“that’s the way we’ve always done it” isn’t a strategy

dragging timeBusiness is at a cross-roads. Business gets done for, through, and by people. Unfortunately, the human side of business has not evolved at the pace of technology, has not kept up with changing expectations, and is anchoring business in the past.

Leadership is at a cross-roads. The dictatorial command and control philosophy so repugnant in government yet so warmly embraced by business is losing effectiveness by the day. The world is changing too fast to leave all the decision making, planning, and creativity to only a few. A pyramid shaped hierarchy simply can’t keep up, can’t respond fast enough, and is too exposed to mistakes caused by the biases of its top leaders.

Organizational and work design is at a cross-roads. Trying to do 21st Century work with models and designs developed for the 20th, 19th, and 18th centuries has its limitations.

Human Resources is at a cross-roads. Changes in technology, business philosophy, and HR’s role in the organization mean it can play an increasingly important role or be so redefined that it essentially fades away, replaced by technology and outsourcing.

People know things are changing and need to change more. If you go to conferences that have “Reinvent,” “Future,” “Evolve,” “Change,” etc. in the name you quickly find that most of the attendees are already on the same page. Even at less future-oriented presentations, I’m finding large numbers of people embracing the idea of what their field could be, of how it could create more value or better results, of the need to leave the past behind and the opportunity to redefine the future.

There are people and companies leading the way, some for decades now, showing us how the future of work could be. Showing us how today could be. But they get dismissed as a novelty (not REAL business), of having unique circumstances that couldn’t possibly work in other businesses, of being faddish. Even though real life examples abound, it’s easier to dismiss new ideas than to invest in the effort to adapt them to our own circumstances. Easier to assume that what seemed to work well enough in the past is what will work best in the future.

Would anyone ever consider “but that’s the way we’ve always done it” a legitimate reason for continuing an outdated policy? No. So why is it so easily accepted as justification for clinging to antiquated business strategies, org design, or leadership? Why is it an easy excuse for sinking into the past as competition (and the world) passes by?

We know better, don’t we?

[Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc]

whose policy is it, anyway?

Had a great conversation the other night with a friend about making organizations flatter and removing the barriers to people doing great work. It’s easy for me to get pretty excited and idealistic about the shift I see happening in companies and the future of work. I was brought down to earth with the memory of a silly process that stayed in place because it existed but no one knew who was responsible for it.

Several years ago a CFO complained about a form used by his accounting department to track training expenses. It was intended to make sure that employees weren’t going on some sort of training spending spree (does that happen?) by requiring several levels of approval before they were able to attend the training.

The reality was NO ONE filled it out in advance. They only completed it when accounting started calling well after the fact and insisting on it to justify the expenses. Plus, it applied equally to all “training” from attending a lunch at a professional organization to a multiple day program across the country. And, many of the people who had to fill it out had company credit cards and discretionary funds – I suspect they simply got around completing the form by not calling it “training”.

So here was the CFO griping that he had to complete a form that he thought was ridiculous and stupid. Although it was a training form, it never passed through anyone responsible for training so it was a form that only his department used. Think about that again. His department’s form. He thinks it’s stupid. He could kill it on the spot. But rather than risk eliminating it (who would protest?), he complained and let it continue. I’ve no doubt he is still complaining about it today.

Stories like that make me think the organization of the future is just a little bit further away than I want to imagine.

What thinks you?

defining and shaping What Comes Next

In a couple of weeks, on November 11 and 12 Jason Lauritsen and Joe Gerstandt of Talent Anarchy are hosting/leading/facilitating an event called The Frontier Project on “Designing The Future of Work.” More think tank than conference or training, this is a chance for you to get together with 50 or so other sharp, passionate, innovative, and curious folks to discuss, debate, and (re)imagine where work is headed, where it needs to go, and perhaps what you can do about it in your world. Joe recently wrote about about it here.

I attended their first Frontier Project back in May and am excited for the chance to attend this next one. Although Jason and Joe are both masters at giving the box called “status quo” a good and vigorous shaking, I’m most looking forward to meeting and learning from the other participants. I don’t know who will be there but I’m expecting and hoping to see a mixed group of thought leaders, forward thinkers, and everyday professionals looking to define and shape What Comes Next. Interested? Sign up here (and notice you have one more day for the early bird discount).

Yes, I wrote about this a few weeks back and I’m writing about it again. I love to think about the FutureNow of work and I’m very excited to see Joe and Jason hosting another Frontier Project. It, along with the Meaning conference over in the UK, are two standout events dealing with what work could be. I’m encouraged and hope to see more and more events like these in the coming years.

I don’t know what this Frontier Project is going to look like, but I know what I got out of the last one. Rather than giving you a link, I decided to make it even easier and have included the summary I wrote and posted on May 29 after the first Frontier Project.



don’t predict the future, declare it

Human Resources, like many fields, is at a cross roads where its future is at a disconnect with its past. Many of its reasons for being have become irrelevant, easily outsourced, or reduced to a minor function. Some predict the end of HR; others cling to it. Ultimately, the future of business and work will decide the future of HR.

The Frontier Project, held May 20 and 21 in Omaha, Nebraska had the stated purpose of “Reimagining the Role of Human Resources.” That’s a bold tagline creating huge expectations and it was an interesting mix of 40 or so HR pros, consultants, vendors, and thought leaders who attended.

Jason Lauritsen and Joe Gerstandt led the group using an accelerated decision making process. Normally, it’s a technique used to create a decision and action steps for a specific problem. Applying it to the future of a field while still creating individual actions is a bit trickier, but worth the effort.

So, what’s the future of HR? I’m not telling. Not because I took a blood oath of secrecy; because I don’t know. No one does. But here’s a few thoughts I took away from the two days:

Predicting the future is really, really difficult. Particularly for experts because they know exactly how things are in the field, but most innovation and change is ignited from outside the field. If one isn’t careful, focused expertise leads to being blindsided. To prevent getting stuck in what our expertise demonstrated was right, we were told to use our “imagination, not expertise.” Regardless, it’s still difficult. Could you have imagined 2013 in 1993? Could you have imagined 2013 in 2008 before smart phones and social media took off? Another bit of advice for imagining the future: “If it makes sense today, you’re probably not pushing far enough out.”

Even people who think like me don’t think like me. Oddly enough, the future I’m convinced will happen looks different than the futures 39 other people are convinced will happen. We all have biases and, although there’s some overlap, it’s really easy to get stuck in our own reality tunnels.

When people discuss the most important things the field of HR should be focused on it sounds very buzzwordy business-speak. Lots of jargon. Lots of mention of technology, big data, etc. But when people describe what makes their job great it there is a strong emotional and personal connection. I don’t know what that schism means, but it makes me wonder.

The field of HR is so divided between administrative and strategic functions it makes me wonder if we shouldn’t identify them as separate fields. I suspect much of HR’s identity crisis would go away if we acknowledged we’ve been trying to find unifying answers for (at least) two distinct fields. Much as finance and accounting or marketing and sales are split, imagine the issues that would quickly dissolve away if we could allow HR to move in two different directions.

“Us vs them” is a powerful, powerful quirk of human thinking. It carries a lot of judgment and self-righteousness. Be very careful how you define “us” and “them”. Consider the possibility that it might really be “us and them”, or even just “us”.

Some other quick thoughts (mostly shared by others):

HR needs to stop waiting for someone to ask us to do and simply find what needs to be done and get on with it. If it requires permission, make a case for it and sell it. Stop waiting.

Technology/tools can be an enhancement or a distraction from the people/business connection. Like all tools, none are inherently good or bad, but how we use them determines how much they will help or hinder.

Statistics can’t predict the individual. Ever.

Integrate HR into the business processes instead of trying to integrate the business processes into HR.

Use imagination first to play and explore and then apply expertise to make it possible.

The future is scary when you don’t feel you have any control. The future is exciting when you feel you are creating it; it’s threatening when you want things to stay the same (or go back to being how they were); it’s liberating when you see how it could be even better than today.

I need to spend more time kicking ideas around with smart, passionate people. Really can’t do that enough.

 There’s lots more from those two great days that I’m still processing and thinking about. Joe and Jason are threatening to offer it again in the future and I’m excited to see how The Frontier Project evolves. Good, good stuff.

(re)thinking the future of work

“Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted; one moment. Would you capture it or just let it slip?” ~ Eminem from “Lose Yourself”

“The future is scary when you don’t feel you have any control. The future is exciting when you feel you are creating it; it’s threatening when you want things to stay the same (or go back to being how they were); it’s liberating when you see how it could be even better than today.” ~ Participant’s comment from The Frontier Project: The Future of Human Resources


You have an opportunity. A chance worth taking. A moment to come together with others who are ferociously passionate, smart, curious, insistent, pioneering, wondering.

I’m fascinated by the FutureNow of work. The seeds and sprouts of the inevitable(?) changes disrupting how we’ve always thought about jobs and organizations are there taking root and starting to grow. Technology shrinks, twists, and alters “how we’ve always done it.” Socioeconomic schisms have been opened up by tectonic shifts in the economy. Organizational structures, once certain, are being shoved aside in the quest for something better. The curtain has been pulled back revealing the illusion of control. And us humans keep being humans in all our rule bound sloppy illogically rational educated ignorance. History repeats with a fresh coat of paint and a different pattern of wall paper. Change keeps on changing. Round and round she goes, where she stops…

It’s overwhelming. But what if you could get ahead of the curve? What if you could be a part of creating the future instead of wondering, worrying, and letting it wash over you?

Talent Anarchy is at it again, shouldering their way to the forefront of disruptive thought with The Frontier Project: The Future of Work. Jason Lauritsen and Joe Gerstandt have set aside some space and time near Houston in November for a diverse group of folks to come together and think, consider, wonder, and debate the Future of Work. Jason and Joe will be setting up the framework, then poking, prodding, and asking questions, but the real work and the answers will come from the group.

So here’s your opportunity. The Frontier Project is a “think tank on steroids” (in Jason’s and Joe’s words) designed to push buttons, challenge assumptions, get past the here and now, and play with what could/should/will be. It’s a chance for you to look to the future and (hopefully) come away with some very real ideas for what to do right now.

This isn’t a training, conference, or seminar. If you crave certainty and finely crafted bullet point lessons this event is not for you. There are no foregone conclusions, inevitable solutions, guarantees where the discussion will go, or certainty where the answers will come from.

As a reader of this blog you know I’m a friend and fan of Talent Anarchy. They’ve asked me to help get the word out about the event – something I’m more than happy to do because I’m excited to attend and looking forward to what comes next. I’m inspired by Jason and Joe’s intensely thought provoking irreverence, rejection of business as usual, and the challenge they’ve laid to the world to embrace our authentic humanness. They are continually thinking bigger and have extended an invitation to join them.

I hope to see you there. The future’s coming fast and we all have work to do.


pedalsHow many things completely inconceivable just 10 years ago, very expensive or difficult even five years back, are ho-hum (yawn) commonplace today?

I bought a new set of pedals for my mountain bike from the UK. A great set of pedals – a brand that’s hard to find in the US – at a competitive price, $10 shipping, eight business days later and they’re waiting for me in the mail.

A quick photo from my phone and I’ve shared my excitement with friends. An hour or two later and I’m interacting and discussing the pedals with people across timezones, countries, and continents. And I’m doing it essentially for free.

Count the inconceivable impossibilities in the two previous paragraphs. Not only is it hard to grasp all the advances that had to come together to make all of that possible, but it’s even more startling how quickly such an impossibilities became just another Thursday night.


Pedals? Who cares? What about work?

This kind of cross-continent coordination, collaboration, and communication is mundane in our private lives, but how much has work kept up?

  • How many policies do we have that are so out of date they might as well be written on papyrus scrolls?
  • How much energy is spent blocking technology and ensuring work gets done in a certain way vs embracing how work might be different?
  • If your job were invented today, would it look the way it does now? How different would your office/workspace be? What technology would you use if you could select it (what technology do you use to get things done in your personal life that you can’t use at work)? Who would you communicate with that you don’t now?
  • How different would recruiting, hiring, and onboarding employees be if we started from scratch today? How would HR workflow be different?
  • What policies would immediately be nuked and what would they be replaced with (if at all) if we were told reinvent the business?
  • How much of an advantage does the lack of legacy give a new business over an established one right now in terms of creating more efficient work?

What are the inconceivable things at work that are completely possible right now? What are we not doing because it was impossible five years ago, but would be cheap and easy to do today?

What thinks you?


the shop is no longer around the corner

I recently re-watched You’ve Got Mail with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks (to be clear: I didn’t watch it with them, they were in the movie). It came out in 1997 at the cusp of three pivotal shifts and is an interesting look at people dealing with FutureNow and trying to find their way forward without a map.

Email was new and quaint and exciting, big box retailers were driving the small independent shops out of business, and – although the movie doesn’t address it – people and businesses were trying to figure out the whole internet thing by applying old business models to a new medium.

In one scene, Meg Ryan’s character wishes she could ask her deceased mom for advice on how her small bookstore can compete with the mega-store going in just down the street. A friend makes a show out of asking her mom’s picture what to do, holding it to her ear for the answer. The friend puts the photo down and says, “She doesn’t know what to do either.” There was no map, no established answer, no tried and true success model.

Fifteen years later and the big box stores are in the same position Meg Ryan’s cute little shop was in. The internet has evolved into a reliable commerce channel, creating enormous economies of scale AND a level of service that physical stores wouldn’t / couldn’t provide. No store can have enough staff to be familiar with every book, yet the online stores have ratings and comments available from people who have read the book. Online, there is no snobbery from the clerk at the CD store looking upon your musical taste with distain. Prices are low and the option to buy used pushes them even lower.

The bad guy of a decade and a half ago is now the victim. The world changed and no one told them. There is no map, no established answer, no tried and true success model for them to follow.

For better or worse, the world is changing and evolving and moving in faster and faster cycles. We’ve got email figured out and now we’re wrestling with social media. Higher education and banking are likely to take the same sort of leap the music and publishing industries did and others will follow. It doesn’t take much of a futurist to predict that there is another big shift about to happen just a few years down the road.

Here’s the HR / world of work spin: technology is driving massive changes at a societal level, allowing us to do so much more with so much less, eliminating old jobs and creating new opportunities. That’s not going away. It’s scaryexcitingterrifyingthrilling. It requires perpetual learning and thinking and changing and an ability to adapt at an ongoing level that’s never been asked of us before.

Hope, fear, uncertainty, confidence, desire for success, terror of failure are all very real and very human issues. I wonder how Human Resources and Learning & Development will best help individuals and organizations cope-survive-thrive.

Your thoughts?


Some Business and Leadership Lessons from Downton Abbey

I really enjoy Downton Abbey and I’m super excited about the new season. A friend turned me on to it this Fall and my wife and I quickly watched the first two seasons. I really shouldn’t be able to relate to it – after all, it’s a period drama (soap opera?) about British aristocracy and their servants in the early 1900s.

Except it’s not. It’s about humans dealing with the inevitable change of FutureNow. The tried and true traditions of the 19th Century have been blown up and burned down in the onslaught of change in the early 20th Century. Industrialization, automobiles, air travel, women’s rights, democracy, revolutionaries, class systems (and duties and obligations), a world fighting a new kind of war and the horrors it brings all get thrown in the societal blender. The characters, rich or poor, weak or powerful, are just humans trying to find their way and make sense of it all as what was battles what is and what should be.

Kinda like business and leadership today.

Any strength pushed too far becomes a weakness and the best ideas become frightful distortions and caricatures at their limits. Taylorism and scientific management brought much needed consistency and efficiency to manufacturing. But it was pushed to the point of removing all thinking and judgement  Design out the need for critical thought, problem solving, and creativity from the workers and (surprise!) we end up with workers who can’t innovate, who are comfortable with micromanagement, who push responsibility for their results higher in the organization.

Command and control is a self-serving, self-justifying cycle. Create an organization structure and leadership approach that fosters a lack thought, creativity, or innovation and you end up needing an organization structure and leadership approach to manage people who lack thought, creativity, and innovation. And it works. Until it doesn’t.

Right now it really doesn’t. We can argue it does because we’ve never seen an alternative or because we prefer to stick with the devil we know. Doing different is scary, it’s uncertain, we don’t know how it will work out. But ask yourself this: how successful would you be in 1920 trying to lead and live in the world that existed in 1870? How successful will you be in 2013 trying to lead and live in the world the existed in 1963?

Here’s my challenge to the world: name one person, one team, one company that has gained a successful advantage doing things the way they’ve always been done, doing things the way everyone else does them, and gets ahead by running with the herd. Should it be telling that there are no awards for doing sameness better than everyone else?

So why then do we insist on trying to stand out by blending in?


Some Lessons From Downton Abbey:

What are some of the lessons we can take from Downton Abbey as we face our own FutureNow? Some thoughts, in no particular order:

1. Just because it worked in the past doesn’t mean it will work in the future, or even now.

2. Just because it seems to work now doesn’t mean it’s the best solution.

3. Resist it, complain about it, long for the good old days all you want. Change is inevitable and happening regardless of our opinion of it.

4. The changes we resist today will be the traditions the next generation fights to keep. The world we resist and resent today will be someone else’s good ol’ days tomorrow.

5. We’re all just humans trying to figure out how to be happy and successful (however we define happiness and success).

6. No single group of people, gender, generation, race, profession, social class, etc. has a monopoly on all the good ideas. Or all the bad ones.

7. Traditions for the sake of traditions are silly and useless. Traditions that still serve a purpose provide continuity and community. Just because we’ve always done it doesn’t make it useful; just because it’s never been done doesn’t make it useless. AND just because we’ve always done it that way doesn’t make it useless; just because it’s never been done doesn’t make it useful.

8. Experience is important, but you’ll never win by preparing to fight the previous war. We need to learn from the past but in a way that recognizes that even small changes will make a big difference.

Your thoughts?



control freakout

Times of great change (now), times of uncertainty (now), and times when yesterday’s formula for success is tomorrow’s expressway to failure (now) cause us humans to feel out of control, insecure, and stressed. It’s hard to know what to do next or move forward with certainty in a world where there aren’t templates and formulas; where you can’t get to where you want to go by just checking the boxes along the way; where the new maps haven’t been created yet.

Disruption is what is. The music, book publishing, and movie industries have changed in ways barely imaginable less than five years ago. Stable, conservative, aeon old industries with long histories are being taken to their foundations, blown up, and rebuilt in amazing ways – even if the practitioners don’t realize it yet. My humble, supersecret prediction is that the industries that have changed the least in the last 50 years will change the most in the next five. The FutureNow is here.

When your business is caught in the maelstrom of change you can choose one of three paths: 1) focus on what you can control; 2) focus on what you can influence; or 3) become the disruptor that creates the change others have to deal with.

The third path is really hard to do because there is a very, very fine line between being the company that goes against the grain and changes the industry and the company that goes against the grain and becomes irrelevant. I really want to focus on the first two choices.

In the past, industries drove change and the pace of change. Now, the ability to access and transmit information faster and faster and cheaper and cheaper means technology, customer demands, and off the radar upstarts are fueling change. There is less and less that we can actually control and more and more we can only influence. I assume it’s like sailing – we can’t control the waves or the wind, only anticipate and ride them. In fact, the more we try to control, the more out of control we get. Paradoxically, the more we go with the flow and focus on influence, the more control we actually have.

But us humans really like to feel in control. We like the feeling of security and certainty that control brings. If we can control it, we can prevent it from harming us. So, in a time of change (read as: time of FEAR) it’s tempting to concentrate on the unimportant things we can control instead of the big, important, and uncertain things we can only influence. Caught in the storm of change we seem to focus on polishing the ship’s brass and mopping the deck rather than anticipating the wind and the waves. Cleaning the ship is completely within our control and makes us feel successful right now, but the ship is adrift and about to sink. The painful paradox is that the more out of control we feel, the more we often try to control, which means we focus more and more on things that matter less and less. It’s an ugly downward spiral

Here are a  few simple questions to help determine whether your company is trying its hardest to influence a new path through the storm or headed for the rocks with the cleanest ship around:

Are you spending your time on principles and experimentation or policy and tradition?

Are you most concerned with finding ways to delight customers or ways to minimize change and disruption?

Are your most passionate and creative people at the helm, relishing the challenge or are they preparing their life rafts while you hand out mops and tins of polish?

There are no guarantees to success and every path is uncertain, but there are no awards for having the cleanest ship at the bottom of the ocean.

Your thoughts?