Technology and Organizations

Where to Start: Lead by Letting Go

As many of you know, I’m blogging toward a book on just how we do that  -- how do we design and lead organizations as the boundaries loosen and work is done by a blended workforce of employees, contractors, freelancers, alliance partners, and computers/AIs?
I had the chance to share some of my starting points with the MarketWatch community. Here are the bullets, but I hope you’ll take a look at the longer version in MarketWatch — and most importantly, please share your own perspective and experiences in the comments. How quickly do you think these transitions will take place? Will it be the same for large and small organizations?

How To Lead By Letting Go

  • Let go of traditional job reviews. Instead of the momentous annual sitdown, provide 24/7 performance feedback as needed. The colorful former Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz once fired a manager with no notice after the manager fought so hard for her idea--ultimately successfully -- that she alienated the colleagues she’d need to enact it.’s makes feedback as easy as checking-in on Facebook. Younger workers want more feedback and transparency in their work -- embrace that, as great ideas can come from unexpected places in the organization. 
  • Let go of stay-in-one-place work rules. Marissa Mayer may have had her reasons for cancelling telecommuting at Yahoo, but if you have the right systems, technology, and people in place, flexible workplace strategies are  an important part of most organizations. You get access to a global workforce and the work environment can better match the task.
  • Let go of education requirements of old. Google is hiring more people without college degrees -- if they can do the work. Automattic (the company behind hires into its global workforce by having candidates take on a project as a contractor first.  Coursera, Udacity, Udemy, edX, and many others provide online, often free, ways to keep up the skills needed in the modern workforce. If you do want a degree, realize that you’ll eventually need another one or two to stay on top of the changing needs of the workforce.
  • Let go of traditional mentoring roles.  Mentoring is a two-way street where younger workers can share rapid-fire communication strategies and more senior colleagues can share wisdom around how to value the firehose of information. And like jobs, mentoring relationships can be more fluid with online matching services.

Thank You

Deborah Lohse of Santa Clara University made this post happen. She kicked off the MarketWatch opportunity by interviewing me after my Women of the Channel keynote and then walked me through edits for the OpEd format. 

Walked 6 Miles First Day of Electric Car

My walking was not the fault of the car; the car is great. The car is, however, part of a bleeding-edge ecosystem of apps, charging stations, employer support for sustainability, parking rules, university websites, and my commuting choices. I thought I had followed my own advice to work with all my human, organizational, and technological resources -- but it just wasn’t so.

What I Did to Prepare

  • Verified that I can get to work (47 miles) on a single charge (85 miles, 104 with special option)
  • Verified on website that my employer offers free charging with valid ($300/year) parking permit
  • Pre-registered with the charging network installed in the parking lots
  • Studied map of chargers across the different parking lots at work -- those near my office are free!
  • Bought car, downloaded apps to track charging, registered the keytag sent by charging network

What Happened

  • Drove to work and parked at free charger -- “Not Authorized” blinks after using my pre-registered tag
  • Called the charging network help number, told I need a number provided by my employer
  • Deep dive into employer’s website (using smartphone from parking lot) -- including filling out newly discovered online form to get needed secret code
  • Ate lunch while waiting on secret code
  • Walked to my organization’s parking office to learn more face-to-face and ask if code could be expedited
  • Moved car to other side of campus pay-as-you-go charger while waiting for code 
  • Got some work done (sidenote: someone unplugged car before it was fully charged -- not cool and against the etiquette of charging station use -- app messaged me, but didn’t take a picture of the perpetrator, would be useful feature)
  • Received secret code and submitted it to charging network website, saw that approval status switched to pending
  • Moved car back to free charger after receiving email of approval
  • “Not Authorized” still blinking
  • Called charging network help number and then moved car back to distant pay-as-you-go charger when told approval hadn’t percolated through all the databases to the charger and it could take overnight
  • Skipped going to the gym (I’d done some par course pull ups on one of my six walks across campus)
  • Got some work done
  • Drove home -- 16 "miles" left as it didn't have time for a full charge

What I Should Have Done

  • Realized it couldn’t be as easy as just pulling up to the charger I’ve been driving by for six months. It never is. That would be a silver/magic bullet and those don’t exist -- unicorns maybe; magic bullets, no way. No single technology, person, or organizational system stands alone.
  • Realized that electric car ecosystems are new for everyone and that the people in the parking office will have the curse of knowledge  -- they know how the system works, so communicating the practices to novices is more difficult, especially if they haven’t had to go through it themselves.
  • Gone deeper than the promotional material on my employer’s website. Yes there is free charging, but you have to be pre-approved by both the employer and the charging station network -- takes time and several loops of interaction as there is money at stake. Don’t expect the Internet of Things to come together in one day.
  • Taken note of who’s describing the process that seems so simple. The version that made it appear seamless was coming from our sustainability office, not the people who run parking and have to do the verification. The sustainability office must manage their search engine optimization better as theirs was the top result.
Systems like this are our reality and our future. As I look at my desk, I think my coffee cup is the only thing that isn’t part of a larger system of interactions. My Hint water has codes in the cap I use for promotions. My TV remote is just the beginning of three levels of service providers. Every piece of paper is tied to a website and system of deeper interactions.

What I Learned

If it looks easier than you expect, dig deeper. Think about each of the interactions across the human, technical, and organizational dimensions and what has to be happening in the background. Had I gone through a full checklist, it would have occurred to me that there had to be a way to tell the charger that I had the right to free power -- there had to be a secret code/handshake/incantation and I should have been looking for it. Then again, I did walk off my lunch.

Tiempo Speeds Pay and Motivation

Tiempo example

Aug, 12, 2014: After writing this post, I was invited to invest in Tiempo. I've accepted the opportunity and any future posts will include the disclaimer that I have a stake in the business.

The data entry portion of time-tracking generally isn’t value-added time in our work. In my #SummerOfWorkDesign, I’m interested in finding tools and tricks that help people focus on their work, and not the transaction costs of that work. Y Combinator participant, Tiempo, and other new approaches to time-tracking help speed up pay processes, accounting, and even personal monitoring.

Tiempo co-founder and CEO, Tad Milbourn, is an entrepreneur and intrapreneur I’ve been following for a while. (His Intuit Brainstorm project is the focus of the last chapter of my book, The Plugged-In Manager: Get in Tune with Your People, Technology, and Organization to Thrive.) With Tiempo, Tad and his co-founders (all Intuit alumni), Kyle Kilat and Peter Terrill, take Intuit’s focus on helping people manage their finances and run small businesses and extends it to the time-tracking process -- and integrates it with the Intuit suite -- with more integrations to follow.

Tad recently described Tiempo’s approach to me:

We're trying to create a world where service businesses can get paid instantly for the work they do. No more waiting to track time, waiting to create invoices, and waiting to get paid. Our first invoices that we processed were paid in an hour!


This isn’t just about cash flow. It’s also about motivation and engagement. Yes, I hope we all work at something we have a passion for -- feedback from the work itself is a great motivator (and one of the levers of work design I mentioned in an earlier post). However, motivation comes from a combination of outcomes and the tighter all the outcomes, including pay, are tied to the work, the better the motivation. Economists and management faculty alike will agree on that one.

In Tiempo, pay is the focus, but there is also a “Kudos” button you can click on as you are approving the time someone entered. Tiempo user, Joseph Graves of Workshed says, "Even though my coworker and I work so closely together (literally sitting next to each other), it's a good reminder for me to give praise for a job well done."

Tiempo has competition, which signals to me that other people see the need to take the friction out of this piece of our work design. No more watching my friends scramble as they realize they are about to miss their timecard deadline -- and no more having to listen to them grumble about what a waste of time it is.

Do you have a suggestion for my #SummerOfWorkDesign? A tool or trick that helps you or your organization do better at designing work that is valuable, provides feedback from the tasks themselves, and helps you get the collaboration you need?

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Work Design for All of Us: Location, Location, Location

Where will people do their most effective work? I’m in the middle of selling my old house and just bought a new one, so the common real estate refrain, “location, location, location” has been going through my head a lot. Do people need to work at an organizational site to be engaged? Can they work effectively away from a formal office?

In my prior post, I said,

If more work is being done with fewer jobs ... the remaining jobs, and work in general, must be being done differently. What are the levers we can pull as we do this redesign? Who should be doing this redesign? These are the questions that everyone, from CEO to the newest freelancer, are -- or need to be -- grappling with.

I’ll be working on answers all summer, but today I’m taking on location with the first set of results from research I’m doing with Emma Nordbäck, John Sawyer, and Ron Rice.

The Study

We asked this question in the context of a northern European telecom company. Eight hundred thirty employees responded to our survey. Ninety-nine percent worked full-time for the company and ninety-seven percent had a standard employment contract. They’d been with the company an average of 17 years and largest age group of respondents was 41-50 years old. Perhaps not your standard picture of telecommuting superheros.

Does working away from the traditional office reduce engagement?

Not for this group. Neither was there a significant impact on how often they communicated with their supervisor, though even I expected that the people working away from the office would communicate less. I should have thought about who these people are. They work for a telecommunications company -- they are good with the tools and have been doing this a while.

Carlson and Zmud (1999) looked at how people deal with shifts from communicating face-to-face to using email, and we’ve expanding that thinking to include texting, mobile phones, and conference calls. They found that how well you communicate can depend on your experience with your co-workers, your tools, the organization, and your work. Given our telecom employees’ experience, they have the foundations for working effectively from afar, at least to the extent that it might otherwise affect their engagement with the work.

Next Steps

We have a new set of data just in from both this same company and a northern European travel provider. We expect that the telecom employees have more experience with the telecommunications tools that make up modern work communication, so we do expect to see location playing a role when we compare that company to the travel company. If it turns out that the travel company employees are more engaged when they are co-located with their colleagues, and if the telecom employees again don’t show a difference… then we’ll be able to make stronger suggestions about how best to design work given your particular base of workers’ experiences.

Even before those results come in, I do believe there is value in creating signals around coordination, knowing when someone needs help, or is best able to provide help. Different tools and practices may substitute for things we might miss if we are working from home, a coworking space, a plane, or a client’s office. It may also be that similar tools and practices can make us better connected even when we are co-located with our colleagues.

What tools and practices have you seen provide coordination and signalling value? Does “working out loud” (see this background from John Stepper, and this earlier one from Bryce Williams) fit in this category? #SummerofWorkDesign


Thank you to Tekes and our universities for funding and other support.


Work Design For All of Us: Knowledge to do the Work


If more work is being done with fewer jobs (I’ll review one source for this claim, The Second Machine Age, soon), the remaining jobs, and work in general, must be being done differently. What are the levers we can pull as we do this redesign? Who should be doing this redesign? These are the questions that everyone, from CEO to the newest freelancer, are -- or need to be -- grappling with.

Hackman and Oldham are the two best known names in the world of job design. Their most recent commentary:

It is true that many specific, well-defined jobs continue to exist in contemporary organizations. But we presently are in the midst of what we believe are fundamental changes in the relationships among people, the work they do, and the organizations for which they do it (p. 466).

Work Design for All of Us

Oldham and Hackman describe telecommuting, fluid job responsibilities, and independent contractors with simultaneous jobs of varying duration. But, as they note, while the phenomenon of work has changed, the human issues have not. Alienation, coordination, motivation, and performance are still critical themes to be addressed through the design of work. These themes grow in importance as responsibility for engagement, motivation, and direction shifts to include all workers (especially as freelancing grows), not just professional managers. As work becomes more virtual, distributed, and flexible, we have an opportunity to rethink work design as something carried out every day by everyone.

Emma Nordbäck, John Sawyer, Ron Rice, and I seek a simple model of work design and leadership that can be applied by the people doing the work rather than just management and human resource leads. In our recent presentations, we assess some of the basics of work design and leadership for employees as part of a larger study on flexible work and work-life balance in metropolitan areas. Traditional work at the office, working from home, and a variety of hybrid approaches, including working at other organizations or public sites, are part of these employees’ experience.

Developing a Work Design Tool Kit

Emma, John, Ron, and I are starting with the knowledge used to do work. Knowledge is foundational to the quality and quantity of the work we do. We all bring education and skills to the task, but additional knowledge comes from how the work is designed. Work design can bring to bear knowledge from:

  • The feedback you get from the work itself: You gain both motivation and direction from well designed work. The ability to complete a piece of work and see its result is both rewarding and helpful as you think about how to improve. Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, in The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, had people keep diaries and evaluate their work. What was true for the last 60 years remains the case, feedback as you do your work is a good thing. Feedback that is a direct response of the work is great: A chef can taste the flavor of the dish, a cabinet maker can feel the smoothness of the join, an app developer can see the the code run, and a salesperson can shake on a deal.
  • Technology support related to the work: When Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee talk about technology augmenting work, much of what they are describing is technology giving us access to knowledge we can use to do our work better. Hybrid chess teams made up of relative amateurs using a variety of computer programs can beat the best computer or human grand master, when they know to augment their skills with those of the computer. Truck drivers and airline pilots can be more efficient if they have access to electronic energy tracking systems. Lobster fisherman can track past catches to make predictions about the future. Technology can support our work by enhancing the direction, method, and motivation of our work.
  • Where you work: Location can provide signals about our work. If you are working next to a team member, you may be better able to know when they are going to need the report you are working on. You may have overheard them talking with others, you may have heard them cursing under their breath, or you may see that they are about to pack up and head out to that important presentation. You may also be able to see how the team member is working and learn from his or her example. (While I've focused on physical location, with some thoughtful design, virtual work can be designed to provide the same benefits.)

These are our first three levers: Feedback from the work itself, technology support, and location. More will follow, as will the craft of how to work with these levers. Are these issues you are already managing as you build you own work? If not, use one of these levers to push a change in your work -- and let us know what happens.

Much to Our Surprise

In my next post I’ll share our surprising results from the first of the organizations involved in this research. The teaser question: Who communicates more with their supervisor, people who work in the office with them, or people who away from the office? Big implications for the location lever. #SummerOfWorkDesign

Thank you to Tekes and our universities for funding this research.


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