Austin might call that corporate speech-act a performative. And there is no question that performative will change things in the real world.
[Full disclosure: The author has worked for Medtronic and continues to consult for Medtronic.] [At least the author did until posting this.]
Image credit: Kirk Livingston
Trust Your Process
There are times when you don’t know the answer and you cannot see a way to an answer.
There are times when you simply cannot see what to do next. This happens constantly in my work: even today I have a project that needs a unique kind of help. Help I cannot even quite imagine.
What to do?
My writing process seems to be all about working my way into a corner or a dead end. It happens again and again. But as I continue chipping away and working at it (which is to say, I keep writing), the dead end turns out to be a way to rethink something. Getting stuck in a corner turns out to be the necessary thing, the thing I needed to actually turn the corner.
Malcom Gladwell contends that you must put in 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. He may or may not be right about the numbers, but certainly an expert has worked out a process the she or he follows—some way they use to accomplish the thing they do. They’ve sorted some way to keep at it. And whether or not the outcome is perfect, the process itself is revealing.
That’s why one keeps at it: to see what the process reveals next.
What are your 10,000 hours revealing?
Image Credit: Kirk Livingston