9 minute read

It’s 2022, and as the first few days of the year rush by, you’ve no doubt started to think about the year ahead, maybe even trying to predict what the year ahead might bring. However, it’s not a trivial task, and a fool’s errand.

Predicting the future is practically impossible, nonetheless, what is true is that the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.

That’s one of the big themes throughout the book “The Next Rules of Work”.

After my last blog post on Atomic Habits, I was asked if I was still a reader. The answer is yes, I’m still reading and listening to books, but none have quite inspired me as much since Atomic Habits to the point that I’ve been compelled to write about it, until now.

So… what happens next?

While away on my summer holiday, I tend to read a few books, magazines, listen to a few podcasts and audiobooks.

During my summer holiday of 2021, for the first time in a long time I actually went into a real shop at the airport, W H Smith, which I usually only really buy sweets, water and maybe the odd magazine, and I decided to buy a book.

The book was titled “The Next Rules of Work” and it was placed as number one in the business section, but that wasn’t what really attracted me to it, it was the word “next”.

I’d come to realise that after this experiment of working from home, that COVID forced us into, what’s next is going to be interesting, it’s a topic of much debate already and a subject I really wanted to really get to grips with.

I didn’t really hold much hope though as it’s a pretty short book by someone (Gary A. Bolles) that I’d never heard of, so it was a bit of an impulse buy. Nonetheless I wanted to read about the subject at hand and a short read would give me time to attend to my other digests.

From the first few pages, I found it humble, educated and insightful, which kept me turning the pages. The content itself was certainly what inspired me to write this.

Although I’m always reading, or listening to books, I don’t always do a write up unless I can really resonate with them as otherwise I feel it’s a bit disingenuous, I want to share and document the relevance.

Although pages earlier in the book inspired me to think differently about how businesses currently operate, driving me to take a few notes, it wasn’t until a bit later that I reached the point where I felt there was sufficient grounds to warrant more than just a few notes I’d scribbled down in my notebook.

The future is here

The first thing I noted, even before I even got to the section that discusses it, was that, we are already living in the future, it’s happening right now all around us. You only have to look around, we have artificial intelligence, robots and electric vehicles among us already. We’re living it and it made me think that what happens next is up to us.

The next note I made was around how work should be broken up into small tasks, something I’m more than familiar with as it features quite heavily in scrum, agile, lean and continuous delivery. However, it reminded me that rather than organising ourselves around technology (something I’ve been actively fighting against for quite some time now), we also should avoid organising around function (ie: sales, support etc) and instead we should be organising around business capability.

The book has also reminded me that we’re beyond just doing tasks now and that we need to hire problem-solvers not task-doers, despite execution being important, we don’t just need people who can perform tasks, we need people who can actively solve problems.

The next thing it reminded me of is that we should think about a business or product as a platform. A platform that you can grow from, that customers can grow with.

In a growing business one of the biggest issues is that the more people you get, the more removed you are from the problem, so, based on the teachings in this book I think more emphasis is needed to get people closer to the problem, or better to the solution, ie: how do sales sell the product? - Uber isn’t just a ride sharing platform, it gets people from a to b.

New balance

Recently, I’ve heard (and seen) a lot of people talk about burnout. One of the takeaways from this book was that project-centric work must be counterbalanced with quality of life metrics and guardrails around the amount of work that people are consistently encouraged to do.

A side note, a trend I’ve noticed recently, that I think is more of an Americanism is using the word “humans”, when they mean “people”, ironically I find the use a bit dehumanising. The use of the word human to describe people is akin to an alien landing on earth to tell us stuff they learned from Wikipedia, a bit like when Mark Zuckerberg talks in congress.

The use of the word human is a bit too biological or scientific for the dealings of what is more physiological or political. I don’t think it’s the authors fault, it’s more of a commentary on the vernacular that should be avoided in business, otherwise it feels like a debate of robots vs humans, which isn’t really a debate at all, but can create a culture of uncertainty and an us vs them environment which is never collaborative. The opposite of what I think the author was really going for.

I found the conclusion around ‘real jobs’, very insightful - it’s true. It actually reminded me of “The Anthem by Good Charlotte”, whose lyrics are “Go to college. Or university. Get a real job. That’s what they said to me”.

The truth is, ‘real jobs’ are becoming a thing of the past, you only have to think about the gig economy and how many people you know that have a side business, maybe it’s as simple as selling stuff on ebay or Etsy, perhaps it’s a game of app they’ve built or a small SaaS business model. I think the main takeaway is that this results in the need to be more flexible and accepting.

I genuinely think that this will be the biggest step change we will see in 2022. I can see the appeal of people becoming YouTubers or TikTokers rather than grinding themselves to the bone working all hours god sends, being paid minimum wage, for a job they hate, at some distribution warehouse. I think young people are seeking more of a balance in their work. We can’t blame them either, it’s certainly more appealing.

Always be learning

I really resonated with the idea of Just-in-time learning. There’s simply so much information now, that it’s almost impossible to work any other way unless you go through a traditional course, knowing that is only the foundation as things will have changed by the time you finish it.

What prompted me to start writing this post was the point around the Venn diagram demonstrating the overlapping portfolio of skills and how various skills can intersect. This reminds me of a number of conversations I’ve had with more junior colleagues as I’ve helped to explain what I think is important to a manager or prospective employer, only I used the analogy of Trump cards. I would explain that what is important these days isn’t just being a specialist in one thing, you need to have skills in other areas that can compliment each other in a role, so rather than just being a developer, what other skills might be useful in the team that could be nurtured.

It’s interesting that in the book it mentions “Guide Management”, moving managers from being “the sage on the stage” to “the guide on the side”. Being a servant-leader is an idea that I’m familiar with, and has been one I constantly battle with as although it’s good for the team, it’s not always seen by senior management as perhaps direct enough or strong enough, making your skills look weak compared to traditional thinking, so this can often need a change in culture from senior management to be successful.

What I do think is important for this to work is to switch to the “ask, don’t tell” philosophy, which the book describes as asking questions to help each team member draw insight and solve problems on their own. This is something I have found works really well when the team has the freedom to problem-solve, rather than just do tasks.

The workplace has changed

In 2022, businesses will need to have a flex-culture, not a stuck one.

One thing I think has really become obvious to me over the pandemic is that the workplace has become a space where the team can get together for intentional collaboration, something that has noticeably been absent while we’ve been working from home.

In this new post-pandemic world, we need to get used to the idea that even when people are working onsite, physically in an office, they will still need to be considered as a “remote worker”, because that’s the new normal. Being in the office, even if it is 3 days a week for most people, will still make us a distributed team. We must embrace the idea of untethered work.

Embracing the mindset that we are a distributed team even if only one person is working in a separate location. Being able to hire workers from anywhere in the world is a potential game-changer for any business that should be explored.

Preparing for the future

So, now we’re aware that we live in this ever-changing future, what can we do to prepare for it?

To get the best out of our people, they need to be free from being given tasks to do and instead have the support and autonomy to solve problems. Give ourselves time and space for deep-thinking, to grow, learn and evolve. Being patient and investing in the team is going to go a long way.

Building a tolerance for taking risks, embracing it as part of the process, not shaming and shunning. Build teams that are consistently effective at delivering value to the customer, rather than focusing on high performance.

One of the other things that resonated with me in the book is the idea that every 3-6 months, the organisation and how we work will change, so change for an organisation is no longer a thing that is orchestrated every 3-5 years, it MUST happen almost continuously, the 3-6 month cadence is long enough for a project to have a start, a middle and an end, but short enough that you have the ability to be dynamic and adjust to change.

It’s not enough to just set quarterly OKRs though, these days a regular six-monthly review is needed as well, in order to assess the strategy as a company, aligning the whole company, with everyone involved.

Such a meeting provides an opportunity to be clear and deliberate about the purpose of the work, to communicate expectations clearly and guide people to solve problems, to promote the courage to give honest feedback.

As a leader it’s worth remembering that I won’t always have the best answers in the room, but I need to be the one in the room with the best questions. It means remembering to encourage those in the room to speak up and shine through.

It’s important as a leader to inspire and spark curiosity, and double-down on creativity to come up with new ideas.