A conversation with Dr. Peter Gray, Professor of IT @ University of Virginia McIntire School of Commerce
“ So we’ve been studying energizing ties for over 20 years now. And so we’ve found that people in organizations have a range of impacts on each other. At the one extreme are interactions we would call energizing. And I think we all kind of intuitively know the characteristics of an energizer. They help you tackle problems. They are kind of selfless in their willingness to help you. They’re optimistic but not pie in the sky optimistic. And they act with honesty and integrity, and thoughtfulness. And so what we’ve found is that whether you’re an energizer is a huge predictor of forwarding momentum through your organization. So people who score high on these energizing scores by the network around them are much more likely to win with clients. They win in the internal labor market. They get more from people around them. There’s been some great research that when you’re in the presence of an energizer, you yourself are more creative.” –Dr. Peter Gray
In this episode of Control the Room, I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Peter Gray about his years of experience creating more collaborative organizations through his work studying professional networks. He shares how the pandemic has impacted workplace networks and influenced innovation. Later, Peter explains how the size, reach, and quality of a professional’s network impacts their career. We then discuss how the future of work will reward team performance over the individual. Listen in for more interesting thoughts on the future of work.
[1:30] How Peter Got His Start Studying Organizational Psychology.
[12:30] The 9 Behaviors Of High Performing Professionals.
[27:00] Building A Collaboration Network.
[32:02] Why The Future Will Professionals That Can Improve Team Performance.
Links | Resources
Dr. Peter Gray on Linkedin
About the Guest
Peter Gray is a Professor at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, where he teaches courses that connect ideas about innovation, information technology, and strategic management. He has worked with a range of companies to identify and capitalize on opportunities for improving organizational competitiveness by understanding how the networks of collaboration in organizations through network analysis. His research focuses on the collaborative impacts of social technologies, organizational networks, virtual teams, and online communities. His research has been published in a range of leading journals, including Sloan Management Review, California Management Review, Management Science, MIS Quarterly, Information Systems Research, and Organizational Research Methods, among others. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Voltage Control
Voltage Control is a change agency that helps enterprises sustain innovation and teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings.
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Douglas: Welcome to the Control the Room Podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures to the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control, and others are loose. To control the room means achieving outcomes while striking a balance between imposing and removing structure, asserting and distributing power, leaning in and leaning out, all in the service of having a truly magical meeting. Thanks for listening.
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Today I’m with Peter Gray, at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, where he teaches and researches about how companies can develop strategies that their competitors can’t. He’s also the author of a number of publications on the use of organizational network analysis. Welcome to the show, Peter.
Peter: Hey. Thanks, Doug.
Douglas: So, just to get things started, I’d love to hear about how you got your start. How did you get into this work of studying and examining networks?
Peter: Yeah. So after spending a decade in the world of work myself, I decided to go back to school and went for a Ph.D. At Queens University, Ph.D. is actually a double Ph.D., so you do twice the work that most people do. And so mine is in two areas that at the time, sort of in the early 2000s, was seen as quite separate. One was organizational behavior, which is industrial psychology, how people think about the workplace, engagement, and the other one was information technology, which at that point was pretty much: How do we make people more efficient, cut costs, that sort of stuff?
And there was this neat phenomenon happening at the time where companies were trying to do what at the time was called knowledge management, which really amounted to getting everybody to dump anything they’d done into a big database. And so I thought to myself this is sort of an interesting straddle between these two fields, but I’m not sure either one really has it right, so the tech people thought as long as we put the data there, it’ll get used. And on the psychology side, on the behavioral side, people weren’t really looking at whether people actually use these databases. And so there’s just a whole lot of tech-driven aggregation going on.
So my dissertation was looking at how engineers in a big R and D organization did or in fact didn’t use these kinds of technologies. And throughout that, it really became clear that the primary way in which knowledge is shared and expertise is transferred into an organization is interpersonal as opposed to through repositories, and that got me really interested in how these networks form and how people build and structure their networks to accomplish purposes and rely on each other in ways that can make them more efficient, or more innovative, or more effective in what they do.
Douglas: My light bulbs are going off because it’s been a minute since I’ve heard or thought about knowledge systems, but it makes so much sense based on the work you’re doing and some of the shifts I’ve been seeing in the ecosystem. And I’m really curious if you’ve stumbled on what’s happening in the distributed remote work world around this kind of focus on asynchronous management and the concept that I heard and kind of related to is kind of shifting from an ask first culture to a search first culture. So it makes a lot of sense from allowing people the opportunity to have deep work. But then to your point, if the information is flowing through these networks, how do you manage and hold those two needs, I guess?
Peter: Yeah. So we’ve been looking a fair bit at a return to work efforts, and that’s a follow-up on work we’ve been doing for quite a while on just remote work in general. And the thing we’ve always found is that going remote seems like this wonderful thing where you have more space and more time to yourself, more ability to focus, fewer interruptions. And yet, what we see is, in the past, when people went remote, their networks inevitably shrunk. And what they’re missing is those hallway conversations, the few minutes after a meeting, the chance encounter down at the coffee machine, the things that we all just kind of naturally do in an in-person world, which now disappear.
And if you only think of those as being sort of time wasters, then great, you’re off being productive, heads down, you and your computer and a couple Zoom calls a day. But if you realize that those are actually key to maintaining and growing your network and helping you discover things you didn’t know you needed to know, then you start to realize that, wow, I’m starting to lose out if I’m just working at home. The big red button at the end of the Zoom meeting is so tempting. Everybody just jumps off very quickly, and that’s so different from what happens in a physical environment where a meeting is over, and people stand up, and they continue the conversation a little bit maybe as they’re walking back to their offices.
So all serendipitous moments, those chances for encounters that you didn’t know you needed start to evaporate. And that’s I think what people are seeing or beginning to see now. I’m not sure … Well, we’re starting to see now after two years, people working from home for two years, that the networks are for sure shrinking. I think it was pretty easy in the first six to 12 months for people to just miss that. They didn’t realize that. But I think now it’s starting to dawn on folks that they’re talking to fewer people and that’s leaving them in a little bit more of a siloed mentality. I think about my work and only my work, as opposed to understanding more broadly what’s going on in my organization.
Douglas: And that’s something that we spoke about in the pre-show chat, just this notion that creativity and the things that unlock creativity are definitely connected to networks.
Peter: Absolutely. And so there’s been a ton of great research on this that, and much of it within organizations, that your ability to come up with new and novel ideas, new initiatives to think creatively is only in part a function of what’s in your head, of your own individual abilities. And it is much more a function of who you encounter, who you discuss things, who you share ideas with. And so if you spend all your time talking to people who look just like you, who think just like you, who have the same job or the same role in the organization, you’re going to come up with a very narrow kind of niche-focused ideas that make sense to you and 12 people who agree with you day in and day out.
But if your network connects you to a dozen people who see your organization or your problem space in completely different terms, you get a chance to battle test your ideas. You get a chance to be exposed to perspectives that you may never have even thought about yourself that may be completely valid. And so people who talk to a dozen completely different people come up with more creative ideas and ideas that take root in the organization much more effectively because they’ve already gone through that first round of: Does this make sense to people who don’t think about the world in my perspective?
So that’s the other, that’s the serendipity part, the lateral connections, the cross-organizational ties that are sort of slowly evaporating as we spend time working from home. And that’s I think the big thing that we’ll see as an outcome of this is people’s ability to be creative at work is going to be a little more stunted, a little less effective as they go forward.
Douglas: I think it also permeates the organization. Right? We can think of extra organizational conversations and networks because it reminds me of when I first started Voltage Control, I talked to a lot of people because I had never run a professional services organization before, and it was a little daunting. And so I was talking to folks that ran marketing agencies and people that were doing all sorts of things that had nothing to do with what I was wanting to accomplish, but there are adjacent things they had to think about, billing and customer relations and all these things. And it helped me be a lot more creative about how I approach the company.
Peter: Yeah. And as we were discussing, there is sort of two versions of this. How big or how broad is your network? Right? When I think about networking, I always think about three things. Number one, the size of your network, how many people do you connect with. Number two is the reach of your network, that is: Does it reach people who are just like you or people who are very different than you? And then number three is the quality of the interactions, the kinds of content that goes back and forth, and your investment in the relationship and such. So that reach thing we’ve been talking about within an organizational context, but it also maps onto something else that I’ve been looking at with colleagues for a while now, which is echo chambers in online social media.
And what we’ve seen is, and we’re not the first to discover this of course, what we’ve seen is that social media provides a wonderful environment for you to forget that the rest of the world may not see the situation in the same way that you do, that it promotes through filtering, through technical filtering mechanisms and through just enabling you to like and continue to follow people that express views and viewpoints that coincide with your own. It lets people get into this space where they just see people who think about the world in exactly the same ways.
What we’ve been doing from a research perspective is trying to understand whether that’s sort of a necessary feature of all social media or whether it has something to do with the technological features. And it absolutely has to do with how the technology is structured, how the algorithms are designed. So in one study we did, the more time people spent on Facebook, if you were a democratic thinker, you would become even more democratic. If you were a Republican, you’d be thinking even more down the Republican line, so you’d grow more extreme on Facebook, which is again a function of the algorithm and the way that it helps people continue to isolate within, go to their own corners.
Other technologies though, like Reddit, actually have a very different effect. Doesn’t matter if you’re coming in with a Democrat or a Republican-leaning, the more time you spend on Reddit, the more you see the world through a slightly less Republican and slightly more Democratic perspective.
Douglas: Yeah. It’s really fascinating that the architecture of the system, it almost reminds me of Conway’s law, which I don’t know if you’ve heard of this before. I spent many years writing software, and so it’s a fun little software archetype thing, which is, the software you build is inevitably going to model and mirror the organizational structure of the organization that builds it. And so I just wonder how much in a way that algorithm is influencing, the nature of the algorithm is then influencing the social network that evolves out of it.
Peter: Yeah, absolutely. The nature of the algorithm also has to do with the company’s efforts to monetize interactions. So if Facebook monetizes interactions by trying to keep you there as long as humanly possible, by continuing to expose you to things that are very, very close to the last thing you looked at, Reddit’s very different. Reddit’s not trying to make money by monetizing eyeballs in the same way. And really, there’s much less of an algorithm directing you to places. You get to decide what you want to read. And in a particular subReddit, there may be all sorts of different people contributing. And so there’s none of that algorithmic filtering. So you’re right, it has to do with the organization. It also has to do with their goals, what they’re trying to accomplish.
Douglas: So speaking of studies, I think I found you originally because of the paper that you released with Rob Cross, and I think a third person, which I’m blanking on. We’ll get it in the show notes. It was about networks and how that can influence change and innovation. And it comes back to the point you made about quality and the importance of quality in the network. And the thing that really jumped out to me was the impact of positive interactions in the network. And I’d love to hear just a little bit more because I’m sure there was only so much you could get into the paper. I’m really curious about what you saw around positivity and why that’s so important.
Peter: Sure. So we’ve been studying energizing ties for over 20 years now. And so we’ve found that people in organizations have a range of impacts on each other. At the one extreme are interactions we would call energizing. And I think we all kind of intuitively know the characteristics of an energizer. They help you tackle problems. They are kind of selfless in their willingness to help you. They’re optimistic but not pie in the sky optimistic. And they act with honesty and integrity and thoughtfulness. And so what we’ve found is that whether you’re an energizer is a huge predictor of forwarding momentum through your organization.
So people who score high on these energizing scores by the network around them are much more likely to win with clients. They win in the internal labor market. They get more from people around them. There’s been some great research that when you’re in the presence of an energizer, you yourself are more creative. And so these energizers are just incredibly important to organizations, and we’ve been studying them in a range of different ways, their progression through the ranks in organizations, their impact on others around them. And ultimately, if you’re looking at a network-based indicator of the probability of promotion, energy scores are the biggest predictor of promote-ability, or promotions actually over time that we’ve ever seen.
Douglas: Do you find that this is something that is a bit innate in someone, in their nature? Or are these things that leaders can learn and nurture?
Peter: So great question. And so some people confuse whether you’re an energizer with something like extroversion, with is not the case. We’ve seen introverts who are just as strong energizers as extroverts. And it’s a really good question. How do you get to be an energizer in the first place? And there’s probably some personality in there, but for sure, over the years, what we’ve found is that there are kind of nine core behaviors that energizers tend to engage in. And these would not be things that would be a surprise to anybody who’s spent some time thinking about these things and reading about them.
So for instance, somebody who’s a de-energizer would criticize an idea too early and wouldn’t separate the idea from the person. And so energizers tend to hold back a little bit and then offer advice around the idea and maybe suggest alternatives rather than critique. And so that’s something you’ve probably heard of in the past, and others have published on this as well. We’ve found that there’s this core set of things that energizers do. And I think the difference is it’s really easy to do those nine things when life is good and when there are no problems on the horizon, and you’re having a great day.
But it’s harder to do that when the chips are down, when people are stressed, and when times are hard. And energizers just seem to be able to do this much more consistently over time. And so I don’t think anybody can change personalities, but we’ve spent a lot of time distributing these lists and ideas for people to think about. Can you pick up one of these behaviors this week? On a Sunday night, read one, we’ve got some material. Here’s what it is. Here’s what you can do about it. Here’s why it matters. Think about that, and just that whole week, focus on making sure you live up to that standard.
And then the next week, do a different one. And eventually, if you keep rotating this every nine weeks, this is something that’s going to become part of you.
Douglas: So where can folks find the full list of nine?
Peter: So great question, I’ll get them to you so you can put them in the show notes.
Douglas: Great. Yeah, we’ll get them in there because I think even that one, there’s a lot of goodness there. And oftentimes when people talk about brainstorming, we want to reserve judgment, but I don’t think that’s just during brainstorming. If leaders were to practice that more often, I think it would result in a lot of goodness.
Peter: Sure. Absolutely agreed. The funny thing is if you think about people in your organization when we use network analysis, we’re able to identify who the energizers are and who the de-energizers are based on input from people around them. But you don’t need to do a sophisticated analysis to know that in your day-to-day job. You understand the characteristics of these people. And part of it is just helping people kind of hold up a mirror to themselves. Nobody really … I don’t think anybody really aspires to be like a de-energizer, but sometimes they’re not really sure what to do to move in the opposite direction, so these are some good ideas.
Douglas: That’s a really good point. I think a lot of assessments out there, whether it’s Myers-Briggs or whatever, people might question them or not agree with them, but your point about the mirror is really powerful because any time we have some language that allows us to talk about each other and shine a mirror on ourselves, it gives us the opportunity to understand how we’re relating, how we’re coming across. It’s just not enough dialogue about those things.
Peter: Right. And so a little self-knowledge is a powerful thing. And I think people have to decide in their heart that they’re on a journey of exploration, and ultimately a journey of improvement. You can get great input in many different ways from many different perspectives on how you can change your life. This is one slice of one thing that you can do, but interestingly, it also applies as well to your personal life, as well as to your work life. So that idea of not criticizing too early, and offering alternatives, and separating the idea from the person. I mean, think about relationships in your family life. If you’re a parent, that’s a pretty good standard to hold yourself to, and one that’s likely to improve the quality of your interactions with your kids.
Douglas: Yeah, and give them tools because they’re going to mirror things that you do.
Douglas: Steven Tomlinson spoke at our conference this year, and he shared a study that he did, participated, around combating loneliness with some really interesting tools that I would say are based on the foundations of facilitation. And some of what you’re talking about here I would say really aligns pretty parallel to that. It was simple stuff like just listening, only offering one statement before allowing them to speak back. It was amazing how much loneliness and depression scores went down just after people receiving these phone calls and people behaving in those ways.
Peter: So in an organizational context, we’ve looked at turnover and attrition. And it turns out that if you have just one energizer in your network, your odds of leaving the organization go way down. And this is sort of like middle school. If you have just one friend, your odds of making it through middle school without melting down are much higher. And so there’s additional benefits to having two, three, four, but it’s the step from zero to one energizer in your life that matter.
And so but the interesting thing is, that doesn’t mean that you need to spend, if you don’t have one, that you need to spend your life trying to find this person at work. The other thing we found is that energizers tend to attract other energizers. So by engaging in energizing behaviors yourself, you open yourself up to a world where others may now come seek you out, or somebody who is already engaging those behaviors sees you as kind of a kindred spirit. And you’re more likely to form a tie, a connection there. So really, by working on yourself, you’re in fact creating this positive cycle where you’re attracting others to you, and then less likely to leave the organization as a result.
Douglas: Wow. That’s really, really cool. And it also makes me realize that people can not only use this list as a way of thinking about how they change some behaviors and work on themselves to attract others in, but they could use it as a rubric when they’re interviewing folks, and to say, “Hey, if we don’t think we have the strong energizer here, how might we use this as a lens when we’re interviewing and going through talent acquisition?”
Peter: Yeah. And we’ve seen companies who have introduced this language into their discussions. And then when we’ve come back four or five years later to kind of do a followup to see how things are going, it’s a rising tide lifts all boats. It’s not that now there’s a few, a small number of people or even better, it’s that everybody’s trying to participate in that conversation, that’s become kind of a cultural norm. And to that extent, this is not predestined. This is a learned behavior and one that anybody can, set of behaviors that anybody can jump into.
Douglas: Yeah, absolutely. I’m really curious to come back to your point around, you know how to do sophisticated network analysis to start understanding some of the benefits. And that was actually something I was really curious to talk about today. It was on my list around: What are some techniques around network analysis that people could start doing, whether it’s beginner, intermediate? Or what are some ways that people might start practicing some of the stuff we’re getting curious about understanding what’s happening in their organization?
Peter: Right. And so I’m going to go back to my three dimensions, size, reach, and quality. And I think it’s useful for people on the size dimension to ask themselves. How many people do they rely on in an organization? And these are people that … Think about the people that help you get your work done. Are you somebody who’s off on your own, working in a corner, just heads down, getting things done on your own? Or are you somebody who’s part of a series of collaborative interactions, where you’re part of this group and part of that group, and in each case, you’re trying to add value, you’re trying to drive things forward, share your expertise? And so just try to count in your head or on a piece of paper. Count through how many of those interactions, how many people you would interact with on that basis in a typical week.
And we find that when we collect data on this, the average network size in organizations tend to be 12 to 15 people like that. So we’re not talking about, you don’t have to be trying to have different lunches and dinners every day with people to maintain your network, just small set in most organizations that matter. Do you have a dozen people within your organization that you’ve come to rely on, that rely on you, that they’ll turn to you for expertise, that you’ll share yours with them? That kind of two way interaction, so that’s number one on network size.
Number two, network reach. What kind of people are these? So once you’ve identified those names, and if you’re a software developer, are they all also software developers? And nothing against software developers, I used to be one myself. But if you spend your time orbiting only with people who think about the world just like you, it’s great for best practice transfer. Right? You will pick up new techniques. You’ll get even better at your specific job, no question about that. But you won’t see the stuff that you just won’t see, the stuff that’s occurring around you. And so what percentage of those ties reach outside of your direct focal group?
And so some of those, a small percentage of those might be up and lateral. And maybe 30% to 40% outside of your group is a really good number to have. And if you’re a manager, I think it’s a good question to ask yourself. Do you have any ties that reach down in the organization, to people within your group, or other groups that you interact with on this basis? You can always tell the political players in organizations because they have all their ties reaching up and none reaching down. And you know how that manager’s going to fare the next time they’re trying to staff up a project. Right? Nobody wants to work with them.
So reach is second thing, and then the last one is quality. Just think about the kinds of engagements you’ve had with others. Are they very lean, sort of information transfer interactions? Are they purely work-focused? Or do you spend at least a little bit of time talking outside of the boundaries of work? Do you really know anything about this person’s family life and what they’re doing on the weekends? It’s not that by itself tells you, gives you great information on that person, but it tells you the nature of your interaction with them. Is it very lean? Or is it really a personal connection? Right?
And then there’s a range of things that people get through the quality of their ties. They get a sense of purpose that what they do at work matters. They get career advice. They get of course information and expertise. And so ask yourself. What’s the range of things that I get out of my interactions with others? Again, is it just very functional, very to the point? Or are these people that I could see helping and helping me throughout a career?
And then the final takeaway is that networks are as much about giving as getting, that investing in a network is not something you do with some sort of cold hearted calculus that once I do something for you, then you owe me. But once you invest in a relationship and truly enjoy and engage in that relationship, good things happen. Opportunities flow your way. People are more willing to help you if and when you need it. And so that kind of the give and the get is hugely important in networks and organizations.
Douglas: You know what I love about this is so many folks that I talk to that are creatives, or maybe fall a little bit more on the introverted side of things, some of them are even energizers, will say to me, “I’m not into networking,” because they think about the person at the bar, or at the mixer with business cards, and what you’re describing is totally different. Right? It’s how people relate and how they support each other. I think that is a bit of a mindset shift that needs to be made for folks.
Peter: Yeah. I think there’s an image of maybe the professional salesperson, whose job is to get to know as many people as possible in case one of them happens to have a need that they can quickly fulfill, which has been called networking. We try not to use the term networking, but just building a collaboration network is what we’re talking about. It’s a completely different thing. And I’ve heard that a million times myself. And people’s eyes can be opened by the data, and the data shows that having a reasonably large network. We’re talking 15 to 25 ties here would be a reasonably large network, people that you would interact with every week or every two weeks, having a network that reaches outside of your area of specialty, and having a network where you’re engaging quality interactions. That’s possibly correlated with success in organizations, negatively correlated with turnover. That’s the stuff that gets you promoted, and also the stuff that lets you live a happy life as well because it turns work from something that’s potentially just drudgery into something where it’s a shared endeavor with people who like you and who you like.
Douglas: Absolutely. And I wanted to come back to a point you made because it ties to something we spoke about in the pre show chat, and that was in the reach section. You talked about the type and the richness of the types that you might have around you. And you said, “Is it only best practice transfer?” And I think that is fascinating because the allure of the best practice can be quite tempting for so many people. And when we’re dealing with complex systems, we know best practices don’t serve us well.
And something you mentioned in the pre show chat was moving from the known to the not known, so taking something that worked maybe in industrial manufacturing and bringing it in to healthcare or what have you. So I’d love to hear more thoughts of stuff you’ve seen in your research around moving beyond the best practices.
Peter: Yeah. And so this was the hope of knowledge management, that there were these best practices that you could simply codify, put in a database, and the next time somebody hit that exact problem, they could just replicate exactly what you did. And the jury finally came in on that one, and the answer is those databases are great for problems that are time-invariant and context invariant. It’s sort of like tech support. Tech support is the classic case that writing it down, making it searchable actually matters because it’s often the same thing happening over and over and over again.
But the vast majority of problem-solving in organizations is nothing like tech support. Right? What it is, is people trying to figure out that the environment has changed, competitors have done something differently. This particular project we’re on is sort of like the last one, but not really exactly like the last one. And so it’s so much less of knowledge reuse, and it’s so much more about figuring out. How do we adapt that efficiently? We don’t want to reinvent the wheel. But how do we adapt that to handle this new challenge in the best way possible?
And that adaptation, the spectrum runs from sort of adapting things effectively to really innovating, to try to do things that maybe we haven’t done before, we want to try. And your ability to see the world really changes as a function of your network. Your network is sort of like a forcing function. It forces … If you even care about the people in your network, it forces you to see the world through their eyes. And I think it’s possible to go around thinking that we see the world in the correct way. But the truth is we all have our own bias, our own blinders on, our own limitations, our own lenses. And so it’s exciting to talk to somebody who sees the world differently and who’s willing to engage in that conversation. And you can share how you each see it differently and then come up with something interesting and new, so that’s the fun part of having these high quality networks where people are mutually engaged in solving problems together.
Douglas: Yeah. It reminds me of speaking with Joan Ball the other day on a livestream. And she’ll be on the podcast. It’ll come out on an episode after yours. But we were talking about her fascination with emergency workers, whether it’s someone in an ER, or a firefighter. And this example she gave was a firefighter saying, “I know fires, but I don’t know this fire.” And it comes back to your point, tech support, sure, maybe. If you’re trying to do this task, you’re going to follow the same steps to do those tasks again, and these checklist systems. Those are simple, obvious, or even sometimes complicated domains. But so often we find this in these complicated situations. So how do leaders know? How can they build that radar to know when to shift into this more explorative or this more, I should be thinking about my network a little more? This is the type of problem where we need more perspectives on it.
Peter: So I guess what we’ve seen is that your network becomes more and more important as you move up through the organization because when you’re an individual contributor, your ability to generate value is a function of what you know. But as you start to move up in the world, it becomes a function of who you know, of your ability to pull together, not the answer out of your own brain, but figure out the answer by pulling together the right people to solve the problem.
And so that’s part of what happens as people move up through the management hierarchy, where once you’re well into that middle management role, whatever you knew about how to do that job 15 years ago no longer matters almost at all. But more and more so, even the frontline folks, I think in your first couple of years in an organization, you can very much rely on building your expertise around a particular thing. But as organizations have shifted away from sort of individual performance to team performance or group performance, the ability to collaborate with others to solve more complicated problems and be a piece of that overall puzzle has just become more and more important.
So I’m not sure about that shift. I mean, I guess in a way it goes back to: Is the problem exactly like the last one you had? Right? Time invariant and context invariant. I think the better question to ask is, the better approach for people to take is to actually assume everything’s new, assume that it’s going to be different, and then if your investigation reveals that it does turn out to be exactly the same, then that’s an easier problem to solve. But I think the default for most people should be that the world is changing and we really shouldn’t just rely on rote replication.
Douglas: I wanted to shift a little bit to this notion of return to work. That’s something that you mentioned in the pre show chat that you’re really interesting in and starting to put a lot of focus on lately. I’m just curious to see what you think is on the horizon for everyone.
Peter: Yeah. I mean, I think the shift towards blended work will become the dominant model for most of us, that people have tasted the sweet, sweet fruit of working from home, and they want some of that. But at the same time, for whatever reasons, right or wrong, managers are pretty insistent in many organizations that we’re speaking to, that people do have to come back to the office as well. And so I think the thing that people are grappling with right now is: What’s the balance? How do we structure something like this? And the blended workweek where you’re at home for two or three days one week and at the office for the other two or three days, and that rotates in some predictable way, seems to be the model that a lot of people are trying to gravitate towards.
There’s been a lot of really good thought happening now around not just pick any two days. But how do we bring people back in the right way so that the right set of collaborators are there with them when they’re back at the office? And that ranges from organizations that are really into this, that have figured out this idea of a work group of perhaps 40 to 50 people that physically co-located, and there’s all sorts of benefits of being close to people that you’re working with on a regular basis. And then bringing those people back as a group, so not some random subset, but that everybody’s in for two days a week, or everybody’s at home for two days a week that week.
And that question of who to bring back is very much informed by the networks of collaboration that happens within organizations. So companies are asking, instead of just let’s bring back finance one day and accounting another, they’re asking: Who needs to be together? Who benefits from being in good proximity to each other for part of the week? And then number two, what should we be doing when we’re back together? I think if you’re an employee who’s enjoying working from home, and you get dragged back to the office for a meeting, and at the end of that meeting you say to yourself, “We could’ve had this on Zoom and it would’ve been just as effective,” then that’s kind of a failure of the return to work strategy.
And so leaders are asking: How do we make sure that we’re pushing the right stuff through the electronic channels, we’re taking the maximum, making the maximum benefit of our time online from those times when we are working virtually? And to do that to clear away the space, so that when we are together, we can use that now precious time in ways that are much more effective towards the kinds of things that are much more difficult to do online, things like exploring new ideas, things like adapting a strategy, problem solving in creative ways, things that are much more qualitative around career feedback or getting a sense of purpose at work. Those sorts of things tend to really excel in a physical interaction format. And they tend to be harder to do in the virtual format.
And so part of it is training managers on make that split, be very deliberate about pushing the lean stuff through the lean channels, and save that rich time for the things that benefit from in person. And then the second piece is figuring out who the right people are to bring back. And networks are really the answer to all of those things.
Douglas: Yeah. I ran into some interesting study that Microsoft released around remote work and even looking into hybrid. And they were talking about media richness and media synchronicity as a phenomenon that had been studied. And it’s similar to what you were just talking about around: If we look at the challenge that’s before us, does it require media synchronicity, meaning that are we establishing meaning making together?
Peter: Right. And the funny part about that is media richness and media synchronicity have been studied to death for the last 30 years, and by for almost all of those studies, a Zoom interaction would count for high richness and high synchronicity. And yet, we know that despite the fact that it’s the pinnacle of the virtual interaction, it still is quite lacking as compared to in-person, face to face interactions.
So yeah, I mean it is all about the range of things that can happen in a physical interaction that are just much harder virtually. The slight delay on the audio means you’re not quite ready to jump in, or the pause, you’re not sure what the meaning of the pause is. Backchannel communication is incredibly important but much harder to do in virtual interaction, so all those sorts of things. And I’m not sure there’s a point to even trying to get a technology perfected when we know that all the stuff that happens around the interaction, the hallway conversations, the water cooler chats, the people that you bump into in the elevator. Those things are hugely important for maintaining and building networks. And so I don’t think, even if there was that perfect fully rich technology that had fantastic synchronicity, I don’t think organizations should or would want to go purely virtual on that basis forever.
Douglas: Yeah. That’s really fascinating to me, you were talking about the red button in Zoom and everyone being so tempted to just click and I’m done. And there’s another phenomenon around the virtual work situation we’ve been in for the last two years, where because of that, because you can just hit the button, you’re done, people just stack meetings back, to back, to back. And even though they said they were doing that before, it wasn’t quite … You still had to physically get you and move, so even though they were stacked back to back, there was some transition time. You were bumping into people, et cetera. You had to go to the bathroom, these things. Right?
And something we’ve been experimenting with internally is programming in a specific time that is optional and not structured. So at the end of some of our meetings, it kind of organically decays. We’ll say, “Okay. Great. Cool. We’re done with the wrap-up.” But then it just devolves into kind of random chatter and connection.
Peter: Yeah. And that I suspect is a big part, is in large part driven by the culture that develops around it. So imagine you’re somebody who is in one of these Zoom lifestyles, and this is happening more often than people are saying, “Look, we don’t need to have hour-long meetings. We’ll have half-hour-long meetings.” And so instead of having eight meetings a day, I now have 16. Right? And they’re all [inaudible 00:40:45] focused. And imagine one of those meetings, somebody finishes in 20 minutes and sort of sits back and leaves some space open for discussion, you’re thinking, “Wow, let me leave right away because I don’t have time for this. I’ve got my next one coming up. I’ve got this list of things that people have been telling me I need to do, or that I accept as an action item.”
And so if only one person does that, or one leader does that, I think you’re in trouble. If a culture develops around that, that could be quite different. And so that sounds pretty cool, what you’re doing.
Douglas: Yeah. It’s fun to experiment with these things. And I agree with you. There’s no substitute. I’ve started to get out to some conferences and meet up with friends I haven’t seen in a while that are kind of colleagues that are business colleagues. But we have a deeper rapport, and so meet up for dinner. And next thing I know, it’s a three hour dinner. If we’d had a Zoom happy hour, there’s no way we would’ve spent three hours just going into the nether regions of whatever crazy things we’re thinking about. Right?
Peter: Yeah. I think we all really enjoy the spontaneity of human conversation, where topics go off on tangents and where people throw ideas out that maybe aren’t perfectly aligned but are worth discussing. And once you’ve kind of structured the format that we’re now going to have a one hour Zoom meeting and here’s the agenda, and this is what we need to get through, it kind of kills that spontaneous tangential conversation stream. And that to me is a rich part of why people enjoy interacting with each other.
Douglas: Absolutely. Well, we’re kind of running up on time here. And I want to make sure we give you an opportunity to leave our listeners with a final thought.
Peter: So I just encourage people to think about your network as something that you can invest in and that pays dividends. And those dividends are a happier life, a more enjoyable work experience, and a chance to really grow and be creative and ways that might not be possible if you’re just thinking about it’s you versus the world. So your network is a huge asset, but not at all in that way that salesperson archetype who wants a million contacts tells you.
Douglas: Peter, it’s been such a pleasure chatting with you today, really just inspired by the work you’re doing, and can’t wait until I see the next paper pop up on my radar that you and some colleagues have put out. Yeah, I wish you the best on all your explorations.
Peter: Thanks, Doug. It’s been a real pleasure.
Douglas: Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control the Room. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates when new episodes are released. If you want to know more, head over to our blog where I post weekly articles and resources about radical inclusion, team health, and working better, voltagecontrol.com.