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I came across an interesting little piece this morning in which a psychologist bemoans the limitations of the much-used Myers Briggs Type Indicator in the form of a Dear John letter. You can read it here, but I’d rather you carried on reading this.

In the article the author points out that the science behind MBTI is, at best, not terribly scientific, and asks that the people behind it do the math and move the tool along to be a bit more in keeping with proper psychometrics.

All well and good, I am as keen on rationalism and scientific rigour as the next chap, but, for me, the article misses the point ever so slightly on what MBTI can be used for – rather than a diagnostic tool to understand your personality, it gives people symbols, metaphors, if you like, and is a great way of developing teams.

I have blogged previously on this, and don’t see the need to bore you with it further, but suffice to say it can be useful to know that a team has a Ginny Weasley as well as a Sirius Black and a Hermione Granger, for example. Also, a quiz, here is a list of six characters who, apparently, share my MBTI type – a prize* for the first commenter to correctly identify me:

  • Hermione Granger  off of Harry Potter
  • Professor Fring off of The Simpsons
  • The holographic doctor off of Star Trek (DS9/Voyager era)
  • Billy off of Adventure Time
  • Wall E off of Wall E
  • Sherlock off of Sherlock (my personal favourite – I’ve always considered myself a text-book high-functioning sociopath, it’s no wonder I work with people…)

MBTI is, of course, based on the thinking of Carl Jung, Swiss analytical psychotherapist, dream interpreter and all round polymath. Jung is a man for whom my passion for rationalism and scientific rigour happily gets parked; he worked, as far as I can tell from my admittedly limited reading of his work, off instinct and insight rather than the statistically tried and tested tools beloved of those who spent their youth watching rats run around mazes in search of cheese.

My work, too, is based largely on the examination of data and the drawing of insight from it in order to help organisations to become more effective; having worked in financial services with cool people like actuaries, I know how important it is to have done the maths (yes maths, with an s on the end) when presenting anything to people who need evidence for doing anything.

But there is still, I think, room for the Jungian intuition in developing the insight you need to engender change. Data can take you a long way, and talking to people to deepen that understanding helps as well, but you still need to do something to make that jump from data to insight.

This process can take place in any number of ways; in a workshop, bouncing ideas around, in your head as you are putting together your report and associated slide deck, it can be communal or individual (although, let’s hark back to MBTI and Professor Jung here, extroverts tend to enjoy doing it with others and introverts like to do it by themselves), but it requires a human thought process which takes data and translates it into something different and meaningful.

Going with the gut feeling, making a decision based on intuition and instinct are generally frowned upon in the world of business. My recent adventures studying change management and process improvement are firmly based on using data, evidence, statistical analysis as the basis for decisions to be made in a business.

In my experience, however, people rely much more than they would probably admit on instinct and gut feeling. Any insight or data or evidence you give to people will always pass through their mental filters and be adapted into their own world view before they make any decision on it, and they are more likely to take a course they wanted to in the first place.

An example – in an organisation I worked with, people said they wanted more leadership visibility. Leaders took this to mean getting out and about in town hall meetings and generally doing more formal communication activities. 

What people actually wanted was a more personal connection with their leaders – they wanted better recognition and clarity that their leaders understood what life was really like for them on the shop floor. They wanted managing by walking about,m they wanted to know leaders were really in touch.

The leaders, however, found this kind of thing difficult; they found the kind of instinctive, informal and spontaneous contact their people needed was too hard, and they chose, instead, to go with a safer, more formal and safer way to tick the leadership visibility box, and then were surprised and upset when people told them their leaders were still out of touch.

A more intuitive perusal of the data may have lead them to a different conclusion and more effective leadership behaviours.

So, have a think – be rational about the rationality of your decision making. Do you go with brain or gut? Or is there a bit of both? Which is the braver option? And which is more likely to be effective?

*There’s not really a prize. Sorry.

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In recent blogs I have been banging on about change management, as I recently took a project management course in order to polish up my skills and knowledge and that.

change2

I was struck, as I was when I did my first PM course (many years ago) that there is a lot on tools, techniques and skills around planning, organisation, managing issues and risks and all that, the people side of things seemed a bit glossed over. Well, there was plenty about managing key stakeholders – even admitting that if two stakeholders have conflicting requirements then things can get tricky.

There was also, to be fair, stuff about estimating resource  and a whole chapter in the handbook about Project Human Resource Management. My interest was piqued at this, and I read on, and there was plenty of stuff about recruiting and managing your project team, none of which was objectionable in any way. I especially enjoyed the lengthy section on the kinds of organisational charts you could use, and the two sentences indicating that Organizational Theory (forgive the Z) could come in handy.

There was a section on team-building and the importance of reward (and another learning unit on not taking bribes) and, again, nothing actually wrong with it. There was a sentence saying that leadership was “an important skill”, and that decision makign should be effective.

The next chapter was on communication, with much on managing stakeholder expectations and reporting progress, issues and risks in a timely fashion. Again, all good stuff and rightly good practice for any project management professional.

What was missing, however, was a sense that when the changes are implemented into the organisation then people are going to be impacted by that change, and for any change to be effective, the people impacted need to be ready, willing and able to make that change actually happen in the real world.

I have worked with change managers for many, many years and they are, like most groups, a pleasingly diverse lot, with a range of personalities and approaches to their given field. Most of them were very good with their Gantt charts, flow diagrams and structure charts, their issue logs and risk management matrices. Very few of them were good with the concept of change happening through people.

Why this is has occupied my thoughts often, and I found myself musing on it again as I printed off my Certificate of Mastery and before logging onto my Six Sigma course (expect a very similar blog about process improvement in the coming weeks, people).

My thoughts are this: charts, diagrams, logs and matrices are easy. They sit there, they are logical and ordered, they do what they are meant to do, they have clear terms of reference and clear roles within the project, they are fit for purpose. Process, too, is easy. You know what’s what, it happens in order and processes can be managed.

People, on the other hand, are rarely any of these things. They are difficult, they are illogical, they have emotions and they are fickle and unpredictable. A project plan moves neatly as a task is completed and a green on target square on the plan changes to a nice, neat black completed one. People can, and usually do, resist change. They have their own agendas, they want things to happen to make their life easier and if your project plan isn’t going to deliver that, then it’s not likely to deliver what you want it to, either.

What Project Management courses don’t teach you, in my experience, is this wider, all-encompassing sense of the term “stakeholder management”. Stakeholders are usually seen as the important people you need to get onside in order for things to happen, or at least know how to outflank the other important people who don’t want it to happen.

Stakeholders should include the less important people; the people on the shop floor who have to make whatever change you are managing into an experience in their daily lives – and even an experience for their customers.

I think I have mentioned before a piece of systems change I heard about which won awards for the success of its implementation at a posh black-tie IT bunfight, but resulted in poorer customer service and lower employee engagement. When that’s award winning performance, you have to question the criteria for which those awards were awarded, do you not?

Thinking about the impact on people of change is a simple thing to do, it just requires an understanding of where the people are at currently, what the likely impact of the changes are going to be be, and how they will react. Local leadership should be able to fill in those blanks pretty easily, shouldn’t they? (If the answer to that is “no”, then you have bigger issues than the colour-coding on your issue logs to worry about, believe me).

So, have a think: how does change happen in your organisation? Is it by the book? And does that deliver what you need? Could engaging with the people you are expecting to make this change happen more meaningfully at the outset help things go more smoothly? (Hint, yes it almost certainly could). Do your project people think about the process or what the outcome needs to be? And do they realise that for any outcomes to be delivered requires the people implementing it, not the most immaculate project plan ever drafted? Have a think.

I did a presentation this week where I explained my thoughts on what Organisational Development is, and what it consists of in practice.

The previous evening I attended another session where the speaker gave some good tips on presenting, one of which was to use images rather than bulleted lists, and I took that advice and hit Google image search for some appropriate images.

Organisational purpose? Some cartoon people building a jigsaw towards a sign saying success. Employee engagement? More cartoon people, standing in interlinked circles. Organisational cultural diagnostics? An iceberg, to illustrate the visible and invisible aspects of culture. Change management? A butterfly emerging from its cocoon. Leadership? Easy. This one:

Image

I remember going on a leadership course a few years back – one of the best things I have ever done, it was literally life-changing – and the very first activity in the first session was people choosing their ideal leaders. In my group, more than half chose Sir Alex Ferguson. (I chose Gary Neville, then the captain of Manchester United, for reasons I’d be happy to explain if you ask me).

His success as a manager is unparalleled, and I am a lifelong United fan, so that image, iconic for his hunger for success and his instilling in teams the desire to keep going and never give up, that leapt from the image search and into my leadership slide.

And this was before I read this article in the Harvard Business Review, about a study by academics of the lessons to be learned from his leadership.

It’s a great article and I highly recommend you read it in full, but there are eight key lessons, namely:

  1. Start with the foundation – build from the bottom for lasting success
  2. Dare to rebuild your team – see what needs changing and evolve as necessary
  3. Set standards high and hold everyone to those standards
  4. Never, ever cede control
  5. Match the message to the moment
  6. Prepare to win
  7. Rely on the power of observation
  8. Never stop adapting

I could, and doubtless will, do a blog on each of these lessons, but as I said last time I would be doing a few blogs on the whole change thing, then I will look at three specific ones this time around – because they speak to me about the role of leaders in change. Those lessons are 1, 2 and 8.

Lesson 1 – start with the foundation – in the article, Fergsuon explains how he changed the culture in the club to one of developing the best young players. In its way, it was a return to the values of the last great manager at the club, Sir Matt Busby, whose young teams established Manchester United as the force it is today in world football. The lesson for leaders here is that change needs to be sustainable – you need to think long-term and plan for long-lasting success, not just go for the quick win. Too often in recent times business have focused on the quick profit at the expense of the long-term. Leaders need to take the long term view and lay foundations for the future in order for their organisations to succeed again and again, as Ferguson did with his teams.

Lesson 2 – dare to rebuild your team for me has two key things; firstly, the importance of people in successful businesses and successful change; change can’t happen and businesses can’t succeed, without the right people doing the right things in the right way. Secondly, it is about having courage, as a leader, to make the necessary changes. In his time at United Ferguson saw off many high-profile and popular players, as he sought to develop and improve his team, and bring in the right players as his tactics and approach developed. Leaders need to drop products sometimes, change their route to market, and, of course, change their personnel when need be – which leads neatly to…

Lesson 8 – never stop adapting. Football changed massively during Ferguson’s time at United, and David Gill, the CEO, speaks in the article of the manager’s capability to adapt as the game changed. Leaders need to look outside and be aware of how their world is changing or else their organisations are being affected. Change is constant, and it’s not even a question of “like it or not” – you just have to accept it and make sure your organisation can adapt in order to survive.

How leaders lead change is fundamental not just to the success of change projects and programmes, but to the survival and success of the businesses they are leading. No leader can call themselves a leader if they cannot change, and lead change, and this is why Sir Alex is the exemplar, for me, of the leader.

So, who are your exemplars? Who are the leaders you see as the best at leading change? How do leaders in your organisation manage change? Are they building foundations, making the courageous decisions and adapting as the wider world changes? Or are they avoiding change and hoping steady state will get them through? Have a think.

I’ve spent most of the last decade and a bit doing change stuff, whether it be communicating about change, enabling change through insight and leading projects, and I’m pretty comfortable with the whole process by now.

That said, I’ve had a bit of time recently and thought I would use it to revisit my project management methodology and brush up my theory. And, as I sat down at my screen and went through my course, I thought it might also be fun to reflect on some of my experiences of change in real life, and consider how well the theory turns out in practice.

So, to start at the very beginning, let’s begin with the paperwork you need up front. This is the Project Initiation Document, the Project Charter, the Requirements Summary – a tome of variable length and detail which should give everyone involved in the project  and idea of the what, when, why and how, to wit:

  • What you are trying to achieve with the project – a new product, a different process, a new structure for your organisation, a new organisation altogether
  • When you need to do it by
  • Why you are doing it, and…
  • A general idea of how you are going to go about it

This all begins, in turn, with an idea; somebody has to come up with something new. I find this often originates with a senior group of people at or around the top of the organisation; they come up with some requirements – the what and why from where the when and how inevitably flow.

This is where things can start to go wrong at the start – and where communication and stakeholder management are absolutely key. As we all should know, the risk of failure of a project is highest at this stage, and it is easy to see why.

I recall a project I worked on a few years ago, intended to deliver a new operating model for a sales force. There was a room full of consultants with very expensive suits and holiday homes in California who worked very closely with the director in charge of the sales division – but not many other people. They had the what and the why, but it wasn’t that clearly shared with the rest of the organisation, or the programme that this project was but a part.

As a result, there were key messages about why and how we were changing going to the wider organisation that did not necessarily align with the messages that were going through a variety of channels (not all “official” ones) to the sales force.

Stakeholder management was carried out through off-site meetings in hotels and bars, over plates of sandwiches and chips, between managers and their allies, with other colleagues being left out of the loop or playing catch-up with the official comms when they managed to get through the labyrinthine sign-off process. Nudges and winks to those in the know often accompanied said formal comms as well. 

As a result, the “what we are doing” became a different message depending who was hearing, as did “why we are doing it” – which generally ended up as “so we can keep you guys and get rid of them” rather than the more widely accepted “so we can have a sales force that provides us a sustainable and profitable route to market”.

Much money was spent, many nice new suits bought (though few by me or any of my in-house colleagues), and the sales force limped on for a couple more years before inevitably closing a little way down the line.

The documentation was all in order, the PID was completed, the budget agreed by the steering group, and then the project went off into the long grass and went its own merry little way.

I can’t say it achieved what it set out to achieve, but at now point did anyone say it had failed; however, that lack of clear and common understanding among all stakeholders as to what, why, when and how just wasn’t there despite the right boxes having been ticked off on the project management form.

The lesson for me was the need for simplicity and clarity in communicating the what and why; “this is what we are changing, and this is why” in a way that everyone gets on board and has a shared and unambiguous understanding up front.

This then, is my first lesson of project management: the initial engagement of stakeholders needs to be rigorous, thorough and involve a lot of very good quality conversations, with every single stakeholder, after which requirements are recorded and then some more very good quality conversations to make sure those requirements are sufficiently simple and clear.

 

The pre-requisite for this is twofold: make sure you have identified all your stakeholders up front and make sure you engage them in the right way – prepare your ground, know your audience and have a really good sense of the political environment in which you are about to work.

Then, after you have engaged them and achieved this level of buy in and common understanding, do you start worrying about the how and the when – which we will come to in due course in another blog when we think about planning and execution.

In previous blogs I have threatened to metaphoricalise the Ashes and the lessons that this most arcane and wonderful sporting occasion brings to the world of work; this is that blog.

First up, just in case we have any readers from countries where cricket is not played, you have my undying sympathy and a quick explanation: the Ashes is a series of cricket matches between England and Australia; each match lasts up to five days and there are five matches – known as test matches – in the series. England recently won the last series 3-0, and if you want to know more, look no further than here

Any road up, there are many, many things that can be learned from embracing the wonder that is test cricket in the world of work. There is the lesson of finding and working to your strengths – for example, it is important to keep a cricket ball dry so that a bowler can make it move in the air when he bowls; to this end, England captain Alastair Cook is in charge of polishing the ball because he doesn’t sweat as much as other players.

There are different players – batsmen, bowlers, and different types within each type – there are opening batsmen and middle-order batsmen; there are fast bowlers and spinners – and even leg and off spinners.

Cricket, in short, is the perfect example of the notion of diversity being strength – everyone has their own skills and needs to perform to their best to deliver this strength in order for the team to succeed. But as well as individual strengths you need team-work; for a bowler to be successful you need the fielders to be in the right place at the right time and do their part; a batsman can only build an innings if he builds partnerships with other batsmen.

Cricket also tells us that you need the right people at the right time – you need to have have the right team to make the most of conditions; if the sky is overcast and cloudy, you need your swing bowlers; sunny on a dry pitch and your spinners are the best option.

Thus it is in work; if you have a change project you need people to kick it off, get it started and underway; these are the opening batsmen, making a start and laying a foundation for others to build upon. Their success is key to enable later success and you need the right kind of people to do this – doers, planners, people who can manage stakeholder and establish a vision and path to the future.

Once the foundations have been laid, then it is up to the middle order to really get things done and deliver the project; these are a different kind of person than the openers; they build on previous success, use the relationships the openers have built already to ensure success, they consolidate and they take things on.

A rich vein indeed, for the sport-minded business person to mine; in this blog, however, I want to focus on two things that happened in this most recent Ashes series, and specifically in the final test at the Oval.

First was the decision by Australian captain Michael Clarke to declare at tea on the last day and set his team the challenge of bowling England out before they could reach the winning total. The decision was sporting; it was in the spirit of the game, and set up for the spectators a spectacle, a thrilling denouement to a great game and a great series. For me it showed courage and a sense of fair play, and so two great aspects that leaders need: the courage of their convictions and to take risks, and a sense of fairness and reason to temper that courage so that it doesn’t lose perspective and become rash or foolhardy.

The second thing was a decision made many months before the match, in a committee room by a group of bureaucrats. This meant the match had to end with only four overs – 24 balls – to be bowled and England needing only 21 runs to win the game and claim an unprecedented 4-0 series victory. The light was worse than it had been at a previous point in a previous match, and because of the bureaucrats the umpires had no choice but to end the game; there was no room for common sense or in the moment thinking, only an arbitrary line marked in the sand by officious suits.

This ruling robbed the crowd of a fitting climax to the match, and England of a likely victory, but it also robbed the umpires of an opportunity to exercise common sense and manage in the moment, in the now.

The lesson here that while we all need rules in a business setting, they should not be so arbitrary and hard and fast that they prevent a sensible and reasonable decision be made to take an opportunity; bureaucracies stifle organisations because they limit thinking and discourage decisions being made in the moment.

Had the umpired been free to make up their own minds, then the courage shown by Michael Clarke to give the watching public a real show would have been vindicated; as it was, it was lost, denied by bureaucracy.

Have a think about your leaders in your organisation – are they courageous? Fair-minded? Do they balance what it right for themselves with what is just right?

Think about your organisation, about its rules and regulations (and remember these can be unwritten rules, not just the “official” ones). Do they prevent the courageous and fair-minded leaders from leading in the right way? Do they allow common sense to prevail and let people manage in the now? Can your organisation learn a valuable lesson from the strange and wonderful world of cricket? I hope it can.

I was mucking out the rabbit this morning (not a euphemism) and for some reason I thought of a session I once ran for a group of managers in the legal department of the organisation I was part of at the time.

I was feeding back my insight from their employee survey, in the hope of gaining their perspective and together agreeing a way forward to address the issues raised and improve engagement levels, making their department more effective in future. The usual. These four were great; highly experienced and intelligent and, because of their training as lawyers, I assume, generally adversarial. It was like playing four games of chess at once. While riding a unicycle.

With the support of the head of department and the local HR business partner I survived unscathed and we all went away wiser and better for the experience. I ran many such sessions for a wide variety of audiences over the years, and there was always a wide range of reactions from the various teams I spoke to. I thought I would use this blog to examine some of these reactions, to see if anyone found them familiar and had any thoughts on how to deal with the various reactions.

Before going in, I think it is important that anyone going into part of an organisation with any insight or communication is responsible for that information and how it lands. There is a great cop-out to this, called “assuming positive intent”, which is a rule applied to the receiver of the information which basically means “if this upsets you, it’s your own fault, not mine”. In this, as with a great many other things, I find myself more on the side of Leonidas, King of Sparta, in 300 when he gets a message from King Xerxes via a messenger. The news is not good, and it doesn’t end well for the messenger. Clearly Leonidas should have assumed positive intent and the whole nasty business could have been avoided.

Anyway, as in Sparta, when I go into a room and tell a leadership team what it’s like to work there, you can be damn sure I take full responsibility not only for that information, but for how it lands.

First up, there is the blank looks and complete acceptance. The information is taken at face value and accepted fully and without question, as though I were some guru or sage, whose words are gospel. Now this is an issue, because wise, sagacious even, I may well be, but I have only a limited amount of knowledge, based on my exploration of data. I will have done some homework too, usually a chat with the local HR people prior to the session, but I cannot know all the operational and strategic issues at play in every part of the business at the time of the survey. For the department to move forward requires genuine insight, and this can only come from analysis of the data combined with the local context; any recommended actions based on data alone are unlikely to succeed, despite the warm glow you get from speaking to a group of people who nod heartily after every sentence and agree with all you say as though you have some preternatural ability.

My approach in such cases is to drop the data as soon as I see that things are being taken too easily, without questions and fire out a few myself. “What were the big issues at the time…” “one of the comments mentions such and such, can you explain what that was all about?”, that kind of thing. If you have any tips, let me know.

The other end of the spectrum is outright hostility: this is my department, these are my people, you know nothing about them, you can add nothing. Again the data goes into the back pocket and it’s into a coaching conversation to get underneath the behaviours; have they got something to hide? Are they worried what I will think of them as leaders? The trick is not to challenge back but engage in a dialogue; my favourite answer in one such sessions was “I would be a better leader if I had better people” – I invited the leader who said that to have a think about it and what he, as a leader, could do about this, which made for a somewhat better conversation.

Hostility usually comes from fear, in my experience, and so it’s about the conversation, openness and reigning back on any inclination you may have to be a smart arse. Just me? OK then.

My personal favourites in terms of reaction is the one I eventually got with the lawyers – challenging but in a positive and engaged manner. It started feeling adversarial, but I realised they were challenging not the data but the validity of the process; this is where having a good knowledge of that process and its validity comes in handy; and also having a lot of confidence that the data is valid. Fail to prepare, and all that; homework is vital as is really good process and project management prior to the survey.

Once I gave the reassurance they needed, backed up my models with the right level of academic rigour, the dialogue about the data took place and genuine insight was achieved, actions put in place and engagement levels improved.

Other reactions fell at various stages along the spectrum from complete acceptance to complete hostility, and all improved over time as I got to know the audiences and the likely reactions and prepared myself better.

So, if you are preparing something of this ilk, have a think. How is this news likely to go down? Will people challenge you, or the process, or the data from which you drew your insight? Can you be completely confident in the validity of everything you intend to say, and do you have all the sources and background likely to be needed to meet any such challenges? After all, you don’t want to end up being kicked into a well by a bad-tempered monarch.

I have been racking (wracking? No, it is racking) my brains about how to shoehorn today’s reasonably welcome announcement about the improvement of cycling facilities in many cities across the UK into this blog which is, essentially, about employee engagement and organisational culture.

This got me thinking, and, as often happens when I get thinking, I wandered off on a neurological tangent, and ended up at a place where I was in a cycle shop and there, in front of me in the queue, is a trainee accountant clutching a cycle to work scheme voucher in one hand, and a full-suspension mountain bike in the other, all ready to start his daily commute.

This is not the forum to explain why Henry, our trainee accountant friend, should get a road or hybrid bike for commuting (unless he’s commuting to the upper slopes of Snowdonia), but it is just the place to have a think about cycle to work schemes. In my last blog I talked about flexibility when it came to reward and employment packages and how to communicate them. This time I wanted to ruminate on why you would encourage people to cycle to work and other methods of driving engagement through reward and recognition.

First let us go back in time, back to the middle of the last decade, when businesses were beginning to look seriously at this whole employee engagement thing. I was an engagement manager in a big company, and having a conversation with the head of the reward team, who sat in the next bank of desks. A fine bunch of people, they were the only team in the whole company who scored 100% favourably for the question “I believe I am fairly rewarded for the work that I do” in the annual survey. Fact.

Anyway, Head of Reward chap said to me “The best way to engage someone is to pay them more”. He was big believer in this, and had research to back it up. Made sense, certainly, people come to work to make a living, so the better the living they can make the, well, the better. Or so I thought until I got hold of some research of my own.

First up I looked at the rest of the organisation to see if they felt they were fairly paid. Very few thought they were, but this had absolutely no link whatsoever with their levels of engagement. Then I looked at the actual pay – generally the higher up the organisation you went, the higher the engagement score was. Except there was a dip, just before the top, where some pretty well-paid people were less engaged than people paid less than them.

And I looked at other research that real academic researchers had done, and it told me that it was far more complex than my chum the reward bod thought; reward plays some part in engaging employees, but then so did recognition and non-financial stuff. I went back to my data and  looked at recognition schemes across the business – and found some pretty firm linkages between engagement levels and how well embedded and managed recognition schemes were in various bits of the organisation. These ranged from a formal recording of a job well done in an email to awards nights with posh frocks and tuxedos, but they were all about making people feel good about the job they had done. Among the most effective were in the customer-facing areas where they were explicitly linked to customer service and feedback.

Cycle to work schemes are slightly different – everyone gets to take advantage of these, should they wish to do so – but they are all part of offering a more rounded and flexible reward to your people. They also help reduce carbon emissions, improve the health of your workforce and send a very strong message about how socially responsible your organisation is.

The point I am trying to get to is to have a think about ways you can improve your organisation through having a rounded and flexible reward system run alongside effective recognition processes. In my experience, you need a few things to make such schemes really work, so here are some top tips:

  • Make sure they are inclusive, clear and fair – no room for favouritism or even the appearance of favouritism
  • Link them explicitly to your organisational purpose, values, strategy and brand
  • Combine formal, structured recognition with lots of informal, in the moment recognition
  • Make recognition down-up and side to side,  not just top-down
  • Make a big fuss about them – publicise it when people are recognised, create role models
  • Make sure people are clear why they have been recognised
  • Recognise behaviours, rather than targets met or tasks achieved

Have a think – how do you recognise the behaviours you know will make your organisation more effective? I you don’t know, it may be worth having a scan through some older blogs to check out what I mean by this, and then have another think, and get something in place. Oh, and why not try cycling to work too? Don’t wait for those new cycle lanes, be that change now!

New research shows that up to a million people are on so-called “zero-hour” contracts – whereby part-time employees aren’t guaranteed set hours in any particular week. 

This is something of a surprise to the abacus wielders in Westminster, who reckoned only a quarter of that number were on the contracts, but a survey by the fine people of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (the BMA of HR) reckons that it is nearly a million.

There is a debate about this, with unions and poverty charities on one side, employers (including many charities) on the other; and at the core of the debate is flexibility.

Flexibility is very much the watchword of the modern employment zeitgeist – and I’m very much in favour of it. Provided  it is truly flexibility and not just exploitation wearing a cloak of zeitgeist-esque respectability.

Now I’m not an expert in employment law or terms and conditions – although I have dabbled, and have helped with getting new sets of terms and conditions accepted by a sizeable proportion of a workforce every now and then, and I am an expert in employee engagement and organisational development – and I know that truly flexible employment packages are ticks in those particular boxes.

Young, single people just setting out on their working lives are likely to want as much money as possible, and may be quite happy to forego a week or two of holiday to get a bigger number at the bottom right hand corner of their payslip.

More mature workers, with family commitments, may want more in the way of flexible time, and can afford to take a hit on the wage if they can get more generous leave or working from home.

All the while there needs to be balance – meeting the employer’s needs while fulfilling the needs of the employee. Having a flexible, home-based workforce doesn’t tend to be much use for manufacturers or bus companies, I would have thought; you need people operating those lathes and driving buses, after all. Call centres need people on the end of the phones (although do they really need to be in a aluminium-sided shed on an industrial park on the outskirts of a post-industrial city?).

In other words, there is work to be done and employers need people to do it in order to deliver what they need to do.

The trick with achieving this balance is to get both sides to understand what they want and need out of the process; this in turn requires really good communication channels both up and down the organisation.

So while I actually did write the book on a new set of T&Cs once, that wasn’t what swung it when it came to the ballot; what swung it was a really good quality conversation between the employer and employees before the proposals were even put into that book; followed by a series of equally good conversations at every level of the organisation to explain the benefits and drawbacks, address the concerns of managers and workers, and an organisational understanding of why this was the best for everyone.

It’s not easy, and can fall down spectacularly when managers forget to manage and indulge in the old affiliative behaviour (“look what they are doing to us”, when it should be “this is what’s happening and why”), but when it works it can deliver that level and quality of flexibility that really is win-win for everyone.

I can see the benefits of zero-hour contracts (to both sides, if sides have to be taken) and I can see the dangers (again to both sides; exploitation of the workers and brand damage for the employers, for example); what is required to ensure the benefits are realised and the dangers avoided is a really good quality conversation. 

If you’re in an organisation where flexibility is seen as the way forward, maybe ask yourself – is it flexibility, or something else? And ask yourself what conversation have you had about it?

I have recently subscribed to one of those new-fangled streaming services, whereby I can watch TV and films any time I like.

My current addiction is The West Wing, the tale of simple everyday leaders of the free world, and, for my money, one of the best shows ever on television. I was launching into season four when a moment sent  a frisson of recognition from corporate life.

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it is set in a fictional White House, and follows the adventures of the senior staff of President Jed Bartlet. As Season Four opens, Bartlet is seeking re-election, and is speaking at a soya bean farm in Indiana.

At the event three of his staff – the Director of Communications, the Deputy Chief of Staff and his assistant, get left behind by the motorcade and end up having to find their way back to Washington via various modes of transport, including a truck powered by soya diesel. The owner of the van explains how difficult things are for small farmers, and the senior staff give them the standard, off-the-cuff soundbites.

A little later the assistant, Donna, plays back to the more senior staff the conversation they have had, and tells them that they didn’t listen – they just spoke. That’s when the frisson hit.

A lot of businesses and organisations regularly have town hall meetings, management roadshows, leadership days out – they are always about getting the leaders out and about, meeting the people, getting those key messages where they need to be heard, aren’t they? Just like the President out on the stump, making the speeches and pressing the flesh.

But what an opportunity could be missed. See, there are lots of people there who listen, and a few who speak – even when there are Q&A sessions, the majority listen, the minority speak. What happens a bit less is that the minority listen, and the majority speak.

Obviously, leaders are busy people and their time is precious, they need to be doing important strategic things; but when they get an opportunity to listen to their people, how often do they take it?

People ask me about how to engage people in an organisation – they should do, I know about this stuff – and I tell them they need to get their leaders out there, on the shop floor, out on the road, in the factories, offices, fields or whatever, and speak to their people.

This leads to the aforementioned roadshows and town halls, and lots of extra work for the internal comms and events teams. It’s formal, it’s the presidential motorcade, the stage-managed delivery of the key messages. But that’s not what I meant, necessarily.

What I mean is management by walking about, what I mean is talking with people, rather than talking to them or at them.

The essence of communication is conversation, an exchange of information and ideas. If leaders go out and have the conversations, then it’s really important that they listen and take on board what they hear. 

In The West Wing, Donna upbraids her more senior colleagues for being focussed on the job in front of them – winning the election – and not listening to the farmer who had to take a second job so her father got health insurance, of making fun of the local fair when it was a source of pride and joy to the people who took part, in short, not being aware of what is important to “ordinary” people – or voters, as they are known. (If you want to check it out, it’s about 32 minutes into episode 2 of season 4, although it might be best to have a look at the rest of the programme too, if only for context. I’d put up a YouTube clip, but then I’d need to find one and all that).

Anyway, to give you a business example I was aware of – a retail chain did management roadshows, and asked workers what they needed to do. They got some really useful feedback – how products were selling, ideas for new product lines or marketing strategies. They also found out that there weren’t enough coat hooks in the staff rooms. They acted on this, and guess what? Engagement levels improved.

Another example, again from retail. In an employee survey one of the free text comments (out of many thousands) mentioned that the fridge in the staff area of a store in Scotland was no good. The leadership saw that, and bought them a new fridge. The next year the survey (which was predominantly paper-based) featured a picture on the cover of two colleagues from that store eating a nice cold yoghurt which they had stored  in their new fridge. That survey had a response rate in the high 80s.

Both examples show that when leaders listen and understand what matters to their people they can improve engagement, and, in turn, they can improve their business. So next time you plan a roadshow or town hall have a think – is this about getting the messages out, or getting them in?

Are your leaders so focussed on what’s in front of them they can’t see what’s important to their people – or even their customers? Have a think.

A few blogs back I looked at lessons that the world of work can take from the world of sport, and promised a blog on the Tour de France. This is that blog.

I started watching Le Tour years ago, when it first popped up on Channel 4, as I recall. I went off it after an arrogant Texan started to dominate it, but came back a few years ago, coinciding with the appearance of a stocky Manxman called Cav, who was pretty nippy on his bike. Then came a gangly mod who I knew from track racing at the Olympics, who had lost a bit of weight and got handy at hills, and only went and won the whole thing last year.

There are so many things that I love about long-distance cycling; the sheer effort it takes; I cycle, usually to commute, and every now and then go a bit further, taking in some hills. What I don’t do is go several hundred miles, over mountains, in a day. Just awesome.

Then there is the tactics, the continual ebb and flow, breakaways and catches, being swept up by the peloton, how to ride in different wind conditions, lead-out trains delivering stocky Manxmen to within a few hundred metres of a finish line for a sprint after 200km+ of cycling. A sprint! I can barely beat an amber light at a junction after four miles of commuting.

And, as there is much to admire in Le Tour and cycle racing generally, there are many metaphors for the world of the workplace.

Teams, for example. If you stay to watch the interviews after any stage of Le Tour, the winners will usually thank their team – especially if it was a sprint stage. In a sprint stage a team will have a specialist sprinter who they nurse through the entire race, often over 200+km, so towards the end they can get into single file, drive up the speed and gradually drop off from the front one by one, until the final lead-out rider allows the sprinter to fly out from his back wheel and make a dash for the finish line.

Over the past few years Mark Cavendish has been the best in the world at this, and my favourite image in cycling was Cav being lead out to victory on the final stage of the 2012 tour by the yellow jersey of Bradley Wiggins, the first British rider to win the event. This year he had a few more challengers, which always makes it interesting.

What lessons here, then, for teams: you need a strategy, you need tactics, you need a plan, but you also need flexibility. What happens if your sprinter gets a puncture? What happens if another team’s lead-out train cuts ahead of yours, or takes your line into the finish? You have to make decisions on the road, in the moment, and act accordingly.

You also need clarity of the roles: you need a sprinter, but also you need lead-out men; in other teams there will be specialist climbers, for the lumpy stages when the race goes over mountains; they will also have lead out men who help them get up the mountains until the end when the specialists can attack towards the peak. There are also the generalists, the domestiques, who’s job it is to go back to the team car and pick up drinks, food, and energy gels and deliver them back to the specialists at the front of the pack. That said, if your leader cracks on a climb (ie they can’t find the strength to carry on climbing at the speed of the race) then a domestique may have the legs and have a go themselves.

It makes for fascinating viewing, and makes cycling more unpredictable than many other sports. In this year’s Le Tour, the winner, Chris Froome was nailed on as the winner from the first mountain stage, it seemed, but a couple of stages later his team were dropped and he had to fight against his main rivals without his team supporting him. He still won, though.

To sum up:

  • Have a plan: know where you are going; cycle racers know their route really well, when the climbs are coming, when there are tricky bits, where there are likely to be challenges from other teams
  • Have your tactics in place: know how to deliver your plan at each step; who is going to lead the race in the early stages? Who needs to save their legs for the climbs or the sprint?
  • Be clear on your roles: who is your sprinter? Who is your climber? Who are your domestiques?
  • Be flexible and responsive when your plan can’t deliver any more: when another teams attacks earlier than expected, you need to respond then, there isn’t time to go back through planning and re-thinking tactics until you have responded and caught them; then you re-assess and develop plan B, but you do it on the hoof, you don’t go back to the start and go again.

I will no doubt return to the sporting world in a few weeks, hopefully when the Aussies are on the plane home having failed miserably to win The Ashes.

In the mean time, have a think about your team, your organisation. Is everyone clear on where you’re going? How you’re going to get there? Who needs to do what? And what will you do if things change? If your competitors pull something new into the market? If there’s another economic crisis? Have you the flexibility to respond and react and re-plan as appropriate?

And, while you are thinking about this, think about getting a bike. Think about getting your workforce to cycle to work – they will be fitter, happier and more productive, and you will make the world a little bit better, and who doesn’t want that?