The Work-for-humans origin story

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The First Mystery: Inhuman design

Once, on a dare, three college friends and I climbed the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. We snuck onto the northern end at midnight, climbed onto one of the suspension cables, and walked up its long, sweeping length to the top of the north tower.

It was, of course, frightening. It’s difficult to find any situation short of skydiving in which one is surrounded by more air or less matter. The surface of the cable suitable for placing one’s feet is about twenty inches wide. Near the top, it’s either a fifty-story drop to the roadway below, or, on the other side, a seventy-story drop to the hard surface of the sea.

My friend Robert was afraid of falling. John was afraid of being arrested. Stephen wasn’t afraid of anything, really—he was a climber and accustomed to such things. I had been working through a fear of heights and was afraid I’d freeze up. Surprisingly, however, fear was not the main feature of my experience, and it’s not my most vivid memory. 

First, it was an experience of great beauty. This is not so much an attribute of the bridge itself as it is a virtue of that particular location in the sky. A three-quarter moon, partway up from the eastern horizon, shone across the black water below, illuminating a roiling current driven by the incoming tide. Scattered clouds moved quickly above us. To our south a hundred thousand lights lit up the San Francisco cityscape. At our highest point we attained an altitude about level with the top of the Transamerica Pyramid, San Francisco’s tallest building at the time. The lights of the city shone up from beneath us. 

But the part of the experience that would change how I perceived the world came from a quality of the bridge itself. 

The bridge makes offhand gestures toward safety on behalf of maintenance workers: the upper surface of the suspension cables has grit mixed in with the paint to provide better footing, and secondary cables run alongside the main suspension cables to provide handholds at about hip height. But what struck me more than anything else was the extent to which the bridge was an environment made by, but not for humans. The scale was too great, these concessions to safety too minimal. The bridge manifested a deeply alien neglect of human needs.

This effect became even more pronounced when we found a way into the interior of the tower. It turns out that the towers were constructed with scores of vertical hexagonal tubes, each stretching the full height of the tower.  In horizontal cross section, each tower is a honeycomb of such tubes. Flashlights shone downward vanished into infinity. Inside each tube is a ladder. We climbed down one of these ladders for hundreds of feet. 

You might think that inside all that metal it would be silent, but it is not. The interior of the towers boom and vibrate as vehicles crossing the bridge shift the plates of the roadway. The sound comes from all around, because you are inside the musical instrument. The bridge struck me forcefully then as a work of art, vast and without consideration of the needs of people. 

Weapons of war are dangerous to humans, but their design is still about humans. Mountains are dangerous to humans, but they are the result of natural processes, so no human decisions went into their design. They cannot therefore manifest true neglect of human needs. What I discovered in the bridge was inhuman-design

Inhuman design around us

By dawn we had found our way out of the honeycomb maze of the tower and safely down from the bridge without getting arrested, but what I learned about design from the bridge has never left me. It became an archetype against which I would compare experiences from both before and after the climb. I began to recognize inhuman design in other human-made objects: walking around a highway cloverleaf in Los Angeles, walking across a Columbia River bridge in Portland, or touring Hoover Dam.

Much more frequently, however, I recognized inhuman design in everyday institutional settings: being processed through airport security, registering for classes, standing in any queue. 

Large hospitals provide a great example. When my father was wheeled from his hospital room to radiology,  the orderly parked his wheelchair in a hallway, facing a wall, and at a random angle with respect to other patients also in wheelchairs. It would have been a fine way to place a box on a loading dock, but not a human among other humans. 

Inhuman design in institutional settings is different from that of the large, physical structures like the Golden Gate and Hoover Dam. For one thing, the bridge was such an extreme example that it posed a threat to physical safety, which translated into a thrill. The inhuman design I saw in institutional settings was the opposite of thrilling—it was instead neglectful, dehumanizing and deadening to the spirit.

And unlike the inhumanity of the Golden Gate, the inhumanity I found in institutional settings was less in their physical design (although it was there too), but in the design of something deeper. Something built into the process, policy, technology and culture.

Work and the workplace suffer from this kind of design neglect.  My study of work suggests that the social and cultural environment in which we spend half our waking day five or more days a week is characterized by isolation, desolation, status and identity threats, and confinement. No wonder that recent Gallup polls have found 45% of employees are not engaged and additional 13% are actively disengaged. (reference).

The power of design

Design of even the most trivial things affects quality of life. Consider a humble potato peeler. A good one is a small delight every time you use it—it’s sharp, easy in your hand, and the peels fly off—whereas a bad one is an annoyance: it just skids across the surface of the vegetable. In order to make it bite, you have to push too hard, and when it does peel, it leaves a ragged path.  For the few moments that you use either a good or a bad peeler, the experience created by its design is a large part of your existence. For those minutes, you are either a delighted person or an annoyed one.

Now compare the influence a potato peeler has on your life to that of work: work comprises almost half of your waking day. Collectively, humanity spends eight trillion hours a year working. 

When asked to describe yourself, how quickly do you name what you do for a living? It’s probably in your top few identifiers, along with name, family status, and where you grew up. Our jobs are one of the foundations of our identity. 

So, when work is inhuman, it strikes wide, and it strikes deep. And yet this huge part of our lives is completely undesigned. How much value is being lost to humanity every day, year after year, because of the design neglect of work? 

It’s not a surprise that harsher environments neglect human needs. I understand why the construction site I worked at in college was exposed to the environment: we hadn’t built the roof yet. I understand why the design of a cable supporting the Golden Gate neglects human needs: it is meant to hold up the bridge, not to provide a place for humans. But why would the experience of work, an environment presumably built for people and without such constraints, suffer from design neglect?  

This was my first mystery about work. 

A Second Mystery: employees as inputs and customers

The question of why work is inhumanly designed stuck with me. Many years and quite a few careers later, I took the role of head of business architecture for human resources at the Fortune 50 high-tech company, Cisco Systems. My team and I worked alongside business architects from other parts of the company to make sure the Human Resources (HR) department coordinated its response to evolving business objectives – especially transformations, such as moving into new markets.

As a part of that work, we created rigorous logical models that traced how value flowed through HR toward customers.  We were, I believe, one of the first groups to ever do this kind of modeling for an HR function, and we often felt like we were exploring beyond the limits of the known world. 

Our models kept arriving at a paradoxical conclusion.  They only worked if employees appeared at the same time in two different locations in the model and in two very different roles: one was inside the company as an input to production, and the other outside the company as a customer.   

I am sure this contradiction does not seem important to many readers. But it was, for me, a big deal.  From the perspective of a modeler, it was at least weird that any object could appear simultaneously inside and outside the business.    But more subtly, the suggestion that employees were customers ran counter to deeply, if tacitly, held beliefs in business and specifically in human resources.   

Customers hold a hallowed role in business. Because customers exchange value critical to the success of the business and are free to do otherwise, paying attention to customer needs is critical to survival. Any idea that threatens to distract that attention seems dangerous. We have a particular fear that we might focus too much attention inward, at our own experience, rather than the experience of customers. 

HR is organized around this focus on the customer. In order to produce the products and services customers want, the business builds functions to acquire a broad range of inputs – things like raw materials, capital equipment, production facilities, and utilities like electricity and gas.  This requires prudent purchasing practices and maintenance of the resources once acquired.  

Among the inputs to production, the workforce is arguably the input most critical to success or failure. People are the only one of these inputs that make decisions and the success or failure of a business can be seen as the sum of these decisions.  That’s why business leaders say things like “People are our most important asset.”  

It is also true that the workforce is one of the more costly inputs; most companies spend between forty and eighty percent of their revenue on the workforce. 

Framing the talent challenge

Getting talent right is a challenge. People are complex, and many of the attributes that might make them good or bad at a job are hidden. In order to acquire and maintain this critical asset, industrial and organizational psychologists have developed sophisticated tools to determine which people capabilities are required by the business, and then to assess, acquire, organize, engage, and train the workforce to meet those requirements. 

Over the last few paragraphs, I have deliberately discussed talent using very standard language.  Consider how the workforce is framed in these paragraphs.  Specifically, how unlike a customer the workforce is positioned.  The workforce is something bought to produce value for the external customer. People are an “input” and an “asset” that must be “acquired.”  HR is therefore a procurement and maintenance function. The workforce is positioned as inside the company and owned.   Even efforts to increase employee engagement fall within this model: engagement is about putting employees into a productive state of mind, i.e. to get the most value out of this asset. 

That businesses frame employees this way might sound like a condemnation of talent practices, but that’s not my intent.  I have worked in HR for most of my adult life and am proud of the work we do.  I point it out to explain why, when our models suggested that employees were customers, fundamental precepts of my discipline were being challenged. 

In his book The History of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn described what researchers do when they encounter evidence that contradicts the dominant paradigm: they ignore it.  I think I understand why. 

My brushes with scientific method have taught me that the honest pursuit of truth reveals a half dozen mysteries for every insight.  Thus, the to-do list of mysteries to solve is always long, and any attempt to shorten it makes it longer.  

When a new mystery comes along, especially one that might require an extensive reformulation of existing practice — a practice upon which your entire career might be founded—  it’s a lot easier to assume it’s a problem with how you ran your experiment. You put it away for later.  

So it was that I put this new mystery on my mysteries-to-solve list rather than pursue it immediately.   But I did file it toward the top of that list.  I suspected it was important. 

Occasionally, if we are fortunate, a handful of these items on our list of mysteries come together to form a brand-new insight.  In my case, the mysteriously inhuman design of work-life, and the conundrum of why our models showed the employee in two different places and in two different roles, combined when catalyzed by a third concept.  As is often the case, once seen, it was obvious. 

A New Paradigm

The answer presented itself some years after our models raised their interesting question.  I was drafting a patent describing a marketplace for data produced by the internet of things.  The details of the patent are not relevant; what is important is that I was attempting to patent not a new technology, but a new brokerage-like business model that forced me to think deeply about the structure of multi-sided businesses.  The term “multi-sided business” may not be familiar to every reader, but we are all customers of such businesses.

A multi-sided market is one in which meeting the needs of one customer is necessary in order to meet the needs of a different customer, and vice versa.  Ride-sharing and real-estate sharing apps have recently caused an uptick in interest in businesses that serve such markets.  For real-estate sharing apps, renters form one side of the market, and property owners form the other; for ride-sharing apps, it’s drivers and riders.   

Multi-sided businesses have been around a long time. Ad-based media companies have long served both advertisers and the consumers of content; banks serve savers and borrowers; title companies serve home buyers and sellers; credit card companies serve vendors and borrowers; auction houses serve sellers and buyers. The list goes on. 

My work on the patent taught me that one side of a multi-sided market is often acquired at a loss. And I noticed that, in a multi-sided market, each side perceives the other side as a resource, very much like how businesses see the workforce. 

I started to explore the possibility that the workforce is a customer on one side of a multi-sided business model.  What makes a customer a customer anyway? A customer is someone who exchanges value (not only revenue) with your business, and is free to do otherwise.  People who work at companies clearly fit these criteria. 

With this insight, questions on my mystery-to-solve list began to fit together. It would be a more exciting story if I could say I saw the whole answer in a flash of insight. Instead it took years.  It was like the process of solving a jigsaw puzzle: at first just a few puzzle pieces fell into place, and then larger and larger chunks started coming together to form the more complete picture. 

Workers as customers

If people who work at companies are customers in a multi-market, it would explain why our models represented them in two places.  All multi-sided markets exhibit a similar structure, but until drafting that patent I had never really examined such models.  

It explained why the design of work has been neglected:  the design of work feels inhuman because that’s how it feels when any customer interacts with a system that doesn’t think of them as a customer, but rather as a thing. 

It explained other mysteries as well. Like, why did I so often see departments launched to improve employee experience only to watch them dismantled after a few frustrating years?  It’s because, in a one-sided business model, these departments must prove the existence of a multi-step causal relationship between increased revenue and improved employee experience. It’s not an impossible argument to make, but it’s not easy either. In a one-sided business model, proponents of employee experience are often seen as sentimental and lacking business acumen.  When money gets tight, or when organizational attention wanders, departments devoted to employee experience are one of the first to lose funding. 

And perhaps it also explained why, when I conducted exit interviews with retiring HR leaders, they often expressed a deep bitterness about what they had been able to achieve. I suspect that, just as I had, these leaders had experienced the mismatch between the logical conclusions of the traditional paradigm and their instinct to treat well the people who worked at their company. 

Feeling the pieces of this new model falling into place was exhilarating, but also disorienting.   

I knew it presented an opportunity, but these insights were not enough. As a business leader, my job is not just to know, it is to do. If we were to treat workers as customers, many additional questions would need to be answered.  What exactly is the product we sell to the workforce? And why do people buy it, really?  What are the design attributes that make that product good or bad?  And how can we build those attributes into the work? 

Once I fully grasped that work is a product that companies sell to the people who work for them, I began to apply ready-made tools from product design to the design of work.  The body of Work For Humans tells leaders what I discovered. 

Work as the Product

People don’t want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole

Theodore Leavitt

“What job do you hire your job to do for you?” I asked the middle-aged executive sitting across from me. I am conducting perhaps the fiftieth interview of what would over time add up to many hundreds of such interviews. 

As usual the interviewee found this question temporarily disorienting. “What job do I hire my job to do for me?” he asked.   

I nodded.  

He sat back and thought for a second. “You mean besides giving me money?”

 “Including that” I responded.  

He gazed off into the air for a moment, then turned and responded with certainty: “I hire my job to pretend.”  When I probed more deeply, he said “I like to go to work and pretend to be a vice president.” 

I pointed out that he was, in fact, a vice president. Indeed, at one of the most valuable multinationals on the planet. 

He responded “Nah, I’m a jazz musician.  I just play a vice president at work.” He explained that, as a musician, he had learned to love the stage. He said “I hire my job for an adoring audience.”

This is one of the many unexpected answers you get when you ask people to talk about their work as something they buy, instead of something that buys them.  Job-to-be-done theory, which was advanced by Harvard marketing guru Clay Christiansen, is one of the power tools in the design toolbox. 

Over hundreds of such interviews the answers to this question coalesced into three dozen surprisingly diverse themes.  As it turns out, people buy their jobs to give them puzzles to solve; to give them a workshop in which to build things; as a way to help others; as a place to escape their family; to spend time with friends; as a way to look good at parties, and for many more purposes.  As Peter Drucker pointed out, “the customer rarely buys what the company thinks it’s selling.” 

Design is about empathy. One of the precepts of design is that your customer is not you. They are not facing the same situation, and they have different problems to solve. But if you want to anticipate what they want from a product, you must inhabit their needs as if they were your own.  

Designing work patterns

Delving into what people want from work was the first step, but to make these findings truly useful I needed to go deeper:   I turned to another tool in the design toolbox, this one developed by one of the pioneers of human-scale design, UC Berkeley architect Christopher Alexander.   In several of his middle works Alexander and a handful of collaborators did something very practical.  Instead of discussing architectural design in theoretical terms, they began to simply point out architectural designs that appear repeatedly across cultures and that satisfy certain human needs. They described the structural attributes that made each design successful.  They called these recurring design elements “patterns.”

Alexander and his colleagues catalogued 253 of these patterns, from large ones like #2: The Distribution of Towns or #17: Ring Roads, to the smallest, most local patterns like #251: Different Chairs or #242: Front Door Bench

Once pointed out, they are easy to see. Consider the example of pattern #203: Child Caves. These are spaces, not usually built deliberately for children, that provide them with that secret hideout—a place that excludes adults and is therefore their own. Most of us can recall the exquisite pleasures of inhabiting child caves; how many of us built them out of blankets and chairs? This pattern describes the specific design elements that make these spaces work: for instance, the ceilings must be between two and a half to four feet high; the entrance should be tiny, and the cave should be about five-by-five feet square so that up to four children can play in it together. 

Alexander pointed out that every physical space is given it’s true character not just by its geometric shape, but by the pattern of events that keep on happening there.  This is important, because unlike patterns in architecture, work does not manifest as physical structures, but rather as a pattern of events. These events form its character. 

For instance, a set of plans that describe how to build something lays out a predetermined pattern of events. The experience of this pattern is not controlled by the physical shape of the workshop, but rather by the structure of the work itself – the steps necessary to make that particular thing. 

Consider the experience of building a boat from a set of plans: the steps laid out in the plan pass through the moment of applying varnish. Before applying the finish, the wood is pale from sanding and the surface is opaque. An experienced woodworker feels a kind of suspense. The true quality of the grain they love has not yet been revealed. But at the moment of applying the varnish, the surface of the wood becomes translucent and the warm colors of the true grain glow from within the wood.  It never gets old. 

Anyone who follows those plans will experience that moment. It is possible to characterize the design elements that make that moment feel the way it does: the suspense, the reveal, the beauty of the materials, the woodworker’s partnership with the wood in making that beauty shine forth, the feeling of having earned that moment through hours of patient sanding.  

All work, whether building a boat, coding software, washing dishes, presenting to the board, mowing a lawn, building a spreadsheet, even whittling a stick, forms a pattern of events.  Just as in architectural design, a conscious awareness of these patterns can be used to think about and recreate those human elements in the design of work. 

A toolbox of work patterns

In Work for Humans, I describe thirty-two distinct patterns.  Each pattern is a practical tool for anyone thinking about how to design better work.  It includes a description of something people want from their work, the design attributes that best meet those needs, and suggestions for how to reproduce those attributes.  

For an example, see the sample material below, which looks at the design attributes of work that satisfy the need to solve puzzles. 

Once a leader has these patterns in hand, they will have a vocabulary with which to think about, and empathize with, what each person wants from work, even when that person’s wants are different from those of the leader.  These are not described as abstract ideas, rather as specific needs with specific solutions.  

Leaders need only one more thing for this book to be truly useful. The most common question I get from audience members is “where do I start?”   Any leader who wants to go forward with the management philosophy presented in Work for Humans must first figure out how to transform an organization that is almost certainly invested in the traditional model. It’s a big lift.  The last section of the book describes how a company must be transformed. I describe how operations, organizational structures, roles and responsibilities, and even vocabularies, must change.  

The Opportunity:

In a 2015 interview Amy Bernstein, an Editor at HBR, explained “There are, by the way, very few completely new ideas [in business].”   Work for Humans is one of those rare new ideas.  It could sit on the shelf alongside the most ground-breaking books ever written about business.  It can change work in ways that will improve the lives of an enormous number of people. 

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Dart Lindsley

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