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[Future of Work] Why Working in the Narrative is the biggest workplace innovation of this time

Almost everyone in business deals with three or four of the problems below and every organisation deals with all of them.

  • Too many (bad) meetings

  • Email overkill

  • Lack of alignment

  • Ineffective knowledge capture

  • People that are stuck in their work

  • Difficulty tracking progress

With the pandemic forcing us to work in a dispersed setting these problems have been amplified and are causing serious issues for individuals and organisations. A year after we went remote there is widespread consensus that we will not go back to the old situation. So, it is time that we seriously redesign how we work. There is a very simple solution.

This solution is called Working in the Narrative (WIN) and it has been with us since we started to use social technology for work. It will solve all the above issues but is also THE key change that is required to make dispersed working a true success.

What is WIN?

The principle is simple. You look at everything you and your colleagues are working on as a story that develops over time. You use the threaded conversation to log progress. Below is an example of the way this looks for a simple deliverable, an onboarding document. So, all the deliverables in a project can be worked on like this. People share new versions in the thread, colleagues give suggestions or improve the deliverables, and everyone involved can see progress as it happens.

Almost all processes in your organisation behave in this way. A sales lead gets a call, is sent a brochure, is followed up, is sent a proposal, is negotiated, is won or lost. A new idea starts as an idea, becomes a concept, a prototype, an MVP, and finally a full-on product. A crisis starts, is managed in diverse stages, and is closed.

What type of activities are suited for WIN?

In principle you can WIN on everything that behaves as a narrative i.e. it has a start and it develops (and needs updates). Having an end is optional.

Work that is very standardized often doesn’t suffer as much from the above problems. The standardised process makes sure there is alignment and often there are systems to capture the process. There is often not a lot of upside in bringing standardized processes with supporting systems to another collaboration tool to WIN.

The places where WIN has the biggest effect are with projects, knowledge workers, teams dealing with exceptions, problem-solving, innovation, design, case management, etc.

So how does WIN solve all these problems?

The simple act of WIN has significant positive side effects. These are:

Better alignment and less meetings

If your whole team works in this way you will have oversight of the progress of all the work you are interested in. You see when things are updated and can easily find the latest status of work. We call this the ‘collective awareness’ of a team. If a team has a high collective awareness they are well aligned. Well-aligned teams make less mistakes, are faster, and spend less time in meetings updating each other on what they have done and what they are going to do. About 60%-85% percent of the time you spend in meetings will be freed up. You will no longer need many meetings and those you will need can now be done in less than 50% of the time. Check your calendar for this week and think: which meetings would still be left after excluding those that are about checking progress or aligning on who does what?

If you’d like to learn more about how to have less meetings, here’s an article I wrote on it a few weeks ago.

Less email

A huge part of all email sent are progress updates, comments on deliverables (in reply to all), cc’s to ensure everyone is aligned, or political because the boss is copied in. For revision cycles email is also messy. Some people reply to all, others don’t, people respond to different versions in different emails, and after a few rounds, it is difficult to make sense of the whole thread. A revision cycle with 8 people easily generates more than 30 replies to all responses.

Using the WIN method, the process becomes much simpler. There is one linear thread that shows the order of responses and everyone can see all comments. It also nicely captures all contributions and decisions in one place for future reference. Below is an example of a review of a go-to-market strategy.

If you switch to WIN, you will get rid of a significant chunk of your emails and have more clarity in the process.

Capturing knowledge

In an economy that becomes more and more based on knowledge, the topic of knowledge management becomes increasingly important. At the same time, very few companies are successful. The key reason for this is that organisations fail to make knowledge capturing an integral part of people’s work. It is always something extra you need to do. And therefore, it does not get done because people move on to their next project or task and it falls off their plate. Another large problem is that a lot of knowledge resides in email conversations in the email boxes of individuals. These are not searchable by others and are deleted when people leave. At OrangeTrail we sometimes say that email is where knowledge goes to die.

If an organisation uses the WIN methodology, knowledge capture is a by-product. It just happens as you work and you narrate. The threads show clearly what happened, what information was used, who was involved, what was decided, and show all the iterations in the process. These threads are available to anyone in the team even if all participants have left.

Faster and more agile The last benefit worth mentioning is that work speeds up significantly due to WIN. WIN ensures better utilization of the collective knowledge of the team. For example: When an employee shares that they are starting work on a deliverable, colleagues may share work that was done in the past so the employee is off to a fast start and no double work is done. If an employee indicates that they have a problem or need information, colleagues are fast to respond and help solve the problem. This near real time access to the pool of knowledge and not having to wait until the next meeting to put the topic on the agenda significantly increases the rhythm and pace of a team.

How do I get started?

There are a few success criteria:

  1. Make sure your organisation has good technology to support you.

  2. Scope the team that WIN together well so the relevance of the threads in their workspace is high to them. The scope can be a project, a product team, a scrum team, a marketing (campaign) team, a management team. On an organizational level you build an architecture of the teams that work together.

  3. Agree with the team that everyone participates and that it is not allowed to move parts of the work into email.

  4. Spend some time defining the ideal scope of threads. The more focused they are the better. Examples are deliverables, cases, problems, ideas, plans, agile stories, or something that used to be a recurring agenda item.

WIN is the game-changer for the dispersed workforce

COVID has initiated a change that will lead to a far more dispersed workforce in the future. Today nobody can oversee all the effects of this change. At the moment a lot of the debate is around the issues I described in the introduction that have become even bigger issues due to the pandemic.

With WIN being able to solve these issues it will become a pivotal skill for people, teams, and organisations to be able to seriously progress towards a future of dispersed work.

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