(Check out How This Works, Episode 11, with Skipper Chong Warson. I discuss some of things I cover below, but also some neat facets of human behavior, the problems with ‘fitting in’, and the majesty of a hot Krispy Kreme donut.)
After I wrote Brushfire, I took a step back and asked, “Okay, now what?”
Brushfire is the bedrock of my thinking, the core of my approach to designing a workplace. That’s fine, from a purely philosophical, theoretical perspective. But, as much fun as navel gazing can be, what good is a philosophy if there isn’t a way to apply it? What’s the point of thinking all the thinky bits if there isn’t a way to apply them to The Work?
So, I tried a trick that helped me in the past. You look at all the problems you have and bang each one into the others. The combination of those two problems sometimes brings to light a simpler solution. Sort of like, “I am low on cash” and “I have too much stuff” is an easier problem to solve when you combine them. (The solution is to sell your stuff.)
The old problem, from my days in the healthcare industry, was “how did I make that instructional system?” And while I did the thing, I couldn’t explain how I did the thing. I could chalk it up to a mild case of ADHD which makes it hard for me to explain how I went from A to C because I am not consciously aware of B. Or I could blame the memory lapse on everything happening so fast I didn’t have time to stop and document what I did. Heck, it could be the many blows to the head I’ve received. In any case, I was stumped.
With the new combined problem, “what do I write next that could explain how I made an instructional system?”, I had a way forward. I could explain how to apply the Brushfire ideas in a workplace setting. I could reevaluate my past decisions and thought processes through the lens of everything I had learned since then.
The result is The Flywheel and The Lever, a short book providing an easy to understand framework that can help you build an organization that is more adaptive, agile, and equitable than most.
In its most distilled form, The Flywheel and The Lever works like this:
- Build a system that relies on people and puts them above everything else
- Make input-output processes but let the people to handle the details
- If you notice the process isn’t working right, tweak the system not the people
- If you must, fine, use fancy-schmancy technology. It might help but it might hurt, so be careful.
The workplace is a constructed environment and a controlled one. There is nothing in the workplace that isn’t put there by other people. It’s an artificial construct that humans control completely. Why “9am to 5pm”? Because in 1926, Ford Motor Company issued a five-day, 40-hour workweek. That’s it. No other reason. There is no fundamental requirement or reason for the 8 hour work day. Considering that the entire thing is under our control, why do we allow any of it to function so poorly? Why do we think these systems are sacrosanct and immutable?
Let’s look at the concept of punishment. You show up late to the office and miss a meeting. Your boss, pointing out that this has happened before, sets up a personal improvement plan and sets punctuality goals for you. This makes you feel horrible and increases your stress and causes you to make more mistakes and so on.
But let’s look at this from a systemic perspective.
It’s obvious to you when you make a mistake. You picked up skim milk instead of whole. You closed the wrong tab on your browser. You ate a donut even though you were trying to cut back.
It’s not as obvious when someone else makes a mistake. Did she mean to reply-all or did she mean that response to only come to you? Did he mean to be rude in that meeting or did he feel like no one was understanding his issue? Did they mean to miss that meeting or were their parent’s sick?
So, when you say a mistake is someone’s fault, that this person should be punished or castigated or fined, I have a problem with that.
First, it’s a clear example of the fundamental attribution error (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamental_attribution_error).
Second, where’s the acknowledgement of ambiguity? Where’s the acceptance that mistakes happen because no human being is perfect at anything? Heck, most computers aren’t perfect at everything.
(No, seriously, bit flips are a real problem and ECC not being standard is a strange direction for memory manufacturers to take but I digress.)
While mistakes happen and we can accept the ambiguity of them, it is never a person’s fault that a mistake caused a larger problem. The problem is that the system can’t adapt to mistakes and faults without turning them into a larger problem.
What about another issue? We can probably all agree that power corrupts. We know it well enough to have idioms in multiple languages from disparate cultures that say the same thing. And it haunts any decent student of psychology who has read the works of Milgram and Zimbardo. Those poor men flipped over a rock, expecting to find a few strange bugs, and uncovered a terrifying aspect of the human mind: that we are capable of horrible cruelty when we insist on obeying and being obeyed.
And yet, we do not set up systems to mitigate the corruption when we slot people into positions of power and authority. We hand wave the problem away with harassment training and implicit bias surveys and diversity seminars. We never stop to say, wait, how do we fix the system?
The Flywheel and the Lever is a prescription to solve many of the problems we face in the workplace. But, as with anything, solving some problems will expose new problems. Which is fine.
The problems we face are solvable. And we have no idea what problems lurk behind them. But using that as an excuse is an affront to our humanity. Our species didn’t claw its way into being the apex predator on this rock by saying, “Gee, I know bronze has its problems, but we don’t know what sort of problems iron will have. So, let’s just stick to bronze until we understand all the potential problems of iron!”
And so, in the spirit of finding new problems to solve, here is The Flywheel and the Lever. I hope this helps you, or someone you know, solve the problem of the workplace so they can focus on The Work.