You know that feeling when you hear a word for the first time, and then in the span of a week it shows up three or four times, as if it’s always been there, right under your nose? For me, what keeps showing up in my client discussions, reading, and research is the notion of doing work differently, or not accepting business as usual. It’s about putting people first while also doing meaningful and profitable work, rather than focusing on profits at the expense of people’s well-being.
What is Doing Work Differently?
To some, it means creating more opportunity for collaboration, flattening the hierarchy, and pushing down decision-making. The January CliffsNotes Book Club book Beloved Economies by Jess Rimington and Joanna Levitt Cea offers several examples – check out the book notes on the portal and my recent blog).
It's also about taking away the noise (bye-bye, meeting-packed days!) and trusting people to do good work—with minimal or no supervision. This episode (39 min) of the Wisdom from the Top podcast with Basecamp founder Jason Fried is a great example. This wildly successful company has always had a small remote team (approx. 50 people), and one of their practices is to ensure people have focused time to work—meaning a full 8-hour day to work, with minimal meetings. There are no shared calendars, and there is no practice of “grabbing time” on someone’s calendar to talk.
It’s also about redefining wealth. Many organizations have adopted the “triple bottom line” as the primary success factor where they consider profit, people, and planet. What’s interesting, however, is that typically decisions are still driven to increase profit. For example, wellness programs are established but the rationale is that when you have healthier employees, they’ll be more productive and therefore you’ll get more out of them. It’s challenging to find an organization that truly honors all three equally. One of my longtime clients Capitol Benefits is an excellent example, and their strong retention and engagement is no coincidence.
And yet for others, “doing work differently,” means making space for people who would otherwise not have a chance at an interview, much less a career. Busboys and Poets, a unique restaurant/bookstore/events space with several locations in the Washington, DC, area, is a great example of this. It’s their practice to “ban the box” on the employment application question that asks applicants to declare if they have a criminal record—which ensures all applicants have a fair chance.
Rethinking your practices on decision-making is an example of doing work differently that many leaders can implement at their team level. And it has a huge impact on team effectiveness. Whether you are a senior executive or a frontline leader with a small team, you likely have discretion to design your decision-making process.
Now, a reality check. It's easy to idealize an environment that does work differently and, in doing so, we may not consider that there are pitfalls to avoid. So let’s look at this more closely. I want to help you make positive changes and make sure that you don’t swing the pendulum too far over to the other side...
Doing Work Differently | Hierarchy AND Collectivism: A Hybrid Approach to Decision-Making
I have been looking at this topic in terms of the polarities—or seemingly opposing forces—at play. Let's look at "Hierarchy" versus "Collectivism."
Many of us have already experienced the downsides of working in a hierarchical environment. Perhaps you experienced that you weren’t involved in decisions, didn’t have a voice at the table, and weren’t bought in to the vision. Naturally, if you have the ability to do work differently, you may think, “When I lead a team, I want to include everyone in all decisions and value all perspectives.” Which seems great at the surface level, but what happens when you lean into this approach too far?
Then there is the collectivist model...If you are too inclusive in decision-making, you may find yourself in a situation where every tiny decision needs to be socialized. Organizations that are overly collaborative tend to move slowly, and the result can be frustration or missed opportunity. Also, when everyone has a chance to weigh in, you may have difficulty making a final decision. Are votes needed every time? What about contentious issues?
Being aware of the pitfalls will help you navigate through this polarity to get the best of both approaches. Here are a few tips based on what I have seen work in several organizations over the years.
Tips for Doing Work Differently, and Getting the Best of Both
Organizations that do decision-making effectively and make it collaborative tend to:
Questions to prepare you to do work differently. Ask yourself: