Archives for posts with tag: organisational development

I was chatting with an old colleague the other day, they being from the comms side of things, and we discussed, among other things, difficulties we had experienced getting organisations to put out employee surveys.
Actually doing employees surveys is now so par for the course I’m amazed when I come across organisations that are still afraid to ask, but it seems that sometimes leaders just don’t think it’s the right time. My chum and I went through a few of the excuses we had come up against over the years – there were a few, but here’s the top 5:

  • We know what they think anyway
  • Everyone is miserable so why bother asking
  • Money’s tight, this is a nice to have not a necessity
  • We’re going through too much change, so no point asking until things get settled
  • It’s just an excuse for people to have a whinge

Let’s have a look at these in detail, shall we?

“We know what they think anyway” Really? Really? Everyone in the whole organisation? Hmmm… Now, I always say that if a team leader is surprised by the survey results for their team, then they aren’t really leading that team, but that’s for another blog, another time.

But if you’re the CEO or other senior leader in any organisation of more than, say 50 or so people, then chances are you aren’t close enough to people to really know what they say. And, chances are, if you are, and you do go out and about, visiting the troops and ask people how things are, they might, when  put on the spot, tell you what they think you want to hear. An anonymous survey may give them chance to say what they really feel, which may be something different.

“Everyone is miserable so why bother asking” A classic “how do you know if you don’t ask”. I worked with an organisation who took this approach once, and I worked with a group of change champions across the business, speaking to them on a pretty regular basis on how things were; the picture was far more mixed than senior leaders thought. What came through, after a bit of digging, was that lots of people were very role engaged – they loved doing their job, got a lot of fulfilment from it, took meaning and satisfaction from doing their best and doing it well – and where they had the autonomy and authority to do those jobs, they were very happy. What they lacked, on the whole, was engagement with the organisation as a whole.

Even if you think you know that everyone is unhappy, and they are, it’s handy to have that in writing, with evidence, so that you can do something about it. After all, aa survey shouldn’t just tell you how people are feeling, it should give you some insight into why they are feeling that way. Again, we can discuss further in another blog.

“Money’s tight, this is a nice to have not a necessity” I know the recession is over and things are on the up – but I’m not sure that is really felt out there in the big wide world, you know? Anyway, money is tight, especially in the public sector, and likely to remain so, so this excuse will be in favour for a while to come. What I say is, can you afford not to? Disengaged employees are more likely to cost your organisation a lot more in absence, lack of productivity, poor quality work, mistakes etc than the cost of a basic survey – for some facts, check this. Bottom line for your bottom line: engagement = mo’ money.

“We’re going through too much change, so no point asking until things get settled”. Two things: (a) when aren’t you going through change and (b) that is exactly the time you need to know how people are thinking and feeling: the success (or failure) of the change depends on it, believe me. Again, another blog (in fact, I feel a series coming on…) for more, but if people aren’t engaged with the change, it’s unlikely to deliver the benefits you hope to get.

“It’s just an excuse for people to have a whinge” Guess what? They’re going to whinge anyway, probably at home, down the pub, at the water cooler, to their colleagues; why not give them a platform to do so, and then do something about it. That way, they might stop whinging.

I may revisit these excuses in more detail and real life examples in future blogs, but, in the mean time, have a think: are you putting off your staff survey? If so, why? If you have another excuse, let me know and I’ll explain why that’s a bad idea too…

In recent blogs I have touched on internal communication and its importance in getting employee engagement. Today I’m about to start work on a big change programme looking after both those things, so I felt it appropriate to have a think about communication and change.
The most fun I’ve had in a job has been when I’ve been tasked with engaging people with change. I’m not a keep things the way they are kind of guy. My motto is: “If it ain’t broke, break it. The worst that could happen is that it makes a nice tinkly noise as it shatters into a thousand tiny pieces.”
Change is all around us, friends, life is, in fact, a process of ceaseless change peculiar to organic matter (as I once said in a philosophy essay, much to the bemusement of my tutor). Change is what makes us people and without change we would still be a set of single-cell organisms lolling in a pool of brackish water.
(Apologies, at this point, to any creationists or intelligent design fans reading who are upset at this evocation of evolution, but you aren’t really my core demographic).
Anyway, change is necessary, and, although it is not always good, it isn’t going anywhere unless I’m completely misreading the second law of thermodynamics. In business, as in life and closed systems, change is always necessary; markets change, products change, customer needs and wants and expectations all change, and anyone looking to meet those needs, wants and expectations better change to be able to meet them, or the business side of things isn’t going to last too long.
So businesses must change, and that means people working in those organisations are going to have to change as well. At the very least, they will have to do things differently, or do different things.
That said, change is undertaken in order to deliver benefits to the business, and those benefits are likely to be achieved in a more sustainable way if people not only change what they do, but how they do it, that is change their behaviours. This takes a bit of doing.
There’s a bit more to it than issuing a new flow chart on how to do a new process or just installing some new software in everyone’s PC. To change behaviours you need really effective communication, and that means sharing information with people and then having a conversation with them to ensure that they have understood the information you have shared, and that they are willing and able to play their part in the change you are asking them to undertake.
Communication is always a change activity. After communication happens things are different. At the very minimum, levels of knowledge have increased, but it can and should be a lot more profound than that. So what should you share? The usual – what, when, where, how and, most importantly, why. What is changing? When is it happening? Where about in the organisation? How will things change? Why are they changing?
This last one is the key to get buy-in from people in change, as you need to make the why a reason for them, as an individual, to change. I remember one big change programme I worked on and they key kick-off comms was a video of the CEO telling everyone in the business what the programme was all about – a big modernisation programme, affecting everyone in the business, over the next couple of years.
Why? Because the business wouldn’t last the next couple of years unless something was done to turn it around. The classic burning platform “why”. Amusingly, the first time we showed the video to the wider senior leadership team (top 100 or so people in the business) the sound went off half way through.
The CEO went on speaking, silently for what seemed like hours while I ran around frantically back stage trying to get the sound back on. I did, eventually, just as the CEO was intoning the words “job losses”. You couldn’t have timed it better.
I digress, but the heart of the message was “it’s this or oblivion”; however, “we’re doomed” isn’t the most engaging message and very quickly we reframed the message around building a new business, constructive, forward-looking and forward-thinking and far more engaging for people.
They why became “because I want to be part of this new business”, a message that ran through every single piece of communication ever issued by anyone in the programme. Building a new business was through it all like letters in Blackpool rock.
You see, once you have your why you need to ensure that all communication of it is consistent and authentic; if you say you are building a new business then you better damn well build one. And build one we did, a leaner, fitter, more engaged organisation, better set to meet the needs, wants and expectations of modern customers, with a more effective culture and new behavioural norms across the piece. Then we merged it with another bit of the business and had to start all over again.
Change, see. It doesn’t stop, not ever. So the key thing from this is having that core message – why we are doing this, framing it in a positive and forward-looking way and then delivering that message consistently and authentically in every piece of communication you undertake. Simple.
So have a think. Change is almost inevitably happening somewhere in your business. Are you communicating about it? What are you communicating about it? And do your people. Really and truly understand why these changes are happening? Have a think.

***

In this blog I have written, not for the first time, about the vital importance of authenticity. This was also a key facet of the 20th Century school of philosophy known as existentialism, about which I have blogged before.
Albert Camus, born 100 years ago last week, was very close to Jean-Paul Sartre, the godfather of existentialism, but wasn’t himself an existentialist. He was an absurdist, a world view he expounded magnificently in his novels, notably The Outsider, The Plague and The Fall. He also wrote a couple of philosophical essays, The Rebel and The Myth of Sisyphus.
This latter work I would commend eagerly and heartily to anyone engaged in trying to make change happen in a large organisation. I have returned to it frequently when things were getting tough in the many change programmes I’ve worked on over the years, and find the closing thoughts a great comfort.
In Greek legend, Sisyphus was condemned to push a boulder up a hill all day, only for it to fall back down again every night. I can’t imagine many project and programme managers who cannot empathise. But think, then, on the final words of Camus: “The struggle itself… is enough to fill a man’s heart. We must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Happy birthday, Albert.

My last couple of blogs have been about communication, it’s part in creating employee engagement, and how sometimes, despite the best efforts of internal communicators everywhere, it doesn’t actually happen.

In this blog I will expound on the process that, for me, lies at the heart of any kind of communication, and ways that organisations manage to put obstacles or traps in the way that the process can work.

To start, an anecdote. I was at a workshop last week for people who want to work with businesses to help them become more innovative. We were doing a brainstorming  type activity and people had used the time to wander off and grab a drink (or make room for another one) and I found myself alone in the room with the workshop leader.

“You know, I do prefer to brainstorm on my own,” I told him. “It means I don’t have to waste time telling everyone else why they’re wrong.”

This clearly was meant tongue in cheek, but there is a kernel of truth to it; when I brainstorm I find it easier to run through things internally and then bounce pretty well-rounded ideas off others. It may be because Jung was right after all and my introvert personality energises from within, it might be because I’m an arrogant know-all, but hey, you’re reading this, so what does that say about you?

Anyway, other people I know prefer to brainstorm communally, feeding off ideas of others to help theirs grow. Maybe because they are extraverts, maybe they lack confidence in their own ideas and abilities?

Either way, the process will become a co-operative one at some point, and ideas will need to be shared, discussed and developed, and will (almost) always become better for it. Something new will be created, and creativity and doing something new lies at the very heart of effective communication, in my humble.

This is not to say that you need a new channel every time, or a different social media strategy for every announcement; it can (and in most cases) should be about the message, and that will in turn define the medium (or media) through which the message can be shared, feedback can be gathered and the conversation facilitated.

Unless, that is, the co-operation ceases to be co-operative and the process falls into one of several traps, such as…

1. We’ll do it my way

When working with others to produce anything, I think it best to share and build through dialogue. I find, however, that people with strong views about how to go about things, and dialogue gets replaced by a debate, with one side trying to argue for their approach, and against the other approach. This can be a real issue for an central business partnering team working with a particular part of the business who know what they like, and like what they know.

I have had many such conversations with local managers in my time, when I suddenly realise that rather than being in a meeting to create something fit for purpose I am, figuratively, on the other side of a debating chamber and having to defend my own views which are being attacked by the opposition (ie the person I am actually there to help). 

How to get out of this? Reframe things, sidetrack, take a break, do something else for a bit, distraction and misdirection, and then come back at it in a different way.

2. We tried that before, and it didn’t work

I can’t think of another phrase that I have heard in a workplace that incenses me more than this. It’s worse even than “you weren’t successful in that application”, or “yes, I’m afraid it is infectious”. It sounds like an expression of strength and knowledge. “Oh you silly thing, we know better than you what will work or not, thank you.” What it is, in fact, is an admission of failure and lack of imagination. It is the final redoubt of the traditionalist, sticking cravenly to the tried and trusted and denying the necessity of change.

It’s a phrase which sits alongside its cousin “That may be all right for them, but it wouldn’t work for us” as if evolution had taken a different path for that very specific bit of humanity. It is not even trying, and there is nothing worse than that. Thomas Edison (a chap of who I am by no means a fan_ was, so legend has it, told by someone that in coming up with 10,000 non-working designs for the light bulb, that he had failed 10,000 times. His response was that he had, in fact, discovered 10,000 ways not to make a light bulb. Not for Edison “we tried it before and it didn’t work”. No, he tried it and found a way for it not to work, and then tried again. Another 9,999 times.

When someone first said that to me, I told them that they might not be able to make it work, but I might. And do you know what? I did.

3. That’s great, we’ll absolutely do that. Definitely. Now thanks, and off you go

This is where lip-service is paid to your ideas, and then you are sent away and things carry on just as they were. This is often at the heart of the failure to communicate I discussed in my last blog. We say that things will change, but we aren’t comfortable or capable with change and so we’ll just carry on with the status quo.

The thing is, communication is a process that results in change, and the status quo won’t do the job. Something has to be different.

How do you avoid this? The trick here is how you contract up front. You need to get buy in that something new will happen before you start and you need to ensure that commitment up front. In the big bad world of business that usually means someone more important than the people you need to implement things has to agree to it, and tell them to do it. Just try and do it in an inclusive and co-operative way.

4. Thinking outside the box (but inside the real box, which is just a bit bigger)

This is when people pit on their creative hat, do some blue sky thinking, say nothing is off the table, and then stick to what they know has worked in the past and will do everything to close down anything truly creative and ground-breaking. It’s a more disingenuous form of lip service than saying you will and not doing it, basically. I’ve seen it in thinking sessions, where people reach into what they know and then fall into a passive-aggressive defence of it (ie a subtler version of the debate).

How do you avoid this? Car parking is one technique. At the outset, just get everyone’s tried and tested, pet ways of doing it out in the open and pop them in a car park. When they come back to them later in the session (and they will, they can’t help themselves) you can just park it back up, and remind them that we would only go with new ways of doing things this time around.  

These are just a handful of obstacles, and doubtless you will have encountered others (and if you have, please do share), so have a think. You need to communicate something. You need to think of a way to do it. How do you go about it? What (or who) gets ion your way? Does the process fall into a trap?

 

 

This week I have been mostly thinking about communication, and specifically the business of internal communication in a business, and what it means to employee engagement.

Now you may say to me “really? You need to get a life” and I would find it hard to argue with you, but things like this are my stock in trade, my business, and so I do tend to dwell on them.

What prompted this was a few things; I am wont to peruse LInkedIn, that fine resource for all professionals and have noticed quite a lot of jobs advertised as “employee engagement manager”, had a look and seen what they are after is an internal comms manager. I have also seen a few discussions along the lines of “are employee engagement and internal communications the same thing?”. Stuff like that gets me thinking. (To be honest, pretty much anything gets me thinking, I’ve one of those minds; I spend hours trying to find ways of stopping it, and have just passed level 125 on Candy Crush. I even watch ITV unironically sometimes).

Anyway, I have thought and I will now foist the general burblings out onto th’internet, by way of this blog.

Firstly, I will address the s. When I first got a job as an internal communications manager, that was my job title: internal communications manager. With an s. I had a conversation with the boss, went along these lines.

Me: “I want to change my job title.”

Boss: “You can’t do that, you need to go through HR and I’ll have to fill out forms and stuff.”

Me: “I only want to drop the s”

Boss: <makes Scooby Doo noise>

Me: “Communications (with an s) is about channels and mechanisms and tech. It’s not even the medium, it’s the stuff that makes the medium work. We should be about communication.”

Boss: “What the badgery flip are you on about, Lewis?”

Me: “Communication is a process of emotional and psychological change enabled by and exchange of information; it’s not merely the transmission of information from one source to an audience, for which the use of the word ‘communications’ (with an s) in my job title is but a semiotic tag.”

Boss: “Fair enough. Do I have to fill in any forms?”

He didn’t, we just changed it on the structure charts.

Anyway, the minutes it took me to find that sound clip will not have been in vain if my point has been made: communications is about technology and making the media work; communication is a two-way exchange which creates something new. Yes? Yes.

And so, is it the same as employee engagement? Well, in my personal opinion, no. Engagement is psychological state on the part of employees, which evidences itself in behavioural outcomes; if people are engaged those outcomes will be positive ones for both employer and employee – greater productivity, creativity, absorption in work, better customer service, less absenteeism, loyalty and exemplifying the brand, etc etc etc.

If the state is negative you get negative outcomes – absenteeism (or, even worse, its beguiling but mindless cousin presenteeism), low levels of energy, lack of ownership, etc etc etc

As such, communication (no s) is an input – it is something that needs to be done, and done well, in order to create the positive state of mind required to get those positive behaviours, but it is not, in and of itself, engagement.

And here is the crux: communication needs to be effective and two-way in order for that positive state to be achieved. Leaders need to communicate effectively; this means that issuing a memo won’t cut it. 

I recall in my early days in the world of work internal communication from senior management came in the form of the “Chief General Manager’s Briefing”. This was a printed piece of paper stuck on noticeboards and usually contained the latest regulation issued by the regulatory body. People tended not to engage with it. It wasn’t communication.

The move to intranets and social media won’t change things, though, if the things posted there are effectively just the Chief General Manager’s Briefing in digital form. 

What is needed is for leaders to speak, and to listen, and to show they have listened – not just by giving an answer but by changing things in response to what they have heard and then communicating what has changed and why. The last step is hugely important, I call it closing the loop, and it is often forgotten.

Without it, you don’t create that positive state, because the point of communication is not just to inform, but to give the employee the chance to listen and be listened to; people need to feel they are listened to, that they matter, and when they feel this, they feel good. Hence, engagement.

So, have a think about your communication. Is it communications, or communication? Is it a memo (albeit a tweet or a blog or a speech or a town hall meeting) or is it a conversation?

I’ll be rambling on about communication, the channels, the medium v the message and all that in the next few blogs. Book now to avoid disappointment.

By the way, anyone know why I chose the header I chose? Fans of Paul Newman (and, quite possibly, Guns and Roses) send me a virtual postcard…

 

SPOILER ALERT: In this blog I will bang on about Breaking Bad, which is a television show. If you haven’t seen it, go away and watch it, all of it, and then come back and read this. Off you go.

Right. Last week the best TV show ever in the history of all television came to an end, when the final episode of Breaking Bad was broadcast, to the delight of myself and fans across the world.

A week on, and I can assume that those of you who want to have watched it have now done so, and I can safely give away the ending, and also share some of the lessons that I feel Breaking Bad can offer to those of us in this crazy world of work and business and that.

Now Breaking Bad is about Walter White, a chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Stuck on a teacher’s pay and having to moonlight in a car wash, he decides to build up a little nest egg for his family to live off once he’s gone by cooking and selling crystal meth.

Before we go on, I must emphasise that I in no way condone the manufacture or selling of illegal drugs, but I do feel Walter’s various adventures, and those of his family and co-workers can give us valuable insight that we can take back to the workplace.

Firstly, Walt is a man with a vision, a vision that he pursues, well, really quite ruthlessly, what with all the murder and bombing. And again, can I emphasise very strongly that I do not advocate in any way murdering or bombing in the world of work. It is very rarely called for, and really not the done thing. Even when dealing with the finance department.

So Walt is a man with a vision, and that vision is summed up by his credo: “Respect the chemistry”. During the series we find out that Walt was a star student, a genius at crystalology (or whatever, I did an arts degree, I can’t be expected to know the technical terms). He even started a company called Gray Matter (sic, it’s American, you see) which is now a multi-billion dollar business, although Walt left early on under mysterious circumstances. He uses this genius to develop an incredibly pure product, which proves incredibly popular.

So lesson one: keep true to your vision. Respect the chemistry, or whatever it is that you and your organisation do that you are great at, hold to that vision. For a prime example check out Season 3 episode 10 – “Fly”- which, apart from being as about as perfect a piece of television drama as you could possibly hope to see, will give you some insight into the lengths which Walt will go to in order to respect the chemistry.

Now, when Walt starts out he obviously knows a lot about chemistry, but less so about the world of drug dealing. He is out with his brother-in-law, Hank Schrader, a Drug Enforcement Agency agent, on a bust when he sees a former pupil, Jesse Pinkman, legging it from the scene. Jesse is a small-time meth cook, but producing an inferior product, and Walt uses Jesse’s contacts to get himself into the demi-monde of the drug scene.

Walt and Jesse’s relationship has its ups and downs, and for me is an excellent case study on what can go wrong in a line manager relationship. Fairly early on in their relationship, Walt asks Jesse to get hold of some plastic containers so they can dissolve the bodies of some drug dealers they have gassed in the caravanette they were using as a meth lab. Like you do.

Jesse fails to follow the instructions, and uses the bath instead, with hilarious and extremely unpleasant consequences. What happened here was a failure on Walt’s part to understand Jesse and deal with him accordingly. He issues clear instructions, but doesn’t set out the scenario clearly. He doesn’t provide the motivation, i.e. “get the right plastic otherwise the bath will melt through the floor and we will end up mopping up dissolved drug dealer off your kitchen floor” is a more compelling reason for Jesse to get the right container than just the bald instruction.

In the same way, many managers in a work setting can issue instructions – “do this” without providing the context and reason for it – “do this because…” – and try and link this to your vision and purpose. So next time a manager in your business tells someone to do something, make sure they have provided the context – what is the dissolved drug dealer on the kitchen floor in your workplace?

Over time Walt develops a far more mentoring relationship with Jesse, and they become a far more effective team, and Jesse becomes a more effective meth cook, being able to replicate the recipe. There are ups and downs – Walt allows Jesse’s girlfriend to die, Jesse turns Walt in to his brother-in-law the DEA agent, and all the unpleasantness with the Aryan Nation gangsters, but, with all mentor/mentee relationships you have to expect ups and downs.

The lesson for me is that if you help someone develop, bring themselves on, you will be a more effective manager.

Over time Walt’s business grows, firstly by accessing the distribution network of Gus Fring, who uses a chain of chicken restaurants. Los Pollos Hermanos, as cover for his smuggling operation. Gus himself has some great lessons for leadership. He epitomises the leader as servant, coming across, initially, as humble and gentle and wanting to serve, with an admirable customer focus.

But Gus gives us another important lesson for those of us in business. He starts out a young immigrant from Chile, with his own protege, a young chemist who has developed a new method to cook meth. He goes to a Mexican drug cartel to get support, and they do it (although they do, to be fair, shoot his protege in cold blood, which is unlikely to be the outcome of a meeting with your average high street bank’s business manager, in my experience).

However, when it is time for Gus to move on from the cartel in order for him to take his business in the direction he needs, he cuts his ties and won’t allow sentimentality or false loyalty to hold him back. A bold and decisive move, and one that enables Gus to take his business forward. Admittedly his tactic of serving tequila laced with poison to the cartel’s bosses may be a tad more extreme than many in business will go, but again, it is a great example of taking the steps you need to move your business forward.

Walt, too, can make bold decisions and make a successful move into new markets. Now you would be best advised to go down the route of market research, testing, piloting and then launching, rather than the blowing up your enemy in an old people’s home and using a ruthless corporate ice-maiden to flog your drugs in the Czech republic route that Walt took, but the lesson is the same – understand what’s right for your business and take action to move it forward.

I could go on, so rich is the seam to be mined here, but I will end with three classic pieces of branding which Breaking Bad can, once again, teach us all.

First up is Walt’s ever so slightly dubious lawyer, Saul Goodman. Here is a marketing genius, with his landmark office (above a shopping mall) and his motto – “better call Saul”. Take a look here at the genius in action. And what this man doesn’t know about branding? Well, his real name is McGill but he changed it because he thought people would be more ready to trust a Jewish lawyer than an Irish one. Like I said, genius.

Secondly we have Los Pollos Hermanos – the Chicken Brothers – Gus Fring’s successful chain of fried chicken restaurants. They have a special recipe which appeals to their target demographic (research, you see) and a great brand which is re-enforced by their advertising, and a great little logo. But most of all it is the customer-centric ethic, driven from the top by Gus himself, which sets them apart. Gus works from his restaurants and works behind the counter, he really understands what life is like for the people on the front line and he knows all about the importance of delivering on your brand though your people. And how to distribute drugs.

Finally there is Walt himself, Walt knows that in the cut and thrust of the business world, a mild-mannered and unsuccessful red-haired moustachioed chemistry teacher called Walter just isn’t going to embody his vision and his product. Enter, instead, bald, goatee-bearded badass-hat-and-sunglasses-wearing Heisenberg, a man so bad that his picture appears in Mexican shrines to be prayed to by assassins. The lesson is never be afraid to reinvent, to align your brand to your vision and your product, and deliver against it relentlessly.

In the end, Walt can look back on pride on what he has achieved, and leaves the business a genuinely happy man. He has rebuilt his relationship with his protege, and ensured his vision and product remained his – he even manages to deliver on his initial purpose – to provide for his family after he has gone. Who amongst us would not wish to leave our respective businesses feeling the same way?

Although, admittedly, probably without a bullet in your abdomen.

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!