Monthly Archives: March 2013

Sharing the chance to contribute

Inequality can be looked at from a number of angles, but there’s one specific angle that troubles me and I’d love to see addressed – that so many people feel unable to contribute to the world.  Globalisation and technology means that some people are able to contribute more productively (and profitably) than ever before, and others are not seeing the same opportunities they would have in the past.

Some might say this is as it should be – that inequality provides the encouragement for people to strive for success.  Others wouldn’t go that far, but think that as long as we tax the successful and redistribute the proceeds, we’re all good.

I don’t accept either of these arguments.  I believe that the opportunity to genuinely contribute to the world is fundamental to our personal happiness, and everyone having this opportunity is essential to society.  And you can’t make up for that by paying money to the people that can’t contribute.

Some would also point out that there are people who could contribute but won’t.  I don’t accept that as a reason to give up, any more than I’d abolish health care because there are some people that don’t want to live.  Instead, we should at least be willing to agree to support those that do want to contribute.  And, I suspect that if we did this well, we’d simultaneously reduce the number of people that don’t want to work.

Throughout this discussion, I emphasise that I’m not saying people just need work to do.  I’m saying that they need to feel able to make genuine contributions.  If work is forced, disengaged, or lacking purpose, I not convinced that it will solve the inequality of contribution that I worry about.

I’d love to say I have the answer.  Or even that a perfect answer exists.  I don’t.

But, I’m optimistic.  I know that there are some inspired programmes out there that are working towards this objective.  And I’m convinced that these will make an enormous difference to our world.

One of my motivations in this blog is to discover and share some of these ideas.  So, if know of any organisations or programmes that you feel are worth me looking into, please let me know.

How do you feel about mistakes?

Most of my blog posts focus on the value people can add when things go well.  But what about when mistakes happen?

When I was younger, I used to think that I wasn’t allowed to make mistakes – that getting things wrong meant letting others (and myself) down.  Over the years, I’ve learned that making mistakes isn’t so bad, and fear of making mistakes is far worse.

I find that being willing to make mistakes allows me to stretch and learn.  It allows me to make the most of the challenges that come my way.  By accepting and taking ownership of my mistakes, I find others are more likely to trust and respect me.  When I’m afraid of making mistakes, I’m more likely to hide them, which generally leads to worse outcomes.

Unfortunately, a personal attitude like this only goes so far.  The role you’re trying to fill, the company you work for, and the people you work with, all make a difference to how much you can risk mistakes.

Some jobs seem to demand perfect execution every time.  I’ve never heard anyone tell their surgeon not to worry about making a mistake.  There’s an internet meme going round “If you like to learn from your mistakes, don’t become a skydiver”.  And even many corporate jobs are portrayed as not allowing mistakes. But I don’t think I could do them, or recommend them to anyone else.

If companies really want happy employees, they’re far better off coming up with ways to protect them from the worst consequences of mistakes, rather than insisting on perfect performance of such roles.  Some companies do a great job of this, making clear that mistakes won’t be punished so much as hiding them and refusing to learn from them.  When this message is emphasised, in policy and through actions, it really helps people develop a healthy and productive attitude.

Jim Collins’ and Morten Hansen’s book Great by Choice explains that successful companies are those that encourage appropriate risks: generally those that have manageable downside (survivable risks) and show success or failure quickly and clearly.  So I’m not encouraging recklessness (and if you tend towards that direction, Naomi Klein has a great talk on TED), but trying to prevent individuals making any mistakes doesn’t work well.

Company culture is important, but the people around you also affects whether you feel empowered to take appropriate risks.  Where I’ve had a manager who knew that my best work would naturally lead to some mistakes, and would support me through them and help me learn and improve, I’ve felt engaged and been more productive.  In contrast, I’ve seen colleagues, generally with insecure managers, be warned not to fail – invariably this leads to lower engagement, worse productivity, and hiding mistakes until it is too late to ignore them or do anything about them.  (If you ever hear yourself saying “whatever you do, don’t stuff this up”, it is helpful to remind yourself that the listener will hear it as “whatever you do, I don’t want to find out you’ve stuffed it up”.)

So when considering a role, I try to make sure that I will be working in a company, with colleagues and in a role, that create an environment where mistakes are respected as an important part of the learning process.  That gives me the biggest chance of being engaged and happy, and getting the best work out of me.

Technology and economics: will your job survive?

There was an article in last week’s Economist (The Robot Menace) that looked at how technology is  changing the type of tasks that humans do, The idea is that as technology gets cheaper and more capable, many routine tasks are getting taken over by technology, and the roles that need to be taken on by humans are those of implementing, driving, or troubleshooting the technology.

This isn’t all bad news – the article concludes: “for the foreseeable future, the human advantage in cognitive flexibility and interpersonal interactions will be fairly secure”.

My first takeaway from the article was the term cognitive flexibility.  It perfectly describes an increasingly valued quality that I’ve often promoted, but never had a name for.  By being able to change what you do when circumstances around you change, when technology becomes available or when the markets change, you’ll be able to see rapid technological and economic change as an opportunity instead of a threat.

My next point may not apply to everybody, but I know it applies to far more people than currently believe it.  As well as being less easily replaced, jobs that require cognitive flexibility and ability to interact are more engaging, more enjoyable.  If you’re not sure, think about the moments of your job that you enjoy most – it is unlikely to be the moments that could most easily be automated.

My third thought is about our education system.  Are we giving people the best opportunities to gain the needed skills in interpersonal interaction and cognitive flexibility?  I do see a lot of young people that are brilliant in these areas, so I’m generally optimistic in this respect.  But, I worry that other trends, for example increased standardisation, teaching to the test, and removing scope for creativity and love of learning, may be dragging them in the opposite direction.

And finally, what does it all mean for inequality in the world?  Maybe, better technology will mean that some people will be far more productive, and others redundant.  I don’t agree with accepting that as the way it is, relying on tax to transfer money from the productive to the unproductive.  Instead, we’re going to have to come up with creative ways of ensuring the vast majority of people are productive.

I don’t have the answers (yet), but these are definitely questions I’m sure I’ll be grappling with for some time.

How the right attitude can lead to great work

Firstly, I’d like to apologise for the 2 week gap in blog posts, caused by a week of holiday, and then starting a new job.  The first week is always exhausting – learning people’s names, learning new processes, systems – even just remembering where the bathroom is.  Still, as one of my friends reminded me this morning, it gets easier – you’ll never again know as little as you knew in your first week.  So, I should be able to get back to my routine of one or two blog posts each week.

I consider myself very lucky when it comes to work.  Through most of my career, I have been in jobs that give me a steady stream of problems that I enjoy being challenged to solve.  The jobs have always been integral to the success of the employer and requiring plenty of initiative – so I have never had to worry about the job getting boring, meaningless, automated or outsourced.

I regularly talk to people that would like to be in my position, so I spend time thinking about what it is that has got me here.  I’d say I’ve got here more by accident than any strategy, which makes it tough to distil my experience into any grand lessons.  I also recognise that I am working in the space where the problems around me can be solved using my skills and interests – if your skills or interests or the problems around you are different to mine, then it doesn’t make sense to try to do the same job as me.

That said, though the answer isn’t to do exactly the same courses or taking the same career path as me, I do think that successful outcomes are often explained by having a particular attitude.  And the other day I was pointed to a blog post by designer Greg Hoy that pinpoints exactly what that attitude consists of.

I’d encourage you to read his post carefully – there’s a lot in it that isn’t at first reading obvious, but I’m sure with some thought, you’ll realise that there are plenty of examples around you of people that benefit from the right attitude at work.