Why Work Isn’t Working

If you're like most knowledge workers, you toil nights, weekends, early mornings, in the shower, on your commute, and even in your sleep. Mathematically speaking, you can’t work any harder.

If you want your impact to finally match your level of Herculean effort (and your team’s effort)you have to abandon business as usual and work in a new way.

Here’s the truth: 99% of you reading this will spend the majority of your waking life alongside the people you work with (not your family or friends), working inside the walls of a building that bears someone else’s name. But that doesn’t mean your work can’t have meaning, permanence, or recognition. You are more than the agent of someone else’s ambition.

We founded NOBL at the end of 2014 because we believe that meaningful work is a universal human right and that right is at risk inside most organizations. The way we work is limiting our collective creativity and capability, not unleashing our full potential and the potential of those around us.

We believe that work as we know it just isn’t working.

You know it, too. You can feel it. You can see it in the people around you. Burnout. Frustration. Blame. Bullying. Detachment. And finally, failure. You try leaving but then find the same conditions over and over again in all manner of jobs. As consultants, we see dysfunction in equal measure among the Fortune 500 and the darlings of Silicon Valley. No one is immune.

Individual organizations aren’t broken, the reality of work is.

The Five Conflicts At Work

We believe that organizations face FIVE CONFLICTS that define the shattered reality of work today.

  1. Harder vs. Smarter: Organizations are trying to match the increased speed of business by overworking their teams rather than by prioritizing work and streamlining processes.
  2. Bureaucracy vs. Customer-Obsession: As organizations scale, they begin serving their own bureaucracy at the cost of serving their customers’ unmet and emerging needs.
  3. Control vs. Agency: Organizations too often see employees as errant children or robots awaiting instruction, rather than as creative and capable drivers of the business. Employees feel disengaged, if not completely detached, because we’ve taken choice away from them.
  4. Accommodations vs. Opportunities: In the war for top talent,organizations are confusing perks and parties for what truly inspires top-talent: the opportunity (and the conditions) to do the defining work of their career.
  5. Replacing Jobs vs. Enhancing Workers: As software eats the enterprise, organizations are focused on where automation can replace jobs (and cut costs) rather than where it can enhance workers to better serve their customers (and grow the business).

Any of these sound familiar?

Let’s explore how each conflict plays out at work and what’s required to move forward.


Conflict No. 1: Harder vs. Smarter

Organizations are trying to match the increased speed of business by overworking their teams rather than by prioritizing work and streamlining processes.

What it sounds like:

“We’re moving too slowly compared to our market and our customers’ increasing expectations.”

“We’re stuck in way too many unproductive meetings.”

“We aren’t suffering from a lack of ideas, we’re suffering from a lack of execution.”

“I don’t remember NOT working over the weekend.”

“We’re so busy that we never stop to look back to see if what we’re doing is working or how to make it better.”

The Basic Requirements of Working Smarter:

  1. A Responsive Strategy: The organization, at every level and within every function, should have a consistent process of evaluating what customers need, how to deliver solutions for those needs, and what could stop the organization in its tracks. As your market speeds up, as customers become more demanding, and as uncertainty rises, this process should happen more frequently and be more widespread across the company. If you don’t know when you can say ‘NO’ to new opportunities, if you don’t know what filters to use to prioritize your existing work, and if your work has become a list of outputs rather than objectives, you don’t have a strategy.
  2. Clear Domains and Accountabilities: Once a strategy is set, you have to define a) the work required by the strategy, b) who will own each piece of the work, and c) what you’ll measure to indicate forward or backward progress. If you don’t know what you actually control, if you don’t know who has final say on a decision, and if you don’t know what success looks like for your team, you don’t have clear domains and accountabilities.
  3. Clear, Simple Processes: All teams should be able to answer a) how work gets added, b) how work gets prioritized, c) how work gets approved, and d) how the process itself gets improved. Again, as speed becomes more important to your work, processes should become simpler to focus on what’s essential. If you feel like you have to reinvent the wheel on every project, if you don’t know how decisions get made or what information is needed to make those decisions, and if there’s no way to suggest improvements to the current way you work, you don’t have clear and simple processes.
  4. Outsourcing Strategies: One reason companies feel overburdened is that they’re trying to do work that they aren’t suited for. Teams may be busied with work that’s not core to their strengths and doesn’t serve a sustainable competitive advantage. If you feel stuck on projects and tasks that you know can be accomplished faster and better by specialized partners, you haven’t pursued an effective outsourcing strategy.
  5. Meeting Discipline: People should know WHY they’re being asked to meet and each person’s time should be respected. It’s that simple and yet still rare for most organizations. If your meetings start late and end late, if you struggle to find notes and next-actions, and you constantly wonder why you’re in a meeting, your organization doesn’t have meeting discipline.


Conflict No. 2: Bureaucracy vs. Customer-Obsession

As organizations scale, they begin serving their own bureaucracy at the cost of serving their customers’ unmet and emerging needs.

What it sounds like:

“I spend so much time managing up that I do most of my real work on nights and weekends.”

“I have three different dotted-line bosses with three different mandates. By the way, none of them talk to each other.”

“We have so little time for real thinking that we get most of our ideas by watching what our competitors do.”

“We spend weeks, if not months, crafting internal presentations just to get an idea approved.”

The Basic Requirements of Customer Obsession

  1. A Defined Customer: Every team should have a defined customer or set of customers. A customer could be an outside group (e.g. influential teens that buy smart phones) or another internal team (e.g. The Internal Comms Team). By defining your customer(s) you can get specific about their needs and then prioritize your work based on those needs. If you feel disconnected to the impact of your work and you find yourself increasingly serving internal political whims that shift without clear reason, you don’t have a defined customer.
  2. Customer Interaction Habits: Every team should have a recurring habit of interacting with their customers to better understand what they need and how those needs might be changing. Again, your customer might be an outside group and/or it could be another internal team, but regardless, you should be spending time weekly exploring their needs. If you find yourself guessing what your customers need or just following your competitors, you don’t have a habit of customer interaction.
  3. Prioritization & Streamlining Processes: Once you understand a) who your customers are and b) what they need, you can prioritize your work and streamline projects across other teams to avoid duplicating efforts. You can also begin to call into question work that falls outside serving your customers’ needs–work that might be only serving internal egos or bureaucracy. If you don’t routinely meet as a team to assess the relative importance of the work, if you don’t speak to other teams to ensure you aren’t doubling up on work already being done, you don’t have prioritization and streamlining processes.


Conflict No. 3: Control vs. Agency

Organizations too often see employees as errant children or robots awaiting instruction, rather than as creative and capable drivers of the business.

What it sounds like:

“It seems like no one trusts us to make even simple decisions for ourselves.”

“Anyone can kill an idea, but almost no one has the authority to actually say yes.”

“We recruit really smart people and then we discourage their intelligence at every turn.”

“We get asked for our feedback with a survey but I’ve never seen anything put into practice. I think it’s just lip-service.”

The Basic Requirements of Empowering Human Agency

  1. Talent Density: This one’s pretty simple, if you want to distribute greater authority to your people you need to feel confident in your people. You need strong players in as many positions as the business can afford. If you feel that you can’t turn your back on the work or your teams, you haven’t prioritized talent density in your business or team.
  2. Business Training: For individual employees to potentially make decisions that impact the business as a whole, the organizations needs to train and educate its staff on how the business works. Generally, employees only understand their function or step of the overall process. If you don’t know how your business creates value from start to finish and how each step along the way works, you haven’t been trained to understand it.
  3. A Definition of Catastrophic Failure: It’s the responsibility of managers and leaders to define when failure is safe and when it’s unsafe to the project or business as a whole (e.g. challenge the client but don’t leave them without support). This provides guidance to employees and creates a tactical open space for them to experiment and learn. Without these discussions, employees will feel like any risk they take is too risky. This will chill innovation and halt forward progress. If you don’t know which kind of mistake will get you in trouble or put the business at risk, then your organization hasn’t defined what’s safe to try and what’s unsafe to try.
  4. Trained Coaches: In an organization that prioritizes human agency, managers become more like coaches–watching for moments they can support and train staff rather than dictating each and every action. But coaching requires a different kind of training than that of typical management training. If you don’t know how to give feedback to your teams without mandating how they perform tasks or the decisions they should make, you haven’t been trained as a coach.
  5. A System for Feedback Accountability: Organizations survey, poll, and pulse their employees but how feedback is put into practice is actually more important than how it is generated. If you routinely ask employees their opinions but don’t act on those opinions, you’ll create a culture of apathy or even mistrust. Organizations are better off making feedback transparent (as long as employees opt-in to this transparency) and over-communicating the progress or lack of progress made on that feedback. If you can’t track how the business is using the feedback given by you and your colleagues, you don’t have a system for feedback accountability.


Conflict No. 4: Accommodations vs. Opportunities

In the war for top talent, organizations are confusing perks and parties for what truly inspires top-talent: the opportunity (and the conditions) to do the defining work of their career.

What it sounds like:

“We keep losing our best people to startups that pay them less and have fewer benefits.”

“I know what we spend on company parties. If our team only had a tiny fraction of that money to try something new!”

“We recruited people on the promise of better perks and now we have a workforce that revolts when we change the snacks in the lunchroom.”

“My discipline changes so quickly but I’m never given time or resources to up my skills. I’m expected to do that on my own time. Which is when, exactly?”

The Basic Requirements of Workplace Opportunity

  1. Missions, Not Positions: Top talents are defined by more than their skills and past experience. They do more with the work at hand and are able to connect dots within the organization and the world beyond to unlock new opportunities far beyond the limited scope of a job description. Rather than ask these workers to fill positions, organizations should call upon them to answer ambitious (yet achievable) missions. If you feel like you’re job is just checking boxes or manning a limited role on what feels like an assembly line, you have a position not a mission.
  2. A Commitment to Fairness: To unleash the potential of each and every employee, organizations must become ever more democratic and meritocratic. Employees must feel that their efforts and talents are evaluated and rewarded fairly. Therefore, leaders and employees, equally, must confront the difficult and systemic issues of ownership, transparency, favoritism, sexism, and racial discrimination in the workplace. If you feel that there are different classes of workers in your company, that managers pick favorites, that the organization only hires one kind of person, and successes are not equally recognized, your organization may not be committed to fairness.
  3. Training and Personal Development: Top talent will always be attracted most to where they are challenged to grow. Organizations should help their employees to grow their skills with every project, but even more than that, organizations must invest in training and development curriculum outside of the day to day work. This curriculum must be developed with direct input from the team and staffed to provide adequate coaching and support through the process. If you feel like your skills are stagnating at your job and if you feel like leaving is the best way to challenge yourself to grow, your organization doesn’t have a training and personal development program.


Conflict No. 5: Replacing Jobs vs. Enhancing Workers

As software eats the enterprise, organizations are focused on where automation can replace jobs rather than where it can enhance workers to better serve their customers.

What it sounds like:

“We’re stuck using outdated systems and we’re expected to work harder to make up for their shortcomings.”

“We keep introducing technologies like kiosks and apps that just offload more work to the customer rather than solving any of their problems.”

“In terms of business, we’re designing the human out of the human experience. You need more than what you can put on a screen to build a differentiated brand.”

“My company is actively lobbying against paying me a higher minimum wage while at the same time telling me how appreciated I am. The moment I can be replaced by a robot, I know I’m out of a job. It’s disingenuous.”

The Basic Requirements of Enhancing Workers

  1. A Growth Mindset: Organizations that resign themselves to managing a category in decline frequently fulfill their own prophecies by cutting costs until the customer experience becomes a commodity. Categories do decline, but needs rarely do (e.g. taxi services may decline but transportation itself doesn’t show signs of weakening). If an organization finds itself in a decline, it’s a far better strategy to empower front-line workers to develop stronger and more productive relationships with customers to drive preference and loyalty. If you divest in the customer experience, if you hire less skilled front-line workers, and if convince yourself there’s no other course of action, you don’t have a growth mindset.
  2. Internal Pain Assessments: The same kind of work done to understand the customer journey and their pain-points should also be conducted on internal teams as well. As process is better understood, especially where it routinely breaks or slows, assessments can be more easily made on where software should be applied and the expected return on that investment. If you aren’t sure where people need the most help from tools and can’t evaluate the impact of that help, you haven’t conducted an internal pain assessment.
  3. Tools That Serve Workers: Organizations tend to mandate the systems and tools their people can use in order to reduce costs and complexity. These planning cycles are slow and optimize for risk-mitigation to the business and not the benefit to individual workers. IT departments usually own this process but rarely are they measured by how well they continually serve internal teams. If your systems are old, out-dated, and you have no say in how they are improved or replaced, you don’t have tools that serve workers.


Work That Finally Works

If you lead a team or department, now is the time to make meaningful changes to better support your people.

If you work inside a team, this is the time to lobby for meaningful reform to better pursue the organization’s mission.

Make no mistake, though, the conflicts causing the current reality of work are not simple. Each will challenge you and your team to confront hard choices and make tradeoffs:

  • Can we commit time and energy into improving the way we work, even if it means giving less time to a project already slated? Am I willing to give up a project I’m excited about to see work made better?
  • Can we put the needs of our customers ahead of our own? Am I willing to talk to my customers, even if it makes me uncomfortable or challenges my existing ideas?
  • Can we put more faith in our people, even if it means they make mistakes? Am I willing to admit my own mistakes in front of my boss and my peers?
  • Can we create more opportunities for our people to improve themselves and achieve more on the job, even at the cost of a party or perk? Am I willing to give up my own comfort for a shot at a bigger collective impact?
  • Can we invest in technology that empowers employees, even if it doesn’t replace jobs or immediately show cost savings? Am I willing to admit where I need help?

If you can answer ‘yes’ to even a few of these questions now, you’re ready to change the way you work. We promise, the rewards of meaningful work are well worth the challenge ahead.

And you’re not alone.

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