New Ways of Working
Can Help Change Stick
Organizational growth has started to look different in the modern workplace. Beyond revenue and earnings, there are other forms of growth rising in relevance, and not all of them are fun to experience. As you face increased competition, your organization might be growing in:
- complexity (think increasingly matrixed functions and new acquisitions)
- uncertainty (think traditionally low-tech firms “going digital”)
- volatility (think restructuring or leadership shake-ups)
These new types of growth call for new ways of working. In the past, most organizations have imported best practices from the outside to manage their change – now, those practices are often falling short, or worse, causing unforeseen complications.
At TiER1, we believe that an organizational transformation process is the sum of many individual transformations. Through our consulting work, we’ve studied the science and craft of new ways of working, and we’ve learned that an adaptive workforce is the cultural glue that makes change stick. Exploring new ways of working opens a path to discovering possibility in the ordinary and a connection with common sense; change becomes frontline-led and bottom-up.
The ways we work are the sum total of the patterns of team behavior that make up the course of our everyday. The ordinary quality of these “ways of working” is what makes them so powerful. While they govern a majority of how we operate, manage, and decide what to do, we rarely examine them.
How Do You Know if Your Organization Needs New Ways of Working?
Every organization has periods of flourishing and periods of stagnation. While the signals of flourishing are clear – upticks in hiring, promotions, and sales records – signals of stagnation can be harder to spot. It is easy to forget that growth periods are often periods of difficulty; the more our organizations grow, the more resources, capabilities, and knowledge get stretched beyond their limits. Like hermit crabs looking for a new home, the need for transition time is heightened with growth.
Think your company might be experiencing growing pains? Professor and management systems consultant Eric Flamholtz and his team identified several negative symptoms of organizational growth. If your organization is going through a change, your people might be thinking:
- “There aren’t enough hours in the day.”
- “I spend too much time putting out fires and not enough focused on my work.”
- “I have to do it myself if I want it to get done correctly.”
- “These meetings we keep having are a waste of time.”
- “I feel insecure about my place here. Is my role important? Will it go away?”
If even some of these worries sound familiar, it might be a sign that your old patterns of work (and the structures that enable them) need to be refreshed. Developing new ways of working can energize your team and help it adapt to new realities.
What Are the Elements of ‘Ways of Working’?
Ways of working are the patterns of behavior we use to get work done. We often support these patterns with structures (policies, procedures, and technologies) that help to reinforce behavior. While an understanding of “ways of working” is a good first step, the real power in this approach lies in enabling teams to adapt their own patterns (“ways of work”) in response to the needs they see directly on the frontline. Designing new ways of working is about putting the power of transformation in the hands of the frontline so they can create change that the team will actually adopt.
The elements of “ways of working” are the familiar patterns and actions that make up our behavior. For example, in the ritual of family dinner, structure is provided by the room, the table and chairs, the utensils, and, more subtly, by who sits where at the table. Employees in organizations come to expect that same familiarity at work: the usual meeting rooms, desk spaces, PowerPoint presentations, and format of discussion. In both situations, much of what we do is so often the same that it fades into the background and goes unnoticed.
Elements that influence our patterns include:
- Rules – Written, formal descriptions of prescribed behavior patterns and expectations (e.g., submit time and expense sheets before the end of each month).
- Principles – Conceptual guidelines of recurrent behavior patterns that enable associates to make decisions, especially when there is no defined way forward. These are “rules of thumb” that often function as basic truths (e.g., the person closest to the client makes the call).
- Patterns – The behaviors themselves. These are not the idealized behaviors that leaders believe should happen but, instead, the behaviors that actually happen. This includes the workarounds, back channels, and exceptions that employees often utilize to keep work flowing through your business (e.g., not running a deliverable through all levels of review in order to meet a deadline).
As we have studied and experienced “ways of work” in action with our clients, TiER1 has learned there are three common patterns of work that emerge in groups: routine, ritual, and rhythm.
- Routine – Repetitive, unconscious patterns of interdependent behaviors between people. These patterns are habitual and help you manage chaos, as well as accomplish and process more during times of calm (e.g., daily standups, email check-ins).
- Ritual – Repetitive, mindful patterns of behavior that are intentional, meaningful, and symbolic. Rituals are meant to energize you and your team and connect each of you to a higher purpose (e.g., meditation, prayer, holiday party).
- Rhythm – Like seasons, every organization, department and team goes through natural cycles that are defined by the sector, industry, or function in which they work. These are “long-cycle” patterns employees establish over the course of the year. For example, if you work at a newspaper, your rhythm is the daily edition. If you’re an advertiser, it’s a campaign. If you work in an art gallery or museum, it’s the calendar of exhibitions.
In Rituals for Work, Kursat Ozenc and Margaret Hagan explain the difference between ritual and routine well: “Rituals can have routine qualities, but rituals are not routines. A ritual is an intentional act; it needs you to be present and committed when it’s happening. Routines, on the other hand, are automated, and often only get recognized when they’re broken.”
Routine is powerful in its ability to help our teams cope in today’s overloaded workspaces. The more confusing, emotionally challenging, and inconsistent our workdays become, the more our brains are put into overdrive. Cognitive scientists call the mental limit humans have cognitive load. Think of an overstuffed suitcase that just won’t close – eventually, our short-term memories simply cannot store any more information, and things slip through the cracks.
Ritual, however, is about connection and vitalizes our work. It connects us to others and to our higher purpose. Approaching aspects of our everyday work with mindful intention helps us drive clarity, engagement, and belonging. We need a good balance between routine, ritual, and rhythm to adapt to organizational life.
At the core of the “new ways of working” approach is a practical idea: simple shifts in our everyday patterns of interaction can make new things possible.
Why Does TiER1 Believe in New Ways of Working?
Many organizations start at the very bottom of the metaphorical iceberg of culture – with values, beliefs, and underlying assumptions. While powerful forces, they are also the hardest to see and change.
Ways of work brings our focus closer to the surface – the words we use, the behaviors we partake in, and the structures we design to enable our work are common features of “ways of working,” and they are much easier to shift. In this case, acting your way into a new way of thinking is our recommendation.
How Do You Design New Ways of Working?
Seeing your own working patterns does not come naturally. Here is a five-step approach we use to empower teams:
1. Surface Your Patterns. Examine the patterns with the greatest potential to have an impact on bringing your desired future into reality. We usually start by asking about the BIG FIVE most common patterns at work: presentations, managed discussions, status reports, open discussions, and brainstorms. These simple patterns often give way to more complex ones, like design sprints and hack-a-thons.
2. Break up the Pattern into Its Parts. Patterns that occur in groups usually have a few common components (to see a visual example of this breakdown, check out the Rework Canvas we designed, which is based on the work of Irrational Labs in San Francisco and the Rituals of Work book team.
- First, a trigger—a cue that tells an individual or a group there is a need for the pattern to take place. For example, if the pattern is family dinner, the trigger might be arriving home from work and starting to cook. If it’s at work, the completion of a project might trigger a team retrospective.
- Next, a sequence—at its simplest, there is a beginning, middle, and end to the way work happens.
- Last, there are barriers and benefits—barriers are all about what makes the pattern harder to get through, and benefits are all about the goals or purpose that explain why a pattern exists in the first place.
3. Generate Ideas for a New Way. This is a rich part of the design process. Teams can reimagine the roles that participants play, the props that get used (think agendas, swim lanes, scrum boards) and the way time is structured to speed up or slow down the pacing of the work. Whatever way your team approaches this activity, one thing is certain—this type of design does not go well if you are sitting in chairs discussing across a table. Behavior is acted out, so your design process should be active, too.
4. Try It Out. Once your team has developed a new way of work, test it out. Find friendly eyes and ears that would be willing to be part of the experience.
5. Let It Stick and Evolve. Freedom is a critical component to this type of work. The more leaders try to control work from above, the less the pattern will take hold. It is better to offer freedom within boundaries. Ask your team: What guiderails for this new way of working can be offered that leave enough room for interpretation? What about this new way of work is special that will make it stick? Patterns of behavior are by no means a formula or recipe. They evolve over time.
New Capacity for Growth
Developing new ways of working is ultimately about increasing your organization’s capacity to grow. With growth comes the need for recovery and healthy transitions. This approach to the work of culture change is generative and puts the power of change in the minds, hearts, and hands of your frontline performers. While many approaches to organizational change prioritize big-picture plans and strategies, designing new ways of working allows your employees to realize their own potential for growth through change. New ways of working connect your hardest-to-reach stakeholders (the frontline) with a design process for the path forward.