Thursday, 27 January 2011

Is it true or just another fad?

"Most of the change we think we see in life is due to truths being in and out of favour" says Robert Frost, poet speaking through his poem, "The Black Cottage". This poet was fascinated by the meaning of truth and decisions. He has produced many quotes which follow a similar train of thought. In this sense, he was ahead of his time. Only now, with a social constructionist theory of knowledge being considered (that there are many versions of knowledge and truths - depending upon one's values, culture, experiences, religion, and so on); overtaking the previous view of knowledge which was that theories were facts for a period of time - or at least until a new theory came along and knocked it off its perch! At one time the earth was considered flat, now it is round; we used to believe that doctors were witches, now they are life-savers; women have been considered equal to gods in some cultures and to devils in others; the same goes for cats; Hawking's Theory M topples Einstein's E=MC2 which in turn toppled Newton's Laws; etc. etc.

Only now are we accepting that our knowledge is constructed in time, space, situation and environment. Or, as per the opinions of Robert Frost, true knowledge is highly questionable. As he said later in life, "a jury consists of twelve persons chosen to decide who has the better lawyer!"

It is this doubt in traditional organisational decision-making and thinking that now preoccupies organisational developmental psychologists, anthropologists, knowledge management specialists, management thinkers and social scientists. What methods do we really have at our disposal, in order to effectively handle such grey areas as "Truths"? Does someone have a bad attitude, as I have heard said about the naysayers to a change initiative, or are they making a valid point with genuine concern for the organisation? Many change initiatives fail in the earliest phases (studies show that around 50% do not get off the starting blocks; with the other 50% performing moderately to poorly against expectations).

Curiously, the methods for challenging truths are the ones we have become most preoccupied with lately. The most useful methods (IMHO) being developed have been the skills in facilitating groups to widen perspectives, altering their individual models of learning, and so altering long-held "truths". Done well, this allows more imaginative and better solutions to be found. Do it poorly however and groups will polarise further, clam up and even disband (often in a pretty visceral and unpleasant way).

Some real "hot spots" include attempts at altering power distribution and status (one of the many reasons why change initiatives are so fraught with conflict); religious beliefs; traditions; theoretical "certainties"; and crossing boundaries (boundaries are usually personal and highly subjective). It takes a very skilled facilitator to take all these into account. Placing a hand on the shoulder of another for instance, can represent very different things, with the potential for crossing a personal or cultural boundary of acceptable personal space. When Tony Blair, the UK's PM at that time, sat beside Libya's Colonel Gadaffi, Arab nations around the world recoiled at the insult of Gadaffi showing the sole of his shoe to Blair. To most Westerners however, this act went completely unnoticed. 

Another factor to consider is where a power imbalance is too great. Challenge, even though constructive, tends not to work particularly well here so firstly always try to level the playing field as much as possible (or get an impartial mediator to facilitate).

Where religions differences are at the root of the problem, enhanced discovery through education and exposure to other beliefs can be a better means of improvement, moreso than simply discussion forums or focus groups, as in the case of Northern Ireland's troubles where childrens' schooling ceased to be segregated. In doing so there became an improved chance to expose catholics to protestants and vice versa, at an earlier age, with a mutual goal of learning as well as reducing the dehumanisation that segregation had encouraged.

Broadening one's own experiences is often the most effective way of being able to see things from another perspective. As the old proverb says, "do not judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes". In other words, if you're the boss, don't think that you can open up the group to challenge through using your position in the hierarchy - good bosses know that they tread a thin line here.

Equally, if you disagree with someone's religion, let it alone. We mightn't like the actions of those defined by a particular belief system but if it can be addressed at all, this can only be done in terms of specific interactions, treated very separately from the religious or spiritual beliefs (not easy to do at all). In the words of original System Thinker, Russ Ackoff, our leaders' jobs are now "to manage .. interactions, not actions, and the interactions of the unit managed with other internal and external organizations. This can only be done with a social systemic model in mind." (On The Mismatch Between Systems And Their Models, Russell L. Ackoff and Jamshid Gharajedaghi).

These skills are not so much about knowing that we must challenge our long-held beliefs or truisms, but rather it is how these long-held beliefs can be changed, and whether we should try (include here how to anticipate limits). Creative methods in the fields of knowledge management, conflict resolution, psychology and learning are constantly being adapted, tested and challenged. Frequently I hear people say "if we do that then ...". "If .. then .. " statements are laden with assumptions (and faulty conclusions). When we hear them we need to ask questions such as "is this completely true?"; "when might that not be the case?"; "would anyone disagree with that assumption (and why)?". Of course, be aware that simply by asking these questions in an environment insufficiently primed for them, you could be lighting touch-paper!

I will be taking some time out from writing this blog in order to work on a Handbook for Organisational Learning. Please contact me if you would like more information on the methods for encouraging learning and better relationships in organisations.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

The Game Changers for 2011

Families no longer sit around the TV as captive audiences to commercial breaks. Fact. As early as June 26th 2002 Lord Saatchi announced "The funeral rites have been observed" to advertisers. Even for the most innovative TV commercials, audiences will often struggle to remember the product being promoted.

As I commented in last year's final blog, Generation Y are more preoccupied by ipodding, texting, phoning and downloading and so responsive to this far more than television.

Advertising has traditionally been following the interruption-disruption model, where TV programmes are separated by a number of commercial breaks. The same goes for newspaper ads, google ads and anything punctuated by adverts, treating the consumer as the passive recipient of unaviodable messages.

So what's coming (what's already here)? Smartphones and in particular the Apple iPad. These have been major behaviour changers.  One French duo, named Konbini, have set up their service based upon product placement (PP). This is currently illegal on television in their own country, however it is unregulated on the internet. This embedding of products has been a long-time standard for Hollywood movies, whereby products used by the hero or heroine become more popular by association. Konbini produce short films with ingenious themes. London's W Hotel is another example, commissioning a short "film" featuring two famous supermodels ( which would never stoop to overtly promoting their hotel, other than the viewer seeing the hotel as the venue for these two incredibly beautiful people to meet.

In overcoming the problem of language barrier associated with transmitting messages, many Europeans are now turning to the language of "globish" - a truncated form of the English language, containing around 1,500 words ( Konbini's films are all written and produced in Globish.

So, it appears that we will need to become more prepared for being sold things through the medium of fiction, art, music and drama; as well as a new English language, adapted for international use. I guess like all trends, this one could last for a while, before it becomes incredibly novel and exciting to make art without allowing PP once more; and using something other than a basic version of English. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose? May we live in interesting times and happy 2011!

Monday, 22 November 2010

What's the value in a network?

The Generation Y employee is used to texting, emailing, virtual networking, buying from ebay and googling. All of which are activities being tapped into by the more innovative organisations. Message to disgruntled employers who try to ban them - you're missing a trick. As I am frequently told when I moan about reality TV - "Resistance is Futile"!

Generation Y entrepreneur Mark Elliot Zuckerberg (born May 14, 1984) is an American who co-founded the social networking site Facebook. On Zuckerberg's Facebook page, he lists his personal interests as "openness, making things that help people connect and share what's important to them, revolutions, information flow, minimalism." Already facebook are trying to figure out how to monetise eliminating email through creating new ways for us to communicate.

The main criticism of facebook is that as it is centralised, it is a form of "spying for free" however this is where it's value currently comes from. Through selling this knowledge for commercial purposes as well as being able to generate advertising revenue. The current value of this network is huge - in terms of monetising its value, apparently Facebook falls somewhere between Google, Ebay and Yahoo (estimated between $30-50bn .. so pretty huge in financial terms).

When we talk of relationships and leverage in business we are no longer just considering the strength of those between employees, clients and suppliers. We have to think of our relationships with the world. In order to respond, adapt, and keep ahead of the pack, we have to let the employees who are ardent networkers, ebayers and googlers lead the way in terms of networking. It's no coincidence then, that the entrepreneurs who are making their mark in networking are from the Generation Y brigade. Is it then the case that we need Generation Y bosses who can think in the same way? Possibly ... Can it be learned by a Generation X boss? Possibly..

In terms of placing a value on your people, they are still considered to be largely an "intangible asset". However, in terms of networking and knowledge, their value is inestimable. Intangible assets such as human knowledge, internal structures, ways of working, reputation, and business relationships are not easily monetised in clearly defined terms. There are some methods which aim to model, analyse, evaluate, and improve the capability of a business to convert both tangible and intangible assets into other forms of negotiable value, and to realise greater value for themselves. Underlying this approach is an understanding that intangible, but nonetheless strong and dynamic relationships, and the intangible assets that make up and have an impact on those relationships, are the foundation of any successful business endeavour. It does appear to be the case that the future success of an organisation as a whole is going to depend more and more on how effectively it can demonstrate and so convert one form of value into another. This seems to be something which Facebook is also keen to do also - if they succeed then this will affect the value (and leadership and communication capability) of every organisation on the planet.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Fertile Learning Environments

So, in fulfilling the promise I made in my last blog, here are a few observations gathered from the experts highlighting the key conditions most needed for the more adaptable and ultimately healthier learning organisation to flourish:

1. Improve harmony through allowing freedom to adapt . As I said in my previous blog, if change is a top-down "sheep-dipping" exercise of pushing everyone through, then it will most likely fail. The impact is bigger when we think smaller and this is where equilibrium can more readily be established. Jack Welsch, ex-CEO of General Electric, moved from a top-down vision (that GE had to be no. 1 or no.2 in their markets) to a more learning organisation, his "Work-Out" concept. In societal terms, local communities understand peoples needs better than national governments can.

2. Develop trust. Sometimes a leader will say, "Oh we already do a lot of that. We hold monthly team-building sessions, etc." However, consider something more along the lines of getting beneath the "masks" that we wear. Many people have a different persona at work to home for example, and it can be risky to drop them (I do not mean crossing important personal boundaries, such as invading peoples' privacy however). Rather it involves understanding true opinions about ideas, uncertainties, fears and failures without judgement or blame. I remember one occasion where I observed a team all dutifully agreeing with the boss during their management meeting, except one, who was pulled up for opposing the others before then obediently falling into line. After the meeting however, several pulled me over privately to have a conversation much more meaningful than the one I had observed during the meeting. Which information is more valuable in this instance - that shared during the meeting or that outside it? So how as Team Leader or Department Head can you begin to develop more trust? Try exploring opinions and assumptions with attention given to underlying interests and fears; and ensure any "sacred cows" or "elephants sitting in the corner of the room" are broached. Where information is shared there is more transparency and so trust. As Sun T'zu wrote in "The Art of War", to defeat one's enemy one must first understand him. The enemy in this instance is the risk of misunderstandings and opportunities lost that lack of trust brings.

Teams exhibiting poor trust try to avoid failure through working longer hours, experience less job satisfaction, take less pride in their work, and more readily blame others for their shortcomings (Dee, 1995a).

3. Distribute authority.Team leaders who are able to "suspend the hierarchy" and serve as equal team members are most successful (DuBrin, 1995). This entails allowing the right people to make important decisions at the time they are needed, rather than deferring to a higher authority. From fairly inocuous examples of a waiter offering a compensatory drink or aperitif where the meal is taking too long to arrive, to a member of the military's rank and file nominating a peer for immediate stress leave or counselling and being taken seriously, both demonstrate how sharing authority can have an immediate and positive impact. Effective teamwork requires that team members feel free to contribute freely, despite formal hierarchies. This type of freedom is characteristic of high performing teams (McIntyre and Salas, 1995). One basic concept asserted by the leading thinkers in this area (Senge, Ross, Smith, Roberts, & Kleiner) is that teams have "common territories." The implication of "common territories" is that individual team members need one another to take action (Senge et al., 1994) and so achieving objectives is more important than formalised hierarchies.

4. Share the credit. Collaboration won't work where any one person hogs the limelight at the expense of the others. Make sure that any "wall-flowers" are drawn out and consulted and that prolific talkers are managed. Early indicators of collaboration and rewarding the collective as opposed to the individual is the use of language - "we", "us" and "ours" versus "I", "my", "you" and "yours". Individuals who work much harder at retaining their individuality, status or reward than on team goals will hamper adaptability and learning.

5. Respect conflict. High levels of creativity and initiative in team processes sometimes require conflict and many different perspectives. The mindset needs to be "resolving conflict" by working through it rather than avoiding it. Consider how your team's capability at striving for balance between conformity towards group goals and yet retaining uniqueness of thought and actions can be improved.

6. Leaders as coaches. Leaders who make effective coaches resist using management techniques that emphasize giving orders, making threats, setting deadlines, requiring quotas, and handing out reprimands. Flexibility, learning and adaptation will not occur in an intimidating environment.

7. Raise consciousness through dialogue. Dialogue should be considered a "core team competency" because of its impact on team effectiveness and team learning. Dialogue helps to bring faulty assumptions (mental models) to the surface so that they can be challenged. Dialogue requires four processes for success: 1. Invitation; 2. Generative Listening; 3. Observing the Observer; and 4. Suspending Assumptions (Senge 1994). This cannot happen where there is a climate of fear of disapproval, penalty or judgement.

8. Tap into social networks, virtual and real, for more rapid innovation. Technology has caused society to more rapidly change and as social networks are more easily formed the old hierarchical structures of organisations have been made obsolete. A good example might be to consider how traditional government and policy-making is being influenced more and more by a groundswell of a more connected and more informed public. As described by Charles Handy (1996), organisations have become more like "networks," and in order to function, "networks" must have connectivity. Social networks derive energy from feeling good through the act of participation, with contribution voluntary.

I must admit, I struggled to write this list. Each point above sounds like a simple statement of "how to" whereas in reality their execution would be far more complex and open to interpretation. Equally, not all points above hold equal weight. If we bake a loaf of bread for instance, the temperature can afford to be too high and we will still achieve something pretty close. If we forget to add yeast however, we will never get an edible loaf. If I were asked to define the most important thing needed for creating a learning organisation, my thoughts go to control and certainty (the yeast?). At the most fundamental level, how much does the organisation value control and how much does it need certainty? For a more adaptable organisation to exist, as with society, control must be relinquished and certainty sacrificed.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Top "Soft" Planning Tip

When planning the execution of new or modified operations, there are some critical "soft" factors that any strategist or project manager should be aware of. Most importantly of all is this:

Do not separate the "planners" from the "do'ers".

Many successful strategies are formed through an "emergent process" of organisational learning - learning from those doing the work that feeds back into, and modifies the detailed plans laid out beforehand. One recent example of the U.S. military conducting successful emergent planning is the evolution of the "Surge" Strategy in Iraq. This has been the result of a bottom-up feedback of learning from the leaders on the ground, rather than from top-down directives. This identified issues that would otherwise have been missed had plans simply been the product of a top-down strategic review. As such, learnings such as the need to firstly provide law and security for the local population were implemented.

Disappointing results from traditional models of strategic planning also led General Electric's renowned CEO, Jack Welch, to begin his transformation of the company by making major reductions in the overly bureaucratic strategic planning mechanisms that were in place in the early 1980s. Over the next several decades, other leading corporations such as Intel, Honda, Royal Dutch / Shell Group, Exxon and Google have followed more successful "emergent" planning strategies. As a rule of thumb, highly volatile markets and dynamic environments are best planned for with this approach. The role of emergence relative to formal design increases as the environment becomes increasingly volatile and unpredictable.

Henry Mintzberg and colleagues at the McGill University in the 1980s developed the learning model of emergent strategy formation, basing it on the premise that the “complex and unpredictable nature of the organization’s environment, often coupled with the diffusion of knowledge-bases necessary for strategy, precludes deliberate control; strategy-making must above all take the form of a process of learning over time, in which, at the limit, formulation and implementation become indistinguishable.” Mintzberg's "emergent strategy" is a pattern of action that develops over time in an organisation, often despite vision, mission, and goals, or in addition to them. Decisions emerge from complex processes whereby individual managers have the freedom to interpret the intended strategy and to adapt it to changing external circumstances as they are happening, rather than realising after the event, say during the post-project review, usually when it's too late and damage has been done, or market-share has already been lost.

Emergence is the result of multiple decisions at many levels, particularly within middle management, and is a true bottom-up process. As said earlier, the military employs this approach in planning operations as well as in countering terrorism. At Intel, a key historic decision to abandon memory chips and concentrate on microprocessors was the result of a host of decentralized decisions taken at divisional and plant level that were subsequently acknowledged by top management and developed into a strategy.

Two key "soft" traits required at every level, above all others, for emergence planning to work, are opportunism and curiosity, starting with the CEO. Mintzberg advocates strategy-making be an iterative process involving experimentation and feedback and so, as with any trial and error learning, there will be moments where curiosity must prevail over uncertainty. If the boss needs high levels of certainty and exhibits anxiety in the face of the unknown, then he or she will not be sufficiently adaptable for such a volatile environment nor embrace emergent planning. This is also true where decision-making processes have become highly bureaucratic.

The learning organisation's role for the strategist or planner is very different to the role of the strategist in a sclerotically bureaucratic organisation. Self-proclaimed "control freaks" need not apply! In my next blog I will address the conditions required for emergent planning to work.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Do We Work Better for Causes or People?

Positive psychology (psychologists studying the psychology of success) has become very interested in organisational capacity to tap into what they often refer to as the "added discretionary effort" of the people. Is it the the cause or company that is the driving force, or is it the relationships and the connections, that make an organisation truly successful?

One position is that people join good companies (or causes) but often leave because of poor management or decision-making. All the money, time and effort spent recruiting and training an employee, as well as their unique knowledge, can easily be lost. Another position is that good managers are worth their weight in gold, particularly where the organisation itself is weak on either process or people-management. In the war film, "Black Hawk Down", director Ridley Scott offers his view through the words of lead US marine, Hoot:

"When I go home people'll ask me, "Hey Hoot, why do you do it man? What, you some kinda war junkie?" You know what I'll say? I won't say a goddamn word. Why? They won't understand. They won't understand why we do it. They won't understand that it's about the men next to you, and that's it. That's all it is."

Rather cliched some might say, but also a true reflection of what keeps people pulling together. On the downside, even where it is a dubious or lost cause, as history has witnessed many times, people can continue to pull together.

The organisation having the ability to intervene where there is blind loyalty, to encourage intelligent critique, innovation or better practice, as much as the capacity to create cohesive team spirit, requires certain learning processes as well as accompanying "soft" skills. Unsurprisingly, many of these processes were developed for the military, through activities such as "Wash-Ups" between task forces following certain operations, in order to identify what went well and what could be learned from. These, along with many others are now utilised to leverage not only continued loyalty, or added discretionary effort even, but importantly improved practice and innovation. Whether it's the people or the cause that is more influential is still very much open for debate and so I'll leave it up to you the reader to decide which matters most to you. Ultimately, they both count in encouraging added discretionary effort.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Staff Incentives Don't Need To Cost Much

My last blog talked about the importance of encouraging positive feelings in the workplace; acknowledging that how people feel at work will impact upon their productivity levels as well as innovation capability more than the material benefits being promised. I read an article reiterating this in Saturday's Financial Times, Aug.21st 2010 (Everyone Welcomes A Slice of the Pie, Jonathan Moules; Keep Spirits Up - Ask the Experts, London Business School, p.26): "It is too easy to think that you can motivate people with money. The majority of people would take an honest day's pay for an honest day's work rather than be bribed - particularly if it was for a low-paid job" - Rupert Merson, Professor, London Business School (extracted from FT article).

Without further ado, in addressing some requests that I received after my last blog about what I considered good alternatives to financial incentives, here are a few pointers:

- Take money off the table by paying fairly. Hang on a minute, in your last blog you were saying that money is not a good motivator, I can hear some of you wondering. Although not great at motivating, money is a very good demotivator and so a certain amount is necessary in order for goodwill to be available. Cooperation and esprit de corps will more readily follow where money is no longer the issue driving malcontent. Most people want a fair day's pay for an honest day's work.

- Avoid company-wide bonus schemes. These usually disincentivise more than motivate and can be time-consuming and complicated to administer.

- Involve everyone in business performance improvement, in a way that stimulates camaraderie and reduces internal competition. For some companies, this may involve engaging in generating improvement ideas over informal, friendly lunches together. For others in more service-oriented, technical or creative fields, it can also entail discussion forums, quality circles, communities of practice or localised improvement initiatives, in smaller focus groups. Most importantly, not everyone performs well in a large team-building or Quality Circle / Kaizen / Six Sigma or Lean forum. Staff members juggling home life with work life will not necessarily appreciate a drinks-after-work session or weekend retreats. Getting to know your staff and taking into account their different needs, strengths and weaknesses, will bring out the best in them, avoiding inadvertently discriminating against, or even alienating some.

- Have an open-door policy and a good quality working environment. Allow your staff a decent measure of autonomy and control over decision-making affecting them and provide opportunities for developing new skills. Importantly, everyone enjoys a degree of challenge, along with high appreciation and trust. How readily and confidently you can answer these four questions will indicate whether there are opportunities to improve here: 1. How well do staff on the "shop floor" feel heard?; 2. do they trust that in raising performance, productivity or quality issues that these will be swiftly addressed?; 3. do they believe that they will have a measure of control and involvement in finding the right solutions or adaptations? 4. do they believe that their inputs and opinions are welcomed and taken seriously?

- Detect early chronic stress in middle management. Bad moods, high stress, and fatigued managers are a cancer in the workplace. I say middle management as this is the area of most businesses prone to chronic stress and yet they are key to linking the vision of your business with the execution. It is one of the more challenging positions to hold in an organisation, coping with the expectations from above but also with the multitude of changes and needs from below. There are of course other areas where stress is more likely, including ongoing change initiatives, mergers, restructuring and downsizing. A smiling face, a service philosophy and a proactive approach to problem-solving from middle management goes a long way!

- Promote pride and recognition for work being done. Celebrate the good stuff and fix the bad. The good stuff is all around and rather than offering best staff member of the month awards or best improvement idea awards, etc., develop methods which encourage the efforts of the majority as much as the few shining stars.

In effect, as much as what is said or promised is important, how it is said and how people feel about that is equally so. In return, rather than costing you money, these incentives will pay back with dividends, creating a mood that ensures people want to come to work, as well as help you grow your business.