The Open Office Debate: I Love To Hate It!

I have noticed a considerable amount of chatter recently related to open work spaces (see here, here, here, here, here, and here), and the debate about whether they really help or hinder productivity and creativity.  Personally, I can’t stand open work spaces…all the time.  And here is where I think the debate is missing the mark: It may not be the best at all times, or for all things.

To explain this a little more clearly, I refer to another ongoing debate.  This second debate is about the “10,000 hours of practice makes you an expert” rule.  This is another one that has some staunch supporters on both sides including the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Goleman (see here, here, here, and here).  In this debate, however, there is a poignant point presented: it’s not just about the number of hours, it’s about the quality of the time spent.  In other words, if you practice the same wrong thing for 10,000 hours, you will potentially be very good at doing the wrong thing, but still not at expert level of doing what you need to be doing.

Using this same logic, let’s look at the open office.  Is the open office the right setup at all times, for all work, or for all people?  I would like to believe that most of us would emphatically say no. I like the open workspace at times when I need to work with others off and on, say when I am working with SMEs to design and develop materials for learning programs, or discussing ideas for restructuring roles or teams.  However, when I need to concentrate and write material, reports, or other mentally intensive and focused work, the open work environment is completely distracting.

Now, I’m sure I will receive some backlash from this, but I want to use other examples from the high-tech industry as well.  At my current organization, we have many engineers and designers/developers working on networking infrastructure and coding.  They use an Agile methodology for much of what they do, as well as using DevOps methodology.  Both of these require a considerable amount of collaboration at times.  However, I still see plenty of these roles who retreat to their cubicles with the lights turned down low, headphones on, and in some cases even a shade of some sort over the top of their cube to create their own environment.  The reason is simply creation of an environment where we can concentrate.

We work best in small bursts of concentration of a minimum of about 45 minutes to a maximum of about 90 minutes.  After that, our mind tends to begin losing concentration and focus.  This means that while it may not be necessary to stay closed off to everyone all the time, there are times where we need a private, quiet space to escape to.  Working from home or a coffee shop often provides this type of environment, because while it is open, we do not know most people and therefore feel isolated and able to concentrate with the ability to look away from our computer or other work for a few minutes as necessary.  At work, this concept breaks down because we generally know most of the people around us, which creates a more social environment that can contribute to a drop in productivity and creativity at times.  So, as stated in the beginning the debate misses this mark.  Open work environments may not be the worst thing in the world, but they are not always the best.  The quality is what counts, and as always that depends on other circumstances and means different things at different times.

The “Someone Else Will Do It” Effect

I hope that everyone had a happy holiday and, for those that celebrate it, a Merry Christmas!  Just before the holidays I posted a blog entry about the “Law of the Few” and the “Stickiness Factor”.  I also mentioned that I in my next article I would be focusing on the “Power of Context”.  As I said previously, I think this topic is so profound that it really needed to be on its own.

When Malcolm Gladwell discusses the “Power of Context” he states that “epidemics are strongly influenced…by the circumstances and conditions and particulars of the environments in which they operate.”  As usual, I immediately begin to think about the implications in the business world.  It strikes me that so many times this point is missed when we set forth to affect change in the workplace.  Things move so quickly in the world today that we often forget that we really need to take the time and ensure that the time and environment are right for initiating a change; this includes launching a new product, a new learning initiative, changing culture, or other major change.  All too often I think we begin moving forward without ensuring that we have the right time and environment, and then cross our fingers and hope that whatever we are trying to accomplish is successful.  How much time and money is wasted with tactics like this?  Taking the extra time and effort initially could increase the chance for success exponentially.

As I think back to my time with a previous organization, I remember conducting interviews and focus groups trying to gain perspective on why things that we were trying to implement weren’t working.  On many occasions, there would be information coming out that would have been crucial for us and others in the organization to know about.  When asked why this information wasn’t brought forward sooner, the most common response was “everyone already knows, and nothing’s changing, so it must not matter,” or “I figured that someone else/my manager/so-and-so said/did something about it.”  Unfortunately I think this is probably a misconception among many employees in many organizations.

The example used in “The Tipping Point” to explain the “Power of Context” is that of Kitty Genovese.  For those that may have forgotten, or never previously heard of it, this is the story of a lady, Kitty Genovese, who was stabbed on two separate occasions inside of a thirty-minute period on her own street, where supposedly 38 people heard and/or saw the incident without anyone calling the police.  The details of this story are highly contested, however I believe that this event was itself the “tipping point” for further study into diffusion of responsibility and the bystander effect.  Essentially this says that people are less likely to help someone in trouble while in a group situation, either because they believe that someone else will better know how to help or they will be embarrassed to help in front of others.  I believe that the same premise happens in our business organizations today.  As I said before, it is my experience that the people on the “front line” of our organizations who are closest to our customers, and those who are closest to the many different issues facing our organizations today, often believe that someone else must have a better solution, or that if it really is a problem or something that should be known it is already known by the right people, or they don’t want to be embarrassed by suggesting something that has already been thought of or for being seen as over-zealous.

Creating an environment that is open and encourages suggestion and communication is important, but based on examples such as this it could be even more important than first thought.  To truly change how we create change in our organizations, we must make it possible to gain real-time, first-hand information and must find some way to encourage that information transfer.

Change must be pandemic…but how?

Continuing on my path through “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Blackwell, I came upon some information that gave me a great idea: change must be pandemic, not epidemic.  While the premise behind Gladwell’s book is that there is a Tipping Point where things become epidemic it would seem that what we really want, especially in business, is a pandemic.  To understand this I think it might be best to define the difference between an epidemic and pandemic a bit more first.  Essentially they are the same thing and have much the same meaning, which is to be an outbreak of something.  The biggest difference between the two is that an epidemic is more localized, while the impact of a pandemic is more broad (generally speaking, globally).

Two of the things that Gladwell talks about in his book to help create a Tipping Point, or the moment when everything dramatically changes at once, are “the Law of the Few” and “the Stickiness Factor.”  The third is “the Power of Context.”  For this particular article, I will only be addressing the first two (I plan to have another article dedicated solely to “the Power of Context”).  All of these concepts are extremely applicable in every change that happens, and I believe that if we can understand them and be aware of them then the likelihood of a change being successful could more than double.

The first concept is “the Law of the Few.”  The way this is explained in “The Tipping Point” is that a a major change can happen from just one person, or one small group of people and still have a far reach.  This is often something that I believe is overlooked.  Imagine for a second that you have an organizational change that needs to happen in the organization.  Depending on the size of the company, it may not be feasible for one person to “infect” everyone.  But let’s say that one person takes the change, both message and actions, into one work group, team, division, or unit.  It is completely possible for that one person to make a true impact on that group of people!  Once that group has been “infected”, then they as a group can be used to “infect” others with the change.  Thinking back to change initiatives that I have been a part of in the past, I have to believe that this could certainly be an effective way of spreading a change relatively quickly, and keep everyone on the same page as it spreads.  While this is an important piece, I think it’s obvious that this can’t be the only thing to drive the success of a change, nor could it possibly be the only thing that takes a change to the Tipping Point and reach the pandemic level.

The second factor to reach pandemic level, would be “the Stickiness Factor.”  This is something that I have heard from leader’s and mentor’s through the years: you have to find a way to make the message stick.  A message must be quickly and easily remembered, as well as illicit a feeling, thought, and/or action.  This is one of the mistakes that most organizations make in some of the most important messages, such as mission and vision statements.  If no one can remember them, and they don’t illicit a response, then how in the world do you expect them to mean anything?!  Gladwell says, “The Stickiness Factor says that there are specific ways of making a contagious message memorable; there are relatively simple changes in the presentation and structuring of information that can make a big difference in how much of an impact it makes.”  To me, this says that we need to simplify our message, make it repeatable, and make it something that creates a desired response.  Just as it is suggested in the book, I think an advertisement or slogan is a perfect example.  “Where’s the beef?”  “Gimme a break, gimme a break…”  “Theeeeeerrrreeeee Grrrreat!”  “Subway, Eat Fresh!” “It keeps Going, and Going, and Going.”  These are all examples of messages that I think we can all agree are memorable, and either have or still do influence reactions.   When was the last time that you used that type of message to influence change in your organization?

Being able to harness this type of power for use in organizational change could be the difference between a change being forced to happen, versus it happening on its own.  As I’m sure most of us have experienced, a change that happens organically (that is, because all parties supported it and it naturally happened) versus being forced, generally tends to happen more quickly, effectively, and efficiently (and seems to stick and spread better too!).

In my next article, I’ll take a look at the last component to keep in mind for change, “the Power of Context.”  Obviously for me it created a lot of thought, so I look forward to sharing with you then!

How many role models does it take?

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am really digging in to “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell, and it seems there are fantastic, fascinating, thought-provoking pieces riddled throughout the whole work.  Of course, I expected nothing less after reading “Blink!” and having my mind expanded in so many directions, and so many ideas that presented themselves, while reading that book as well.

Something that I found quite interesting is a reference to a study by Sociologist Jonathan Crane.  The study was so interesting that I was compelled to research it further myself.  It appears to be a study published in 1991 in The American Journal of Sociology.  The premise behind the study is a theory that neighborhood’s have a direct effect on the social problems associated with the neighborhood, and that  “As neighborhood quality decreases, there should be a sharp increase in the probability that an individual will develop a social problem.”  Most of us would agree that this seems plausible, and based on the analysis of the data, it seems to be supported.  According to the study, Crane analyzed the effect of the number of role models in a community on adolescent child-birth and school drop-out rates.  According to Gladwell, Crane defined role-models using the Census Bureau definition of “high status” members, including teachers, professionals, managers, etc. (I have yet to find anything that substantiates any definition of any positions as “high status” by the Census Bureau, although it is possible that at the time of the study this categorization was being used).  The study found that if a neighborhood contained between 40% and 5% of “high-status” workers, the rates for school drop-outs and pregnancy rates remained essentially the same.  When that rate dropped below 5%, the statistics exploded upward!  In a specific example given in “The Tipping Point”, when the rate dropped just 2.2% from 5.6% to 3.4%, the rates of pregnancy and drop-out either more than, or almost did, double.

These are powerful figures, and it made me think where else this kind of information could be useful.  I have to ask, would it be applicable anywhere else, and how?  My initial reaction is that it absolutely is, and the first place that comes to mind would be in companies.  Think of your own company; chances are that you and your co-workers have formed a type of community.  You have your own language, your own culture, and whether we like to admit it or not, there are almost certainly different classes.  No matter how “flat” you attempt to make an organization there will always be a certain amount of hierarchy; someone is in charge somewhere, and in many cases depending on the size of the organization, there are many someones in charge throughout.  Also in most organizations there are those positions, or perhaps just certain people, who are seen as having a “higher status” than others and they are many times viewed as being a role model to others in the organization.  Even if an organization is truly run in an equal and flat manner, there will tend to be people who take on this “high status” role in one form or another, and this is where I believe more study could be done, and where this study could be very applicable.

Ask yourself, “Do I have the right number of high-status people, in the right places?”  Also ask yourself, “Looking at my front-line employee group, do I have enough high-status members in that group to influence them in a positive manner, or do I move my high-status members to other areas as soon as they are identified?”  I would suggest that if we were to conduct the same type of study as Jonathan Crane did, but on large organizations, we would find many of these same facts to be present.  I hypothesize that particular positions and/or specific people who are viewed as the “high-status” workers have a direct effect on the success of other workers within a company, a business-unit, a division, or a team.  That is to say that having a key percentage of the overall workers falling in to this “high-status” category could potentially increase performance exponentially within the related group.  Can you imagine for a moment the implications?  This means that by simply creating, defining, developing, and implementing a specific position that is viewed as being in this “high-status” category, you could potentially increase your chances for success and decrease the chances for failure.  This would be applicable, and could have an impact, with essentially any type or level of worker.

This may even be a reason that some smaller organizations are successful while others are not.  Perhaps they have met the correct percentage of workers that fall into this “role-model”, “high-status” category and thus have increased the performance of the organization overall.  While in smaller organizations, say 1000 employees or less, the effect would be assumed to be much less, it could still be an important factor to drive the success of the business.

I think it is clearly a possibility that this concept could be real, and that it could definitely change the way that we think about business today.  Eventually, perhaps I will be able to post my own empirical data to support my hypothesis; until then, I think it is certainly worth putting the idea out there as food for thought.  As always, please feel free to leave comments, insights, perspectives, or critiques!

What is your action word?

Right now, my literary addiction is “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell.  This is the second book that I have read by him, the first being “Blink!”, and I can’t say enough about how insightful and though provoking his works are.  I’m not quite half-way through “The Tipping Point”, and have already taken close to four pages of notes on ideas and thoughts that have been inspired by the book, so I thought I would share some here.

First I suppose I should clarify the purpose of the book for those that may not have read it.  The premise behind the book is that at any moment an epidemic can happen, and there are many components to understanding how and why.  It would seem that there is an underlying implication that through this knowledge, one can potentially instigate an epidemic of their own (hopefully for positive purposes of course) in business, communication, etc.

In the beginning of the book, a powerful example is given about an action word that actually initiates and almost inexplicably forces someone to take action; the word is yawn.  As Malcolm explains, just typing or writing the word can make you do it.  The same can be said for reading the word yawn, either to yourself or out loud.  When you hear someone yawn, say the word yawn, or see them yawn it most likely will actually cause you to yawn.  Just as you have been reading this paragraph, have you yawned yet?  Have you felt tired?  Amazing how powerful that one little word is, isn’t it?

With that thought in mind, I can’t help but feel as though this is applicable in many business, academic, and political situations.  I would venture to say that I am not the only one who has sat in a meeting, or on a conference call, or in some other gathering where the statement is made, “We need to get people to take action on this,” or the question asked, “How do we get forward motion with this?”  Is it possible that one word could really be powerful enough to create, spark, infect, and grow action?  If the word “yawn” is powerful enough to evoke an action simply by reading, writing, speaking, or hearing it, what other words could do the same in a different context?  Is it a real word, or one that is made-up?  I have to believe that there are other words out there that can initiate an epidemic within an organization or situation.

Certainly some words can cause you to cringe, or salivate, or smile, or emote in some other fashion, so it would stand that there are other words that could be that powerful.  I’m sure this was, in some fashion, the premise behind the using the word “synergize” or “synergistic”.  There is a real word as a foundation (“Synergetic” is actually a word, and yes, I had to check it with Merriam-Websters!), and the meaning of the real word is similar to the faux word, but the feeling expected from the faux word is obviously expected to be much more powerful.  Unfortunately, I would guess that I’m not alone in the feeling that it became such a “buzz word” that most people almost sneer in disgust at the very mention of it.  But is there another word out there that can actually work to accomplish the end goal of generating action?

Unfortunately I don’t have an answer to this question, but I think it’s certainly food for thought, and I believe that in each interaction where the question, “How do we get people to take action on this” comes up this should be a part of the conversation.  Searching for a word or even a phrase that could ignite an epidemic of action and production could be the difference in the success or failure of your next initiative.

So what are your thoughts?  What is your action word or phrase that is going to make the difference?