Effective knowledge work is improv

Shirt PocketIt was essentially a casting call. I was interviewing retired and semi-retired executives to fill a role in a training simulation we were building. We needed someone to play the part of the client CEO and someone had introduced me to Scott. Scott was a central casting silver fox, tanned from a recent visit to Florida.

I don’t know why I noticed it, but Scott was wearing a custom made shirt and the shirt had no pockets. I remarked on the missing pocket and Scott’s response sticks with me two decades later. Here was his logic, ”My job is to delegate work to my direct reports. If I have a pocket someone will want to hand the work back to me in the form of a question or a task. Without a pocket, there’s no place to put a note and no way for that to happen.”

That was a 20th Century view of management and work. Just as well that Scott was about to retire. But the mindset persists; there is work and there is management.

Peter Drucker invented the term knowledge worker sometime around 1959—just another indicator of his prescience. We accept that we live in a knowledge economy but grapple with what it means to be knowledge workers. Organizations remain slow to accept all the implications of that line of thought. At the core, the distinction between worker and manager is disappearing. There may still be power dynamics, but you can’t readily discern who is working and who is managing by observing the tasks they carry out.

We are all struggling to make sense of the changing nature of work. There are grand policy level analyses on the implications for organizations, industries, and nation states. At the other extreme, there is an endless supply of tactical advice and tools for tackling very specific problems.

And, there is the middle where we spend our days trying to muddle through.

Maybe it was the time I spent in the wings at the boundary between what you see on stage and what goes on behind the scenes to make the magic happen. It gave me roots in that middle space. I chose to stay there, building connections between vision and execution. That began deeply immersed in designing and building technology and information systems to answer particular management questions about aluminum cans, soft drinks, industrial paints, or construction equipment.

Working in the technology space led to questions about business and organization that I couldn’t answer. That led me back to school several times and into multiple organizations in search of more insight. The schools gave me pieces of parchment attesting to my mastery of subjects they deemed worthy; chiefly strategy, information systems, and organizational design. The organizations I worked for and created put that knowledge to practical tests and frequently reminded me that parchment and mastery aren’t well correlated.

This has played out as we’ve all grown hardened, if not accustomed, to a world of accelerating change. The theatrical metaphor that helps me grasp what this change entails is a shift from scripts to improv. In a script world, we grow by adding to our repertoire of scripts we can call into play. In an improv world, we grow by learning to see patterns that we can play with and by collaborating with other players to create magic in the moment.

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