Bosses as teachers, innovators, and terrors

This past week had me uncovering a long thread of research — unplanned actually — that confirm the central and powerful role of bosses in the workplace. Setting that context, in one post (In a social world, management’s new role is teaching social literacy) I quoted from The Value Of Bosses (Edward Lazear et al):

A boss’s primary activity is teaching skills that persist.

This is a statement of subversive optimism, it seems to me. The researchers’ work quantified the impact of good bosses as being roughly equivalent to adding an additional team member to a nine member team, and that  impact is stronger with better workers, presumably because the better workers are more open to learning.

In an increasingly social world, where digital literacy must include the skills of using social tools, we will therefore need to have managers that can teach social literacy.

And we have to stop pretending that knowing how to login to Facebook is social literacy, as Ana Silva points out.

The dark side of the power of bosses is fear. Employees are working longer hours and harder because they are fearful for their jobs (Productivity demand up despite us working longer), and productivity demands are increasing. Senior managers believe that an additional 20% of productivity is needed, according to a CEB study, and this must come from increased collaboration: from greater social literacy.

So, we need to start by making sure managers across the board become extremely socially literate, and knowledgeable in teaching social literacy as well. My experience to date suggests this is not the case in business today, and is unlikely to be even a high priority in most companies, where training in social tools and technique is often the job of community managers or consultants, not line management.

And we will have to find new ways to innovate in our social experiments. So bosses and staff alike will have to achieve social literacy, enough so that social business innovations can be tried and evaluated. I suggested in Lean social means no paving the cowpaths that the principles of lean development and the lean startup should be applied to the adoption of social in business:

The principles:

  • Work fast
  • Minimize waste
  • Expose ideas to real people early and often
  • Test hypothesis
  • Iterate in response to feedback
  • Scale successes

First of all, I think this argues for social software that is naturally and explicitly organized around this lean principles. For example, social tools that explicitly support intuitive and fast techniques for disseminating new ideas and gathering feedback in useful and visual ways. (I selected that as an are where I think that today’s tools fall short.)

Secondly, I think this runs in conflict with the default model in most businesses today, the majority of which are still operating around the concept of fixed, well-defined business processes that people are supposed to ‘follow’ to get jobs done. But we’ve switched to a world of rapidly changing work, where work is becoming more collaborative, and solutions have to be contrived following general principles not exact formulas. Yes, the principles define a sort of meta process, but it is simply a general template for a modern sort of lean learning.

Last, moving to a lean mindset — at the corporate, department, project or individual level — means that adoption of social can’t be taking the existing way of doing things and simply gluing some social stuff on top. It can’t. If only because the way we do things is the biggest leverage in innovation, and social has to be about innovation first, and secondly about improving productivity and efficiency of existing ways of doing things.

I think companies should adopt a lean social approach, and this once again has to become the mantra of managers. They have to drive these innovations.

And the climate of fear in the business world, where companies are cutting staff and asking the rest to work harder and longer, is a serious issue. This often is manifested as fear of the boss, particularly fear of getting fired. And when people quit their job, they are actually quitting their boss, because the communication is bad and there is little trust.

One technique to counter that fearful communication is anonymous feedback to bosses. I reviewed a new specialized tool for exactly that use case called Tell Your Boss Anything, which is well-designed for its purpose, intuitive, and simple to use. And it counters the inherent fear of retaliation that surrounds negative feedback to a manager.

One CEO, Charlie Kim of NextJump, instituted a company policy intended to end the precarious fear of the workforce: the fear of getting fired. He adopted a ‘no fire’ policy, and it changed everything in his business:

Charlie Kim: Once you realize that you are entering into a lifelong relationship, hiring starts to look a lot more like adoption, or dating. Multiple interactions over some time are required before our team would get comfortable with a prospective hire. Every hiring manager started hiring more carefully, something I’d been advocating for but couldn’t make happen in every manager. Without further direction, they started treating hiring like adoption: once we take someone into our family, they’re here for life, when things don’t work, they’re responsible for training them, helping them.

Training also became much more comprehensive, touching subjects such as character, grit, and integrity in ways we had previously viewed as beyond the scope of company training.

Once again, the central role of training for leaders — teaching skills that persist — comes to the forefront, but the radical nature of going to ‘no fire’ is breathtaking.

And Kim discovered that removing the fear of being fired led to a surprising result: 0% turnover. Basically, people value the stress-free, playing-for-the-long-term environment of the new NextJump, and they aren’t lured away by companies offering more money. Money is less important than belonging.

On The Tool Front

I reviewed Mailbox, the highly anticipated email client that implements a very smart email ‘snooze’ model. I will be using it as my preferred client from now on. I looked at Brightpod, a small and simple work media tool, and it may well be the perfect minimum viable product in that space. And I profiled Crowdbase, a very smart social sharing solution — a sort of Pinboard or Pinterest for the workgroup — which I am actively using myself.

Michael Wolf commented on Twitter’s acquisition of Bluefin Labs —   part of a rapid consolidation in the social TV market — and he thinks Twitter was after their patents and contacts in the advertising side of things. Wolf also wondered what will become now that it is being sold back to the founders by AOL, but that direction is not at all clear at this point.