Dr. John Boudreau is Senior Research Scientist and Professor Emeritus of Management and Organization at Marshall School of Business. He is recognized worldwide as one of the leading evidence-based visionaries on the future of work and organization, through breakthrough research on the bridge between work, superior human capital, leadership, and sustainable competitive advantage.
Dr. John will be joining us at the upcoming People Matters TechHR SEA 2021 wherein he will speak on the future of work design using the agile innovation approach. In an exclusive interaction with us, Dr. John shares further insights on the approach as organizations design a return-to-work strategy and what are the pitfalls they can avoid by using this approach.
What are some of the things that organizations need to keep in mind while designing a return-to-work strategy?
The most important thing is to approach the next phase of work as an experiment. As Pete Ramstad and I wrote in a recent LinkedIn blog, I prefer a policy such as this one:
“To all of our valued managers, employees and non-employee workers: We don’t know what the future of work will be. However, we DO know that all of you have learned to innovate continually, as you have crafted your work to meet the unprecedented opportunities and challenges of the pandemic. So, instead of one policy applied to everyone, our ‘policy’ will be to invite and equip you to design your work through agile innovation and experimentation.”
What are some of the pitfalls of a one-size-fits-all approach to future work design?
Organizations should avoid a one-size-fits-all policy, because it is too restrictive, and will create frustration and poor decisions because no policy can possibly fit all situations. However, they must also avoid giving no guidance, such as, “We urge our managers and workers to do the right thing for themselves and the company.” Just as the first approach is too restrictive, the second approach is too expansive and will create frustration and poor decisions because it provides no framework or tools to assist with optimizing work arrangements.
Many “return-to-work” plans seem to be a mix of these two approaches, saying something like, “Our policy is to be on-site two to five days per week, and please work out your specific arrangements and exceptions with your local manager.”
This creates the risk that even the most well-meaning leaders, managers and workers will be forced to argue and complain about a one-size-fits-all policy that obviously does not fit their situation. In response, you get the risk of creating chaos, because everyone begins making personal arrangements, which are not informed by good principles and the pattern of successes and failures.
Unconstrained innovation everywhere is no recipe for balancing today’s goals with preparing for the future. On the other hand, the correct balance is rarely achieved by prohibiting all exceptions.
How can the agile innovation approach help tide over these pitfalls?
This naturally leads the organization to take the tools that it already uses for agile innovation and experimentation in areas like product design and R&D, and apply them to the arena of work design.
For example, most organizations have existing agile innovation frameworks that follow principles such as:
• Fail Fast
• Learn the Lessons from Failures
• Don’t kill questions or ideas too early
• See challenges to the status quo as opportunities
This does not mean simply saying “everyone experiment with everything.” Organizations have tools that they use now in other areas, that help them focus agile innovation where it is most strategically pivotal, and that help determines where innovation is justified and where it is not. For example, when innovating in product/service design, organizations experiment with certain features in a “controlled” part of your product/service, or perhaps in certain markets where the costs of mistakes are less. The other parts of the product and markets remain stable so that you can keep selling products even as you innovate.
The best approach to work design innovation involves a systemic assessment to identify where the benefits of agile innovation outweigh the costs.
As you innovate more, that balance changes, because the costs of agile innovation go down as you have more practice with it. The same can be true for agile innovation in work design.
What can managers do to empower the workforce when taking the agile innovation approach?
Today, in your existing agile innovation hubs, you equip leaders with tools for nurturing lots of ideas while keeping a focus on the overall goal. You equip workers with the freedom and opportunity to ask tough questions, challenge accepted wisdom, listen and translate the voice of customers into new ideas, and to fail productively. You celebrate the innovations that fail, understanding that is what is necessary to find the ones that are truly transformative.
So, this should be applied to work design. Managers and workers should be equipped with frameworks and tools to analyze and discuss key issues such as when, where, and how work is done; how to negotiate to achieve mutual interests; how to assess the risk/return to experimentation, etc.
What will be HR’s new role in agile innovation in work design?
It will be vital for HR to avoid focusing exclusively on its traditional roles, such as assuring legal compliance and implementing policies such as safety protocols, grievance management, workspace allocation, etc. These are vital, of course, but they should not be the ONLY thing that the HR function and its leaders do to contribute to the design of the new workplace.
HR leaders can seize this as an opportunity to lead this organizational work design innovation process.
HR would develop and constantly improve your frameworks and resources to support a system for agile innovation in work design, including what work means, where and when work is done, and how work value is created and shared among organizations, workers, and society.