How to deliver 10X productivity (Part II) for Knowledge workers?

Part 2 of a 3 part essay on the future of work in a post COVID-19 World. 

As we discussed last time, in order for 10x productivity not to be just a pipe dream for your organisation, the four different types of knowledge work that you and your employees wrestle with every day need to start working for you, and not against you. In the second of my three-part essay on the future of work in a post Covid-19 world, I’m going to be examining four key areas that demand your focus if we are to move forward towards 10x productivity. Interestingly each also relates to a question, Why, Who, How, What and although I don’t discuss when, timing is always a critical aspect of being productive.  

Purpose – Why 

An organisation’s big purpose, its why, mission, vision, is supported by many smaller purposes, which in turn are supported by its knowledge workers. These smaller purposes make up all the different objectives that when optimally aligned, keep the organisation productive. So, a clear and defined purpose, big or small, with clear and defined objectives, is key for a high performing organisation. A major part of this is down to clarity decreasing waste, which therefore increases time for problem solving work, which in turn engages employees, and if you can turn that engagement into inspiration, it’s been shown that employees who are inspired can be 125% more productive (source: HBR). Yes, that 125%.  So, purpose deals with two essential needs – clarification of work and workforce inspiration. One is tangible, the other less so. The level of increased productivity between highly motivated and unmotivated members of staff has been shown to be significant (source: Forbes). Problematic levels of motivation during the Covid-19 pandemic have been widely reported such as with video conference fatigue, demonstrating these challenges in a very real ways. Bestselling author and motivational speaker, Simon Sinek is quoted as saying, ‘There are only two ways to influence human behaviour: you can manipulate it, or you can inspire it’. In the third part of my trio of essays, I’ll be discussing how new ways of working can help turn engagement into this ever-illusive inspiration.  

People and Connections – Who

If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing’ – 

W. E. Deming, engineer, author, and management consultant. 

Work stems from people and for the most part, it is done by people. Concepts like work in progress (WIP) limits can help staff manage their workload and work optimally. However, this concept is not widely adopted outside of the automotive and some manufacturing industries. The switching costs, switching from one type of work to another (reactive, planning, procedural), should not be underestimated and has a significant impact on the most productive type of knowledge work; problem solving. Switching costs therefore impact on peoples’ ability to get into a state of flow and deliver quality pieces of work. Flow is the concept of being in the moment. Everyone has experienced flow at different times in their life. It’s when your brain is firing on all cylinders, you see connections and possibilities that weren’t there before, and when you remember to check the time, inexplicably, hours have passed. This is not because you haven’t been paying attention, but because you were in a state of flow. Distraction is the enemy of flow, and yet we allow email and instant messaging to fuel our work worlds and continually interrupt us, making it harder than ever to get into this state.  Work stems from people. At least at the moment for the most part. Artificial intelligence has the potential to change this, but more on that later.   Businesses are like living beings, they react to stimuli. When change happens, the effects ripple throughout the entire organisation; and if the change is not managed efficiently this can result in wasted time and energy, a bit like a stubbed toe turning into a broken foot. And just like a living being, the knowledge contained within an organisation needs care and attention as it’s not just held in files and folders. How information is exchanged around a business depends on connections, and the standard of these connections will impact on productivity.  You can’t stop an employee from leaving, but you can provide clear connected pathways to ensure that the knowledge in their head remains within the organisation. And the knowledge workers that remain need to understand how their work impacts and contributes to the whole. The McKinsey Global Institute has shown that productivity improves by 20 – 25% in businesses with highly connected people. Communication, be it face to face, software, though API’s or middleware; much of it stems from its tools and processes which are often narrowly focused within an organisational silo. Increasing and improving the connectivity, therefore increases and improves productivity. However, 74 percent of employees say they miss out on crucial company communication (Source: Mindshare), which should make you wonder just what else your business is missing out on.  

Process – How

The next fundamental block is process. Although many of us may not realise it, every piece of work we do has a process. This could just be the way you’ve always done it, it might be notes or tasks you create, or it might be a clearly documented process that every employee is required to follow. But all work has a process behind it.  Great organisations recognise this and invest in documenting and optimising their processes creating standard operating procedures and target operating procedures. They use continuous improvement to identify and deliver better ways of working. It’s through this work, core competencies can be established and used for significant competitive advantage. Great examples of this would be General Electric, and SONY who are both well known for their use of ‘Playbooks’ and six sigma to define their process.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of businesses don’t have clear processes, instead they rely on recruiting smart people and letting them do it their way. This can work, but when people leave, the owner of the process leaves too, and so does the institutional intelligence they brought with them.  

The Message – What 

But if you want successful connections, you will also need to get the messaging right. In fact, if any of the above fundamental blocks are to work efficiently, it all comes down to the messaging. Messages are everywhere in our modern world, from the 280 character tweet, to the hefty documents we use to educate and inform. Organisations rely on sound bites, press releases, meeting minutes, sales decks, emails, IMs, FAQ sheets, the list goes on and on. Message creation, and then subsequent message updates can result in organisational waste if the initial clarity is lacking. The creation of assets left unadopted by teams across an organisation, or a message so jumbled that every employee interprets it differently, are all stumbling blocks to productivity. Simply put, messaging is knowledge sharing and knowledge management, and unless a business has invested in the right communication tools, as the organisation grows, any messaging problems, and therefore hindrances of attaining 10x productivity, grow with it.  Traditional ways of working are evolving, we didn’t need a pandemic to show us that, but maybe it’s taken one to make us see where the fault lines our in our companies and organisations lie. In my final essay, I will be pulling everything together and showing how the application of artificial intelligence is the next stage in the 10x productivity revolution.  

Why Curious Cognition?

Why have we called the company Curious Cognition? Well, you need to read on to find out….and I’m hoping that the fact I posted a question will hook your interest and keep your attention. It’s a tried and trusted storytelling technique, and it leads into what I want to tell you about – what I’ve been doing and why I decided to leave Travelport. It begins back in January 2017 when I became fascinated by the power of authentic storytelling.

From selling to storytelling

I had just been promoted as part of a restructure into a newly created role of a chief storyteller at Travelport. I quickly set about enhancing my predominantly product management and marketing skill set with all I could find about storytelling. I interviewed a large number of senior stakeholders across the business to understand what everyone thought the current company story was. Unsurprisingly – this is common to many large companies – everyone had a different view of what they believed (we’ll come back to this in a while) the company story was.

Following the interviews, I spent time with Gordon Wilson Travelport’s CEO to capture his thoughts before we worked with the brand team to start to build out a company narrative. This drew on some of my newly discovered skills such as the seven-point story arc, the concept of the audience being the hero and the presenter being the mentor, all of which is designed to increase the empathy and authenticity of the story.

The Power of the Platform

Within a few weeks, we had built out a topline company narrative which became known internally as the “The power of the platform”. This story started to be shared with customers at our events and in one-on-ones during strategic reviews with key customers. After a few weeks of feedback and a few tweaks, it really started to resonate with customers. You know when a story is working because your audience leans into the room – you can physically see them lean forward and become much more intense and interested in what’s being said. When the story is crafted with the things the customer cares about, it starts to matter to them; it’s about them not you. Good delivery also clearly matters and helps the messages land.

Pitch perfect

Next up I worked on building out a curriculum so that I could train more people across the business on what was rapidly starting to feel like a superpower. I read a number of excellent books – you can find many on my goodreads.com list – and I watched and made detailed notes from the Ted Talks on storytelling. It’s amazing just how much free high-quality content you can find online….

With my newly-created curriculum, I started to work with different teams; up-skilling people on the basics and more advanced topics. All was going well, but I still did not feel that most people had the confidence to use it in their day-to-day engagements with customers. So as part of a sales academy programme, we rolled out training and we began something we called pitch perfect – giving the sales teams a safe environment where they could pitch ideas and get feedback on their upcoming customer meetings. I think it’s fair to say – and I will be interested to see if any of the Travelport team comment – that most people who attended not only understood why it worked, how to ‘do it’ and what they should do to be successful, but they also seemed genuinely energised by the process. Which brings me back to that point about ‘believing’. By turning them into believers in storytelling, it was turning them into believers in Travelport.

Seeing more and more success from the approach, I started to wonder what it was about authentic storytelling that made it work, and I began reading more around the subject.  I had previously read Hooked (by Nir Eyal) about how product managers could create addictive products. It talks about triggers, actions and variable rewards – such as all those little dopamine hits we get making the red dots disappear from our phone icons, the badges we get through gamification and much more. I then referenced that book to find others, coming across several books on heuristics, behavioural economics/behavioural sciences and cognitive biases. You can think of heuristics as cognitive shortcuts or rules of thumb that simplify decisions. Because our brains use lots of energy and the body is always looking to conserve energy, they are the shortcuts we use to make decisions. Some lead to cognitive biases affecting rationality and most crucial decision making. It’s heuristics and the associated biases that account for why storytelling works so well.

Today…

Today, a few short weeks before the end of 2018, I’m excited to be working on the next chapter of my life, building out my own consultancy focused on supporting product management teams and their executives who want to optimise the performance of their products and portfolios.  This falls squarely in my comfort zone of commercial product management, product P&L’s, pragmatic product management and, of course, lean start-up.  Plus I’ve remained active in coaching and working closely with a number of the product managers and proposition team members during my time at Travelport.  I’m focused right now on consulting engagements and finding one or two non-exec board roles. I’m convinced, however, that it’s going to be possible to create social and economic value from connecting the dots around cognitive biases and helping organisations and product managers build more effective messaging…and I have started to run some experiments, including lean start-up.

So, why Curious Cognition?

There are a few reasons. The first is the fact I have always had a very curious mind – I’m always reading something or listening to an audio book. A couple of years ago, I taught myself some iOS coding and built a few simple apps (following guides such as https://www.raywenderlich.com) as I thought it would be useful when discussing product requirements with developers – the fact it gets dark really early in the UK in the winter also helped! Second, I have always wanted to build my own product and I think I have some interesting ideas that I am working on right now.  Nothing to share publicly at this stage but stay tuned to find out more on that front. The final reason is a little more personal; my own curious cognition is driven through the simple fact that I suffer from dyslexia – which is a blessing and a curse. Reading and writing English is a chore and even with spell checkers I still find it to be a real effort sometimes. I will often write things as I would say them, leading to verbose and unclear sentence structure.

On the bright side, modern technologies have good workarounds tools like www.grammarly.com, audio books and voice recognition. Other strengths include the fact that I build relationships with people quickly, have good verbal communication skills and an IQ of 139 the last time it was tested. I would describe myself as a horizontal thinker – I join things up other people don’t see, I am quite creative and I used to be a wiz at organic chemistry, in-fact anything requiring 3D visualisation or spatial awareness. The other thing dyslexia has given me is a strong work ethic and maybe a little overachiever’s syndrome and a fear of failure. When you’re the stupid kid in the class you have to work harder than everyone else and then, one day, you’re not the stupid kid anymore. But by then the damage is done, and the work ethic is set. It’s funny how the last few weeks have made me realise some of these defects in my character are very ingrained.

Inspiring leaders

So, after two years of successful storytelling, I am totally confident that storytelling is a better approach to conventional presenting. There is no shortage of evidence for the benefits and a number of inspiring leaders have been focusing on its virtues for some time. I believe in the power of authentic storytelling; narratives that come to life and stick in the hearts and minds of the recipients. And it’s the cognitive biases that are at the heart of that reason that it works. If you want to influence behaviour, consider creating a good story for your products, for your strategy, for your review, for yourself.  Customers who have been won over by a good story are more likely to share it with others. And if you want people to remember you or your company, tell them a good, authentic story with all the details that give them a reason to care and reason to share it.

This is the first of my Curious Cognition blog articles – I would love your feedback. I know it’s a little longer then convention would recommend, but I have never been one to stick with convention.