by T.J. Elliott
Success at our endeavors brings satisfaction. For many of us, those endeavors occur within our workplaces; organizations big and small, for-profit and not-for-profit, established and startup. The ideas and actions within those settings often diverge from those present in our experiences at school. It is unlikely that everything we need to know to succeed in a contemporary company was learned in kindergarten or the 12 to 20 years following our days with blocks and primers.
Certain attributes forged in that period or even earlier such as conscientiousness and persistence may provide advantages, but work life makes demands upon us that are unanticipated or even ignored by the world of education. What we acquired by way of knowledge, skill, or ability in our schooling often proves necessary but insufficient to our success in a career.
One approach to filling in what may be missing is found in a plethora of how-to books that advocate a particular attitude as the answer. Attitude is powerful: how we choose to interpret the world influences not only the actions we employ but even the information we consider, the people we access, and the goals we set. However, there may be a more practical concern that attitude does not address adequately. Attitude — whether the habits of the highly successful, the positive thinking of the influencer, or overcoming tendencies to hold back by ‘leaning in’— may leave us without specific practical means to do what is necessary in the workplace to be effective. These guides that line the shelves of bookstores and pop up in our Amazon emails at work provide a picture of success, a blueprint for our satisfaction without the tools to build this reality.
Yet as we start at a work life, we cannot possess the experience that would tell us what tools will prove most useful. As the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wistfully noted, “Life can only be understood backwards, that it must be lived forwards.” We start our careers without knowing what we need as devices to make our way through requests and orders, politics and policies, problems and probabilities, conflicts and communications. In other words, we lack the tools to construct success for ourselves and others in organizational life.
Those ‘blueprints’ are not all the same. Some sage writers like John Kay have offered simple but comprehensive models to the kinds of problems that people face in any work organization such as cooperation, coordination, and dis-coordination. (The latter problem refers to making sure that we don’t all end up doing the same thing in a bash of redundancy.) Rather than try to reconcile all of those different blueprints, this webpage and my ensuing book focuses upon some common questions that we all face repeatedly at our workplaces. Reflecting on what worked and what didn’t in varied careers at an array of organizations evoked some specific tested tools that help to answer the most important challenge to work life:
- How do I know that I am doing the right task? Adding value?
- How will I know when I’m successful at work?
- How do I deal with breakdowns and battles that occur in my activities and interactions?
- How can I make others and especially my group members more effective?
- How do I learn as I go along and help others to learn?
My reflection revealed that there was no need to invent the means to answer these questions: other authors and thinkers had devised tools that when fitted together provided a comprehensive set — a toolbox — to allow most people to make the desired difference of work, to achieve what they and others want and need.
Indeed, the appropriation of these tools occurred in my experience in a number of different jobs but especially being an organizational consultant prior to coming to ETS as their first (and now only!!!) Chief Learning Officer in 2001. As a consultant, I was often asked to help people be more effective as individuals, as teams, as work organizations. I had so many different opportunities that built up what Dorothy Leonard would call my experience repertoire. I started to notice that some tools, all of which I borrowed from other people, proved to be of use in many different situations. Therefore, I reviewed the circumstances in order to understand what made the application of a particular method or model so successful again and again.
Extracting just a few common themes from all of these engagements took time but resulted in some clear winners: no matter how disparate the occupation I seemed to witness in each of them the importance of tools that aided decision-making, development, and transformation.
Recent analyses of the difficulties faced in making the transition from school to work informed further my decision to offer Ten Tools more broadly. A 2017 report by the Pew Research Center featured multiple practitioners in both education and industry asserting that traditional models of education already fall short in aiding students’ transitions to careers and these models will slip further behind with increasing technological change and augmentation. The report emphasizes the importance of “critical thinking and flexible skills and attitudes that fit a rapidly changing world”, “Functions requiring emotional intelligence, empathy, compassion, and creative judgment and discernment” and “21st century skills (which) include especially the ability to efficiently network, manage public relations, display intercultural sensitivity, marketing, and generally what author Dan Goleman would call ‘social’ and ‘emotional’ intelligence. [This also includes] creativity, and just enough critical thinking to move outside the box.”
Practicality suggested limiting the set to the Ten Tools that interested individuals were most likely to use given the demands most people face in contemporary organizations. This meant leaving out some very valuable guides either because they are for more unusual situations or they deserve a more extensive treatment. We will offer direction to those sources in our afterword.
This webpage / book is intended as a portal to the ideas of others while portraying each of the tools in the manner that they prove useful to the authors. This means that their utility as described here may exceed the intentions of their originators. This is what we derived from our multiple interpretations and applications; understandably, the concepts have morphed through those experiences. However, we believe that part our success in this writing will depend upon how many of our readers enter into the work of our tool originators, explore the deeper explanations there, plan and execute their own applications, and thereby make the tools their own. We think that all the authors of our 10 Tools deserved more attention, and that is why this e-book provides an easy portal to at least one sourcebook for each of the tools. We use the term ‘tool’ metaphorically: we would not satisfy Dr. Johnson’s definition of a tool as “any instrument of manual operation”. Our meaning is closer to the thousand-year-old sense cited in the Oxford English Dictionary of “a means of effecting something, an instrument”. These tools are only useful in so much as they bring about something, create, accomplish: the tools should enhance and aid performance.
Our good friend Maryann Rainey with her co-author David Kolb has written that “Performance is the ability to deliver on the promise, whether through empowering and enabling others, enhancing quality of life, producing intended results, establishing competitive advantage, or value creation. In the role of performer, leadership seeks to make a difference by producing positive results. Regardless of the objective, good performance leaves people and things feeling transformed either qualitatively or quantitatively and sometimes in joyful combination.” But what is ‘the promise’? That’s where our first tool — Atom of Work — serves a foundational purpose. To Head to that page, click here