Archives for posts with tag: organisational development

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?

One thing I do quite a lot is networking. This often involves going into a room full of strangers and talking to them. This is how a typical conversation will go:

Stranger: “Hello, I’m Geoff.”

Me: “Hello Geoff, I’m Richard.”

(Business cards are exchanged)

Me: “So what do you do?”

Geoff (Not a stranger any more, you see): “I’m a procurement manager.” (inspects my card). “So what is it that you do?”

Me: “I’m and Organisational Development Consultant.”

Geoff: “Oh. So what what is it that you do?”

The next line depends very much on what Geoff does. Sometimes I say “It’s sort of like HR”, sometimes I tell them “it’s kind of like personal development, only with organisations.”

In my more retrospective moments, which rarely occur during networking, I try and think what Organisational Development is, and how to describe it.

For me, OD is about making organisations more effective through its people.

That sounds simple, but what that encompasses is really, really complex, and it means you need to know quite a few things before you can get started.

Firstly, you need to know how effective the organisation is now. And for that, you need to know what the organisation is there for; what is it meant to do?

This is a very straightforward question, surely? A shop sells things; a manufacturer makes things (and then sells them); a legal firm offers advice about the law to clients. 

There is clearly more to it than that, and I have blogged previously about the importance of vision and values to an organisation, and how these link to the strategy; if you combine all of these, you will get a sense of what the purpose of the organisation is, and then you can start to think about how effective the organisation is.

Then you need to think about how they can make it more effective. How it can do what it needs to do to meet its purpose in a better way.

Clearly you can change things like systems and processes, making them more efficient and productive, which is fine as far as it goes; what you also need to bear in mind is that you need people to operate these new systems and make these new processes happen, which is why I define OD as the process of making organisations more effective through their people.

This can be as simple as making sure people can operate the new processes or systems; however, there should be more OD can do. OD can look at the culture of an organisation, and see if it is aligned to the purpose; OD can see if the behaviours that are dominant in the organisation are going to help or hinder effectiveness; OD can see if leaders are leading in a way that helps or hinders too; OD can help you understand if your people are engaged with what you are doing, and with the organisation.

At its heart, OD for me is about change; if you are becoming more effective, then you need to change something about the organisation, and for change to be effective, people need to understand what’s changing, why and how, in order to make that change happen. Again, it’s all about the people.

Most of all, OD is about asking questions; it’s about defining and clarifying where the organisation is now, and where it needs to be, and then asking more questions to understand and define the journey between those places that the people of the organisation need to go on.

Which is why, in my blog, I usually end up with a question. What does organisational development mean to you? What have I left out? What else does it mean? Have a think, and let me know.

In Cormac McCarthy’s brilliant dystopian novel The Road, a man and a boy wander through a post-apocalyptic world, alone, desperate, without any notion of their destination and best on all sides with danger.
Now I can’t imagine for one second that this is any fun at all, and yet thousands, probably millions of people across the UK and wider world do something akin to this every day when they go to work.
Their day is pointless, without purpose, and they are beset by distractions and, although very few are shot at with bows and arrows, they probably find it annoying, unnerving, and downright disengaging.
What they lack is an idea of what they are doing and why they are doing it – they want a purpose, a reason for being at work and completing the tasks they have been allotted. They need, in short, a strategic narrative.
Every business should have a strategy – a reason to exist. At its most basic, that reason will be “sell stuff to people”; however, they also have to identify the stuff they sell, and the people who will buy it. So you have to go a bit deeper, and define yourself a bit more clearly, say: “we will make grommets for 5p and sell them to people requiring grommets for 10p”.
That gives you a clearer sense of purpose, but that’s more of a business plan, really.
What you need is something a bit catchier. “We will be the first choice of grommet suppliers to the chandler and ironmongers of North West England”.
That’s more like it – there’s a bit of ambition in there, a sense of a journey, and giving clarity about what they want to be.
Now, when the dignitary visits Grommetco and sees a chap wielding a broom with a sense of purpose and engagement, and said dignitary asks the broom-wielder “what, my fine chap, are you doing here today?” the broom-wielding one will reply, in a trice, “why, sir or madam, I am helping Grommetco become the first choice of grommet suppliers to the chandlers and ironmongers of North West England.”
Because our broom-wielding hero has had the strategic vision explained to them in a meaningful and inspiring way, and therefore understands how his broom-wielding activities fit into that compelling strategic narrative.
This example, of course, is based on President Kennedy’s visit to Nasa, where the late President confronted just such a chap, happily brushing a corridor or somesuch and asked him what he was doing.
“Helping put a man on the moon, Mr President,” came the answer. There was an organisation with a clear strategic narrative, set, of course, by President Kennnedy himself when he committed to out a man on the moon by the end of the decade. And they made it.
What the strategic narrative gave our broom-wielding fellows was a sense of purpose beyond where the dust needs to go, or where he left the keys to the broom cupboard. With the best will in the world, sweeping up is going to have limited job satisfaction even for the most autotelic personality. Look it up, I’m not going to give you everything on a plate.
However, putting a man on the moon, or even becoming the number one grommet supplier to various merchants across the North West of England gives a deeper, more profound sense of purpose to the most menial of tasks.
I was working with a client recently where there was a disconnect between the day job and the big picture. Most people really enjoyed their jobs, which were largely technical and what you would call vocational – they had studied long and hard at university to qualify themselves to do this job, and were very proud to do it. They enjoyed their work and were highly engaged with it – they had role engagement, as we engagement gurus have it.
What was missing, however, was a mental link to the wider purpose of the organisation. This had been made clear, it was summarised in four points. As mission statements go, it was a pretty good one. Clear, concise, unambiguous.
But people couldn’t make the link between what they did, and those four points. OK, they would say. I’m doing this immensely clever and technical job to the best of my considerable ability, but I cannot see how this delivers A, B C or D.
Leaders had not done the narrative bit, you see. They had not told the story of how roles deliver the purpose.
In an ideal world, and in successful organisations that do this well, senior leaders set the general direction, they give the purpose and vision. They tell a story about why the organisation is there, what it does, how it does it. Around this are the values they want to promote in the organisation, the non-negotiable core emotional commitments to how things are done there.
Throughout the organisation divisions, departments, teams and ultimately individuals translate this strategic narrative into their own language, replicating that sense of purpose, that reason for being in a way that is meaningful at each iteration, yet stays true to the original vision.
It’s not easy. But it is possible. I’ve seen it done, well, and to so well. One things that can help is an overall image or metaphor, such as climbing a mountain, building a village, a long car journey or even planting a forest. For me, the mountain is the least successful, by the way; it tends to put off those who question the sanity of climbers, and begs the question “what do we do when we reach the top?”
But here are some simple guidelines, which may help

  • Keep it simple. A single strapline, with a few key sentences of explanation
  • Keep it clear and unambiguous. Do not give wiggle room, or space for too much interpretation
  • Use an image – preferably one that can be easily adapted 
  • Use stories, have a narrative, people relate to stories
  • Link your purpose to your brand
  • Have very clear organisational values in place, and stay true to them

This last point brings us to another enabler of engagement, organisational integrity, more of which in a future blog.
Any road up, do this, and people will use the narrative to link their day job to the purpose of the organisation, and they will engage with the organisation, as well as their role. Simples.