How can we translate the lessons organizations have learned over the past two years into a structured approach for moving forward?
That’s a core question behind Competing in the New World of Work, published this week by Keith Ferrazzi, Kian Gohar, and Noel Weyrich. Their answer is what they call “radical adaptability,” which essentially means encoding the flexibility and resilience required during the pandemic into businesses’ processes for the future. “Radical adaptability prompts you to constantly anticipate change, reinterpret it, and transform yourself through change,” they write. (p. 11)
Some of the most valuable takeaways from the book:
- Embrace the breakout room. The authors are proponents of asking questions of a team and then breaking members into groups of two or three to discuss. “Our research shows that teams that operate in this way solve problems faster and get bolder contributions from many diverse voices,” they write. “That’s because people who are conflict-averse are reluctant to share openly in a big room and feel more psychologically safe in breakout rooms of two or three people.” (p. 30.) When the teams reconvene afterward, they’re more likely to remain candid even in a larger group. Ferrazzi, Gohar, and Weyrich recommend spending at least 50% of meeting time in breakout rooms.
- Practice “collaborative problem solving.” This involves using a 60- to 90-minute meeting to tackle one or more business-critical problems—such as “What’s most likely to derail us in the next six months?” (p. 31) For at least half the time, attendees break out into groups of three or four. Then they reconvene to discuss, and the ultimate decision maker says “yes,” “no,” or “maybe/requires further research” to the ideas generated.
- Adopt “agile” across the organization. Engineering teams use an “agile” approach to tackle projects in short multi-week “sprints,” with high levels of communication, feedback, and support. Ferrazzi, Gohar, and Weyrich recommend using that approach broadly: “Teams develop the discipline of putting customer value ahead of other considerations. Then team autonomy is driven downward, setting biweekly sprints toward measurable outcomes,” they write. “Completed work gets bulletproofed through team feedback. The final step is to scale agile throughout the organization for long-term sustainable innovation.” (p. 51)
- Zoom out and zoom in. This approach, borrowed from John Hagel, involves zooming out and using collaborative problem solving to tackle the questions “What does the 10-year future of our industry look like? And what is our desired position in that future?” (p. 127) Teams can then zoom in and launch two experimental projects that can be completed in under 12 months to move themselves in the zoom out direction.
- Recontract your team. Teams should discuss the behaviors that need to improve for them to succeed and the new practices they could adopt to that end. They then sign on to a plan and commit to supporting each other.
Competing in the New World of Work is one of numerous books capitalizing on business leaders’ desire to make sense of the past two years and prepare for the next chapter. It has the merit of recounting the stories of specific companies, some of them clients of Ferrazzi’s consulting and coaching business. And the book identifies some key areas that managers should focus on: collaboration, customer-responsive project management, mental health and wellbeing, foresight, and how purpose can motivate.
But on the whole it’s predictable, has significant blind spots around diversity and inclusion and fair labor practices, and doesn’t cover its main topics as well as books more narrowly focused on them.
To be sure:
- The book’s chapter titled “Collaborate Through Inclusion” doesn’t discuss racial and gender diversity and inclusion at any length. And it is notably missing any significant discussion about the role of more racial and gender inclusive practices in creative future-ready workplaces.
- The final chapter, on organizational purpose, is weak. Readers would be better off skimming Ranjay Gulati’s Deep Purpose, which we published a briefing on last week.
- The authors compare the pandemic to Burning Man, an annual off-the-grid happening in the Nevada desert popular with the Silicon Valley elite. It’s a tone deaf analogy, given the actual death, suffering, and loss of the pandemic.
- The book is blithe about any impact on individual employees, saying there’s “no one right answer” (p. 169) as to whether to use gig workers or outsource work. It doesn’t acknowledge those arrangements’ link to inequality and precarious work conditions or the potential for layoffs at companies which shift to them.
- Frequent mentions of Ferrazzi’s consulting practice make the book in places feel primarily like a marketing vehicle for that business.
Memorable anecdotes and facts:
- As part of its annual planning exercise in 2020, Unilever’s North America unit crowdsourced ideas for growth and risks to avoid from senior managers. (Such planning traditionally was more tightly controlled by the top leadership.) Of 90 ideas submitted, six priorities became part of Unilever’s 2021 plan.
- VC Fred Wilson found that 80% of failed startups never managed to move beyond their original vision, while two-thirds of successful startups had pivoted from the original idea that got them funded.
- When Patagonia’s retail stores closed because of the pandemic, it trained store workers to provide online customer service from their homes. The outdoor retailer’s staff is now cross-trained across in-person and electronic sales and support, which is helpful given seasonal shifts in its business.
- Best Buy leadership concluded its customers want their store staff members to be a kind of “inspired friend.” So the company assembled teams for two hours on a Saturday morning in 2017 in stores to discuss what behaviors would deliver that feeling to customers.
- In 2020, Target software engineers built and deployed an app in just a week and a half to manage the number of shoppers in each store.
- “How we’ve worked hasn’t been working for a long time, but we’ve continued to cling to outdated ways of work as though we were hanging by our fingernails over an abyss.” (p. 3)
- “The number one lesson from the pandemic must be that we have to develop a strategy to survive similar shocks in the future, be they events or the relentless disruption of sociological and technological change.” (p. 15)
- “The purpose of foresight is to identify what you need to do today in order to succeed tomorrow. In the words of Stanford futurist Paul Saffo, ‘The goal of forecasting is not to predict the future, but to tell you what you need to know to take meaningful action in the present.’” (p. 97)
- “Scenario planning not only encourages future thinking in your team members but also encourages them to be more open-minded about the present.” (p. 117)
- “Performance assessment needs to fundamentally shift from measuring accountability for past actions to a future that measures how quickly your team learns new skills to accomplish a task.” (p. 180)
The bottom line is that Competing in the New World of Work discusses useful approaches to get teams working together and provides a helpful reminder that resilience and adaptability will remain key organizational attributes in the next chapter of work we’re entering. But the book has major shortcomings and doesn’t break enough new ground on the important topics facing organizations in this moment.