“It’s just the internet at work.”

After 5 months of using a social business platform, I’ve stopped talking about social business.

Hundreds of elevator pitches, demos, and blog posts later, I’ve pared down my description of our social collaboration platform to 6 words:

“It’s just the internet at work.”

The biggest opportunity no one talks about

When it comes to getting things done inside the firm, many large companies simply missed the big mega-trends that we all take for granted as individuals. Search? Social filters? Self-service? We all have much better tools at home than at work.

Although there are 100s of millions of people working in large firms – over 13 million in the top 50 US companies alone – most of them are working like it’s 1995, in a pre-Google, pre-Facebook era.

That’s a huge opportunity since, in the past few years, it’s become easier and more practical to implement the kinds of shifts that have been happening on the internet inside our firms.

Unfortunately, social software vendors and collaboration experts tend to talk about things like improved innovation, communications, and employee engagement. Those are nice stories, but they’re missing the headline.

The real story

The headline is how much commercial value these collaboration platforms can unlock. Beyond blogging and tweeting, we can finally transform how 100s of millions of people work, making a tremendous difference in both operating costs and productivity.

We all know the internet is great for exposing waste and highlighting opportunities; for  connecting experts and coordinating work; for tapping into collective wisdom to solve and create.

Now we can use that power at work to address all sorts of problems that have plagued firms internally – reducing internal service costs, consolidating communications platforms, crowd-sourcing the quality of asset inventory data, reducing printing and storage, cross-selling.

These and many other valuable use cases can generate $500+ million of value for a large firm.  And there are a lot of large firms.

That’s what social software vendors and every collaboration team should be talking about.

The kicker

There’s still more to the story. Just as the internet has created tremendous commercial opportunities for firms, it’s created tremendous opportunities for individuals.

The “internet at work” lets people work out loud, shape their reputation, and control their career. It’s a key to re-humanizing our firms.

So, my job and my message are gradually becoming simpler. If you can generate enough value, and do it in such a way that it serves individuals’ self interest, then you don’t need to do a song and dance about what social business is or isn’t.

Everybody’s familiar with the many kinds of transformations brought about by the internet. Now, we’re just putting that to work inside the firm.

Changing habits: a personal experiment

Over the past few months, I’ve been researching how to change habits at work. (I captured some of those ideas here, here, and here.)

But before I can change the habits of an entire company, I need to do some experiments and some fieldwork.  So I decided to start with a small set of volunteers: me.

Since I’ve already changed my work habits, I focused on 4 changes I’ve been wanting to make for years:

  • eating less meat
  • drinking less alcohol
  • yelling less at my 2-year old son, Hudson
  • exercising more regularly

Here’s what happened and how it applies to work.

2 common themes in the research 

Six different books on changing behavior - “Switch”, “One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way”, “Power of Habit”, “The Progress Principle”, “This year I will…”, “Nudge” - all emphasize breaking down a desired change into small, achievable goals and making progress towards those goals very visible.

These simple ideas sound obvious, but I’ve overlooked them. Big, abstract goals – whether it’s “eating less meat” or “reducing service costs” – invoke fear in our change-averse brains.

It takes too much energy and attention to translate such goals into action, and so we simply go back to our more comfortable, unthinking habits.

The notebook

Inspired in particular by “Kaizen”, I took my 4 goals and turned them into more specific, achievable objectives:

“I won’t eat meat for 4 days a week.” 

“I won’t drink alcohol for 5 days a week.” 

“I won’t yell at little Hudson 4 days a week.” 

“I will exercise 3 days a week.” 

And I bought a notebook.

Each day, I write down what I eat and drink and, at the end of the day, I give myself a point for doing something towards each one of my goals. I also track progress towards my weekly goal.

If I meet my goals for a month, I’ll reward myself with a particular piece of jewelry I’ve admired to commemorate the change.

The results

What I’ve found is that specific, achievable goals combined with a simple tracking and rewards system made a big difference for me.

For example, I’ve wanted to eat less meat ever since reading “Omnivore’s Dilemma” years ago, but “becoming a vegetarian” was daunting. Yet I knew I could avoid meat for one day and starting there relieved my apprehension. I also found myself wanting that point each day.

This little process – it’s almost a game – simply makes me more aware of my choices. My food choices, for example, went from unthinking (“I’ll have a burger.”) to conscious (“Hmmm. I’m behind on my goal this week, so I’ll be sure to ask for vegetarian options.”)

For the 3 goals that required on-the-spot decisions – what to eat, drink, or say – the greater awareness made a big difference and I was able to easily meet or exceed my goals by the second week. As time went by, I started to visit new places, started to get used to different options, and started to develop new habits.

Exercise, though, required something more. Since it involved a specific amount of time, it required planning in addition to a decision. And without that, I fell short of my goal for several weeks and learned I’ll need to make adjustments to my system.

Experimenting at work

It’s nice that I feel healthier and happier. And little Hudson is certainly pleased with my experiment. But what about work?

The connection is that changing work habits – how we fill our days with meetings, how we run those meetings, how we spend our time processing email – will also require the same elements I’ve used: simple steps towards a goal that matters, greater awareness, visible progress, and rewards.

The next step is to plan small experiments at work that include all these elements with the hope is that we can create a concerted, comprehensive approach to changing habits at work. If we can do that, we can finally get rid of the practices we all know are wasteful and that sap time, energy, and fulfillment from our jobs.

Avoiding learned helplessness at work

What do recent graduates think about working in large firms?

Can work be fulfilling and meaningful and human for everyone (as I write about here, here, and here)? Or do most people work for money and go home for meaning?

Recently, I had lunch with recent graduates who are still in a training program. They’ve been working long enough to see what big companies are like but not so long as to be jaundiced. And we talked about their views on work and career.

The conversation made me both sad and hopeful.

The question

I started by saying I believed that all of us are hardwired to want control over the work we do and to get better at it. That we want a purpose for what we do and want connections with people at work. And that anyone – not just a lucky few – can have all of this at work.

Did they agree? Was I naive?

They felt the basic human motivators – autonomy, mastery, purpose, and community – resonated with them. And that work could and should appeal to those motivators.

But that’s not what they saw. For many people at work who’d been there longer, “It’s like their candle had been snuffed out.”

Learned helplessness at work

They went on to provide examples of people who’d become negative and complacent and who’d stop trying to make work fulfilling. We eventually used the term “learned helplessness” to describe the state those people were in:

Learned helplessness occurs when an animal is repeatedly subjected to an aversive stimulus that it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal will stop trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation. Even when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned helplessness will prevent any action.

They agreed that people weren’t born negative and complacent. They were trained to become that way. They felt that most people who go to college and join large firms are looking to tap into those basic human motivators at work. But, over time, many learn that it’s not possible, at least not for them.

“What’s making you feel helpless?”

I could see that the trainees were starting to question their own work experience. “What happening at work,” I asked, “that’s making you feel helpless?”

Two things stood out. The first was the work itself. Sometimes it was unthinking, manual work (“update this spreadsheet by cutting and pasting for an hour”). Or it was mindless administration, filling out templates and reports about work instead of doing the work itself.

The second, and more insidious, was the commentary of people around them, including trainees from the previous year:

“You’re just a grad.”  

“This is the way we do it. We can’t change it.” 

“Wait till you’ve been here longer. Then you’ll see.”

The disaffected were passing on what they’d learned.

A surprising contrast

But then our conversation took a turn. Not all of the work and not every person was like that. The trainees had two different assignments – different roles and different managers – and it was often like working for two different companies.

“One rotation was awful. But on the other I was running projects. Everyone was working towards the same goal. And it felt like a cohesive, collaborative environment.”

“The difference was mentoring. One manager would be there whenever you needed help or had an idea. The other would tell us to discuss it at the next monthly meeting.”

One might experience autonomy, learning, and purpose: “I like what I’m doing. I have lots of responsibility and control. Maybe too much!” 

Another would experience helplessness: “You can’t do that. You’re just a grad. You need more experience.” 

What are you doing to avoid “career roulette”?

So here were these smart, young, articulate, enthusiastic people. And, depending on an assignment – largely chance – their work could be motivating and fulfilling or, in one trainee’s description, “depressing”.

What could they do to take a bit more control? To avoid learned helplessness?

Like most people, they simply didn’t know. They might try some things in their team, but finding the right kind of people and projects across a large firm was too hard. Yet, while I was sad at the thought of so many burnt out candles and so much wasted potential, I was hopeful for these trainees.

In 2012, you don’t have to be lucky to avoid learned helpfulness. You can work out loud, take control over your reputation, and build purposeful social networks. That’s what exposes and unlocks opportunities.

New tools and practices make all of this easier than ever. Who better than trainees to start using them?

Fieldwork before frameworks

If you don’t know the story of Dr. Paul Farmer, you should.

He’s saving thousands of lives while changing how the world thinks about poverty, about disease, and about what’s possible.

As we try to change how companies work, we can learn a lot from his approach.

“Mountains beyond Mountains”

Paul Farmer grew up in an unconventional, poor family in various parts of the US. Always smart, he wound up graduating from Harvard Medical School and doctoring in two of the most different places on earth – Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Massachusetts and a hospital he built in Cange, Haiti.

In “Mountains Beyond Mountains”, Tracey Kidder chronicles how Paul Farmer could be in a crowded hut one day caring for a TB patient and in a posh conference hall the next day trying to change World Health Organization policy.

Besides making for fascinating reading, that contrast is instructive.

“Journeys to the sick”

On several occasions, Kidder accompanied Paul Farmer on long hikes to see patients in remote parts of Haiti. Farmer would speak to the family in Creole. He’d observe, listen, and touch – not as a doctor from Harvard with superior knowledge but as a human being who genuinely cares and wants to learn. What are their living conditions? How is the rest of the family? What else is going on in their lives?

By seeing the patients in their own environment, speaking to them in their own language, he can see more than the disease. He can see the entire environment around the disease.

“Every patient is a sign. Every patient is a test.”

But is it “appropriate”?

Not everyone agreed with Paul Farmer’s methods. Should a doctor who could affect worldwide medical policy be spending time seeing individual patients in remote huts? Kidder talked with him about it on the hike back after one of their visits:

“Some people would argue this wasn’t worth a five-hour walk,” he said over his shoulder. “But you can never invest too much in making sure this stuff works.”

“Sure,” I said. “But some people would ask, “How can you expect others to replicate what you’re doing here? What would be your answer to that?”

He turned back and, smiling sweetly, said, “Fuck you.”

It wasn’t that Paul Farmer did’t have better answers. It was that people were asking the wrong questions. You needed the fieldwork to make sure what you were doing was even worth replicating.

He faced similar questions about money, particularly about “appropriate technology.” Could Haiti afford to treat AIDS and TB?

“We can spend sixty-eight thousand dollars per TB patient in New York City, but if you start giving watches or radios to patients here, suddenly the international community jumps on you for creating nonsustainable projects.

When “theory outruns practice”

This is the trap we fall into at work. We create strategies and frameworks and lists of “5 most effective ways to…” without enough testing of those ideas in the field. We talk about ROI and antiseptic approaches to the diseases (ineffective work practices) without seeing and touching and understanding the entire environment that’s making the diseases flourish.

“If you focus on individual patients, you can’t get sloppy….In public health projects in difficult locales, theory often outruns practice. Individual patients get forgotten, and what seems like a small problem gets ignored, until it grows large…

…a willingness to do ‘unglamorous work’ is the secret to successful projects.”

If you really want to change your company

Sure, we need frameworks and strategy to scale what we do. But they’re useless if people back in their cubes are working like it’s 1995.

I don’t want to just write about change from a safe distance. I want to actually change things.

And if a genius who’s saved thousands of lives and changed worldwide opinions about disease can spend time with individual patients, so can I. So can everyone who’s trying to change how companies work. Just as entrepreneurs keep testing their product with real customers in real conditions, we need to test our ideas about change in the field.

A close colleague observed that Paul Farmer’s visits to patients “refresh his passion and authority, so that he can travel a quarter of a million miles a year and scheme and write about the health of populations. Doctoring is the ultimate source of his power, I think.”

To change how we work. that combination of fieldwork with longer-term, larger-scale thinking is exactly what we need.