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The Way We Work:
What is it & Why Does it Matter?

The Way We Work is probably one of the most powerful levers of performance and efficiency available to organizations today. However, it is a relatively new concept for most leaders.

‘I keep six honest serving-men’, wrote Rudyard Kipling1. ‘Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who’. He claimed they thought him everything he knew. Let’s use these ‘honest serving six’ to explore ‘the Way WE Work’ and its importance.

WHAT is it?

That a team should regularly review its work and results is generally accepted as essential. However, one aspect is often overlooked. That is the process by which the work gets done. Specifically, the Way We (together) Work as a team.

A team may get its work done – delivering the results that are expected – but what about the process by which the work is done? For example:
·       What is the level of efficiency & productivity?
·       Was there any waste? What is the level of repeatability / sustainability?
·       What was the level of speed, agility & adaptability?
·       How effectively did people collaborate?
·       What was the quality of the interactions?  
·       Did people bring out the best in each other?
·       Did information flow freely? Did learning and innovation occur?

All of the factors above are questions to be explored in addressing ‘the Way WE Work’ as a team.

The Way We Work leverages the self-organizing and self-optimizing potential of your team. We talk about this as the hidden superpower of teams. Although vast it goes largely untapped. 

The I-O Model
The input-output model is a popular way of looking at the work of individuals and teams:
– The inputs are people – their time and talent – as well as any tools, materials and resources that are required to do the work. 
– The output, well that is self-explanatory, it is the product of the work – the deliverables, results and so on.

There is more, however: The process by which inputs are converted to outputs is key to understanding the efficiency and sustainability of the work. For work that requires a collaboration, this process is the ‘Way We Work’.  It is how team members interact – not just the interpersonal interactions, but the flow of information, tasks, ideas, roles and so on. The assumption is that it will work smoothly – with machine like efficiency – but as people are not machines the reality is often quite different.

WHO does it?

Changing the way people work isn’t easy. It won’t happen just because an order comes down from the top, bottom-up engagement and ownership is key.

People must be empowered to optimize the way they work. They will require more autonomy over how they organize themselves. Thus, optimizing the Way We Work is something that a team does, rather than something that is done to a team.

People themselves need to optimize how they work together. This is something that can only be done by those who are closest to the task. Management is often too far removed from the daily reality of a team and its work. 

The Way We Work is about a team taking full responsibility and ownership for its performance and efficiency.  

Managers often express their impatience at listening to people complaining about so-called impediments to their work – for example lack of resources, demanding stakeholders, or too many meetings.  They are frustrated when they hear people say that the organization needs to do X, Y or Z so that they can effectively do their work. They want greater ownership and accountability from their people.

On the other hand, people often feel as if they don’t have sufficient control over their work and how it gets done. They want greater autonomy and input to decisions. By defining the Way We Work a team is taking back its power – taking greater responsibility for what it can control and finding more creative ways around those factors that it cannot.

Why does it matter?

Let’s explore the ‘why’ on two levels. The first is the ‘business why’ in terms of benefits for the organization. The second is the ‘personal why’ – the benefits for their teams and members.

Here are some of the trends that the Way We Work at the top of the agenda:

  • A new more cautious CEO Agenda in the face of in the face of greater economic uncertainty, that has led to
    • New demands for greater performance & productivity
    • Resource constraint, with the demand for greater efficiency and the need to do more with less
    • The demand for a greater focus and intensity around key projects and initiatives (many of which involved cross-functional collaboration)
  • The Great Resignation, Quiet Quitting, Performance Theatre and Performance Paranoia
  • Post Pandemic Ways of Working incl. Hybrid Working / Remote Working / Return to the Office.

(a) The Why for the Organization

People are spending 70% of their week on teamwork and collaboration. The rest (30%) is spent on individual work. Focusing on the Way We Work is about optimizing the majority of the organization’s work (i.e. the 70%). That means it can have at least twice the impact of focusing on individual performance (the 30% of the working week) alone.

The typical executive is now spending 70% of their time on internal collaboration. Their calendars, in-boxes and to-do lists are full and overflowing.  However, according to executives themselves, up to 50% of this collaboration adds little or no value! That is an alarming figure and a real call to action. It is a key reason for focusing on the Way We Work and under-scores its potential to deliver benefits for the organization, as well as all those involved.

The Way We Work matters more than the Way You Work. Indeed, it could be over three times as important. That is because executives are (on average) spending up to 70% of their time on internal collaboration! That means if you are only optimizing the Way You Work (as an individual) that improves only 25% of total work week. The majority of working, the 70% that is collaborative – the WE work – is unaffected. In this way optimizing team performance is 2- 3 times more powerful than optimizing individual performance. 

The process aims at delivering marginal gains (2%, 3% or 5%). However, as these accumulate on a week by week and month by month basis, the overall impact is surprising (typically 5-24%).

(b) The Why for the Individual & Team

The benefits of optimizing the ‘Way We Work’ are measured in terms of two criteria: better work and better life.

Obviously, delivering improved performance and productivity for the organization is key. However, those who are doing the work should be the primary beneficiaries of any improvements made. This may take the form of:

  • Reduced pressure of work
  • Tackling any areas of frustration
  • Greater job satisfaction
  • A more positive and supportive work environment and so on.

By optimizing the Way We Work, teams can shift the following numbers, Performance Potential, Pressure, Vitality and collaboration. The goal isn’t just better work, but a better life too.

HOW does it work?

Ways of Working requires an agile or iterative approach, where teams continually plan do and review not just their work and the results of their work but the process by which it is done. Specifically, how they work as a team to deliver the work – that is the Way We (they) Work. To do this as a team uses a framework model, called the 7Rs.

For any priority, project, work stream or task list the team asks have we got: All the Right People in the Right Roles, doing the Right Work, Working Together in the Right Way, with the Right Resources and the Right Rewards to achieve the Right Result(s).

‘Right People in the Right Roles, etc.’ may sound very absolutist, idealistic too. As a result, you might be thinking ‘right people, well we have the people we are given!’ or ‘right resources – we have the resources we have been given’. However, the goal is to optimize rather than to perfect

Today’s executives are spending up to 75% of their time on internal collaboration. Their calendars, in-boxes and To-Do lists are full and overflowing.  However, according to executives, up to 50% of this collaboration adds little or no value! That is an alarming figure and the compelling rationale for optimizing the Way We Work.

 ‘The Way We Work’ is about a team accepting responsibility and taking control over what it can control (e.g. how it works together as a team) and how it manages those factors that it cannot control. This gives most teams more power than they could imagine.

WHERE to apply the Way We Work?

Teams can optimize ‘the Way We Work’ at any level – a priority, project, workstream, task list and so on. 

Naturally, the more important the work is, the more important it is to optimize the ‘Way We Work’ (as a team). So, it is a good idea to apply it to the most important areas first.

It is particularly important to optimize the ‘Way We Work’ when the work is complex or involves a high level of risks (e.g. missing deadline). Also, when resources are scarce and people are under pressure to do more with less.

At a time of resource scarcity, the Way We Work is of primary concern. For example, using the 7Rs analysis for teams identifies low-value work (often accounting for up to 50%), return on collaboration (often below 50%) and roles ambiguity (typically over 30%), lack of clarity regarding results (typically 35%) of the time.

WHEN to apply the 7Rs?

There is no one right way of working.  Each team is different. Moreover, the optimal way of working varies according to the nature of the work to be done.

Ways of Working requires an agile or iterative approach. So, keep the 7Rs front of mind & apply continuously.

Apply the 7Rs anytime what you are doing matters -use it to plan your week, use it to evaluate your task list, use it to plan a meeting, apply it in planning a project, or reviewing a priority, etc.

The Way We Work requires a regular cadence. There is no point doing it once (e.g: at the start of a project) and not reviewing it on an ongoing basis. 

  1. See https://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/poem/poems_serving.htm []

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