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The Human Right to say NO
Systems Thinking

The Human Right to say NO

How to create an adaptable workforce that responds to uncertainty by providing contextualized solutions.

Joao Gamas profile image
Mar 30, 2020 • 6 min read

As the corona virus outbreak continues to evolve, we are starting to see two distinct ideological camps starting to emerge. In one side there are those in favor of health, vying for the population to remain in quarantine at all costs. On the other side there are those in favor of the economy, postulating that if all services stop we will descend into chaos and anarchy.

One group tells us that without physical distancing the hospitalization cases will overburden the system and many unnecessary deaths will occur. This group says individuals should only venture out of the house in cases of food procurement, and treat those instances as emergencies. In order to accomplish this, all businesses should be closed until the rate of incidents begins to decline.

The other group tells us that keeping businesses closed for so long will irreparably damage the economy, and eventually desperation will inflict those most affected. Without any resources masses will be forced onto the streets to procure supplies by any means, and society descends into chaos. They warn that the supply chain must be protected, otherwise even the supply of food will cease.

It seems individuals must stay home and go to work at the same time.

What we perhaps fail to see is the parallel between our quarantine situation and the everyday business environment. Business of all sizes and types are afflicted by the same issue: how to balance the “bottom line” with the well being of the employees. How to keep employees safe, creative and happy while at the same time pushing their productivity and tightening their deadline. 

But must we really prioritize either the economy or individual wellbeing? Are there really only two choices? Must we choose between shareholders or the front-line employees? Is there a way to balance the needs of both, and if so, how does that look like?

Between a rock and a hard place

This unprecedented situation gives us a great new prism from which to analyze this situation. Let’s attempt to review it scientifically to draw some parallels. 

First, let’s start with the individuals:

As a large portion of us stay home to prevent the spread of the contagion, we become more and more aware of what we must do to prevent our own home from “becoming infected”. With an infectious disease, any time you go outside and come back in you could bring the virus with you - and then infect those in the home. So each trip outside puts your family at risk.

But what if you are one of the “essential” workers, a truck driver, policeman, or most notably, a medical doctor? You have to go outside to maintain a functioning society, but every time you return you could be contaminating your partner, parents or children. So you take precautions to ensure that you keep the outside out, and the inside of the house protected. 

But as the number of cases grows, so does the need for support. So you work longer hours, because that’s what is needed. And yet the number of cases grows, so you call on all the support you can. Until the demand for support far exceed the ability of the staff to provide this service. Slowly this take a toll on each individual, specially those that giving as much as they can.

This parallels the lifecycle of any business. Every business has employees, and every employee is skilled in certain functions. As time passes the needs of the business changes, either with the changing of the markets or emerging needs of their customers. As needs change (as our reality has changed when confronted by this epidemic) so change the demands placed on the employees, and often the specific skills they were hired for are no longer a priority. There is always a disparity between the needs of the customer and the ability of the organization to provide it.

Now let’s focus on the systemic problem:

On the other hand, those at home can’t just stay waiting at home if they don’t have basic services. How could a population stay home when there is no food or basic sanitation?

A mathematical solution to this problem is clear: 80% of the population should stay home (to prevent contagion) while 20% of the population maintains social services. When any of the 20% get infected they should be separated and quarantined, and replaced by healthy individuals. Just like ants would do.

But here is where it gets interesting. Has our society prepared and valued those 20% to the point that they would be able and motivated to provide this “service for the greater good”? As 80% of the population remains comfortable at home, what motivates the 20% to halt their personal lives and place themselves at peril for the other 80%?

Is it really their job to give up their lives for the greater good?

There is no special bonus for the hazardous work they are performing, and often they are not even given proper materials to protect themselves. They are being asked to give up personal control, place themselves in harms’ way, put their family at risk, and if they make a mistake they can be sued. All the risk is taken individually, and society provides no protection or support.

What if the front-line workers decide supporting the greater good is not in their best interest? Do they have the right to do so?

The hybrid solution

The armed forces have dealt with this issue for a long time, after all, they send soldiers to the front lines to give their lives to the greater good. The agile movement deals with this very issue, translating all that we know into organizational structures conducive to the bottom line as well as for the front-line individuals. Here is what these organizations have learned.

We cannot predict each situation before hand, so instead of planning for each case we plan for adaptability. Creating an adaptable workforce allows it to face different challenges by providing contextualized solutions. In order to support collective adaptability  (and the creativity it generates), the most basic human requirement is empowerment.

The front-line workers must be empowered to make the necessary decisions when they see fit. That’s the heart of the speed of responsiveness - not having to wait for hierarchical approval. Each front-line employee must know what their higher objetive is (purpose), be able to conduct the work as they see necessary (autonomy), and learn any new skills which are being demanded (mastery).

This is fundamentally different than the supervisor relationship. The “boss” is there to make sure each of the front-line worker has the necessary support they need. In the armed forces, central control is used to dispatch gear and the materials needed for the front-line teams. They are servant leaders who push decision making down to the team level, and allow teams to be self-organizing based on the skills they have at hand.

Meritocracy: A new incentive system

Studies have shown that the creative output of a worker has a lot to do with the incentives presented. Money, power and prestige are great motivators, but only when the tasks require a narrow focus, such as performing specific pre-determined tasks. When tasks require a wide focus, such as when creativity is the goal, motivation needs to be intrinsic - such as autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Towards new responses

The modern solution to our two outlooks - those focused on the health of the population or those defending the economy - is to take that decision away from the governmental bodies, from industry, and from each individual and place it in charge of a center for disease control. Those with the information should be the ones who make the decisions - only they have enough data to select the right response measures.

Front line individuals should be empowered to decide when enough is enough for them personally and when greater action is required. Their work is only “their job” when they are allowed to carry out their functions at the best of their ability, not hindered by decisions made by un-informed individuals who aren’t even trained for these situations.

Preparing for adaptability does require a new way of thinking. It is uncomfortable at first, since we must give up some control and personal power. But the key to responsiveness is having the right people in the right place empowered to make the best decisions they can with the information available. That is how we minimize the impact of the terrible uncontrollable situations, which we seem to live through all the time.

Business Agility
Decentralization
Intrinsic Motivation
Resilient Leadership
Respect People
Systems Thinking
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Created on Mar 30, 2020 18:46,
last edited on Mar 30, 2020 18:28