What Work You Agree to Do: Recommended Reading

Suzman, J. (2021). Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots. New York, Penguin Press.

You can hear a sample from the book (here).

Why do you work? Who are you working for? What, even, is work? In the book Work, anthropologist James Suzman takes us through a deep history, back to the early days as hunter-gatherers, looking at how what we consider to be work has shaped what we think it is today and how that determines, in great part, what we agree to do. Maybe it is all a choice. A choice that different peoples across the globe make differently, based on different assumptions that evolved from different circumstances.

The work we do also defines who we are; determines our future prospects; dictates where and with whom we spend most of our time; mediates our sense of self-worth; molds many of our values; and orients our political loyalties.

Work, p2

From an ecosynomic perspective, Suzman’s simple observation, from scanning anthropology’s observations of thousands of groups over the history of humanity, includes the 4 big questions of how much resource we have (the economic lens), who decides and enforces the allocation of resources (the political lens), the criteria used to decide what is valued (the cultural lens), and the rules of the game of how we interact (the social lens). How we understand what work is and what we agree to with work influences all of that. That seems like a significant choice: one we seldom are aware we are making.

One of the key factors in determining what we seem to accept in the definition of our work, through these 4 lenses (economic, political, cultural, social), is the underlying economic assumption of scarcity. Suzman points out that, according to the economist Keynes, the most pressing problem of the human race is the economic problem of scarcity–“there are simply not enough resources to satisfy everybody’s wants, everything is scarce” (p4).

But the problem of scarcity offers a bleak assessment of our species. It insists that evolution has molded us into selfish creatures, cursed to be forever burdened by desires that we can never satisfy.

Work, p5

While mainstream thinking suggests this scarcity-based view is the only one, Suzman observes that anthropologoical studies now show that “hunter-gatherers had few material desires, which could be satisfied with a few hours of effort. Their economic life was organized around the presumption of abundance rather than a preoccupation with scarcity. And this being so, there is good reason to believe that because our ancestors hunted and gathered for well over 95 percent of Homo sapiens’ 300,000-year-old history, the assumptions of human nature in the problem of scarcity and our attitudes of work have their roots in farming. Acknowledging that for most of human history our ancestors were not as preoccupied with scarcity as we are now reminds us that there is far more to work than our efforts to solve the economic problem” (pp6-7).

When economists define work as the time and effort we spend meeting our needs and wants, they dodge two obvious problems. The first is that often the only thing that differentiates work from leisure is context and whether we are being paid to do something or are paying to do it [for example, painting, gardening, writing]…The second problem is that beyond the energy we expend to secure our most basic needs–food, water, air, warmth, companionship, and safety–there is very little that is universal about what constitutes a necessity.

Work, p7

Suzman then defines work, “the closest thing to a universal definition of ‘work’–one that hunter-gatherers, pinstriped derivatives traders, calloused subsistence farmers, and anyone else would agree on–is that it involves purposefully expending energy or effort on a task to achieve a goal or end” (p8). This gets us to the choice of who is engaging your will, your purposeful energy, towards what purpose.

To understand how we got here, Suzman then takes us on the long journey of two pathways. “When it comes to charting the history of our relationship with work, there are two intersecting pathways that are the most obvious to follow. The first maps the story of our relationship with energy. At its most fundamental, work is always an energy transaction and the capacity to do certain kinds of work is what distinguishes living organisms from dead, inanimate matter. For only living things actively seek out and capture energy specifically to live, to grow, and to reproduce…The second pathway follows the human evolutionary and cultural journey… The journey down this pathway reveals how, as our ancestors developed the capacity to master many new different skills, our remarkable purposefulness was honed to the point that we re now capable of finding meaning, joy, and deep satisfaction in activities like building pyramids, digging holes, and doodling…But it is the points where these two pathways converge that are most important in terms of making sense of our contemporary relationships with work” (pp9-10). Suzman identifies four such convergences: when humans mastered fire; started storing food and farming; gathered in cities; and industrialized work in factories and mills.

In trying “to describe, measure, and compare accurately the capabilities of things like water wheels, cart horses, steam engines, and human beings” (p26), Gaspard-Gustave Coriolis coined the term “work,” and developed equations to describe it, basically as the transfer of energy. This solved the hard problem of being able to characterize and compare different forms of transferring energy, whether people, horses, or machines. This form of work is measured in joules or calories. And we see another form of energy, in our minds. The mind uses a different form of energy, according to George Armitage Miller. “‘Just as the body survives by ingesting negative entropy [free energy].., so the mind survives by ingesting information…(It) is now clear that all living things, from prokaryotes to plants, are informavores…Much of the energy captured by complex organisms with brains and nervous systems is used to filter, process, and respond to information acquired through their senses…With our super-plastic neocortices and well-organized senses, Homo sapiens are the gluttons of the informavore world…Our brains only constitute 2 percent of our total body weight but they consume around 20 percent of our energy resources…for most other mammals it is between 5 and 10 percent” (pp87-88, 104).

As you can tell, from the extensive quoting from this book, I found this to be a fascinating look at why we see work the way we do, how there are currently on the planet many different, evolved forms of how people see work, and this gives us the chance to choose how we engage with work. There is not one right answer for everyone. That would be a law of physics. Suzman shows anthropologically that there are many different answers, depending on your context, and what you choose to include in your context. Your choice.

Are We A System Or A Network? A Hat Tip to Russell Ackoff, Again

Almost everything these days is a network (5B Google hits). Or a system (10B Google hits). Are systems and networks the same thing? Are they very different?

A very brief side trip into definitions and etymology might answer this for us, definitively. Network is defined by OED as “a group or system of interconnected people or things.” Network comes from the Proto-Germanic *natjo, perhaps originally “something knotted,” from PIE root *ned– “to bind, tie” and *werka– “work,” from PIE *werg– “to do.” So, from the Proto-Germanic for bound-together work or interconnected people or things. System is defined by OED as “a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole.”  System comes from the Greek systema “organized whole, a whole compounded of parts,” from syn– “together,” from PIE root *sta– “to stand, make or be firm.” So, from the Greek for interconnected parts. OED seems to partially define a network as a system and a network as a system. So, the definitions and etymology do not seem to clarify much.

Then, there is Russell Ackoff. For me it is always worth it to go back to Russell Ackoff, especially for clarity around seemingly complex themes. In his 2010 book Differences That Make a Difference: An Annotated Glossary of Distinctions Important in Management, Ackoff distinguishes networks from systems, clarifying their distinct power and purpose.

A system is a whole that is defined by its function in a larger system of which it is a part. (An automobile, for example, is defined for its role in the transportation system: a university by its role in the educational system.) It has at least two essential parts–parts without which it could not perform its defining function. For example, an automobile cannot function without a motor, fuel, pump, or battery. A person cannot function without a brain, lungs, and a heart. The essential parts have five essential characteristics: (1) Each can affect the behavior or properties of the whole; (2) The way an essential part affects the whole depends on what at least one other part is doing. The effects of the parts are interdependent; (3) Every two essential parts are connected, directly or indirectly; (4) Subsets of essential parts (subsystems) also can affect the properties or behavior of the whole, and the way they affect the whole depends on at least one other subsystem; (5) There is a direct or indirect connection between every pair of subsystems. It follows that a system is a whole that cannot be divided into independent parts. Its properties and behavior derive from the interactions of its parts, not their actions considered separately.

A network is a whole whose function is to enable communication between its parts. In a well-designed network, there is a connection between every possible pair of parts. But in a network, unlike a system, there are no essential parts. If any part is removed, there are alternative ways to connect the parts affected.

The parts of a system many form a network, but not every network is a system. The so-called “telephone system” is not a system but a network. It has no essential parts. However, a telephone company is a system. If a collection of parts is neither a system nor a network, it is an aggregation, like a crowd or inventory of parts. For example, consider the wired telephone network. If the connection between Philadelphia and New York is broken, one can still reach New York from Philadelphia by going through any number of cities: for example, Trenton, New Brunswick, and Newark. But, if an essential part of a system–for example, the motor from an automobile–is broken the automobile cannot perform its function.

Ackoff, R. L. (2010). Differences That Make a Difference: An Annotated Glossary of Distinctions Important in Management. Devon, UK, Triarchy Press, pp. 119-120.

Thank you, once again, Russell Ackoff for this clarity. A system is a set of interrelated parts, where the contribution of each is essential to the purpose and behavior of the whole. A network is a set of interrelated parts, providing robust communication among its parts. An aggregation is a pile of parts. Clear. So, are you a system, a network, or an aggregation?

Living Everyday from Abundance, for Everyone Everywhere, in Our Neighborhood: Recommended Reading

Mather, M. (2018). Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected Places. Grand Rapids, MI, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Is living in abundance-based agreements only for the rich and the educated, a luxury? Or is it a way of living available to all human beings who choose to say Yes! to human creativity, to seeing and supporting each other, to a healthy, vibrant community?

In Having Nothing, Possessing Everything, the Rev. Michael Mather describes the experience of his community, at the time in Indianapolis, and how they found the abundance in their community. He describes the individuals who brought this awareness to him. How he said Yes! to their gift, their unique contribution in their way of seeing abundance in the eyes of their neighbors, one at a time. The journey of how the community evolved to embrace more and more of these gifts, in a place many would have described as economically poor, where many would not expect to find abundance in their agreements.

Like the work of other community-based groups who find the strengths, the assets, the gifts residing everywhere in their community, in each human being, in each relationship, in each interaction, they began to learn to see the gifts, and how to say Yes! to them. In the world of complementary currencies, they call this matching unmet needs with underutilized resources. Seeing what is actually there, in great wealth, and where it could express. This book is full of practical examples of how they saw who wanted to share their mastery in cooking, in mechanics, in caretaking, in gardening, in event hosting. These are all activities they were paying for, outside of their community. They were able to see how to bring these within their community, often with far greater quality.

I highly recommend this very personal story of a leader and a community, who stepped into saying Yes! to the choices they faced, to the abundance-based agreements residing right there in their own community.

Our Mental Health and Wellbeing: Recommended Readings

How do we choose in vast swaths of uncertainty? Insights into how to choose your agreements, in any moment, for the now and for future, by our colleague Fred KrawchukNavigating Uncertainty with Strength, Focus and Agility

What are we learning about mental health, wellbeing and happiness? Here are some notes from our colleagues doing this work every day.

Mental Health for Teens — Learn about a “systems of caring” approach to teen mental health and well-being from our colleagues at the Well Being Trust, shared by Tyler Norris, Chief Executive, Well Being TrustIt’s Time To Invest In Better Health and Well-Being for Teens

Thriving Together — Our colleagues at the Well Being Trust share their findings for “Thriving Together,” as a path forward for what comes now and next. How to co-generate a more equitable recovery for all of us, as the United States — Well Being Trust Releases Thriving Together: A Springboard for Equitable Recovery and Resilience in Communities Across America

Flourishing Leaders — My colleagues Matt Lee, from Harvard’s Human Flourishing program, with Ed Brooks, Emmie Bidston and Katy Granville-Chapman cohost the eCourse Leading and Flourishing in Difficult Times with the Oxford Character Project, bringing the #ecosynomics of #abundance#sacredhospitality, and #cohosting to leadership in difficult times. I just completed the course myself–it is filled with insights, exercises, empowering interviews, useful resources. I highly recommend it to leaders who say Yes! to choice, Yes! to a future they love.

Human Flourishing — My colleague Tyler VanderWeele shares insights from research on the positive effects of volunteering on human flourishing — Volunteering and Human Flourishing

Global Happiness Movement — Our colleagues at the WOHASU Foundation hosted Richard Layard, co-editor of the UN’s World Happiness Report and LSE economist, sharing his observations on the status of the Global Happiness Movement — Status of the Global Happiness Movement featuring Richard Layard & hosted by Karen Guggenheim

We’ve Been to the Moon, Now It’s Time for an Earthshot

We have gone to the moon: now we need to take care of our earth.  This is where we live, and this is what we are made of, earth and its life forces, our biology. An earthshot is to say YES! to a future we love, here on this earth, amongst all of us that inhabit it.

The prophet of abundance-based technology and bold steps towards a far-better world, Peter Diamandis, invites us to take on a “moonshot mindset,” invoking the power of John F. Kennedy’s 1962 moon speech. Again, we need to do it, we have not done it yet, and we can. This “means applying 10X thinking (or 1,000%) to all of your efforts and challenges.” As Kennedy saw, you have the resources, you have the knowledge, you have the will, and you have the need, the love for that future. Now you need to put it all together, probably in new ways.

My colleagues and I have found that many “positive deviants” have already figured out part of the “how,” how to put it all together, and these positive deviants are everywhere, across the planet, even in your own backyard. We are now putting these pieces together into an abundance-based approach, based on the emerging science of abundanceecosynomics.

The herenow we face requires an earthshot—we need to do it, we have not done it yet, and we can, together, each bringing our best contributions.

All Rules Come with Standards and Principles You Didn’t Set—With Principles-based Choosing, You Set All Three

As I described in an earlier post, one way to be more resilient is to shift from thinking about rules to standards and principles.  John Rawls, a moral and political philosopher, highlighted in his book, A Theory of Justice, the differences amongst the terms rules, standards, and principles.

Rules are straight lines, asking yes/no questions, looking for triggering conditions that something is changing, seeking predictability and certainty.  Ex ante, the thinking is that this rule should and will provide this stability.  Put it in place, and let it work.

Standards are balancing feedback systems, with a gap between a stated goal and the actual state driving action that changes the actual state, like a thermostat.  This system looks for balancing factors in a set of relevant considerations and options, providing a range of choices.  Ex post, this thinking asks whether this standard maintained the behavior within a desired range.

Principles are systems to be considered, providing guardrails for the feedback loops (standards) to include, and how the choices made in actions might be interpreted.  In reflection, this thinking asks whether the system of standards and rules under consideration increases resilience of the desired impact.

Rules tell you what actions to take to close the gap. For example, for your physical health, eat this many calories, with this mix of proteins, grains, vegetables, and fruit. Or do this much exercise a day. For your mental health, read this, think about this, stop thinking about this, or talk to this person. For your emotional health, have these friends, and engage in this way. Each of these guides for how to act are rules. Rules often come with implicit standards of what healthy looks like, based on a principle of standards, rules, and who should be setting them.

Simply put, every rule comes with standards and principles, whether you agreed to them or not. With a principles-based start to your choices, you set all three. You decide who decides, towards what purpose, with what standard, what feedback process, what rules, and what actions. You choose.

Collaboration Across Boundaries: If Not Us, Then Who? If Not Now, Then When?

Meet April 11-14 with leaders from around the globe exploring the micro inner work, macro outer systems, meso organizational performance, and how the agreements we make at these levels influence the experience we have and the impacts we achieve.  Collaboration is serious work.  Co-hosted by Intergen and the Money&Business Partnership, this 4-day event (11-14 April 2021) guides your deep dive into this serious work. Work that is yours to do. Register for this gathering, the 7th Money & Business Partnership Congress by clicking here.

On day 4, I will share with the group what we are learning about deep collaboration in very-high-performing groups as they generate ecologies of sacred hospitality, achieving massive impacts through regenerative organizing forms.  Please join us, and invite your colleagues as well.  This is your big Yes!

Everything Stems from Your Purpose

Everything is energy, and every thing requires energy. Einstein showed that matter–a thing–equals energy. A lot of it. E=mc2. Or m=E/c2.

When we value something, we want to connect to it. The word we use, value, comes from the Latin valere for be strong, be worth. Connecting to this value gives us purpose. Purpose comes from the Latin pro– “forth” and the Old French poser “to put, place”, meaning to connect to energy, to plug into the source of our energy. Our purpose, what we value.

Not plugging in is saying no to the energy, yes to disengagement, no to human creativity, and no to love. If the energy is there, and if what we value is there, and if connecting to the energy of what we value is there, there for us to engage and transform, then why would we not do that? That seems like a massive waste.

Purpose-driven leadership focuses leaders on understanding the power and the dynamics of purpose, engaging it, and transforming the energy of it into something that others value. When people connect to a deeper shared purpose, they are able to achieve far more together than not. According to XPRIZE founder, Peter Diamandis, a purpose-driven mindset deeply energizes you, focusing your thinking and awareness, always looking for new insights and relationships that can enhance your ability to achieve your purpose. McKinsey research shows that aligning the company’s purpose with the purpose of its people leads to much better results: higher engagement, higher loyalty, and a net-positive impact for their stakeholders.

So, if we are energy, and if we need energy to replenish our energy, then we need to connect to energy. That energy is everywhere, and the way we connect to it is through purpose. While this might seem obvious, many people still do not do it. This means that you know what your purpose is, and you connect to it continuously. This engages the energy and guides what is done with it. The evidence is there, and you know this from your own experience. Connecting to it, to your purpose, your Yes!, is a choice. Your choice.

Flourishing at Work

According to a recent Gallup study, “Only 15% of the world’s one billion full-time workers are engaged at work.” 85% are not! How did this happen?

What can we do about it? My colleague Tyler VanderWeele, professor and Director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University, shares his recent research on flourishing at work in a January 27, 2021 post in Psychology Today. “Most people want to be engaged at work. The time passes more quickly, and the activities seem more fun. But engaged and satisfied employees are also good for business: they are more productive, less likely to leave the company, and less likely to waste time on the job. Engagement can have a major impact on costs, revenues, and profit.”

The mainstream is starting to pay attention to this. In a December 2020 HBR podcast, Christina Maslach, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley talks about “why burnout happens and how bosses can help. In November 202, the VisualCapitalist provided an infographic of “15 Warning Signs to Identify a Toxic Work Environment Before Taking a Job.” It is no longer rocket science or “that soft stuff.” The numbers are huge, and the costs are very real.

We need to realize that, as human beings, we are each uniquely constituted and contextualized, and therefore we are each uniquely engaged or disengaged. This means that to address engagement–flourishing at work–we need to inquire into each person’s context. We need to ask, listen, and try something, together. While this might seem expensive to do for each person, Tyler’s study showed that the costs of not doing so are far greater. Once we see that the costs of scarcity are far, far greater than the costs of abundance, the investment in Yes!, then we will start to make progress, creating thriving, regenerative organizations and communities. These authors are paving the way.

Gratitude to Awesome Cohosts — My EGADE MBA Strategy Class F2020

I was very fortunate to be able to invite some amazing leaders to visit with my “Strategy in Organizations” class in the EGADE Business School del Tecnológico de Monterrey program this past Fall 2020.

Purpose — Grateful to Jay Harris for speaking about his experience in leading with the power of purpose.

Leadership Ethics — Really enjoyed having Matt Lee of the Harvard Human Flourishing Program share his work on Ethics and Values.

Strategic ContextCarolyn McCarthy shared her experience in co-hosting the strategic systems-change process. How to determine the boundaries and content of your STRATEGIC CONTEXT, with systemic strategy. Carolyn shared her experience with Open Opportunity Massachusetts (https://lnkd.in/dXT2J2d), using strategic systems mapping and collaborative processes to identify the dynamics and stakeholders defining the “strategic context” of K-12 education for all children in the state of Massachusetts (USA).

Strategic Resources — Grateful to Luz Maria Puente for sharing her work in bringing systemic strategic clarity [https://lnkd.in/d4kRBcM] to an organization’s understanding and implementation. What are my company’s MOST STRATEGIC resources? How do we scale them and leverage their impact, while regenerating the resources we need to sustain this?

Strategic Leverage — I thank Annabel Membrillo for sharing her experience in getting a large group of stakeholders to identify strategic systemic leverage interventions and then implement them. LEVERAGE, the ability to get far more from the system than we put into it–much greater effectiveness and efficiency with the same inputs. Strategic systemic leverage is critical to move the dial on seemingly intractable, complex issues like education, health, housing, and energy [https://lnkd.in/ddmwEGe].

My Own Leadership. I thank Hernando Aguilera for sharing his experience in guiding leaders through this inquiry of “Designing Your Life”. Who is DESIGNING MY LIFE? I would like to think I am. When we look at the underlying agreements that determine what I do, who I interact with, and how I interact, we discover a high percentage of agreements I have unconsciously accepted [https://lnkd.in/daQpyTp]. This means that someone or something else is designing my life, at home and at work. I can change this, designing my own life, at home and work.

Shifting Organizational Agreements — With deep gratitude to Ana Cláudia Gonçalves for sharing her experience, in leading large organizations through shifts in their outcomes and experiences by experimentally evolving their deeper agreements about who they are, what they do, and how they do it [https://lnkd.in/dgpKX28]. We want different OUTCOMES and different EXPERIENCES. We are not living up to what we know we are capable of being and doing. How do we change this?The class was also deeply inspired by her example of a young person successfully taking up leadership of a large organization and proving far greater results with innovative, more equitable practices

Implementing Strategy — I am grateful to Fred Krawchuk for sharing well-tested practices for rigor-testing strategy implementation. Robust agreements–agreements that work when the situation is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA), our new everyday reality.

Strategic Information — Lots of gratitude to Michael Puleo for sharing what he observes as the state of the art in strategic information systems. Did it work? We had a STRATEGY–we saw a future state, we saw a way to it, we tried it. Did we get the FEEDBACK about whether it worked? What information do we need, to know if what we saw worked? How do we adjust what we see and what we do based on what we learned? What strategic measures help me see the effects of my strategy on my impact and on my resilience?

Leading in Wicked Problems — Deep thanks to Edward Brooks for sharing his insights on the fundamental shifts required in how leaders take up 21st-century “wicked problems” through human-focused organization. What is required to LEAD today?  What they taught my parents about leadership in business school was similar to what they taught me, a generation later–direct, divide, manage, and conquer through well-structured controls. Many schools still teach these same leadership principles, another generation later. The “wicked problems” leadership faces today are completely different than the “tame problems” faced by earlier generations. How does one lead when it is not even clear what the problem is, and it is not clear when the problem has been solved? These characteristics require human-focused, deeply collaborative leadership.

Values in Leadership — Grateful to Prof. Elliott Kruse for sharing the latest in research on the impact of values in leadership

Collaborative Leadership — Deep gratitude to Jared Duval for sharing his experience in leading the Energy Action Network in Vermont. Leading a set of very diverse groups of people, from different industries and different social-political-economic perspectives, coming together to address wickedly complex problems sounds impossible, or at least really hard, doesn’t it? It is, until it is not. It depends on (1) what you understand your leadership role to be and (2) how you choose to organize. with my “Strategy in Organizations” class in the EGADE Business School del Tecnológico de Monterrey MBA program.