Delete: Titles And Job Descriptions. Add: Talents And Mastery.
It is stating the obvious to say that employees don't like to work on things they don't like to do. People prefer to work on things they like and activities that best fit their talents and strengths. Doing what you are good at naturally increases motivation and engagement. While all of this sounds obvious, it’s not common for people to work on tasks that match their talents and passions.
Progressive organizations fully leverage the talents of employees. This turns out to be a very powerful mechanism: everyone has talents waiting to be fully utilized.
It's a matter of effectively making use of the diversity of talents that are present (but often unknown) in the organization. The idea is fairly simple: motivate every employee to do the things they are really keen to do.
That's why progressive organizations let employees identify opportunities for their own personal learning and growth. They often provide their people with the freedom to choose their own tasks and responsibilities. It happens in such a way that employees are able to sculpt their own jobs based on their interests, talents and strengths.
Forget job titles and fixed job descriptions
This clearly violates the old-fashioned concept of job descriptions and titles that traditional organization still use. The tasks in an employee’s job description seldom align with their talents and strengths. Even worse, job descriptions are frequently outdated as soon as they are crafted.
Most people, however, have a wealth of talents and resources that are, sadly, never really used in the workplace. Job descriptions, traditional hierarchies and silo thinking, prevent many employees from using the full range of their talents at work. This is a huge waste.
Focus on talents
No wonder that many Bucket list organizations don’t use job descriptions, or even fancy job titles. Instead, they look for ways for employees to develop their talents, even exploring new things they like, but may not be formally qualified for.
It then suddenly becomes apparent that many organizations possess talents, skills, interests, and resources that nobody in the organization knew of. Let alone that they were able to effectively make use of them. So let's look at some of the practical ways to put this focus on talents into practice.
Knowing your talents
Step one should be to understand the talents of yourself and your colleagues. As Sir Ken Robinson mentioned in an interview with Forbes: "Human resources are like the earth’s natural resources: they’re often buried beneath the surface and you have to make an effort to discover them."
There are a number of ways to understand what your talents and skills are. Think of online tests such as StrengthsFinder, asking friends/family/colleagues to name your talents, or by simply answering questions like: "what activities make you lose track of time?", "what got you excited as a child", "what do you like most in your job", "which talents attributed to your biggest achievements", et cetera. Google for a bit and you'll find lots of other helpful questions.
Also think about the things that you like to do outside of working hours. The things we are highly exited about in our personal lives are often not put to good use in our professional lives.
During a recent workshop one of the attendees designed an experiment with the goal to make more use of the diversity of team member's talents. Why? Because he knew there were lots of hidden talents that the team didn't put to good use. As an example, he named that he (as an IT developer) never used his passion for graphical design in his work.
At the same time, he believed that the department he worked for could use his skills by significantly improving the readability of their manuals through graphical design. He believed that simple improvements would make them more interesting to read (almost nobody was reading them now) and easier to understand (the information they contained was not well understood.
The beauty of this simple practice? He can put his talents and passion to work and therefore become more engaged while the organization benefits from improved manuals. A clear win-win.
Create an activity list
As an entry level practice, teams build their own activity list and then divide tasks based on talents and interests—not job descriptions. For this to work properly teams first identify all the activities that must be done within the team. Once this list is completed, team members just pick and perform the activities which they want to do based on their talents, strengths and interests.
And what about the activities nobody wants to do? Some teams decide to simply not perform those tasks. If no one picks up the activity it is apparently not important enough for the team to execute it. If in the end it turns out that not performing this task becomes a problem, then the activity can always be outsourced or a decision can be made to hire a new person that actually likes to perform that task.
As can be expected, this practice works best when teams are held fully responsible for their own results.
Build an internal market place
Some of the progressive organizations we visited established a so-called ‘internal market place’. They translate the concept of an activity list from team level to a company-wide practice. At first, they call every task that must be done in the organization a "project". Even for repetitive tasks.
They then allow employees to join and contribute to one or more projects that they themselves choose. These are most often the ones they feel most inspired by.
Projects can still have project leaders, but the leaders are often chosen by the team members themselves (not appointed by others). This means that employees are not only contributing to multiple projects simultaneously, but that some people are also in charge of multiple projects. Someone can have leadership roles for two particular projects and, at the same time, fulfill a specialist role in a third project.
Organizations leave it up to the staff to decide where they can add the most value to the business. Like less attractive activities, less attractive projects are often not important enough to be executed. They then either completely eliminate the projects, hire people that like to do them, or consider outsourcing the projects once they are proven absolutely necessary.
Focus on mastery
It is not only the utilization of talents and strengths that counts. As Daniel Pink writes in his influential book 'Drive', it's also about mastery. Mastery is the urge to get better and better at something that matters.
Mastery begins when challenges are matched with the person's abilities and interests. It's about continuously developing yourself on the things you are good at. It's often viewed as a long term project.
Developing yourself can be done by training and by experience. That’s why, in most progressive organizations, employees decide for themselves which classes or conferences they will attend. Employees often know best which interest they want to chase and are trusted to take the right decisions.
Therefore, budgets are almost never set in stone (which prevents the painfully stupid end-of-the-year-budget-spending). Instead transparency about who attends which event or training becomes key.
At the Polish company u2i, for example, they have a general rule that their conference budget is unlimited. But, the use of the budget should be reasonable. For them, as a Polish company, this means that the organization is likely to pay for all expenses when the event happens in Europe but probably will cover only a ticket when the conference happens outside Europe. They have an internal Slack channel where people share their reasons for attending a particular conference.
At the Spanish company Cyberclick employees even decide about their own training budget and can spend it on whatever they like. This means that employees can chose to do a scuba diving or surfing course if they wish to do so. Cyberclick simply believes that if certain training benefits the person, it also benefits the organization.
Another powerful practice we encounter is the role of gurus: professionals who focus on specific subjects. For this to work, organizations first identify all the specialties the organization needs to master to work smoothly. Think about areas like sales, marketing, product development, manufacturing, supply chain management, finance, et cetera.
Then, for each area, they identify a guru. The role of the guru is to inspire and develop those working in this area. An important detail: every employee chooses which area he wants to be associated with.
Pick your own mentor
Besides selecting their gurus, employees are encouraged to choose their own mentor. The mentor's job should be to serve mainly as a coach that helps and inspires employees to do their best and to keep developing themselves on the personal level. Check out the blog post on u2i for the beautiful practice of company sherpas as self-selected mentors.
New York based IT company Next Jump has a buddy system in place to promote mastery of talents and skills. They have so-called Talking Partners (TP): 2 employees who regularly meet to discuss the progress of skills and talents (self-selected of course). What were once called Talking Partners, soon became known as TP—which led to the nickname of Toilet Paper. Why? Because these people help you deal with your shit!
Waste no longer
Arguably the saddest thing in modern day organizations is the amount of wasted talent. It's therefore time for many organizations to start figuring out which talents they have on board and to start using those talents in a much more efficient way.
It’s about encouraging employees to identify their hidden talents and bring them to life. This will eventually provide employees with the potential of changing the trajectory of their own lives. For this to happen, let employees search for the opportunities that will make them grow and let them identify mentors and gurus who can constantly support them.
The beauty of it all? It will help both the employee and the organization to thrive.
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Joost, you made me dream - and I like what comes up in this dream! Working in such an environment sounds like heaven on earth... but even more inspiring is the challenge to resolve all the obstacles which are going to pop-up on the way from today's models to these new models of working together.
Thanks a lot for the inspiration!
I had the opportunity to experience something similar. This approach had a huge impact on our ( my colleagues' and my ) consciousness about people, work and growth.
We realised we are not static snapshots, we are living beings in constant evolution. Furthermore we are not just individuals, we are part of something bigger. Teams we commit to, even when determining what we want to learn next for the sake of the team's future abilities.
Doing this "illegally" without the open support of your organisation isn't easy and can eventually get you fired, but if you ask me, it's well worth the trouble!
Focusing on talents rather than titles makes your team fluid and brings transparency. It also enables you to give greater control in the hands of your collaborators towards self-management.
I hope you read comments on older posts. I have a concern regarding the internal activity marketplace. How would you make it work in a field where most of the work is specialised? For example, in tech teams, you can't have a programmer take on infrastructure management without reasonable training first. What mechanics would you have in place to prevent a "I can't do that, but I can" situation?
This year we launched the Corporate Rebels Academy and our first course on new ways of working. Four cohorts of students have studied the world's most progressive organizations. Today, we announce 2022 class dates and open enrollments. You can apply now!
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