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Ways of Working: What are the secrets to making it stick’?

Changing long-established ways of working is not easy. Leaders must be attuned to both the key success factors and the risks involved.

Here is a list of 10 key success factors and risks in respect of ways of working initiatives:

The leader must believe in the team. There must be a high level of trust and respect if it is going to work. Otherwise, people will be reluctant to step forward and take ownership of ‘the way we work’. The leader must have the courage to cede some control and steadfastly resist micro-managing the team.

Engagement is key – a directive from the top won’t be enough.  Neither will the traditional carrot and stick. Yet when people hear words such as ‘productivity’ or ‘performance’ this is often taken as code for ‘it is time to shape up or ship out’. In the background there is anxiety about job losses and cost-cutting. The approach needs to leverage bottom-up engagement rather than top-down control. Tapping into the intrinsic motivation of those involved is key to success.

It is a team sport. Teams need to be empowered to optimize the way we work. Generally, it is not something that corporate management can do it efficiently. Optimizing ways of working has to be done at the level of a team – after all it is the people who are closest to the work that know what needs to be done and how it can be improved. This may require giving teams more autonomy over how they organize themselves.

Remember, the goal is to optimize rather than to perfect.  Indeed, perfectionism can be the enemy. The leader who decides to delay investing time or resources in the development of their team and how it works – waiting until the timing is right such a when some new hires are complete or until the strategy development work is done – may never get to focus on this area. Instead, they invest in much more expensive and time-consuming processes such as strategy, structure or talent acquisition when a key source of immediate and direct uplift goes untapped.

Set modest goals.  The goal is to realize marginal gains e.g. 2%, 3% or 5%. Those are modest & achievable goals. But the benefits accrue day after day, month after month, so there is a significant compounding effect. Quickly you can end-up with benefits of 5-24%.

Begin with the end in mind, specifically the result or benefits that you want to realize. We use a framework called the Big numbers to set goals for ways of working, as well as to track progress in realizing those goals. The 4 BIG numbers are performance potential, pressure, vitality and collaboration. These are a good starting point because they represent a balanced score card for a team, with implications not just for better work, but also a better life for all those involved.

Focus on the benefits for the people involved. There must be more to ‘ways of working’ than productivity and efficiency gains or putting money into the hands of shareholders. The primary beneficiaries of ways of working should be those who are actually doing the work. Ask people to tune into WIIFM (what is in it for me) – to be selfish to attend to their own needs and priorities, not just those of the business. 

It is not that productivity, efficiency or even profitability that are not important, it is just that they may well be secondary for many of the people who are expected to change their ways of working. However, if done right, it should be a real win-win for both the business and its people. The goal is not just a better business, but also a better life!

Start by focusing on what isn’t working – any Dilbert moments – the bottlenecks, pain points and sources of frustration that people experience in their work, such as:

  • Delays and hold-ups
  • Duplication and overlap
  • Lack of clarity / sufficient information
  • Too many interruptions
  • Long CC lists and too many ineffective meetings
  • Not enough time for focus work or time to think
  • Too much time spent on lower value work, while priorities suffer
  • Not enough time to do focused work or to think
  • Blurring lines between work and home, etc.

The approach should be numbers driven – leverage data to guide your decisions. This is particularly important in illuminating potential blind spots. Our Pitstop AnalyticsTM solution is one of the tools that you can use.

Develop front of mind awareness of Ways of Working and the 7Rs. -Make it a consistent practice – the practice of team reflectivity – where the team continually reflects on how it is working1. For example:

  • At the end of a meeting people are asked to share their views on what worked as well as what did not work so well.
  • When reviewing progress against a project plan, a project team will also reflect on how it is working together and any opportunities for improvement.
  • When individual team members plan their week, they can apply the 7Rs to optimize their own ways of working.

‘The Way We Work is a gift that keeps on giving’ says one of our coaching colleagues. It is not that you optimize ways of working and the job is done. Teams can find opportunities for improvement ad infinitum, deriving benefits on an ongoing basis. Of course, that works both ways – ways of working can, if neglected, slip over time thereby resulting in a performance penalty, and friction or frustration among team members.

  1. The ability of a team to reflect on its performance (sometimes called ‘team reflexivity’) emerging through research as key to team success.  See for example Michael A. West, ‘Effective Teamwork: Practical Lessons from Organizational Research’, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. []

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