Strategy is what you choose *not* to do

ALSO: 2020s worklife with a 1950s homelife // disagreeing at work

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Making a culling

Picture the scene – something that happened not far from you in the six months before lockdown started. At a well renowned blue-chip firm, the great and the good had gathered for the bi-annual gathering of the divisional leads and the top cheeses. The agenda this time out was going to focus on respective product development initiatives and the progress that had been made since the last earnest get together the previous spring. 

As all 8 divisions where going to be up front, by necessity the agenda was long and taxing. Nothing is ever as dispiriting as an agenda that goes onto a third page. There was a lot to get through and thousands of slides had been harvested in preparation. The first leader, Geoff, stood up and gave a slightly under-cooked update on his team’s innovation project. Interesting idea, badly presented. But it wasn’t Geoff’s sugar-free delivery that proved an issue with the room, it was the content. Geoff had barely taken his seat when he started observing the slightly puzzled looks around the table. A slow, creeping realisation was rippling from seat to seat. In seconds, the room was united in an awkward unease.

The Chair sensed that something was up and called on one of the senior leaders to clear up the confusion. “We’re actually working on a pretty similar idea,” she piped up. “Erm, and so are we,” chimed another. The room broke into the throb of chaotic chatter as everyone came to terms with this mishap. As one slide had already placed the duplicated development costs at well into six figures this wasn’t just inconvenient it looked spectacularly wasteful. 

The pandemonium only increased when the Chair adjourned for a break, taking the three offending divisions aside to try to make sense of what had taken place. In mitigation each leader offered the same explanation, they each asserted they’d outlined their propositions at the spring meeting and had each received the green light to proceed. The confounding detail was that not one of them could remember a single detail from each other’s proposals. Quickly a laptop was sprung open and the document pack from the last meeting was called up – sure enough the proposals all sat neatly laid out in landscape slides.

By one account the spiralling fury of the Chair was only assuaged when one of the plaintiff’s offered in their defence the plea that ‘He’d been chairing the meeting and hadn’t noticed, how could they be expected to be more aware than him?’ A true story shared with me by a listener to my podcast, Eat Sleep Work Repeat. But what does it tell us of modern work? Sadly it’s all too relatable. I often wonder what would happen today to a child who underwent a Freaky Friday-style teleportation into the brain of one of her parents. “Mum, you seem to spend all day in meetings and on Zoom calls, pretending to pay attention”. One stat that came down to us in the Before Times was that Brits spend 16 hours a week in meetings, but many listeners anecdotally tell me that their own Zoom meeting quota has gone significantly higher than this. The travesty is, of course, that if we’re barely paying attention beyond our own contribution then we’re burning through our best cognitive hours trying to feign fascination. 

This is such a critical consideration. If we’re on huge Zoom calls and Teams meetings when colleagues are going through slides and we’re not paying attention then the question has to be ‘what would happen if we stopped this meeting?’ As I quoted George Bernard Shaw right at the start of this newsletter series, ‘The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place’.

ASIDE: Shopify did just this and abolished all recurring meetings

The biggest lesson of strategy we all learn is that faced with an abundance of choices, strategy is what you choose not to do. And so it is with meetings, being strategic with meetings is realising that asking a team to present their PowerPoint slides with 100 people might not do the job that we think it does. The audience sit with cameras off and do emails.

Why is the burden of Zoom calls the abiding experience of work for so many of us these days? Largely it seems to be down to the wholly laudable goal of trying to keep colleagues ‘in the loop’. Since our first excursion to the playground the fear of missing out on some insight has felt so brutally excluding that we’ve always valued having the latest news. We might hate the meetings we attend but our curiosity about those we’re not invited to is unencumbered by reality. 

The truth of it is that we need to have the talk about Zoom calls. Our objective needs to be clear - no one should have more than a day’s worth of meetings a week – 8 hours – and getting to that goal, rightly, should involve some difficult decisions. Video calls are a tax on our best people’s energy – and it’s time for a massive tax cut. When meetings are the exception, rather than the norm, our energy and attitude towards them transforms. When we apply scarcity to a decision, we become more honest in our prioritisation. Our experience of work is often determined far more by the everyday realities of meetings and emails, than even the best resourced wellness programmes. If you’re looking to fix your culture, you can do worse than start by opening your calendar.

When we’re thinking about Geoff and his presentation to his colleagues, none us want to be Geoff, we want our best ideas to be heard. We’re only going to get there if we lower the Meeting Tax. 

Remote work - the ultimate diversity engine?

On the latest podcast by superstar academic, Adam Grant, he talks to the Hollywood directing legend JJ Abrams about creative work in a pandemic. Firstly he mentions that trope, that we’ve heard a lot this year, that his first instinct during lockdown was that you had to be in the same room to be creative:

‘If you had said to me that we would be breaking stories without being in the same room together, I would have thought said it was impossible if not wildly unlikely. [But] online… not just the Zooms but the online whiteboards that allow people to collaborate has, I think profoundly changed the way that stories, at least on television will be broken’.

Grant asks him whether that means the end of the physical writers’ room. Abrams hesitates from going that far but says that there’s been a realisation that removing physical place has knocked down a wall for diversity: ‘there’s something great about the focus and the access that you have from anywhere… this has really accelerated the evidence that this is a valid and really productive way to work.’

Listen: Apple / Spotify (the relevant bit is at 30 mins 45)

Microsoft leans further into remote working

It’s really fascinating to see how Microsoft have leaned into remote working with pace, certainly in comparison to the obvious comparison, Google, who seem to be chasing the pack. Microsoft announced Viva this week, an experience that lives inside Teams. There’s a the truly appalling promotional video tries to make it a little too much like Minority Report Does Yoga.

The summary is that the firm is adding specific elements into Teams that support learning, Topics (‘a Wikipedia for the organisation’) and partners like Headspace. Yes, things like the daily virtual commute are part of this refresh.

As Elen Davies from Temporall - who use machine learning technology to help empower better workplace communication - told me, it’s very much MS exploiting their ‘desktop incumbency and harnessing the innate trust consumers have in recognisable brands’. The issue seems to be that they believe work begins and ends in the Teams app, and I wonder if that might prove unhealthy. Nevertheless, it’s impressive to seem them developing this, I do sit and wonder why we still treat Google like a fast-moving innovative company.

What’s the route to better disagreement at work?

What can any of us do to ensure we resolve our disputes in a more productive way? A brilliant discussion with Ian Leslie about his forthcoming new book, Conflicted. We cover Mandela, The Beatles and lots more!

Apple / Spotify / website

- 65% of Brits say the last twelve months have damaged their mental health

Tears, stress and feeling overwhelmed: The impact of Covid on wellbeing was one of the themes of a feature by the Financial Times. It’s worth reading this one, stories of parents struggling to get projects completed, workers toiling on with covid and Sunday night emails.

Brilliant description: one respondent said she was doing a 2020s job in a 1950s household.

- ‘Someone told me… the way to get respect… you have to have three arguments a day. Three big arguments that reinstate your power, remind everyone who’s in charge, be the predator.’ 

Interesting article about how the old rules of power might not be relevant any more.


Make Work Better is created by Bruce Daisley, workplace culture enthusiast. You can find more about Bruce’s book, podcast and writing at the Eat Sleep Work Repeat websiteMy brand new Audible Original about remote working was a top 10 title on Audible this month - it’s free if you’re an Audible subscriber.

2nd book writing status: ⬛⬛⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜ 23% glacial progress with no childcare