Dominic Price is living in the future of work


Some of the changes are already here – are you ready? Dominic Price, from tech startup Atlassian, wants you to see what he sees.

There is a movement afoot. Work, it preaches, is stuck in the past. Your organisation, the way you interact with colleagues, your role itself – they should be different. Not just because it’s convenient or because disruption is inherently good, but because it’s imperative for businesses and society at large.

The movement is fond of ideas and phrases such as ‘flat organisations’ and ‘innovation capability’. No doubt this rings a bell. Maybe the language – the insistence on distinguishing between a policy of being agile and a philosophy of agility, for example – strikes you as just a bunch of jargon. But that’s not the case. Its philosophy might be the most viable market solution to what technological change is doing to our jobs.

Dominic Price is part of the movement. In fact, as the officially titled ‘Work Futurist’ at Atlassian (arguably Australia’s most exciting tech company) he’s basically an ordained minister. And, even if you rolled your eyes when you read ‘futurist’, I bet you your salary he could convert you.

Price is personable, persuasive, and knows his subject. He’s not solely a theorist, pontificating on business ideas he will never have to realise, he regularly applies his knowledge. And, frankly, it doesn’t hurt that his title began as a joke.

When Price started work at Atlassian, Scott Farquhar, one of the company’s co-founders, insisted he didn’t care about titles. The company considers itself a meritocracy, which means while internally they have some structure, externally staff can call themselves what they want. Despite this assurance, Farquhar does have pet peeves. Price explains.

“We were brainstorming ideas for the role and someone said, ‘futurist’. And I was like, ‘We can’t ever call me a futurist because Scott will go berserk.’ And then I was like, how much fun! Because me and him are often on stage together, and he would have to introduce me as a futurist.”

The name stuck, and as jokes are wont to do, as time passed it became less funny and more accurate.

“The whole point of the role is, how can we understand more about the future of work? So that’s distributed teams, the construct of nine-to-five, knowledge workers, cognitive diversity – all the things that make up that future workforce. And instead of trying to predict what’s going to happen, how can we build practices today to get there?”


Hear more from Atlassian’s Dominic Price at this year’s AHRI National Convention and Exhibition in Brisbane, 16-19 September. Early bird registrations close 30th of June. Register now.


Brave new role

So what does a work futurist actually do? According to Price, his role is split fifty-fifty between internal and external tasks.

For the latter, he attends conferences, roundtables and talks to outside companies in order to spread the message about Atlassian’s approach and learn from them.

“Watching an organisation with 35,000 people go through an agile transformation is my equivalent of an MBA. I’m going to learn more from going through that with ANZ than I can from any Harvard article, right?”

The company’s most successful products are project management and collaboration tools, so this makes Price something of a brand ambassador. He talks about the future of work, and his company offers software designed to enable it.

The other part of the job is improving Atlassian internally, through coaching, running workshops with teams and building new practices.

Perhaps the best way to think of his role is to remember that it didn’t exist three years ago. Price describes its invention as a “roll of the dice” and a “three to six month experiment” the company wasn’t sure would work and that it “bears little resemblance” to its initial conception. In other words it’s proof of the theory; it’s a role from the ‘future of work’.

Useful friction

The discussion around this can get really abstract – my grandmother would have called it ‘airy-fairy’. So it’s useful to ground it by describing the theory in action, beginning with a workplace practice and tracking back to how it’s supported. A useful example is the Atlassian practice of what Price calls “friction” or “sparring”.

“It’s where you’ve got two different mindsets rubbing up against each other. And if you’re in a trusted environment, if you’re in a psychologically safe environment, that friction creates value. We don’t look for agreement, we don’t look for consensus. Collaboration isn’t high fives all around, it’s structured, heated debate and argument. When external people see it, it looks like we’re arguing.”

To maximise the effectiveness of this, Atlassian fosters diversity (it’s a company value, and a report it released last year on the topic was very well received).

“It’s not based on hierarchy, it’s not based on power or tenure. It’s based on your unique perspective and your unique experience. We then work on, how do you argue like you’re right, but listen like you’re wrong? So yes, put your point forward with passion, and gusto, and energy. But then once you’ve put your point forward, close your mouth, open these big floppy things on the side of your head and listen.”

The danger is we’ve got a whole lot of companies saying, ‘We want to be like Spotify, we want to be like Netflix’. And I tell them, you don’t want to be like Netflix.”

So that’s the practice and a value that lies behind it. But how do you make sure it’s adopted? Atlassian’s answer did not involve a policy (why they chose not to will become apparent).

“We use the power of storytelling. So when we have that diversity, debate, the argument and something wonderful happens, we blog about it internally. We’ve got a very open culture around storytelling, but we don’t just tell the stories of what went well. We tell the stories that went south as well.

When you experiment with that process, the practice becomes a default. The positive story reinforces behaviour.”

Importantly, the company experimented with incentivising rewards.

“What we found was, if you do it through rewards, you get really funky behaviours. You end up monetising something which should not be monetised. It’s like saying, if you behave well, I’ll give you a $30 bottle of wine – that’s a bit weird. Then if I buy my own wine I don’t value that behaviour anymore? The transaction becomes really obtuse.”

“How do you argue like you’re right, but listen like you’re wrong?”

So there’s a workplace practice (sparring) that is born out of, and maximised by, a company policy (diversity) and grown through a recognition program (storytelling). But the crucial lesson here is the unfixed, yet contingent nature of the practice. Because when business leaders hear something like this, they might be inclined to think they can just plug it in.

“The danger is we’ve got a whole lot of companies saying, ‘We want to be like Spotify, we want to be like Netflix’. And I tell them, you don’t want to be like Netflix.”

Price talks about the difference between a company that wants to institute an agile policy and one that adopts an agility philosophy. Each organisation should look at models that exemplify what they want to be, says Price, but it then needs to build in its own way. A bank isn’t going to get into the same business as Atlassian, so it’s not useful for them to think they can just “cut, copy and paste” a practice.

Often senior leaders find it difficult to adopt an agile philosophy, as it’s not what got them to where they are. Frequently it’s someone a bit further down the rung that becomes a ‘member of the movement’.

“It’s someone who has bought into the purpose of the organisation but is dissatisfied with how it’s going about it. So they’re not disgruntled about the people or the place.

They just feel like there’s more barriers and blockers than amplifiers. And they sort of wake up one day and decide that instead of being a victim and therefore part of the problem, they’re going to be part of the solution.”

Children of the evolution

This talk gets back to why the ‘movement’ is a market solution to the changing nature of work. It’s being driven by the business fear of becoming the next Blockbuster or Kodak, in a world where technology upends entire industries and makes switching to more exciting competitors effortless.

The way you avoid becoming a relic is by being agile enough to change. And you accomplish that by being agile all the way from flagship product to job design. Think of it this way, the only role that can never be automated (or otherwise made redundant by technological advances) is one that is completely adaptable and free to change. One that has a guiding principle rather than a set of tasks.

Price finds the philosophy tricky to explain because it is a philosophy and not a process. Businesses find it hard to adopt because it’s outside the classic understanding. Most companies would prefer to hire a transformation team and complete a years-long plan.

“This is a really hard one to get your head around: there isn’t an end state. And it’s funny because most organisations, certainly a heritage organisation that have been around for a while, work on long term plans, right? And in a time where the business world was going through a low rate of change, having a 10 year plan made sense. In a modern environment with the rate of innovation and change we have now, 10 year plans are a waste of time.”

Price teaches evolution over transformation and tells leaders, “The new way of leading is leading your organisation through volatility… so how do you manage that? Not with large 24 month programs, but with a mission that you believe in, a long term mission and vision. And then lots more projects and teams and activity. And learning along the way.”

“Put your point forward with passion, and gusto, and energy. But then once you’ve put your point forward, close your mouth, open these big floppy things on the side of your head and listen.”

Human future

There are non-market answers to the changing nature of work. Australia’s industrial relations system is, compared to other developed countries, doing an okay job of balancing employer and worker interests (though wage stagnation suggests it has tipped in the former’s favour). But it is also clunky; legislatively tied to an older conception of work. How many Awards are prepared for extensive automation?

There are also answers at the education level. There’s been increasing concern that Australians are graduating unready for the type of work they encounter, they lack core skills (so called ‘soft skills’) and the theory they are taught isn’t as linked with practice as it needs to be.

“My sense is our education system – and community, work and economic systems – have trained humans to be like robots for the last 60 years. And we need to quit thinking like that.’”

The advantage of solving things with agile philosophies is that it fits with how our society is currently structured. It’s not a total solution right now – it’s still very skewed to well paid knowledge workers – but it is a solution that is already being actioned.

Price himself is not promising a utopia. Even as work switches away from more mundane tasks and into more meaningful ones, he says there are mental health risks. He compares it to the way factory workers get calluses on their hands.

“We flipped that working model. The calluses are now appearing on your brain and we can’t see them. So how do we collectively take ownership for our peoples’ wellbeing?”

He quotes renowned Stanford professor Hayagreeva Rao, who asked an audience of HR leaders, “Instead of thinking about eight hours work, imagine that you’re borrowing the person from their life for eight hours a day. And your job is to give them back in a better state than you took them in the morning. How would you treat that person?”

Price feels Atlassian is an organisation that is trying to reframe things in that way. His company’s leaders support staff in having a purpose beyond themselves.

“I donate all my speaker fees to Room to Read, who build libraries in Cambodia for kids that don’t get access to an education. Scott and Mike [the founders] have got the Atlassian Foundation that we all contribute to, and five days Foundation leave a year.”

But that’s what works for Atlassian. The whole point of having an agile philosophy is that you have to find what works for you, even as the ground underneath shifts.

I asked Price what a ‘work futurist’ will be doing five years from now. He mentions he’s focusing on getting more science around teamwork, as it’s harder to pull off than the science behind individuals. He’s also looking into how teamwork changes for organisations as they scale up – important information for a company that has gone from 600 to 3,000 staff during his tenure. But by now you should be able to predict his immediate response. “I don’t know what my job will look like in a year’s time.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 edition of HRM magazine.

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Marcia

At last some sense on the future of work and each person’s contribution to meaning in their work. Only one point I would add – the more volatility an organisation/society experiences, the more that structure and compliance is re-inforced – its a large hurdle to “get over.”

More on HRM

Dominic Price is living in the future of work


Some of the changes are already here – are you ready? Dominic Price, from tech startup Atlassian, wants you to see what he sees.

There is a movement afoot. Work, it preaches, is stuck in the past. Your organisation, the way you interact with colleagues, your role itself – they should be different. Not just because it’s convenient or because disruption is inherently good, but because it’s imperative for businesses and society at large.

The movement is fond of ideas and phrases such as ‘flat organisations’ and ‘innovation capability’. No doubt this rings a bell. Maybe the language – the insistence on distinguishing between a policy of being agile and a philosophy of agility, for example – strikes you as just a bunch of jargon. But that’s not the case. Its philosophy might be the most viable market solution to what technological change is doing to our jobs.

Dominic Price is part of the movement. In fact, as the officially titled ‘Work Futurist’ at Atlassian (arguably Australia’s most exciting tech company) he’s basically an ordained minister. And, even if you rolled your eyes when you read ‘futurist’, I bet you your salary he could convert you.

Price is personable, persuasive, and knows his subject. He’s not solely a theorist, pontificating on business ideas he will never have to realise, he regularly applies his knowledge. And, frankly, it doesn’t hurt that his title began as a joke.

When Price started work at Atlassian, Scott Farquhar, one of the company’s co-founders, insisted he didn’t care about titles. The company considers itself a meritocracy, which means while internally they have some structure, externally staff can call themselves what they want. Despite this assurance, Farquhar does have pet peeves. Price explains.

“We were brainstorming ideas for the role and someone said, ‘futurist’. And I was like, ‘We can’t ever call me a futurist because Scott will go berserk.’ And then I was like, how much fun! Because me and him are often on stage together, and he would have to introduce me as a futurist.”

The name stuck, and as jokes are wont to do, as time passed it became less funny and more accurate.

“The whole point of the role is, how can we understand more about the future of work? So that’s distributed teams, the construct of nine-to-five, knowledge workers, cognitive diversity – all the things that make up that future workforce. And instead of trying to predict what’s going to happen, how can we build practices today to get there?”


Hear more from Atlassian’s Dominic Price at this year’s AHRI National Convention and Exhibition in Brisbane, 16-19 September. Early bird registrations close 30th of June. Register now.


Brave new role

So what does a work futurist actually do? According to Price, his role is split fifty-fifty between internal and external tasks.

For the latter, he attends conferences, roundtables and talks to outside companies in order to spread the message about Atlassian’s approach and learn from them.

“Watching an organisation with 35,000 people go through an agile transformation is my equivalent of an MBA. I’m going to learn more from going through that with ANZ than I can from any Harvard article, right?”

The company’s most successful products are project management and collaboration tools, so this makes Price something of a brand ambassador. He talks about the future of work, and his company offers software designed to enable it.

The other part of the job is improving Atlassian internally, through coaching, running workshops with teams and building new practices.

Perhaps the best way to think of his role is to remember that it didn’t exist three years ago. Price describes its invention as a “roll of the dice” and a “three to six month experiment” the company wasn’t sure would work and that it “bears little resemblance” to its initial conception. In other words it’s proof of the theory; it’s a role from the ‘future of work’.

Useful friction

The discussion around this can get really abstract – my grandmother would have called it ‘airy-fairy’. So it’s useful to ground it by describing the theory in action, beginning with a workplace practice and tracking back to how it’s supported. A useful example is the Atlassian practice of what Price calls “friction” or “sparring”.

“It’s where you’ve got two different mindsets rubbing up against each other. And if you’re in a trusted environment, if you’re in a psychologically safe environment, that friction creates value. We don’t look for agreement, we don’t look for consensus. Collaboration isn’t high fives all around, it’s structured, heated debate and argument. When external people see it, it looks like we’re arguing.”

To maximise the effectiveness of this, Atlassian fosters diversity (it’s a company value, and a report it released last year on the topic was very well received).

“It’s not based on hierarchy, it’s not based on power or tenure. It’s based on your unique perspective and your unique experience. We then work on, how do you argue like you’re right, but listen like you’re wrong? So yes, put your point forward with passion, and gusto, and energy. But then once you’ve put your point forward, close your mouth, open these big floppy things on the side of your head and listen.”

The danger is we’ve got a whole lot of companies saying, ‘We want to be like Spotify, we want to be like Netflix’. And I tell them, you don’t want to be like Netflix.”

So that’s the practice and a value that lies behind it. But how do you make sure it’s adopted? Atlassian’s answer did not involve a policy (why they chose not to will become apparent).

“We use the power of storytelling. So when we have that diversity, debate, the argument and something wonderful happens, we blog about it internally. We’ve got a very open culture around storytelling, but we don’t just tell the stories of what went well. We tell the stories that went south as well.

When you experiment with that process, the practice becomes a default. The positive story reinforces behaviour.”

Importantly, the company experimented with incentivising rewards.

“What we found was, if you do it through rewards, you get really funky behaviours. You end up monetising something which should not be monetised. It’s like saying, if you behave well, I’ll give you a $30 bottle of wine – that’s a bit weird. Then if I buy my own wine I don’t value that behaviour anymore? The transaction becomes really obtuse.”

“How do you argue like you’re right, but listen like you’re wrong?”

So there’s a workplace practice (sparring) that is born out of, and maximised by, a company policy (diversity) and grown through a recognition program (storytelling). But the crucial lesson here is the unfixed, yet contingent nature of the practice. Because when business leaders hear something like this, they might be inclined to think they can just plug it in.

“The danger is we’ve got a whole lot of companies saying, ‘We want to be like Spotify, we want to be like Netflix’. And I tell them, you don’t want to be like Netflix.”

Price talks about the difference between a company that wants to institute an agile policy and one that adopts an agility philosophy. Each organisation should look at models that exemplify what they want to be, says Price, but it then needs to build in its own way. A bank isn’t going to get into the same business as Atlassian, so it’s not useful for them to think they can just “cut, copy and paste” a practice.

Often senior leaders find it difficult to adopt an agile philosophy, as it’s not what got them to where they are. Frequently it’s someone a bit further down the rung that becomes a ‘member of the movement’.

“It’s someone who has bought into the purpose of the organisation but is dissatisfied with how it’s going about it. So they’re not disgruntled about the people or the place.

They just feel like there’s more barriers and blockers than amplifiers. And they sort of wake up one day and decide that instead of being a victim and therefore part of the problem, they’re going to be part of the solution.”

Children of the evolution

This talk gets back to why the ‘movement’ is a market solution to the changing nature of work. It’s being driven by the business fear of becoming the next Blockbuster or Kodak, in a world where technology upends entire industries and makes switching to more exciting competitors effortless.

The way you avoid becoming a relic is by being agile enough to change. And you accomplish that by being agile all the way from flagship product to job design. Think of it this way, the only role that can never be automated (or otherwise made redundant by technological advances) is one that is completely adaptable and free to change. One that has a guiding principle rather than a set of tasks.

Price finds the philosophy tricky to explain because it is a philosophy and not a process. Businesses find it hard to adopt because it’s outside the classic understanding. Most companies would prefer to hire a transformation team and complete a years-long plan.

“This is a really hard one to get your head around: there isn’t an end state. And it’s funny because most organisations, certainly a heritage organisation that have been around for a while, work on long term plans, right? And in a time where the business world was going through a low rate of change, having a 10 year plan made sense. In a modern environment with the rate of innovation and change we have now, 10 year plans are a waste of time.”

Price teaches evolution over transformation and tells leaders, “The new way of leading is leading your organisation through volatility… so how do you manage that? Not with large 24 month programs, but with a mission that you believe in, a long term mission and vision. And then lots more projects and teams and activity. And learning along the way.”

“Put your point forward with passion, and gusto, and energy. But then once you’ve put your point forward, close your mouth, open these big floppy things on the side of your head and listen.”

Human future

There are non-market answers to the changing nature of work. Australia’s industrial relations system is, compared to other developed countries, doing an okay job of balancing employer and worker interests (though wage stagnation suggests it has tipped in the former’s favour). But it is also clunky; legislatively tied to an older conception of work. How many Awards are prepared for extensive automation?

There are also answers at the education level. There’s been increasing concern that Australians are graduating unready for the type of work they encounter, they lack core skills (so called ‘soft skills’) and the theory they are taught isn’t as linked with practice as it needs to be.

“My sense is our education system – and community, work and economic systems – have trained humans to be like robots for the last 60 years. And we need to quit thinking like that.’”

The advantage of solving things with agile philosophies is that it fits with how our society is currently structured. It’s not a total solution right now – it’s still very skewed to well paid knowledge workers – but it is a solution that is already being actioned.

Price himself is not promising a utopia. Even as work switches away from more mundane tasks and into more meaningful ones, he says there are mental health risks. He compares it to the way factory workers get calluses on their hands.

“We flipped that working model. The calluses are now appearing on your brain and we can’t see them. So how do we collectively take ownership for our peoples’ wellbeing?”

He quotes renowned Stanford professor Hayagreeva Rao, who asked an audience of HR leaders, “Instead of thinking about eight hours work, imagine that you’re borrowing the person from their life for eight hours a day. And your job is to give them back in a better state than you took them in the morning. How would you treat that person?”

Price feels Atlassian is an organisation that is trying to reframe things in that way. His company’s leaders support staff in having a purpose beyond themselves.

“I donate all my speaker fees to Room to Read, who build libraries in Cambodia for kids that don’t get access to an education. Scott and Mike [the founders] have got the Atlassian Foundation that we all contribute to, and five days Foundation leave a year.”

But that’s what works for Atlassian. The whole point of having an agile philosophy is that you have to find what works for you, even as the ground underneath shifts.

I asked Price what a ‘work futurist’ will be doing five years from now. He mentions he’s focusing on getting more science around teamwork, as it’s harder to pull off than the science behind individuals. He’s also looking into how teamwork changes for organisations as they scale up – important information for a company that has gone from 600 to 3,000 staff during his tenure. But by now you should be able to predict his immediate response. “I don’t know what my job will look like in a year’s time.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 edition of HRM magazine.

1
Leave a reply

avatar
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  Subscribe to receive comments  
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Marcia
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Marcia

At last some sense on the future of work and each person’s contribution to meaning in their work. Only one point I would add – the more volatility an organisation/society experiences, the more that structure and compliance is re-inforced – its a large hurdle to “get over.”

More on HRM