The Post-Crisis World of Work With Adam Grant

As people and businesses plan for pandemic recover and rebuilding, experts such as organisational psychologist Professor Adam Grant of Wharton are a great source of inspiration.

He gave a recent interview with Ross Chainey at European Business Magazine which provided a tonne of insight into the future of work in light of the ongoing crisis.

It was so good that I had to provide an edited transcript of the conversation below. Enjoy

First and foremost, this is a global health and economic crisis. But, for many millions of us, we’re battling a loss of normalcy in our daily lives. How well-prepared do you think we are to deal with a situation like this? Does it play to any of our natural strengths or is it more likely to expose our weaknesses?

It’s a little bit of both, like everything else. The challenging part is, as human beings, we don’t like uncertainty and unpredictability. There’s even some evidence that if you’re highly neurotic, you actually prefer experiencing pain over being in the dark about what you’re going to experience. That’s a part of the crisis that’s really a challenge.

On the flip side, we’re highly adaptable. Darwin wrote when he was building his theory of evolution that natural selection favours a sense of flexibility. It’s not always the strongest species that survives; it’s sometimes the most adaptable.

I think one of the ways we can cope with the uncertainty is: when you can’t imagine the future, you can actually rewind and think more about the past. You can recognize hardships that you’ve faced before. You can learn something from the lessons of your own resilience and then try to figure out “what did I do effectively before that might work for me today?”

I still hear a lot of people complaining about FOMO – the fear of missing out – even though there’s nothing really going on. Has COVID killed FOMO or exacerbated it?

I prefer to think about this less in terms of FOMO and more in terms of what’s often called JOMO, which is the joy of missing out. I actually made a list of all the things I’m thrilled that I don’t have to do, and that includes changing out of sweatpants [and] having to commute.

This is a practice that’s pretty useful for people. We have a lot of evidence that marking moments of joy can actually create those moments of joy because we’re more likely to notice them. We’re more likely to savour and share them. Being able to capture a few things that are really joyful about getting to stay home seems like a productive step.

We’re all separated from our teams. How can we maintain a sense of belonging while isolated at home?

I don’t know that it’s easy. In one company, they did a virtual tour of their home offices. That gave them the chance to talk about some of the mementos that they keep nearby. They were showing off pictures that their kids drew for them. And it was a great moment of personal connection in a way that never would have happened if everyone was in the office.

I’m not suggesting that’s the perfect fit for everyone, but it seemed like a small step that can make a meaningful difference in feeling like I learned something new about my colleagues, [that] I see them more as human beings as opposed to just achievement robots.

Every team has its introverts and extroverts. Do you think this crisis has levelled the playing field between them?

I wouldn’t go that far. I think the reality of the current situation is we’re still catering to extroversion. We’re now sitting on video calls all day, as opposed to saying: “You know what, maybe we should have fewer meetings”.

We’ve known for a while that that introverts’ voices tend to get overlooked in a group setting. This would be a good time to experiment with moving towards some more independent individual work, which we know is the best approach if you want to generate lots of good ideas in groups.

One of the simple practices I would recommend to make sure that introverts don’t get drowned out is to shift from brainstorming to brain-writing. So brain-writing is a process where you [ask] all the people in a team to come up with ideas independently, then submit them. Then you review them. That leverages individual strengths around coming up with original ideas and allows the group to do what it does best, which is to begin to evaluate and refine. That’s probably one of the most effective ways to make sure that introverts are heard.

Through this crisis, managing expectations has become even harder. All of a sudden, we’re workers, we’re teachers, we’re providers, we’re cleaners. Should we try and keep up? Is this good for our sanity?

This is a time when leaders need to be flexible and compassionate. This is not an experiment that any of us opted into, but as long as we’re stuck with it, as a leader, it’s an opportunity to say: “If I impose less control over people’s schedules and plans, that’s going to teach me whether I can trust them or not”.

We’ve known from a couple of decades of research on management and monitoring that when people are monitored too closely, that signals distrust and they respond by saying, “I don’t really feel obligated to act in a way that you might consider trustworthy”. Whereas when you allow [people] to make some choices, they start to feel a greater sense of loyalty and they reciprocate the trust that they’re shown. Given that we don’t have a lot of options anyway to control people, this is the ideal time to do a little bit less of it.

Is this a particularly challenging time for managers, and what advice would you have for them?

I think this is a great time for leaders to be more hands-off when it comes to scheduling and planning. Where leaders may need to be a little bit more hands-on is in figuring out how their people are doing on a day-to-day basis. This is one place where leaders have an opportunity to learn.

Imagine if you’re a manager, how awkward it would be in year two to sit down and say: “I’d love to find out what you’re finding interesting in this job; what aspects of your work you find meaningful; and are there changes we can make that would make your job a little bit more exciting?”

This is a moment when leaders can take a step back and say: “I haven’t always learned as much about my employees’ values, interests, strengths, motivations as I should have, and what better time than now”.

How does work/life balance work in a crisis like this?

Work/life balance has been a myth for a long time. If you care about your family, and you care about your job, and you also want to prioritize health and friendships and hobbies, the idea that you might have even a day where all those things are in perfect harmony to me is hysterically funny, if not just wrong.

What I always strive for is balance in a week, where I might have two days where I’m pretty focused on my work and I don’t get as much time with my family as I want, but then I’ll have two more days where I’m in family mode and work takes a backseat. That’s probably the most realistic way to manage this crisis – to say [that] instead of work/life balance, we ought to think about work/life rhythm.

You’ve written a lot about givers, takers and matchers. Does this period of self-isolation when working remotely magnify or reduce these qualities?

Giving, taking and matching are just different styles of interaction that we bring to the workplace. Givers are people who by default want to know, “what can I do for you?” Takers are the opposite. They’re interested in figuring out “what can you do for me?” And then matchers hover in the middle of that spectrum and say, “I don’t want to be too selfish or too generous, and so I’ll do something for you if you do something for me”.

The takers may feel like they have a little bit more licence to shirk, maybe to steal credit for other people’s ideas. I think though, we’ve seen an incredible outpouring of generosity in this crisis. The givers really see this as a situation where they need to step up. They feel a sense of responsibility to try to help. My guess is that matching gets weeded out a little bit. I don’t think that most people operate like matchers because it’s their core value. I think people match because they’re afraid of the risks of over-correcting on either side. In these situations, people probably gravitate more toward fundamentally, am I more of a selfish or generous person?

One of the big frustrations for givers in a situation like this is they don’t always know where they can help. A couple of years ago, I cofounded a knowledge-sharing platform called Givitas, to make it easy for people to seek and give help in five minutes a day or less. I would love to see more of those kinds of efforts to make sure that we can make people’s needs and requests visible, so that the people who have the motivation and the ability to contribute are able to direct their energy in the way it’s needed.

You said recently that interruptions are part of our new reality. Many people are struggling with distractions and procrastination. Are there ways to make ourselves more resilient to this?

I don’t know that that resilience is possible when it comes to interruptions, because the problem is less that they’re a source of hardship; it’s more that they’re distracting and it’s hard to get back into the task. Probably one of the best things we can do is try to find a sense of self-compassion.

Psychologists like Kristin Neff say, “think of the kindness that you would show to a friend who was in a situation like yours. What happens if you apply that same kindness to yourself?” When we get interrupted, instead of getting frustrated, I can say, “okay, this is a really difficult time right now”.

Interruptions are part of the human condition. They are an intensified part of the human condition during a pandemic. I know I’m not the only one facing these. Let me just see if I can get through today without losing control. If I don’t succeed today, I’ll try again tomorrow. When we don’t beat ourselves up like that, it’s a lot easier to move forward as opposed to wallowing in the challenges we’ve faced in the past.

Is there anything positive that may come out of this crisis?

We’re going to see a lot of employers embrace more flexibility around working from home and having virtual teams. They’re going to find out that it wasn’t as impossible as they thought it was, and there are some productivity gains that come from not having to commute, and getting to work where you want.

On an individual level, unfortunately, there are some people who are going to face post-traumatic stress. The encouraging news psychologically is over half of people report a different response to trauma, which is post-traumatic growth. Post-traumatic growth is the sense that, I wish this didn’t happen but, given that it happened, I feel like I am better in some way. It might be a heightened sense of personal strength; it could be a deeper sense of gratitude; it could be finding new meaning, or investing more in relationships.

Being so eager to get back to normal, having gone through this long crisis, how do we make sure that we learn from this experience?

Learning from an experience like this comes from reflection. As people come out of this crisis and start coming back to work, the first thing that I would do is have a discussion about what everyone learned from the experiments they ran. Some of those experiments were by force, others were by choice, but we’ve all had to test out different routines and the way we work.

I’d want to hear what everyone tested out, what worked and what didn’t, and then keep evolving what we thought were our best practices in light of that. That would be something that you continue doing. Last I checked, experiments are the best way to learn.

Presumably there’ll be some powerful insights for you to learn from this whole experience?

There are going to be some incredible natural experiments that are already being run. They’re going to be analyzed, and we’re going to be able to see what’s the effect of having to work from home on productivity at a scale that’s never been tested before. We’re also going to learn something about what happens to people’s creativity and connection when they can’t interact face-to-face with their colleagues.

There’s a whole group of organizational psychologists, as well as sociologists and management professors, who are going to spend the next five, 10 years studying the effects of this pandemic in different places. In a way, another form of post-traumatic growth is we gain new insights about how to work together effectively from a distance that we wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. And I wish we didn’t have access to it. I’d rather not go through this crisis. But given that we’re stuck with it, we might as well try to learn from it.

6 Ways To Make Digital Investments More Successful

Recently I posted here about how organisations can go back to basics and understand what digital really means. In the context of today’s rapid acceleration of digital and IT investments to support remote or new ways of working – from cloud to SaaS tools to desktop VC solutions – this is critical to understand.

Another key fact to consider is that some of the most successful companies ever were started during or just after times of crisis (e.g. GE, GM, IBM, Disney, Facebook).

For leaders who can seize the ‘re-set’ opportunity this crisis provides – and start to engage with more long-term, future-focused, and exploratory strategic planning with digital at the core – this presents a potentially game-changing moment.

This presents a critical question: how should firm’s approach and organise to make digital or innovation investments and transformations successful?

Whilst there is no playbook, below I pull together a number of perspectives from some of the world’s leading management thinkers and practitioners on strategy, digital, innovation and change.

The Challenge

Digital transformation is extremely complex and requires new ways of approaching strategy. Starting big, spending a lot, and assuming you have all the information is likely to produce a full-on attack from corporate antibodies—everything from risk aversion and resentment of your project to simple resistance to change.

  1. Start Small, Think Big

Professor Rita McGrath calls this ongoing learning approach to strategy: discovery-driven planning (DDP). It was developed in the 1990s as a product innovation methodology, and it was later incorporated into the popular “lean start-up” tool kit for launching businesses in an environment of high uncertainty. At its center is a low-cost process for quickly testing assumptions about what works, obtaining new information, and minimizing risks. According to Rita:

By starting small, spending a little on an ongoing portfolio of experiments, and learning a lot, you can win early supporters and early adopters. By then moving quickly and demonstrating clear impact on financial performance indicators, you can build a case for and learn your way into a digital strategy. You can also use your digitization projects to begin an organizational transformation. As people become more comfortable with the horizontal communications and activities that digital technologies enable, they will also embrace new ways of working.

2. Soft and Hard Facts About Change

Managing change is tough, but part of the problem is that there is little agreement on what factors most influence transformation initiatives. Ask five executives to name the one factor critical for the success of these programs, and you’ll probably get five different answers.

In recent years, many change management gurus have focused on soft issues, such as culture, leadership, and motivation. Such elements are important for success, but managing these aspects alone isn’t sufficient to implement transformation projects.

According to consultants from BCG in an Harvard Business Review article entitled The Hard Side Of Change Management:

What’s missing, we believe, is a focus on the not-so-fashionable aspects of change management: the hard factors. These factors bear three distinct characteristics. First, companies are able to measure them in direct or indirect ways. Second, companies can easily communicate their importance, both within and outside organizations. Third, and perhaps most important, businesses are capable of influencing those elements quickly. Some of the hard factors that affect a transformation initiative are the time necessary to complete it, the number of people required to execute it, and the financial results that intended actions are expected to achieve. Our research shows that change projects fail to get off the ground when companies neglect the hard factors. That doesn’t mean that executives can ignore the soft elements; that would be a grave mistake. However, if companies don’t pay attention to the hard issues first, transformation programs will break down before the soft elements come into play.

3. Breaking Down the Barriers

According to a 2019 article from the partners from Innosight, a critical reason for businesses failing to get the impact they want is because they’ve failed to address a huge underlying obstacle: the day-to-day routines and rituals that stifle innovation.

Shifting+the+Culture+Iceberg

Innosight Partner Scott Anthony talks further about this below:

4. A Systematic Approach

A study by McKinsey here of leaders post-transformation has shown there are 21 best practices for organisation’s to implement to improve the chances of success.

These characteristics fall into five categories: leadership, capability building, empowering workers, upgrading tools, and communication. Specifically:

  • having the right, digital-savvy leaders in place
  • building capabilities for the workforce of the future
  • empowering people to work in new ways
  • giving day-to-day tools a digital upgrade
  • communicating frequently via traditional and digital methods

One interesting best practice was that firm’s who deploy multiple forms of technologies, tools and methods tended to have a great success rate with transformation (see below).

This might seem counterintuitive, given that a broader suite of technologies could result in more complex execution of transformation initiatives and, therefore, more opportunities to fail. But the organizations with successful transformations are likelier than others to use more sophisticated technologies, such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and advanced neural machine-learning techniques.

4. Execute AND Innovate

For any followers of the work of the late Professor Clayton Christensen on Disruptive Innovation (view his HBR collection of popular articles here), this is a fundamental challenge for almost every established firm which often becomes a matter of survival during industry, business model, technology or other shifts.

According to Alex Osterwalder:

This continues to be one of the biggest challenges we see companies face: to create two parallel cultures of world-class execution and world class innovation that collaborate harmoniously.

The Future of Management

I’ve just read a great interview with management guru Charles Handy here.

Here is a great quote from that interview:

“In this disentangled world, people try to talk about agile management as a solution but management is the wrong word. It only makes sense when it is applied to things; you can manage a communication system, you can manage resources, but you can’t manage people.

Management is about making sure that people have the right ammunition to fire the Kalashnikov; leadership is about making sure they use it for the right purposes and don’t shoot their team” – Charles Handy

One core question might be this: Is there still a place for management as we knew it, and if so, what does it look like going forward? This is what most leaders, consultants, management thinkers and more are questioning at the moment.

I’m working on some perspectives so I’ll be sure to share them here soon.