The 3 conditions for smiling

Let's jump right into the conditions for smiling.

First of all, you need to realize your work matters. I'm not taking your job is hard or that you work a lot. I'm talking about realizing what you do makes a difference. A sense of individual contribution. If you don't know what the goal is, what problems are we trying to solve here or what the stakes are, it is hard to have a profound feeling of contribution. When you know it's either your McDonalds or the other, and you see yours is full, you know you are winning. If you greet a usual customer and then she looks up at you and draws a smile, you know YOU are contributing.

Next: you have autonomy to shape your work, you control how you do your job, you have freedom to take decisions. That is the pure definition of responsibility: when I pass you the ball, you own it, you can shoot or pass it, you can hold it or move around. Either way, it is your move. You are part of something bigger, yes, but there's a point when it all depends on you, and what you do will matter. For a customer at the counter of that McDonalds, all that matters is how you deal with her order. And nobody is going to shape that moment but you. And you are free to do it anyway you want, and we will count on you doing something remarkable because it's either you or no one else.

Finally: you have constant feedback. You know if you are doing it right or wrong at the very moment you do it. You smile, someone smiles back at you. You miss a pass, the team loses the ball. Lack of feedback will inevitably put you in why do I care? mode. Constant feedback is how habits are built. But constant feedback is a hard thing for many activities. If a workout session, just one, had immediate results, we would all be in shape (probably).

We've outlined the three conditions for smiling: individual contribution, autonomy and constant feedback. How do organizations generally perform on those areas? Quite poorly, frankly. It is rather exceptional to see organizations integrating these principles into daily activities. But watch out, this is actually a conscious design decision rather than a result of mediocre management. Many years ago, someone realized that division of labor was actually a pretty clever thing. If you specialize and standardize activities required to perform a function, you maximize one very interesting variable: replaceability (is that a word?). If you manage to define every job position under the strict definition of an operating procedure, you can replace anyone easily. If you maximize replaceability, you minimize two very important factors of profitability: cost and risk. Can anyone resist this proposition?

But division of labor directly confronts our smile principles. Is there a sense of individual contribution when you are a cog in a machine, designed to be replaced easily? Is there any autonomy in an organization that requires approvals in 30 different committees to make things differently? Is a yearly appraisal our definition of constant feedback?

These principles (division of labor to minimize cost and risk) has been going on for so long now that we take it for granted (think the monkeys and bananas parable). But one can argue that the model prescribed by the industrial revolution is showing symptoms of exhaustion in this century. Exhaustion in the sense that we cannot squeeze differentiation from it anymore. And therefore we must confront the very challenging endeavor to evolve this model. Are shareholders ready to bet on such a counter intuitive move? It implies a fairly daunting proposition: let people make the difference, let them become irreplaceable. That is a hard sell. Do managers have the tools to promote and deal with that new model? It's hard to find training courses on how to redesign processes this way, how to deal with autonomy, etc. And finally, are people actually ready for this change? Let's be honest: owning the ball is tough. Making a difference is harder than doing what you've been told. Taking responsibility is uncomfortable. Rewards come with a price, and not everyone in interested in this deal.

This change will take time, for sure. Shareholders will need a couple more chapter 11s to realize. A new breed of managers will surface (for which some others will have to step out). And we all will have to learn than just doing our job is not going to be enough. We better teach our children right (and school is not going to help) because that's the world they'll be living in.

Meanwhile I will still awe at the wonders of this new world. In the little coffee shop that we set up in a corner of the office, there she works: a young girl running it. She teaches me a lesson every single day. She owns the place, we all know (despite she just works there). She knows everybody's names. She remembers yesterday's talk. She knows what you like. She asks when she knows someone's sick. She definitely knows her contribution makes a difference. She totally takes some liberties here and there to delight us. She knows she's doing it right when everybody cheers up a little during breaks at the coffee shop. I draw inspiration from her every day, and I get a glimpse of the shape of things to come, which is priceless. Could I ever think of going anywhere else to have lunch? No way.

See you next week!

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