#16: Working for an uncertain future

How to avoid organizational boiled frog syndrome.

I’m an author, organizational sociologist, strategy professor, unsuccessful furniture maker, and Xoogler—this is yet another of my attempts to make sense of the state of not-knowing.

I have not, these past few weeks, been talking to assorted organizations about how they find, choose, and bring on new members to encourage innovation and continuing adaptation to uncertain environments. Definitely not.

So what follows is clearly fictional.

It couldn’t possibly be applied by, for instance, a company trying to hire new talent to cope with sudden changes in their industry, or a company trying to build a more effective R&D team, or an entrepreneur trying to find the right cofounders for a startup.

The fictional organizations I have not been talking to all face the same problem. They know that the challenges they face—innovation, unknown industry change, being a startup with an unproven business model or product—are not risky but truly uncertain.

By this I mean that these challenges by definition cannot be understood in advance. What the new hire or partner or cofounder must do to meet these challenges is therefore also shrouded in mystery.

I think of this generally as the increasingly important problem of managing joining in organizations when the joiner’s role cannot be fully defined in advance.

Jobs (presumably) were much less uncertain in the past, and organizations evolved methods of managing joining that were suited to those less uncertain times. The inertia of decades of mindless repetition leads organizations to adopt the same processes in managing joining, even when the problem to be solved by joining is fundamentally different. So, today, we remain in thrall to HR departments and “management best practices” designed to find and bring on new people whose roles and responsibilities are clear from the outset.

There is a nearly all-pervasive idea that the best way to manage joining to spend a lot of time up front developing a thorough, detailed job description, going out and recruiting as many prospects as possible, then filtering through them to figure out who is the best fit for the job description.

This conventional way of hiring people is the default everywhere. And it makes sense when the job to be done is well-understood, can be clearly captured in writing, and—this is crucial—is unlikely to change over time. But increasingly the work that really matters, the work on which an organization falters or prospers, is not like this at all.

As industries change more unpredictably and quickly, the work that matters is in responding to unexpected demands and changes in the environment. This work is not only impossible to predict, it also changes continually.

Hoping that hiring someone into a clearly predefined role will be effective when the demands on that person are expected to change unpredictably is, frankly, absurd.

Also problematic is how the conventional approach treats joining as a one-shot game. It gradually whittles down a large pool of candidates through successive stages of selection, ultimately shrinking the pool to the person with the best fit with the job description—who gets hired. Conventionally, hiring “happens” at that point and the process formally stops there. While this may be a sensible approach for filling roles that are stable, it’s also absurd to expect this to work well in filling roles that are expected to change continually and unpredictably.

The result of hiring conventionally for uncertain roles is: organizations over-invest in finding new members who are highly adapted to the particular demands of the time in which they are hired—but have no incentive (and probably little capacity) to adapt if those demands change unpredictably. Conventional hiring is unsuited for situations of uncertainty.

One alternative to conventional hiring is what I call negotiated joining, where each potential new member comes into the organization with some part of her role undefined, left open to being built. She negotiates this undefined part of the role by trying small things. If it works, she keeps doing it; if it doesn’t work or stops working, she stops doing it. Her role gets built up out of successful tests.

If there’s a norm or an agreement that her role should remain partly provisional, then her role can continue to evolve, both reacting and adapting to change. Continually piecing together a role from lots of little successful tests allows the role to always organically be what it needs to be—instead of what someone at the outset thought it should be. The individual’s role in negotiated joining continually shifts in small and unpredictable ways.

It sounds impossibly messy, but actually it is counterintuitively simple. The rather mysterious photo below is from ThinkFoodGroup. It is just one example of an organization that uses negotiated joining in its most innovative teams without even thinking about it. And the teams built with this approach are remarkably adaptable and innovative.

There’s much more to be said about negotiated joining than can fit in a short issue of this newsletter. You can read maybe too much about it here. Negotiated joining—and ThinkFoodGroup!—also features in my book (coming out soon 🤞) which is confusingly called The Uncertainty Mindset as well.

Negotiated joining is a way to apply maintenance by design to organizational structure.

Essentially, negotiated joining builds an organization in which members’ individual roles and the overall role structure are both malleable and responsive.

In negotiated joining, when demands (or opportunities) change, individual members are more likely to notice and try something new—to change what they do. The organization as a whole, through its members, adapts continually to changing pressures from the environment because it must behave unconventionally to accommodate members whose roles constantly change. Everything from how the organization chart looks, to the criteria on which members are evaluated and promoted, to how members work with each other, would naturally be different.

Changing how organizations think about the ways they find and bring in new members is foundational to building organizations that can respond gracefully to uncertainty. For this to happen, the usually taken-for-granted assumption that a member’s role should be predefined and stable needs to first be made explicit, then rejected when inappropriate. To put it a different way: the organization needs to recognize and admit that conventional ways of hiring won’t work to build an innovative and adaptable organization. Instead unconventional ways of managing joining are needed.

Negotiated joining is probably just one of many possible unconventional approaches. An organization built around negotiated joining is soft in a good way, it moves and flexes in response to the environment.

The soft organization is designed to reveal swiftly reveal failure—in the sense of environmental change that breaks existing ways of working—instead of hiding it. At the lowest level, this happens because members with provisional roles are strongly incentivized to pay attention to whether they remain relevant to the organization.

Because they’re paying attention, they’re quick to realize when environmental change makes their roles irrelevant—so they’re also motivated to find new, more relevant things to do. This continual search for relevance ripples upward through the soft organization and is the reason why it is more likely to detect and adapt to environmental change early.

Soft organizations learn, through their constant flexing, to become better and better at handling change with grace instead of denial. The tradeoff is that soft organizations flex all the time—and are therefore continually imperfectly optimized and inefficient.

The process of negotiated joining is also frustratingly diffuse and illegible to people who grasp after certainty. It therefore often challenges less imaginative leaders and managers. And those less charitable among us might speculate that professionalized HR departments will fight such unconventional approaches to managing joining because their own interests are best served by having clear, legible inputs for their work (stable job descriptions) and clear, stable metrics for their success (simple hiring numbers).

The conventional approach to hiring is thus all but baked into how most organizations work—but for the organization (whether a for- or non-profit, a startup or established corporation) trying to prepare for an uncertain future, there’s probably no worse way to find new members.

The metaphor of the oak and the willow captures much of the distinction between rigid and soft organizations.

The opposite of the soft and adaptable organization is a rigid organization with an optimized structure of predefined, stable member roles—in other words, any organization that hires conventionally, into conventionally static roles.

When the environment is stable or predictable, the highly adapted, rigid organization is undoubtedly more efficient. And the rigid organization may even be robust or well-designed enough to withstand small environmental changes with only minor performance declines.

The problem: small environmental changes don’t prompt the organization or its members to continually respond and adapt, because performance takes only a small hit. The way the organization works remains largely the same—and so the organization builds up failure debt. (This is another possible reading of Clayton Christensen’s innovator’s dilemma: as boiled frog syndrome for organizations).

When the environment changes enough from what is optimal for the rigid organization, this failure debt becomes overwhelming. Can organizational decline or even collapse be far behind?

Good thing this is all fictional, eh?

Quite good, in the American sense.


If you found this useful, please share it indiscriminately with masses of people. You can find previous issues of The Uncertainty Mindset here. I’m on the web at www.vaughntan.org, on Twitter @vaughn_tan, Instagram @vaughn.tan, or by email at <uncertaintymindset@vaughntan.org>.