The Modern Blight of Overwork


'...the long hours...may be the byproduct of systems and institutions that have taken on lives of their own and serve no one’s interests. That can happen if some industries have simply become giant make-work projects that trap everyone within them.'

Lots of truth in this New Yorker opinion piece about the modern blight of overwork, and how many industries become victim to 'arms races that create work that is of dubious necessity'. Whilst the promise of technology has for so long been about greater efficiency leading to a surfeit of leisure time for us all, somehow we've ended up with the opposite becoming a reality.

One of the great enigma's of modern working is that despite having more workers and being more productive than ever we are still working longer hours. Rather than focus on workers’ decisions and incentives, Tim Wu is suggesting that we should instead focus on the system - how technology is removing the kind of limitations that created natural boundaries and barriers to excessive working, and how white-collar work in many industries seems to expand infinitely through the creation of 'false necessities' - practices that evolve and develop and become entrenched ways of working yet create little value.

Overburdensome processes that cultivate over time, avoidable meetings, reply all emails, needless reporting, work that feeds systems that have become outmoded. Like Tim, I think there has to be a better way.

What Network Science Says About Career Success

Thanks to Peter for pointing me at this piece on 'The No.1 Predictor Of Career Success According to Network Science'. Like Peter I'm not a fan of the term 'career success' (nor of over-analysing Steve Jobs) since we might define success in so many different ways, but Michael Simmons makes a powerful point about something that intuitively feels right: being part of a small, closed network where you are connected to people who already know each other is distinctly limiting, whereas being part of a large open network, particularly where you are the link between different clusters of people, is empowering, and a good predictor of success.


Research by Professor Ron Burt at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business indicates that no other factor is more important in predicting career success. What the work shows is that simply having a large network of people you know is not enough - but being a 'broker' between different clusters is enormously powerful: 'What a broker does,' says Burt, 'is make a sticky information market more fluid. Great ideas will never move if we wait for them to be spoken in the same language'.

I think this is  a powerful idea for organisations. I've drawn a lot in the past from the book The Power of Pull, which talks about the idea of 'porous enterprise' - how innovation happens at the edges, how valuable connected employees are in bringing fresh thinking into a company, and how businesses need to focus less on protecting existing 'stocks' of knowledge and more on knowledge flow.

It's comfortable and validating for both individuals and companies to stay within the same groups. It's easy for businesses to become extremely inwardly facing and reward managing upwards rather than connecting outwards. But being able to draw information from diverse clusters, make new connections, introduce new information to different audiences or translate and re-apply knowledge has surely never been more valuable. We talk about the need to get out of our comfort zones as individuals, but companies need to do it too.

Dots Final Line Up


I'm biased (since I'm curating it) but I'm really excited by who we've got speaking at this year's Dots Conference. The final line up has been confirmed and it's ace. The theme is 'Transformation' and we'll be taking several different angles on that including learnings from those who are leading significant change in their organisations (the FT, BBC, Net-a-Porter), inspiring authors who've written about transformation, technologists speaking about how technology reframes our perceptions and our future, and people who've come up with transformational ideas and done something about it. So our line up is:

A trip to the seaside, an amazing venue, great lunch and great speakers. Quite probably the best conference you'll go to all year (but then I'm biased). Spaces are limited but I have some tickets available at a discounted rate of £150 for readers of this blog. Just go here, and use the code 'ODF'. See you there.

Why it's Time to Ditch the Annual Performance Review


News came at the end of last month that Accenture were killing off performance reviews and rankings for their employees. They're not the first (Deloitte, Microsoft and Adobe have apparently done so too) but this was notable in being one of the largest companies by headcount (330,000) to do so.

Good riddance I say. Performance reviews that are conducted infrequently (many companies are still seemingly locked into an annual frequency) can do more harm than good. I'm not the only one to think so. This piece by Samuel Cuthbert (Professor in the Anderson School of Management at UCLA) articulates well how easily PDRs can become an intimidating, ineffective, overly subjective, truth inhibiting, and often demotivating experience. And there's quite a bit of research around that shows how dissatisfied employees and even HR managers are with the quality of the process. Worse, in my experience PDRs are often not rigidly enforced anyway meaning that many managers ignore the need to do them, which in turn (ironically) leads to staff feeling that their contribution is not valued at all.

No. Performance should be reviewed, but reviewed differently. Instead of a performance review being built up into this huge, high pressure annual event that then becomes soul-suckingly demotivating, it should be a far more embedded into every day working. 

When Deloitte got rid of them they seemingly replaced them with an evaluation process that unfolded incrementally throughout the year and was based on four simple questions. The workplace is becoming a far more fluid environment with adaptive structures and ways of working, and an increasing amount of work being conducted iteratively or on a project basis. When you're working in this way, there should be plenty of opportunity for more regular feedback and also built-in reflection time. If there's not, you're not doing it right. Combine this with a strong vision of where the employee wants to go and you have something that enables us all to see progress, see it more regularly, course-correct where necessary, and recognise great work more frequently. That sounds a whole bunch more motivating to me.