Embracing the Octopus: What 2020 Just Taught us About Work

Introducing a fluid new model for the future of work.

2020 has challenged how we work in so many ways. If you are still employed, able to work primarily from home, and your biggest challenges are juggling Zoom calls and kids or other home issues, you are one of the lucky ones. Yet you also probably have a healthy dose of survivors’ guilt for hanging on to your job amid everything else falling down in the world. Given how things could be, you might feel like keeping your head down right now. But this year is actually a huge opportunity for organizational development. Those of us who can should use this time to evolve the working styles of our organizations to better prepare for a future in which we’re going to need to keep adapting to big shifts.

If this year has taught us anything, it’s the priceless lesson that we are all incredibly adaptable and change-ready when the chips fall. And perhaps even more importantly, it’s made us acutely aware that it’s high time the old ways of working got changed for good. That process of workplace change got jump started in May, and we’ve all witnessed ever since that ongoing, quickly-made and deep changes to how we work are absolutely possible.

So while some are waiting to walk through our old office doors again, we should be imaging what that new “workplace”—our new ways of working—should look like. The fundamental question: How can we harness the flexibility of today and drive businesses forward in exciting, efficient and energizing ways, without being dependent on physical proximity of co-workers and teams?

Introducing the Octopus -+ Why?

In our work for clients at Zeus Jones, we talk about the Octopus—to get our arms (if you will) around the idea of a new, incredibly flexible work model. Why the Octopus? Too many organizations, corporations, even business unit teams today are rigid and weighed down by hierarchy. But the times and conditions we’re living and working in really require flexibility, fluidity to adapt to change, and opportunity as well as challenges. They demand the ability for organizations to think, implement, and adapt in one seamless move. Like the Octopus.

Scientific American says of the Octopus: “It’s not clear where the brain itself begins and ends,” because the Octopus isn’t built around a rigid skeleton like many creatures, with a central brain running the show. Its limbs, while a coordinated part of the whole, act independently. And they have an incredible nervous system that allows those independent parts to constantly touch, test, and engage with the environment around it. What does that mean for all of us doing business and team planning for 2021? We need to be more like the Octopus where the organization is every employee, where every part of the whole can make in-the-moment decisions, take actions that create rapid progress for the whole.

How do we do that?

Adopt fluid management thinking. Work can no longer be about one central decision-making body relaying instructions to the order-taking employees. Managers must allow employees to shift from a role in which everyone is trying to optimize efficiency by getting further and faster together. The new work model centers around an understanding of the shared goal where workers progress at the same pace but follow and even create new paths to get to the finish line. More variety, more problem solving – means more knowledge and better progress.

Encourage creative exploration in employees. Work has prioritized order-following and reporting for years but we must now support and encourage employee creativity. New ideas and experimentation as ways to bring multiple solutions to similar problems. Employees who are adaptive, anticipate shifts and changes, and are inventive are the ideal employees of the new fluid workplace.

Shared knowledge for all. In the new fluid, optimally-creative workplace, we have to evolve from silos of knowledge discovered, kept and owned by individuals, teams, or departments. Employees who encounter problems or see opportunities and ways to tackle them should share that knowledge across the organization. In small organizations knowledge sharing may be easy, but as an organization grows beyond 25 people, we must create an always-on, easy access, living hub and exchange of approaches, ideas, and successes that any employee can access at any time to apply to their own work tasks at hand.

Embrace Progress Not Perfection. In the Octopus model work place, all of this change is happening around us at a dizzying pace. Employees are empowered, mobilized, and connected. We’re spending less time observing and reporting progress of ourselves and our reports, and making progress happen at every level. New workplace creativity and business success comes less from expending energies to maintain a constant state of perfection, but more from embracing and powering a state of rapid progress. That means casting aside ideas that don’t work and embracing change at the everyday level, but also acknowledging and approving the reality that our companies are going to change rapidly and constantly all around us.

Jen Shadowens is a partner at Zeus Jones, a Minneapolis based innovation and experience consulting firm. An expert on workplace dynamics and culture shift, she can be reached at jen.shadowens@zeusjones.com.