How the most successful companies conquer the complexity of modern work
By Steven ZoBell, Chief Product and Technology Officer
“We work in a competitive and fast-paced environment, and live in a society where technology is ever-changing and consumer expectations are ever-growing,” said Whitnee Hawthorne, JetBlue’s director of strategic execution, in Workfront’s newest State of Work report. “This, coupled with the need to provide safe, reliable, and differentiated products, means that the workplace pressure is constant.”
The modern world of work is both complex and complicated. While these two terms are often used as synonyms, they’re not quite the same thing. In fact, a modest rise in the first can lead to a staggering increase in the second.
According to a report from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), business complexity has seen a six-fold increase since the 1950s. “Complexity” is defined as the number of requirements companies must satisfy to meet customer and employee expectations, technological advances, cultural shifts, and changing legal standards.
A 6x increase in complexity isn’t a particularly steep trajectory over the course of six decades—but it has driven a massive 35x increase in business “complicatedness.” This term refers to the “procedures, vertical layers, interface structures, coordination bodies, and decision approvals” required to do business at scale today. “To address each new requirement,” the report continues, “companies often set up a dedicated function, create a new process or report, and then build systems to coordinate with existing functions.”
This is what we’re talking about when we discuss the changing world of work. It’s not just competitive and more dynamic, it’s growing exponentially more complicated by the day. The result? Only 43% of our work week is spent on the core job we were hired to do, according to the State of Work report. There is a massive opportunity to improve the way we use the investment of human capital.
Still, there are some enterprises that are thriving amidst the rapid and radical transformations in the way we all work. In the report, we identify four attributes that each one of these organizations exhibits, including:
They start with visibility and context
They actively manage work
They deploy technology to help people get work done
They focus on agility as a core competency
There are seven habits that put companies on the road to mastering these attributes—and in the process, conquering the complexities and complicatedness of work—and joining the ranks of the elite enterprises that consistently outperform the competition.
1. Communicate the why.
“If you hire people just because they can do a job, they’ll work for your money,” says Simon Sinek, author of the influential book, Start With Why. “But if you hire people who believe what you believe, they’ll work for you with blood and sweat and tears.”
Every person in your organization needs to know their role, believe it matters, and have opportunities to feel pride in their work. Today’s workers are already invested. Our State of Work report revealed that 89% of today’s knowledge workers believe their role matters, 78% say their job represents more than just a paycheck, and 91% feel proud of the work they do. Imagine the additional value leaders could unleash if they purposefully and consistently connected the work of each individual to the higher purpose “why.”
2. Continuously connect to strategy.
A big part of keeping the “why” at the forefront of everyone’s minds is a conscious practice of vigorously and consistently communicating company strategy and vision to every department, team, and individual in the organization.
High-performing organizations make sure that strategic goals are well-defined, data-driven, and communicated clearly. Workers at all levels of the enterprise need visibility into exactly what the company strives to achieve as well as an understanding of how their personal contribution fits into that vision. And a modern work management platform is an effective way to maintain that continuous connection.
So how is the modern enterprise doing in this arena? Considering that two-thirds of State of Work respondents wouldn’t describe their work as “harmonious and connected,” while 15% say their work is “uncoordinated and disconnected,” the answer is: not great. But there is hope. A recently announced acquisition by Workfront represents the newest breakthrough in strategy alignment, providing the key capabilities enterprises need to align people and their work to strategic goals and objectives—and ultimately drive powerful business outcomes.
3. Practice true agility.
“Agile” has turned into a business buzzword, both the lowercase and the capitalized version of the word. But the companies that are succeeding amidst increasing “complicatedness” tend to display extraordinary organizational agility. Their commitment to agility is not simply for the purpose of making work easier or employees more productive. It’s also not about speed for speed’s sake. There’s a higher purpose at play—the ability to quickly move to create and take advantage of new areas of strength in an environment of relentless change.
I like McKinsey’s framing of this concept: “Enterprise agility is about the distinct qualities that allow organizations to respond rapidly to changes in internal and external environments without losing momentum or vision.”
Specifically, top-performing enterprises practice agility by holding regular retrospectives to optimize processes—and by working from the executive level to gain genuine buy-in from the frontline on shifts in strategy. They also embrace visible processes to cascade strategy to every individual, which ensures enough context is present in each person’s daily work to connect their efforts to desired outcomes.
Practices like these enable enterprises to empower new leaders, transcend departmental seams, seek out meaningful change, and continually redeploy at the individual and team level to drive new market opportunities.
4. View technology as a servant, not a master.
Eighty-seven percent of State of Work respondents believe their leaders should reconsider the way they think about technology in the workplace. While spending is prolific and digital tools are proliferating, many organizations aren’t as strategic as they could be with their technology decisions.
The organizations that are surpassing their peers are more likely to make sure their work management strategy drives their technology strategy, instead of the other way around. Enterprises today need a digital backbone that unifies disparate tools into an orchestrated whole that supports dynamic work processes, captures and archives essential information, and delivers ongoing visibility and context.
But the vast majority of today’s organizations aren’t anywhere near this ideal. A full 69% of those surveyed don’t have a single destination for understanding and managing their work, while an even larger number (71%) wish they had such a system.
5. Relentlessly focus on outcomes.
Companies that adopt modern work management principles and platforms gain the ability to focus relentlessly on outcomes and deliverables in a steady and continuous way. The most successful companies move beyond project and activity-based measurements, and focus on the end result: the outcome or product they’re delivering to customers.
This shift from a relentless focus on work performance to a relentless focus on resulting outcomes would be a welcome change for our State of Work survey respondents, 65% of whom wish they were rewarded based on results and outcomes than on simply churning out a steady stream of deliverables.
6. Make decisions based on data.
Highly effective companies rely on data (rather than anecdotes and assumptions) when they make decisions about the status and performance of teams and projects. They rely on data (rather than personal observation) when they manage resources, assign projects, and balance workloads. They rely on data (rather than subjective opinion) when evaluating the success of an initiative. But where can such data be found? Within a work management platform that centralizes the data about all work activity and assets into a unified whole.
And, according to our State of Work report, there’s plenty of room for improvement in this arena. Just 46% of respondents believe business decisions are made based on data, and a quarter aren’t sure how company decisions are made at all.
7. Platform your work processes.
The vast majority of global workers (71%) say they would like to have a single destination to understand and manage work, while almost as many (69%) don’t have such a solution in place. These respondents clearly understand that modern knowledge work is no longer about focusing on a series of individual projects, each with a defined beginning and end. It’s about focusing on continuously delivered outcomes—which requires actively and relentlessly managing not just the workers, but the work itself.
Whether you want to call this approach modern work management, collaborative work management, liquid work, or another term, it’s clear that a new paradigm is arising in organizational performance circles. Top-performing enterprises are beginning to realize that, in order for them to be able to look at work strategically, they need to platform their work similarly to how they have platformed finance, sales, marketing, and HR. Only after an organization has adopted a platform portfolio mindset can it continuously drive improvements in its enterprise work processes in an agile fashion.
Conquering the Complexity of Work to Outpace the Competition
“The most difficult thing about [the pressures of modern work] is narrowing in on what is going to move the needle, on what is going to most help differentiate and keep us competitive, while also continuing to shore up our foundation upon which these innovations are built,” concluded JetBlue’s Whitnee Hawthorne.
Such complexity and complicatedness is hard to understand, let alone manage in a strategic fashion, without work management technology that provides the visibility, unity, connection, context, and structure today’s enterprises need to succeed in the rapidly evolving world of modern work.