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Organizational work and the second job

2024-07-09company-culturediversity-equity-and-inclusionscalingcomplexitygoal-settingprocess

Organizational work is work that you do ON an organization, to make it more effective.

Organizational work is a critical concept for leaders, a sort of “second job”. I’ll describe how I think about organizational work, and some surprising ways it helps build an effective organization.

People at small companies mostly focus on getting things done. Before you really start scaling a company, it makes sense to focus on whatever you need to do to get things out the door.

As a company grows, focusing only on getting stuff done can perversely slow things down. Why? The organization becomes more and more complex. Unless you do something to fight that complexity, things will get harder as time goes on. So, you have to continually fight to streamline the way work is done. The best way I’ve found to do that is “organizational work”.

Defining organizational work

What do I mean by organizational work?

Let’s use the example of how hiring is done. In many companies, you’ll find that the hiring manager is responsible for defining the hiring process. When it’s your turn to hire someone, you mostly reinvent the wheel. There might be some lightweight process you follow. Or you may copy what you did last time. But it’s never really been designed very well, or improved upon. And after you hire your person, you go back to whatever else you were doing.

Organizational work would be to not only focus on what you need to hire your employee, but to also create a method someone else can follow to make it easier for the next person. You don’t just define your own hiring process, but you make one for everyone.

Thus, organizational work is doing work on the organization itself, to make the organizational machinery more efficient.

Do you see your leaders streamlining things? Is the way you go about things improving continually over time? Are you building a _system _that is continually improving? Are there people in your company that are continually focusing on what’s broken? Those are all organizational work.

You have two jobs

I was introduced to organizational work by a mentor of mine named Bjorn Freeman-Benson.

He communicated the job of a leader as having two jobs:

  1. The first job is the job you were hired for. You have the results you are expected to deliver. Projects, and people management, and the stuff on your job description.
  2. You also have a second job. The second job is to make things better around you, to make things easier for the next person.

He said you should always be thinking of these two parts of the job. I loved this description of the job of a leader. He baked it into the culture of the organizations he built.

Organizational work makes a great workplace

Organizational work is about creating a flywheel effect, where it gets easier and easier over time to create the same impact.

When the leaders in an organization are focused on organizational work, there is a compounding benefit. Over time, the compounding “interest” of this work can transform the organization. You benefit from a flywheel of improvements, instead of a continual slog of things getting harder and harder. You see a lot of things become automatically easy. Companies that continually invest in organizational work can become pretty amazing places to work.

When I look back to the best place I’ve ever worked, I think this was the most foundational element behind why everyone loved to work there. It’s a bit hidden, because most of the people at the company probably had no idea it was going on. But it was what was behind all of the continual improvements that gradually led to an exceptional work culture.

Organizational work and complexity

If you don’t invest in organizational work, what happens? The default drift in an organization is toward entropy and increasing complexity. The organization grows, and becomes more and more complex. Work gets harder and harder to do. Things become more political, more challenging. People add process to try to manage the pain, often making it even worse. It can result in a death spiral. Or often, the company just plateaus, at the level of complexity it can manage, unable to rise any further.

There are all sorts of ways of reducing complexity, but organizational work is an approach to tackling these things. It’s a concept and an element you can build into your culture to make it more resilient. It can even make the work culture antifragile, because new problems and stresses can lead to improvements in the organization and make it stronger.

Building strong management teams

One thing I love about organizational work is that they are one of the best ways to form a strong management team.

Typically you will see management teams formed of individuals that don’t really have any shared problems to work on. They are responsible for their own areas, which doesn’t give them much room to work together. What happens then is that their manager becomes a hub of communication, and they rarely work together on anything.

In fact, one of the most common patterns I see for CEOs is that they operate in a hub and spoke model: they are the hub, trying to direct everything. And the CEO has many leaders under them who work directly with the CEO. The disadvantage of this is that the leaders don’t communicate very much with each other, and they don’t become a real leadership team. Instead, they work in their own areas, on their own problems. This can be problematic because the leadership team doesn’t build a habit of collaborating and working together on company problems. They’re not able to learn from each other, and help each other be better.

I see this all the time, from the very top of organizations, all the way down.

The way to build strong teams is to have them work on shared problems together. And often, organizational work is a way of doing that. I think all managers and leaders should be aware of the concept of organizational work, and should be using it to improve their organization. If you manage managers, it’s a valuable lever for building a strong management team.

When you work on organizational work together, you have a natural common cause: making the organization work better. You have natural partners in that cause. Other leaders are people that can help you improve your plans, critique them, and partner with you on them. This also makes leadership less lonely, and helps accelerate leadership growth. You’re able to see how other leaders operate, and copy what they’re good at.

If you create a leadership team that has a high degree of trust, where everyone is helping each other out, where people are motivated to success but don’t have to put each other down to succeed, where they are sincerely interested in doing good work, and learning from each other, you can create a remarkable environment for learning.

I think of organizational work as a foundation to creating strong leadership teams.

Implementing organizational work

When you are aware of the concept of organizational work, you have a way to point people at problems.

As a leader of leaders, what I will often do is spend some time coming up with my best idea of the most important problems to solve in the organization. I might list a few potential solutions to those problems as well. Then I’ll work with my team and say, “hey, do we agree that these are the main things that need to improve? Anybody have anything else that belongs on this list?” We discuss and agree on the top priorities, and then we sign up for them, or I assign them. We all come up with proposals for our projects, and get critique from each other on those proposals. We report on progress to each other. And we help each other with suggestions, ideas, and active collaboration.

It then becomes natural to work together. A leader might say, “I’m struggling with this part of my plan. Does anybody have any ideas of how I should approach this?”

I’ve even used this to recruit people into a company. At one place I worked, they faced substantial challenges, and had very little leadership in place. I recruited an unusually seasoned team to join the company and work on the organization itself. They joined partially because they knew they would be part of the team fixing the whole organization, and they were excited by that problem. They knew I wasn’t just hiring engineering managers, I was hiring co-conspirators.

Leaders are often motivated by a desire to solve big, meaty problems, that have a lot of impact. Organizational work often feels substantial in that way. It can stretch you and make you a better leader.

Developing leaders through organizational work

Organizational work doesn’t just build strong teams. It also is effective at growing your leaders at a fast pace.You can use organizational work projects as a way to deliberately train people in areas they need to grow and don’t have experience.

For example, I’ve done reorgs a million times. But I once worked with a new leader who didn’t have a lot of experience with them. So I had them develop a first cut of the plan, and then I filled in the gaps to the plan. Then I had them talk through how they would go about implementing the plan, and I filled in a few things they missed. It’s an effective way to give someone a new skill set.

You may find that your managers don’t have the bandwidth to take on additional work. Management roles can be incredibly time intensive, and it may not be realistic to add to their plate. It might just feel like additional work to them. This is actually a really good signal. Your manager is working at capacity. Don’t give them organizational work at that point. If all of your managers don’t have the capacity or the time to make the organization around you better, that’s an important thing to know. You can be certain the situation is not going to improve without some sort of intervention.

Organizational work and your experience in the role

New managers are especially often not able to take on organizational work. I explicitly will set the expectation that this will be part of their role in the future, but it’s not realistic today. “Organizational work is something you’ll want to make a regular part of your management practice later on. But right now, just focus on the skills you’re learning. It will feel more natural to tackle it later.”

As your position in the company rises further and further up, the percent of your time spent on organizational work will naturally increase. It also becomes a more and more required part of your work! For a front-line manager, it’s a sign of experience that they are making the environment around them better. For a director, they should be continually improving their organization. For a VP, it becomes a significant part of the job, because your altitude is mostly about creating the machinery of your organization.

Balancing your two jobs

I have seen leaders get into trouble with organizational work. You have to balance the two parts of the job.

For example, if you focus exclusively on organizational work, you might neglect things that others view as your main job. I’ve seen leaders fall into this trap with things that seem like “cultural improvements”. Yes, they make the organization more effective. But if you do that work without holding down your core responsibilities, you’ll brand yourself as a leader that is ineffective. And that will compromise your organizational work.

You also can fail by focusing on work that isn’t organizational work, because you’re not really building a better environment around you.

Documentation

Organizational work is easier to iterate on when process is like “source code”: the source of truth for process, and something that is fluid and easy to change.

When you have things written down, it is easier to improve upon. You can practice the steps yourself when you use the process. And improving the process can often be as simple as updating the documentation.

I’ve written about how to make process be valuable and easy to change.

How to identify organizational work, and examples

Usually the way I come up with organizational work is I spend some focused time on a writing assignment for myself. I’ll list the problems I see in my organization, and try to identify the most important ones to address. I think about what I might do about those most important problems, and those become potential organizational work projects.

Here is an example of how I might go about it, writing down problems and potential solutions.

  • Problem: The development workflow is terrible. Changes have to be rolled back when there are conflicts. No use of feature flags. Things aren’t getting reviews. Lots of work sitting in PRs, never merged.
    • Possible org work: introduce feature flags, train team on them.
    • Possible org work: have an experienced engineer or two design a better workflow and put it in place. Make it so engineers can merge their own work.
    • Possible org work: explicitly encourage pairing to reduce back and forth.
    • Possible org work: get some metrics in place and review with team, along with goals.
    • Etc.
  • Problem: Our hiring process is poor, doesn’t give a good impression of our company. No hiring process. We often don’t get back to candidates very quickly. Sometimes not at all.
    • Possible org work: write down a very simple hiring process we can iterate on.
    • Possible org work: communicate a “turn-around SLA” for getting back to candidates.
    • Etc.
  • Problem: Communication in Slack is poor. We don’t write much down, so everyone is always asking the same questions.
    • Possible org work: communicate it’s not official until it’s in the wiki.
    • Possible org work: encourage better communication practices and some standards for large rooms in Slack.
  • Problem: we have a bottleneck team that is really suffering. Heavy oncall, high attrition, nobody is happy with their work.
    • Possible org work: hmm, not sure of best course of action. So course of action would be identifying a plan.

Once I have that list of issues and potential organizational work, I’ll align people on the top problems, and select a few organizational work projects that leaders can focus on. I’ll work on some of them myself, and get my management team to take others.

Steps for organizational work

There are usually some clear steps to take when doing organizational work.

  1. Write up a plan for what you’re going to do. It can range from a paragraph, to a full document with a lot of detail.
  2. Get critique on that plan. This can be quite quick, or more intensive, depending on how large the project is.
  3. Then get to work on it. Treat it like a normal project you would report on. Estimate when you’ll do what, report on it. Etc.

Final thoughts

Is organizational work happening in your organization? Should it be? Would your leaders benefit from having the notion of “organizational work”, or “two jobs”? I’d love to hear your experiences as you introduce this into your workplace!

Podcast on this topic

Decoding Leadership is my podcast on leadership. I cover this topic in one of the episodes:

Thank you

Bjorn Freeman-Benson introduced me to the two jobs approach. He might have gotten it from somewhere, but he is the one I attribute it to because he baked it into my brain. Ralph Bodenner gave me some good ideas for improving this post, especially around how your second job is affected by your level of experience in the role.

Cover image by kikkuru0606 from Pixabay. Illustrations by Dalle.

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