Wednesday, December 31, 2014
Tuesday, December 23, 2014
Sunday, December 21, 2014
Why the 'Best Places to Work' Often Aren't
I can't imagine going to work at a company without first checking how its employees feel about working there. If you want to know what it's like to work in a given company, what better way than to ask its employees, and providing them anonymity, so they feel safe to say what they really feel?
Last week, the website Glassdoor released its seventh-annual list of the 50 best places to work among large companies. You don't have to read far into the reviews to discover how vastly different it can be to work in a high-rated vs. a low-rated company.
For example, 95 percent employees at Nestle Purina and 91 percent at In-N-Out Burger would recommend their companies to a friend, compared with just 29 percent who would do so at RadioShack and Sears.
Google, the highest-rated company on both Glassdoor and a list compiled by Fortune magazine, promotes a culture of constant innovation and an inspiring mission. It also offers a remarkable array of services and perks to employees. Alongside competitive salaries, Google provides terrific food, at no cost, workout facilities and low-cost massages.
But these lists don't really measure something even more important: the quality of their employees' lives. Over the last decade, I've spent countless hours interacting with employees at all levels in many of the companies that appear on the Glassdoor best-companies list, as well as on the Fortune annual 100 Best Companies to Work For list.
What these employees tell me, with increasing consistency, is how exhausted and overwhelmed they are. The relentless work demands take a toll on their health, happiness and family life. That also affects their morale and their ability to think creatively and reflectively.
Why, then, do employees at all of the companies on these lists rate their employers as highly as they do, including on their internal engagement surveys?
They are, I believe, the prisoners of low expectations. They're grading on a curve.
Their vision of the possible is limited by the workplace experiences they've had. They've been rewarded for working long hours while sacrificing other aspects of their lives, including time with their families and time for themselves. They've learned how to rationalize their choices, and not to expect more from their employers.
In turn, even companies genuinely committed to creating positive work environments mostly continue to operate as if their people have infinite capacity, and are able to do ever more, with fewer resources. Precisely the opposite is true.
Energy is our most precious resource. In physics, it's defined starkly as "the capacity to do work." Higher demand in the absence of sufficient rest and renewal means less energy. Less energy means less capacity.
So how can you define a great place to work? It begins with creating a work environment that enables and encourages all employees to regularly refuel and renew themselves, both on and off the job. That will make them capable of bringing the best of themselves to work.
As demand rises ruthlessly and relentlessly, employees at the "best places to work" aren't less willing to go above and beyond what's expected. That is the definition of engagement, but it's not sufficient. K. Anders Ericsson is the researcher best known as the architect of the "10,000 hour rule," which suggests that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery in a given field. But Mr. Ericsson has also found that the best performers in a range of disciplines practice in surprisingly small increments. Typically, it is for no more than 90 minutes at a time without interruption, followed by a break, and rarely for more than 4½ hours total in any given day.
How many employers on the Glassdoor and Fortune lists actively encourage their employees to work no more than 90 minutes at a time? Or to take regular renewal breaks during the day? Or to truly disconnect from work in the evenings and on the weekends?
Precious few companies recognize that it's not the number of hours their people work that determines the value they create, but rather the energy they bring to the hours they work. As Mr. Ericsson has found, it's possible to generate more value in less time by focusing intensely and then renewing than it is by working long and continuous hours.
The simplest measure of a great place to work is how it makes employees feel to work there day in and day out. That requires meeting the four core needs of their employees: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.
Is there any question that if people feel healthier, happier, more focused and more purposeful at work, they will perform better? In turn, here is the question employers atop the Glassdoor and Fortune lists would be well served to ask themselves: How much time and energy are you investing to ensure that your employees are healthier, happier, more focused and more purposeful?
Saturday, December 13, 2014
This remarkable new product by Amazon (link at the end of the article) raises several interesting thoughts.
Starting with Charles Babbage's analytical engine, the world has moved rapidly. We learnt to convert things to binary, and represent the binary bits in the form of vacuum tubes. Then we learnt how to use them to convey simple instructions through a language which could codify algorithmic thinking. We learnt to think and represent our ideas in algorithms, representing them in simple paths that involved yes/no, if/then/else, and 'do/until' kind of language. We started communicating with the machines through punch cards, then with low- level languages, then developed high-level languages with compilers and interpreters to translate them into computerese. Then came GUI's and the mouse, and all we have to do now is point, click and drag. The storage capacity on the computer and the processers themselves evolved at a furious pace, giving rise to the famous Moore's law, a pace that had never been seen in the world before. Computing power is doubling roughly every two years, and costs are halving, which effect has been seen over several cycles - given the power of compounding, the gains in just a few decades are nothing short of miraculous.
In parallel, telecommunication technology is growing at a scorching pace. More and more data are now being transported more and more distances, at a faster and faster pace. This enables the linking of all knowledge in the world into one huge source of information and the capability to handle auditory and visual media which require more number of bits to store.
The gains in processing speed and storage capacity look likely to continue; as the current materials used reach their limits due to the laws of physics, newer materials are being found; from using electricity for carrying information, experiments are on to use light itself, and so on. The linking of the whole world is continuing apace, with the same pipes carrying ever-higher loads, and almost everything being linked wirelessly. 3D printing is evolving to such an extent that in a few years, manufacturing anything will involve downloading the design, customizing it, and feeding it into your printer.
In all this progress in computing, there were two big barriers - the first was one of battery life and battery size, and the second was how to interact with the computer. Even now interaction is largely through an interface like typing which has to be fed in, and the output of the computer is through something like a screen which has to be read out. The battery is still a problem, but the interface world is changing fast. Computers are being equipped with sensors to hear what we say, and natural language processors to interpret them. AI algorithms are giving them the ability to learn from their own past, and modify their behaviors depending on the context. They are becoming more and more like humans, in the sense that they can take cues from the environment through their senses of touching, hearing, and seeing. Smelling and tasting are still some distance away; but the evolution of 4D and 7D movies is a sign of things to come - smells and taste are also being digitized and broken down into bit sized pieces, capable of being transported, interpreted and manipulated. The human sense organs are limited to particular spectrums - what we see, for example, is not the same as what a fly sees; what we hear is not the same as a bat; and what we smell is not the same as a dog. We operate within a limited band of spectrum for each of our senses; a constraint that the computer does not have. The computer's inputs will be as good as the range of instruments we provide it with. Couple this with the fact that it has an infinite storage and retrieval capacity, along with the entire world's information available for immediate retrieval, and you are looking at a superhuman being slowly taking shape.
As we speak, drones are raining death in Afghanistan, controlled by someone playing video games at the Pentagon. Other drones, which can attack in swarms, communicating with each other and deciding attack strategies without any human intervention, are already a reality. Robot security guards are being deployed at the Microsoft campus in the US, and there are robot shop assistants in Japan like this one:
Cars are driving themselves, and they are safer than human drivers. The machines can already beat the best grandmasters at chess. The days of robots like Endhiran (from the Tamil movie of the same name) are not far away.
Meanwhile, as machines are getting smarter and smarter, we humans are getting dumber and dumber. Our attention spans are getting shorter, our physical bodies are weakening and getting obese at the same time, and we are stopping to think for ourselves.
Humankind is doomed. The 'Amazon Echo' device shown below is just a precursor of things to come. (link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KkOCeAtKHIc )
Friday, December 5, 2014
It is very puzzling for us to see people doing something, but professing to be doing something else. It is even worse when what they profess is not what they actually believe, and what they believe itself is often an amalgam of what they have been told they are supposed to believe; often a situation where they do not know whether their beliefs are their own, or merely what they have been telling themselves they should believe.
Whenever there is a dichotomy between belief and thought, and thought and speech, and speech and action, there will be conflict. Whenever you set out to achieve a set of conflicting objectives, there will be dissonance.
Modern organizations are full of these contradictions. Management theory plods on in the mistaken belief that many of these problems can be solved, and constantly keeps churning out tools and techniques to solve these problems. My submission is that many of these problems cannot be solved, due to the inherent contradictions in the way modern organizations are structured. At the same time, we cannot admit that these problems are not solvable, for reasons we shall see later in these articles, thus complicating the situation further and creating the ground for a tragi-comic screenplay which keeps getting re-enacted across organizations.
So what are these inherent drivers of contradiction? This is just a free-flowing top of the mind list, based on my experience of working with large organizations:
1) As you go higher and higher in an organization, the degree of ambiguity increases.
But as you go higher and higher the need for managers to project that they are omniscient, all knowing, also increases.
2) In order to scale up, you need to cut all processes and everything that people do, into littler and littler pieces, thus destroying the very soul, destroying its wholeness.
But as you become more successful as an organization, you need to retain people by pretending and proclaiming that what they are doing is good for their soul and makes them evolve on the Maslow scale.
3) In order to do something well, you need to measure it. In order to measure it, you need to institute metrics and reward people based on those metrics. All organizations are big on metrics, since that is the only way to control the complex beast called an organization.
But the moment you measure something, it becomes useless as a measure of precisely that which you are trying to improve. This stems from Heisenberg's uncertainty principle which states that you can either fix a particle's position, or arrive at its momentum, but not both, never both. Also called the Observer's paradox, where the moment you observe something, it influences behavior and changes the outcome.
4) All organizations work for profit. ( I am only talking of commercial for-profit entities in this piece).
But they have to pretend that they work for all kinds of ennobling objectives, and appear as serious responsible corporate citizens.
5) All organizations want to become one efficient, functioning, integrated whole, something like the human body, where all our body parts work in concert to create something so wonderful.
But what they become is efficient, functioning, isolated islands, where each part works on, growing in isolation for its own survival disproportionate to the needs of the body as a whole. This results in completely disproportionate body parts.
6) All executives in an organization, being good corporate citizens, are supposed to work for the overall good of the organization. They are all supposed to be driven by one grand vision.
But what the executives are actually driven by, are in most cases, visions of their own grandeur. Each person's vision is his own, shaped by his limited context, and towards selfish advancement.
7) All organizations imagine themselves to be like a military operation under command of a great general, marching relentlessly towards a well defined target that will be conquered.
But in actuality they are a bunch of disparate people, pretending to march to similar goals, towards an ill defined objective, in most cases not knowing what it is they want to conquer.
8) In order to scale anything, you need to dumb it down. Organizations have realized this, and are dumbing down drastically, to grow.
But they cannot admit that they are dumbing down. In the modern age, everyone demands self actualization. So organizations go to great lengths to convince people that the dumb things they are doing, monotonously day in and day out, is actually good for their well being, and will lead to their nirvana.
9) it is more and more difficult to measure knowledge work. In the old industrial age, productivity was very easy to measure, like number of nuts fitted around a bolt. Modern work is much more amorphous, more mindwork, making it very difficult to measure.
But organizations like to pretend that they can measure everything. They continue to endeavor to measure everything, continuously mangling the soul of the work in the process.
10) All things when they grow, become big, ponderous, and inflexible. Organizations are the same.
But organizations have realized that in order to survive they need to stay flexible. They have constant nightmares of how the dinosaurs became extinct, and in their hearts, they know that they are dinosaurs. So they try to teach the dinosaur how to jump like a monkey and soar like a bird. This leads to many hilarious situations, as you can well imagine.
11) All organisms are born, grow, mature, and die. This is the law of life.
But organizations don't want to die. They want to live for ever. So they are constantly on the lookout for making an old body look youthful, and like the phoenix, want to keep rising young from the ashes of the old. This too leads to many hilarious contradictions and interesting situations.
12) All organizations need to compartmentalize in order to do things better. All work is compartmentalized repeatedly till it is possible to dumb it down to the lowest possible unit, and then scale it by mindless repetition by unthinking robots.
But at some level, they need to retain a soul, some soul, some impression of wholeness, some pretence that it is a thinking, feeling, entity. The romance of an artisan creating pieces of art can never be retained by a modern organization; the problem is that the organization wants to pretend that it is so.
13) All organizations need to kill diversity, in order to align and grow. Their people need to dress alike, think alike, behave alike. And that is what they strive for.
But all organizations, without exception, like to believe that they are encouraging diversity. A lot of this has to do with political imperatives and social considerations.
14) As organizations grow, innovation dies.
But all organizations realize that they need innovation to survive. There is an inherent contradiction here that they constantly juggle with. As with many other things in corporate life, the proposed solutions to increasing innovation, are in many cases mindless repetition of some activities with some innovative slogans. The irony is usually lost on everybody.
15) Due to the contradictions that are inherent in working for an organization, employees' health and well-being is a casualty.
But organizations like to believe that they promote their employees' health and well-being. They implement a lot of programs, which also suffer from many of the contradictions mentioned above, for the well being of their employees.
16) All organizations like to think that every 'stakeholder' is working towards a common goal, for common benefit, for the lofty ambition of making the said organization the best in the world.
There is nothing farther from the truth. The shareholders are bothered about profits, the Board about their position, the managers about their perks, the employees about their jobs; and all of them are remote from the customers who they don't really care about except as milch cows to give them their daily milk. This one factor in itself leads to many contradictions.
There are many more contradictions inherent in organizations, I am sure. As I think of more of them, I shall not forget to put them in. It will also be interesting to go into each of these contradictions, and see how organizations repeatedly get themselves tied into knots by these. The most ironical part about organizations is that the people working there cannot admit that these contradictions exist. They keep meeting each other and assuring each other that life is one fulfilled whole, where fulfillment is of course defined as meeting the organization's goals, and retiring happy every night.