Mind Your Language

This post has been developed with my good friend, Anne Marie McEwan. In preparing for the kick-off session for an Innovation Lab for Finance Leaders that we are organising in London in November (more about that later in the post), we got to talking about how the language we use in the workplace controls, distorts and inhibits meaning.

Management speak. Corporate jargon. Business cliché. These are phrases that require absolutely no introduction or explanation. The use of opaque, over-elaborate, pretentious and nonsensical language in the workplace is a phenomenon that has become wholly normalised. Our contention is that the harm this is doing to organisational effectiveness (and hence performance) is far greater than many of us realise and therefore its consequences require proper research and evaluation.

So without the benefit of such empirical evidence, why do we believe this?

Anne Marie

I fell into academia twenty years ago in the most practical way possible, exploring how manufacturers designed systems to support autonomous decision-making, problem-solving and continuous innovation on factory shopfloors. Employee empowerment, at the core of process approaches like Total Quality Management, Lean and Just-In-Time, was then all the rage. Employee engagement? Been there, done that.

All my work as an academic since then has been equally practical, applying the principles and insights from my factory days and approaches to thinking and acting in complex contexts to executive education. So far so unrepentant. Academia at its best promotes creative and critical thinking, reflecting and doing.

What academics, on the whole, are dreadful at is writing about and communicating their ideas. Despite the practical focus of everything I’ve ever done, the trap that I fell into was to talk and write like an academic – at times turgid, tedious, incomprehensible and alienating. I’m trying hard to stop it but occasionally still slip back into old habits.


As long as I can remember, I have had a phobia of being misunderstood or misinterpreted. I can’t pinpoint the trigger event but whatever it was, it has led to a lifetime of verbose explanations and clarifications, anything and everything to avoid my intentions, words and actions not being crystal clear.

This has resulted in my very keen interest in understanding what organisational purpose ‘management speak’ is trying to serve. I think the answer as to why we use language at work that we would not dream of using with our families and friends can be found in a combination of some or all of the following:

  • It is a tool of company politics and statecraft. Its impenetrability arguably perpetuates organisational power relations.
  • It subtly mitigates risk and liability and diminishes personal responsibility by obfuscating the facts, hiding problems, deflecting attention, shifting the blame and evading scrutiny.
  • Class-based snobbery can be found at the middle and upper echelons of many modern businesses. One of the ways in which this manifests itself is that ‘bureaucratese’ is seen as signifying professionalism and intelligence (or at least creates the illusion thereof) amongst those who wish to be seen as strategic and relevant.
  • It reflects societal norms. Our culture encourages limited attention spans and immediate gratification and we attach great value to the glamorous. There is not much stock in attention to detail or the mundane and the anodyne even though there is much understanding to be found there. Front-line, operational knowledge is just not sexy enough.

As ever, there are unintended consequences. The upbeat and euphemistic language of corporate communications is almost exclusively deployed around a desired narrative; it very rarely tells the brutal truth. Perhaps inevitably then, it has become an impediment to employees getting knowledge, understanding, learning and improving their work. This in turn creates and augments a reality gap which is damaging and divisive, undermines customers’ experience of your goods and services and leads to considerable waste. In short, it is bad business.

So why is our corporate language not challenged or called-out more often? I think this is a double-edged sword: employees are generally reluctant, quite understandably, to get themselves noticed for the wrong reasons and managers tend not to take too kindly to the wisdom of their words being questioned. Equally, it is human nature to keep quiet even if you do not understand what is being said to you as most people fear being perceived as being slow off the mark or dim-witted.

If all this seems overly judgemental, I should add that there have been many occasions during my career when I have been guilty of management speak as charged…

Innovation Lab for Senior Finance Executives

Our jointly-held conviction is that there is so much that ought to be known about how to organise, lead and manage companies – you know, in ways that are simultaneously good for customers, good for shareholders and good for the people within and across the business who work together to make it all happen. This is being significantly undermined, in our opinion, by the widespread failure to convey meaning effectively.

We mentioned the kick-off session for an Innovation Lab for Senior Finance Executives Attendance we are organising in London in November. This is by invitation only. Please do contact either of us via LinkedIn if you would like to know more.

The aim of the Innovation Lab is to help senior finance executives to develop the skills they will need for getting (and staying) on top of complex business. This is done through talking, thinking and challenging together, and sharing and learning from each other’s experience – as well as assessing the evidence that underpins our convictions i.e. how well do our convictions stand up against the evidence?

Ours is a social, practical and solution-focused approach to learning in complex contexts. An added bonus is that the Innovation Lab participants will learn how to apply our methods in their own companies as well, which will mean confronting the language problem.

Say What We Mean

The wrong sort of language undermines our ability to bring our authentic selves to work. Our friend Khurshed Dehnugara argues very persuasively that work is evolving from the Industrial Age to the Age of Connection, and this evolution depends to a very large extent on our being able to re-connect not only with our true selves at work but the true selves of those around us at work as well as society as a whole.

We need to use the same language at work, and in our learning, that we use in our private and personal lives. Effective communications means conveying meaning without ambiguity and simplifying relentlessly without dumbing down. By having the courage and honesty to be, and to speak as, our authentic selves, we can build far more effective and successful organisations.

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A review of ‘Flawed but Willing’ by Khurshed Dehnugara

I recently came across the Japanese word Tsundoku. My immediate reaction was that it was a new variation of Sudoku but I was intrigued to learn that it was a noun describing the act of buying a lot of books and then letting them pile up unread on a shelf, floor or bedside table. I am a bibliophile: I like reading and discovering. Yet I am guilty as charged, having this un-admirable tendency to buy books that I hear good things about, or have been recommended to me, or I think I will find interesting, and never getting around to reading them.

There are always exceptions though: for every five books I buy and ignore, there is one that I do get around to reading. One such book was Khurshed Dehnugara’s ‘Flawed but Willing’ which, ironically, has contributed to my Tsundoku habit as I have now read it four times. I have not written a book review before and will probably not do so again but I thought I should make an effort with ‘Flawed but Willing’ because, quite simply, it is exceptional.

The premise of the book is that organisations are living through a period of change (a “phase shift”) where we are experiencing the beginning of the end of the Command & Control era of scientific management and ruthless efficiency (“the Industrial Age”) and the emergence of a completely new paradigm (“the Age of Connection”) based on communities, networks and collective interests (which put me in mind of Jon Husband’s ‘Wirearchy’).

It is important to understand that the author is not some misty-eyed future of work guru who espouses idealistic and naïve new-age beliefs about the world of business. He clearly understands the commercial imperative of organisations and he has his own real world experiences to draw from during his former career in pharmaceuticals. The concept of the Age of Connection is a recognition that the Industrial Age was of its time but has now run its course and has very little, if anything, in 2015 to offer organisations whose objective is long-term, sustainable growth against a backdrop of considerable complexity and unpredictability.

The Flawed but Willing of the title are those who understand they must navigate this phase shift but know that it will involve a considerable amount of discomfort and disorientation. A simple diagram of two circles is deployed throughout the book to illustrate this change: one large to represent the “Dominant Logic” of this current but gradually unravelling era, and one small to represent the emerging era. At the intersection between the two circles is the “Channel”, the domain of the Flawed but Willing where they make occasional mistakes and do battle with the uncertainty and anxiety which arises from the inevitable ambiguity of their journey. A third stand-alone circle is used by Khurshed to sensibly distance himself from the selfish, destructive and nihilistic forms of disruption that some have sought to justify as being an appropriate response to the failings and shortcomings of the Industrial Age.

If I had one piece of constructive criticism to offer, it is that a little more attention could have been paid to the evidence for the gradual disintegration of the Industrial Age. This evidence is to be found in the paradoxes being thrown up by many organisations as they struggle to keep a grip on their own destinies. Khurshed offers one such paradox by recognising that we are asked to be creative and innovative but without taking risks. However, there are many more such as the attempts at engaging employees and driving cultural change which are proving futile as record levels of workplace stress, attrition and absenteeism demonstrate. Ditto the deployment of ultra-sophisticated performance management tools and the push for big data that is designed to increase certainty, but is having no discernible positive effect on performance or the relentless mantra of customer focus but designing ‘solutions’ that are predominantly production-centric (standardisation and compliance trump purpose).

Another major paradox is the prevailing notion of control when even the most basic and honest assessment of organisational performance shows us that, as Anne Marie McEwan identified, business outcomes are probabilistic and cannot be determined. Awkwardly, this truth does not sit comfortably with the dominant Industrial Age narrative that CEOs and other senior leaders are heroes and heroines who are almost single-handedly responsible for their companies’ successes. It could be argued that putting CEOs on such high pedestals in the last two decades may go a long way to explaining why the Industrial Age has continued to prevail long after its sell-by date.

Leaders need to have the courage to accept that they are never completely in control of their businesses’ destinies and this is where the second half of the book really comes into its own. Rather than offer a practical, step-by-step ‘how to’ checklist for navigating (“stumbling through”) the phase shift to the Age of Connection (and to provide such a mechanised solution would be to miss the point entirely), it instead offers a series of observations, anecdotes and stories to guide readers and strengthen their resilience on their personal expeditions through the Channel.

How Khurshed does this is very clever. He frames these observations, anecdotes and stories as a confluence of power (courage and persistence) and love (awareness and compassion), each from the perspective of our own inner space (self-awareness), our relationships with others and the collective relationships present in all organisations. This is based on his recognition that we all need to re-connect with our true selves and with those around us and society as a whole. I found myself thinking again of Simon Heath’s observation that ‘soft’ skills are not soft, they are the hardest set of skills we will ever need. By accepting and understanding the flaws in ourselves and others, and by being comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, we can discover new ways to create value and perhaps the greatest paradox of all, is that more creativity and growth will be possible in the Age of Connection than anything we could have mustered in the Industrial Age.

‘Flawed but Willing’ is a reminder that we must give power to, not hold power over, in order to make organisations places where people can thrive rather than feel compelled to focus on their own survival. The book’s style and structure will not be to everyone’s taste but like a great album or other complex piece of art, it benefits from being re-visited on many occasions; there is always something new to discover, previously unnoticed. You are requested to draw your own conclusions and most of us will be able to relate, very deeply, to the stories and situations within – in my case, Chapter 7(c) is the best piece of business writing I have ever read. Khurshed reveals in the Acknowledgements that this is a “business book written as a love story”. I can think of no better endorsement.

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Note to Self – Part 3


40. Design briefs should be contextual to the greatest extent practicable so that buildings augment, enrich and support an organisation’s operational work whatever shape or form this comes in. However, they also need to allow for flexibility (i.e. the ability to implement cost-effective future changes in use, layout, occupancy levels etc. in short timeframes) insofar as these changes are foreseeable or predictable.

41. I cannot improve upon Neil Usher’s post on the ‘Living Wage Workplace’ as an aide-memoire of design brief ‘must-haves’ for any workplace. Places of work should be designed to meet people’s physiological, safety, psychological and emotional needs, especially given the overwhelming evidence demonstrating the contribution of effective workplaces to improving people’s productivity, health and wellbeing.

42. The Facilities Management profession needs to avoid the trap of becoming too focused on ‘being strategic’ at the expense of operational excellence. All workplaces need outstanding technical services, customer-facing services, moves and projects services and amenities to support and enable people and technology so that they can be focused on meeting customers’ demands.

43. Effectiveness in a portfolio management context means that an organisation’s properties should be sufficient (both quantitatively and qualitatively) to support and enable people and the effective design of work so that they can be focused on meeting customers’ demands. Traditional efficiencies (e.g. optimising lease events, asset management) can then be pursued so long as they do not undermine effectiveness.

44. ‘Workplace’ normally evokes thoughts of offices but we must not lose sight that the diversity of workplaces is huge e.g. factories, warehouses, shops, restaurants, schools, libraries, hospitals and airports to name but a small handful. Therefore, choosing when and where to work is only a viable option for the privileged few so care must be taken not to overstate the importance of certain aspects of flexible working such as remote working, homeworking, working from home, co-working hubs, ‘coffices’ etc.


45. The Good – whatever enables:

  • Social Media (excluding the proliferation of trolling and cyberbullying) used for both business and personal reasons and the places where these two converge…
  • The collaboration made possible by current communication technologies
  • The huge advances in data transfer speeds and data storage capabilities
  • The opportunities for learning enabled by technology
  • The possibilities for improving work created by the new generation of apps
  • The improvements in building services and building control systems

46. The Bad – whatever ensnares:

  • Systems or software that constrains method by prescribing workflows and procedures (guaranteed to not give the customer what they need)
  • Paying 100% of the cost of an ERP system when you only require 20% of its functionality
  • Beware! Features seldom bring benefits
  • IT Help Desks – the embodiment of ‘doing to’ rather than ‘acting with’ customers

47. The Ugly – whatever destroys value (although IT suppliers do rather well out of it):

  • Big data. All too easy to hide behind and completely lacking in context. It’s great if you prefer not to think about the actual requirements of your work. And it is only as good as the quality of data at the point of collection or entry into a system – and this is where most mistakes occur. Data on its own is seldom information that can be transformed into knowledge
  • The over-monitoring of people’s movements and activities using mobile and RFID technology. This technology can provide very useful information for planning and design purposes but the flipside is that it can also be used as a tool to control people’s behaviours and re-inforce the notion that people cannot be trusted to do the right things (not to mention the privacy issues that arise). It should be deployed and used with extreme caution
  • The costs of IT change. Doesn’t it work like you expected it to? Oh. Don’t worry, we can also provide change management consultancy and our day-rates are very reasonable
  • Service delivery outsourcing (especially with volume-based pricing contracts). I know of someone who asked an outsourced contractor to provide him with a list of existing systems and apps for his function across his company’s global locations. He could have done the job himself in a few days by ringing around and asking some questions. They gave him a full project management proposal and wanted to charge him $1m for doing it. Enough said
  • Shared services, unless the work in your organisation involves the management of a very high volume of low complexity transactions. Mostly, it is a multi-departmental method-constrainer on steroids. It also has a tendency to have an overly-complicated and unintuitive user interface
“As a guy who lives on a farm, I’ll learn more about cows from standing in cow shit than from ‘big data’ about cows” – Tom Peters
“IT is one of the most efficient processes for turning value into waste and multiplying the waste again” – Stephen Parry

48. I prefer Seddon’s method for the deployment of technology in support of operations in any organisation: understand “how the work works” and see if you can improve performance without new IT ‘solutions’. Only once these two activities have been completed, should new IT or changes to existing IT systems be considered. In this way, IT and technology moves from being a ‘push’ to a ‘pull’. This is important because IT is an enabler and enablers allow customers to pull what they need; they are not meant to push ‘solutions’ onto customers. I agree with Seddon’s logic but there is no substitute for effective and early dialogue so I would involve IT at the earliest opportunity in conversations around designing work against customer demand.

49. Many companies have invested significant sums of money in so-called “top hat” reporting solutions where a master software programme pulls together management reports from a number of other applications. I will buy shares in the IT company that realises the future is in a foundation or under-pinning programme that provides “one source of the truth” in terms of people, equipment and other asset data which can be used to feed into any number of HR, workplace, financial and procurement platforms.

Final Thoughts

50. In the absence of an appropriate collective term for corporate support services functions, Neil Usher offered us the logasphere. From my perspective, the logasphere captures and describes the following disciplines:

  • The eight elements of Human Resources (as per the CIPD Profession Map)
  • All aspects of Corporate Real Estate, Workplace and Infrastructure from portfolio and transaction management through to design, construction, projects and Facilities Management (operations)
  • Enabling technologies and platforms
  • Data and information
  • Procurement
  • Financial operations
  • Corporate affairs and communications
  • Occupational health
  • Amenities and associated workplace services
  • Health & wellbeing, safety and security
  • Sustainability and environmental performance
  • Ancillary services (e.g. travel, expenses, accommodation, venues, fleet, transportation etc.)
  • The legislative, governance and ethical frameworks for the above

51. I strongly believe that the logasphere is uniquely positioned to drive performance improvements in organisations but only if it is managed as a system in its own right (or, if you prefer, a sub-system of the organisational system) where colleagues are viewed and treated as customers. In this way, it can have a profound impact on people in terms of how they experience work as it enables them to do their work as enthusiastically, productively, efficiently and safely as possible.

52. This matters because, irrespective of the on-going technological advancements that are supporting the automation of certain types of work, people will continue to be the most important determining factor of organisational performance since work is predominantly designed, performed and directed by people and consumed by people whether as customers or shareholders. As such, there is an overwhelming commercial and moral imperative for change. We can, and we must, do much better.

“In the film The Matrix, the main character, Neo, is presented with a choice by a mysterious character called Morpheus. Morpheus offers Neo two pills – a red pill and a blue pill. The red pill will answer the question: What is the Matrix?’ The blue pill will allow for Neo’s life simply to carry on as before…The blue pill represents the status quo. It will leave us as we are, in a life full of habits and things we believe we know. The red pill on the other hand represents an unknown quantity and the pursuit of trying to understand the world we live in. It symbolises risk, doubt, questioning and, ultimately, enlightenment.

The scene in The Matrix illustrates the difficult choice that business leaders face nowadays. Do you acknowledge the new reality and adapt to it? Or do you choose to carry on with the same mindset, skills, behaviour and organisational culture, knowing that it will potentially damage your future existence?

Enlightenment never comes cheap. The same applies to the transition from The Industrial Age to The Network Age. But one thing is certain: we live in a time that offers great opportunities for reinvention.

The question is whether you take the blue pill or the red pill?”

Kenneth Mikkelsen

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Note to Self – Part 2


20. The design of work (i.e. an organisation’s internal performance environment that includes a governance framework, organisation design, an operating model, business planning and capital investment processes, policies, procedures, technologies, systems, data etc.) must always be contextual and specific to the unique circumstances (e.g. the external operating environment) of the organisation in question. It also needs to be flexible as practicable in respect of method (the rules that determine how work is done).

21. This design should be based on a thorough understanding of the organisation’s customers’ demands and their “nominal value” (what matters to them). If companies only think in terms of managing activities and functional objectives (i.e. they just focus on the optimisation of the discrete parts), they will never understand operational work in terms of it being an end-to-end flow that starts when you become aware of a customer’s demand and ends when that demand is fulfilled.

22. The design of work needs to encourage the optimisation of this end-to-end flow. Without exception, a focus on optimising the parts in isolation from each other will lead to the sub-optimisation of the system.

23. Silo mentality has unwittingly created a culture where treating the symptoms of a problem has become the default remedy. We seldom take the time to understand or appreciate the actual causes of a problem and take appropriate action on the system to rectify these causes.

“How can you solve problems if you don’t know what caused them? Managers love fire-fighting. Knowledge is far less sexy” – Hermanni Hyytiälä

24. By designing work that allows customers to pull value from the organisational system, the experience of work becomes far more creative, innovative, interesting and engaging. It is both a sustainable and an adaptive approach.

25. As counter-intuitive as it may appear, good service at the lowest possible cost is the consequence of optimising end-to-end flow. It is a productivity and cost win/win.

“You have to take an operational view of how the organisation serves customers – to identify what happens to customers at the point of transaction; what demands they make and how the system responds to those demands. Managing (the) flow (of work) means thinking of service (delivery) as customers pulling value from the system. If customer demand is met with a systems that (is able to) fulfil that demand, and only does that, the consequence is good service at lowest cost” – John Seddon

26. Effectiveness (doing the right things) must come before efficiency (doing things right). In terms of cost and productivity, it is less harmful to do the right things poorly than the wrong things efficiently.

27. The emphasis on effectiveness means that ‘system waste’ is kept an absolute minimum. System waste is what is caused by any disruption to the flow of work and the subsequent ‘failure demand’ i.e. the type of customer demand that arises when an organisation fails to do something, or do something right, for the customer (a Seddon concept). Examples include:

  • The remedial work associated with mistakes, defects or omissions
  • Doing something having failed to do it when originally requested or required
  • The duplication or contradiction of activities arising from too many interfaces or confused roles and responsibilities
  • The introduction of unnecessary complexity through over-specification or over-regulation

28. The substantial costs associated with ‘correcting’ failure demand are entirely wasteful and may not be visible to leaders. These include:

  • The additional resources required to service failure demand
  • The cost of non-productive time
  • The cost of investigations
  • The cost of legal or contractual claims

29. One of the major weaknesses of conventional management thinking is that it fails to distinguish between customers’ value demands and failure demand. Not all demand is equal.

30. Higher costs and lower productivity are not the only consequences of system waste and failure demand. There is a worse consequence still; the loss of customers.

31. Organising for customer focus does not equate to blind acquiescence and obedience. Challenging customer demand that you perceive to be as lacking value (e.g. someone presenting at Accident & Emergency with a very minor injury) is entirely valid.

32. Financial measures and functional measures are production-centric and should only be used as a means of monitoring work, as opposed to a means of controlling work, and as indicators of performance. They must not be used as objectives.

33. Why? Because they do not tell us anything about how the system is performing in terms of understanding customer demand and whether the flow of work has been optimised to meet this demand. They are not contextual.

34. Production-centric measures still prevail because they are relatively unproblematic to measure. However, just because something is easy to measure does not mean it is important.

“Information about outcomes can either be simple, comparable and efficient to collect or it can be a meaningful picture of how outcomes can be experienced. It cannot be both ” – Toby Lowe

35. It is far more important to use purpose-centric measures which help in understanding and improving performance because they are: (i) related to the purpose of the system (how well those things that matter to customers are being done from their perspective); and (ii) of practical benefit to customer-facing people at an operational level because it develops their knowledge about how well they are performing.

36. Such measures include:

  • The types, volumes and frequencies of customer demand
  • The capability of the system to respond to that demand in terms of capacity and end-to-end time – these results can be studied over time to reveal whether variations in performance are just ‘noise’ i.e. within a predictable range, or whether they require special attention because they are genuinely beyond a customer-facing person’s control
  • Surveying customers to assess the accuracy of the work done and the value created for them (i.e. to verify that they got what they needed, when they needed it, right first time)
  • The types, volumes and frequencies of system waste that occur in, and disrupt, end-to-end flow

37. Conventional thinking has yet to cotton on to the fact that measures of financial success are measures of consequences. Shareholder value, profit, growth, lower costs etc. are consequences of managing organisations as systems because this is what delivers the value to customers at the lowest cost. They must not be treated as targets or objectives in themselves, which they are all too frequently, as this distorts behaviours. Due credit goes to Unilever’s CEO for recognising that profit is not a purpose as reported in this recent article.

Martin Wolf told us that the goal of maximising shareholder value (as reflected in the stock price) was practically the dumbest idea in the world and had the opposite effect of what was intended: it resulted in looting of true shareholder value.” – Steve Denning (at the Global Drucker Forum 2014)

38. Targets do not help to improve performance. In fact, they hinder performance improvement for the following reasons:

  • They are intrinsically arbitrary and detached from the work
  • They motivate people in a bad way i.e. they motivate people to do anything, including cheating, to meet the target
  • They reveal nothing about the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of current performance
  • They make people accountable to an organisation’s hierarchy rather than its customers
  • They rely on judgement and subjectivity rather than knowledge
  • There is no reliable method for setting a fair, sensible, reasonable or achievable target

39. The only meaningful target is the relentless pursuit of perfection which, of course, can never be achieved. Think about it…

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Note to Self – Part 1

The Divine Comedy’s 2001 album ‘Regeneration’ was not particularly well received critically and even less so commercially following, as it did, in the footsteps of the radio-friendly fare of ‘Casanova’ and ‘Fin de Siècle’. It starts off brightly enough but soon finds its way into darker territory as Neil Hannon takes aim at celebrity culture, the dumbing down of society and the fashion industry amongst others. However, it is the underlying sense of “we can do so much better than this” that makes Regeneration my favourite ever album.

One of the songs on the album, ‘Note to Self’, finds Hannon exasperated and frustrated by the world around him so he re-affirms his core beliefs to himself in order to maintain his identity and sanity.

This is my Note to Self – a statement of affirmations for everything I hold to be true about how we can make organisations and work better, both in a commercial and a human sense.

It is based on my observations and experiences during a 20+ year career and the wonderful education afforded to me these last couple of years by some very bright people on Social Media. I would also like to acknowledge the significant influence on my thinking of Professor John Seddon’s ‘Systems Thinking’ books.

I have arranged my thoughts around the following themes:

  • Conceptualising Work – perspective and ethos
  • People – culture, behaviours, motivation, leadership and decision making
  • Process – designing and measuring work
  • Place – where we work
  • Technology – the good, the bad and the ugly

Hannon used the days of the week to re-state his assumptions; I am using the weeks in the year for mine.

Conceptualising Work

  1. The most appropriate frame of reference for how we think about work is by seeing organisations as complex and highly networked social systems comprised of many internal and external parts.
“Effective organisations are communities of human beings, not collections of human resources” – Henry Mintzberg
  1. A system must have a purpose, a reason for being; it is the myriad interactions between the parts of a system and how they influence one another that matter in terms of achieving a system’s purpose.
  1. I subscribe completely to Peter Drucker’s view that there is only one valid purpose for the existence of a business: to create a customer. Therefore, as Anne Marie McEwan has written, at the most fundamental level a company must “organise for customer focus”.
  1. The best way for a company to organise for customer focus is to view itself ‘outside-in’ i.e. from its customers’ perspective. Customers do not see or care about hierarchies, functions, activities, rules and procedures. They care about being able to get what they need (or want), when they need it, right first time. In other words, customers will always expect ‘customer-shaped solutions’.
  1. Our work needs to be designed to deliver customer-shaped solutions and do only that. This means that the organisation as a system must be able to understand and cope with all of the variety and complexity it finds in its customers’ demands. Automation is effective for managing homogeneous, high-volume demand. Only people can manage variety and complexity in demand.
  1. The ethos of an effective organisation involves:
  • Continuously studying and learning about the work at an operational level in order to improve it – the getting and sharing of knowledge and being able to think about the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of our work is critically important
  • Understanding that constructive criticism and challenge that are agnostic of ‘hierarchy’ are pre-requisites of continuous learning
  • Recognising the need to ‘act with’ our customers, not do something to them
  • Establishing a relationship of equals between strategy and implementation. They are completely inter-dependent and giving strategy greater attention or credence than implementation is to court disaster; bad implementation, like bad culture, will destroy a good strategy any day of the week
  • Rejecting the notion that for a solution to be worthy, it must be new, innovative or cool. These are not ends in themselves but if an effective solution is new and innovative then great, sure, why not. However, we should be mindful that many answers can be learned from what has gone before. History is a wonderful teacher and wisdom is timeless…
  • Re-balancing substance and style. Value is being destroyed by the modern disease of limited attention spans together with a mindset that seeks immediate gratification and only sees value in the glamorous
  • A long-term outlook – short-term ‘wins’ are fantastic but only if they do not destabilise the system or are not achieved at the expense of purpose
  • Higher standards. I have seen a criminal amount of waste created because of a lack of attention to detail, whether it is a poorly drafted contract or a lack of quality control at the point of data entry in an ERP system. While I am aware of the drawbacks of expecting others to meet your own standards and judging them when they fail to do so, I subscribe to Seth Godin’s view that to do something properly is a privilege (even if it is boring, hard work or complicated).


  1. Individuals, even high performers, will usually struggle to improve organisational performance in a system of work that is poorly designed as their ability to effect meaningful change will be substantially constrained by this design. In the same way, the default view of poor performance should not be that ‘we have a people problem’; it is more likely to be a work design problem. And if you do have a people problem then it will almost certainly be as a consequence of a work design problem.
  1. However, I am indebted to Meg Peppin who taught me that it is people who make an organisation’s culture and it is this culture that shapes how work is designed and managed. Strong performance and a great culture are, of course, mutually reinforcing.
  1. Talking of culture, a smart organisation should be looking to develop the following personal attributes and behaviours in its people irrespective of seniority (n.b. this list is nowhere near exhaustive – these are just my favourites):
  • Self-awareness
  • Self-discipline and a sense of personal responsibility
  • Empathy and understanding what matters to others and managing their expectations accordingly
  • Honesty and humility
  • Effective communications – conveying meaning with clarity and without ambiguity and simplifying relentlessly without dumbing down
  • Covey’s principle of seeking to understand before trying to make oneself understood
  • Being open to the idea that you might occasionally be wrong and letting go of the need to be right all the time
  • A fierce work ethic backed up with good humour
  • Being reliable during tough times
  • Treating others as you would want to be treated yourself
  • Valuing a wide range of inputs
  • Having pride in what you do
  1. I view the absence of these behaviours as ‘behavioural waste’. Like other forms of waste, the consequences are higher costs and lower productivity.
  1. Motivation should not be considered as an ‘either/or’ in terms of intrinsic vs extrinsic. All people have varying levels (both quantitatively and qualitatively) of intrinsic motivation but also require a combination of some or all of the following forms of extrinsic motivation, derived from their work and their colleagues, in order to thrive and give of their best:
  • A perception of fairness when linking reward to effort and contribution
  • Having their contribution recognised – even if it is just a “thank you”
  • A sense of community, connection, camaraderie, belonging and mutual support (I like this post from John Wenger on Sociometry) but not forgetting that some prefer isolation and solitude to do their best work
  • Being encouraged to be curious and learn – from W Edwards Deming’s recognition of people’s intrinsic “yearning for learning”
  • Places of work that meet people’s basic and higher (psychological / emotional) needs
  • Being able to be of service to others
  • Being able to see that they are working towards a higher good i.e. there is a clear line of sight between the work they do and the purpose of the system (think of the guy who swept the floor at a warehouse at the Kennedy Space Center in order to help put a man on the moon)
  1. It is the responsibility of leadership to create environments which actively encourage these extrinsic motivating factors. The best way for leaders to do this is to: (i) understand their organisation as a system and curate it accordingly such that it is constantly refined in pursuit of purpose so that work is as engaging and relevant as it can be; and (ii) walk the talk and be the embodiment of the behaviours they want to see from their people.
  1. Being a leader is bloody difficult when we consider their range of duties and responsibilities and the risks for which they are accountable. As such, emotional intelligence and self-awareness are just as important for leaders as commercial acumen and technical competence.
  1. The need for greater gender and ethnic diversity in leadership is indisputable but I would argue that personality and behavioural diversity is just as important. A boardroom full of Silverback gorillas is not the way forward.
  1. The term ‘soft skills’ should no longer be tolerated.
“Soft skills aren’t soft. They’re the hardest set of skills you will ever need. But they’ll take you to some extraordinary places.” – Simon Heath
  1. The cult of celebrity that has developed around CEOs in the last 20 years or so has been entirely unhelpful. Putting CEOs on such a high pedestal has encouraged some highly counter-productive behaviours and outcomes (to put it mildly) and has shifted the focus away from what really matters.
  1. The essence of organising for customer focus is distributed leadership i.e. the provision of far greater autonomy to those people who work at the operational level, and who are typically nearest the customer, in order to solve problems and make decisions. In other words, decision making needs to be more integrated with operational work and the people who do that work. Anne Marie McEwan has called this “The Flipped Enterprise”.
  1. In most conventional organisations, issues of control and trust remain the main barriers to achieving this autonomy. Therefore, there needs to be an appropriate balance that gives customer-facing people sufficient headroom to make appropriate decisions but which is set within a well-defined framework and based on a clear appreciation of the risks involved.
“Transparency is the new control system” – Jeremy Hope
  1. This balance can be found in Jon Husband’s concept of ‘wirearchy’. Husband sees wirearchy as an “emergent organising principle” which emphasises the importance of individual and collective responsibility for decision making as well as the need for leaders to play their part by being “prepared to listen deeply, be responsible, be accountable and be transparent”.
“Wirearchy is a dynamic, two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology” – Jon Husband
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Better Work for Everyone

The following is a post I created for The Workplace Conversation’s Crowdicity site:

Today “workplace” is a bigger business than ever; it has developed considerably as both a science and an art in the last decade. This has been driven by a combination of significant investment in workplace design research, improvements in construction techniques and materials, more attention being paid to the people who occupy buildings and huge advances in connectivity, communications and building management technologies.

However, many employees and contractors, perhaps the majority of UK plc’s workforce, have yet to experience the promised land of workplaces that actively enable their work or meet their psychological or emotional needs; for some, their workplaces struggle to meet even their physiological needs!. Still too often, property is viewed predominantly as an overhead and years of under-investment, especially in the public sector, are taking their toll. This is in spite of the considerable evidence of workplace’s contribution to people’s productivity (i.e. their ability to do their very best work), health and wellbeing.

This situation has been exacerbated by the media’s glorification of certain in-vogue subjects e.g. flexible working, homeworking, working in coffee shops (“coffices” anyone?), co-working hubs and the like. That is not to say that these places are not legitimate workplace locations, far from it, just that putting them up on such a high pedestal has unhelpfully reinforced the stereotype that the office is dead (I mean, really) and made us forget that there is a huge diversity of workplaces – factories, warehouses, shops and retail outlets, restaurants, schools, hospitals, airports and so on. Choosing where and when to work is only a viable option for a privileged few…

There is also much to do in terms of creating greater awareness of the need for people and place practitioners to better understand each other and have more meaningful conversations about what they are trying to achieve. HR professionals will continue to work on a large number of strategic challenges which have a direct relationship with workplace and physical environment – culture, engagement, work-life balance, wellbeing, organisational design and development, productivity, and yes flexible working to name but a few. The imperative for closer working relationships with FM and other members of the workplace community is becoming ever clearer: people and place are intrinsically linked and this is why the “property as overhead” mindset must be challenged in conventional, mainstream organisational thinking.

This brings me to what may lie in store for us in the future, imagining for a moment that I hold a magic wand. For me, the answer is to be found in our thinking and this will inform how HR, FM and other members of the workplace community go about working together effectively. There is an ever-present danger that we lapse into cliché or remain too attached to notions of “best practice” or whatever is the current fashion. It is critical that we explore what works best for the organisation in question – the need for people and place solutions to be contextual and circumstance-specific cannot be overstated.

I have a personal view that Systems Thinking provides a very helpful framework for conceptualising work which in turn helps us to develop these solutions – I would go as far as saying that I hope that one day it will become the cornerstone of organisational development thinking for people, place and fit for purpose processes. Systems Thinking reminds me of what the famous management thinker Peter Drucker said about the fundamental purpose of any organisation being to create a customer since we do not exist without our customers. I take the same view that HR and FM would not exist without their customers (the rest of the business and each other) so their purpose is to support and enable an organisation’s work in all its myriad guises. By understanding “how the work works” (to quote Systems guru John Seddon), we can design places and services that achieve this purpose and allow our internal customers to pull value from us (so they get what they want, when they want, right first time). In this way, work will become far more creative, innovative, interesting and engaging and the resultant reduction in waste will keep a smile on the face of the CFO. Not only is it a productivity and cost win/win, it is a wholly sustainable and adaptive approach.

So whether it is greater co-operation, full convergence or somewhere in between, closer ties between HR and FM cannot be a temporary state of affairs; they have to become the new normal. The Workplace Conversation is the first step towards achieving this end.

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Let It Go

I have been thinking a lot about the outstanding Workstock unconference which was premiered at last month’s Workplace Trends conference (#wtrends14). To my mind, its unifying theme was the need for change in our work whether in terms of it becoming truly human-centric and meaningful or unleashing the potential of networked intelligence or harnessing the power of diversity.

It is a sound scientific principle that you should only seek out evidence which could undermine your own hypothesis. However, I was secretly delighted that what I heard at Workstock resonated with my core belief that applying the principles of Systems Thinking to the social, physical and obligatory aspects of our work and our workplaces (Neil Usher’s “logasphere” – a term I am now using frequently because it does what it says on the tin) will transform organisations’ operational performance in the form of lower operating costs and higher productivity.

I continue to be fascinated by the joint moral and commercial imperative of “making the work (noun) work (verb) better” but Workstock started me on a train of thought about why the Command & Control status quo is the way it is. In fact, it was meeting one of the presenters in person for the first time, the very wonderful human being and planet-sized brain that is Anne-Marie McEwan (@smartco), which reminded me of one of her observations that work outcomes, ‘results’ if you will, are probabilistic; they cannot be determined. And the fact they are probabilistic lies at the heart of explaining what is preventing qualitative or human-centric changes from breaking into the mainstream of work.

In other words, it is the illusion of certainty that is underpinning the status quo; the fallacy that we are masters of our own destiny and can control, determine, and even guarantee, work outcomes whether they are financial or operational. Numbers have achieved primacy over all other aspects of work and because they denote quantities and can easily be identified and measured, we have allowed ourselves to accept that the future can be predicted with the certainty of solving a mathematical equation.

Consider the huge advances in organisations’ analytical and modelling capabilities and the significant resources allocated to forecasting – the amounts of data that can now be processed and the speed at which they can be processed were unthinkable even a decade ago. What has this data crunching done for organisations in terms of guaranteeing success or providing outcome certainty? Exactly.

Do not misunderstand me, I am not in any way advocating an anti-scientific or anti-numerical approach to work. I am merely trying to argue that best endeavours and sensible control measures and precautions are the best we can do based on a recognition that most risks can only be mitigated, not eliminated.

The irony is that it is the perceived need to be in control of people, resources, information and activities in order to guarantee outcomes that is actually undermining successful performance in many organisations. Yet this appears to be the foundation stone of mainstream thinking and this needs to be understood before it can be changed.

My starting point for understanding the status quo requires a brief history of Command & Control and I shall be borrowing a lot from John Seddon along the way. At the risk of repeating what is common knowledge, C&C has its roots in neo-classical economic theory and Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations”. These ideas were taken further by FW Taylor in his development of scientific management techniques in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which typically involved measuring work through time and motion studies. In turn, Taylor’s work informed the methods of Henry Ford and Alfred Sloan in the American automotive industry. This was an era of mass-production environments where most work involved repeatable methodologies and fixed mechanistic designs and as such it was generic, recurrent, straightforward, predictable, compartmentalised, rigid and process-oriented.

C&C can therefore be summarised as a scientific, analytical and production-centric approach to the design and management of work focusing on the work to be done, the resources required to do the work, how long the work takes to perform and how much it all costs. For the majority of the 20th century, C&C was an unqualified success and delivered huge performance improvements because it was entirely appropriate for most organisations’ prevailing internal and external operating environments.

To say these goalposts have shifted in the last 30 years is an understatement of considerable magnitude. Here, at the back end of 2014, the operating environments of the C&C era only hold true for a tiny minority of workplaces around the world; even heavily automated manufacturing plants have to manage significant supply chain complexity. As Anne-Marie has noted: “Internal performance environments are made of interacting systems – information, technologies, enabling HR systems, governance, physical workplace etc. They influence but do not determine performance outcomes. Our interactions are too complex for that”.

The same is true for external operating environments. The VUCA acronym has had a bad press mostly because it has been bandied about without being properly understood (I quite like this handy guide from HBR). However, it does help convey the essence of the bewildering external political, economic, social, technological, environmental and legal (our good friend PESTEL from the text books) opportunities, threats and constraints that most organisations have to deal with. To paraphrase Mark ‘E’ Everett of The Eels, it’s a mother-VUCA (sorry, couldn’t resist!)

It seems incredible that despite this seismic shift in internal and external business landscapes (which has created a plethora of variables that cannot be controlled or influenced as well as the infamous “unknown unknowns”), C&C remains the mainstream approach for the design and management of work. It is even more inexplicable when one considers the mounting evidence of organisations for whom C&C has produced outcomes that were the opposite of what was intended and expected (RBS, Tesco, Barclays, Goldman Sachs, pretty much any aspect of public services etc. ad nauseam). This is further reinforced by a recent report highlighting that profit warnings from UK listed companies have increased nearly 25% in 2014.

C&C is therefore consistently failing to deliver on its promises. The more control measures are applied, the less predictable outcomes become. The more focus is put on reducing costs, the more they spiral out of control. The more resources that are put into service delivery, the worse customer service becomes. It is a manifestation of the law of unintended consequences at its most brutal.

Why does C&C prevail then? Why are we faced with a situation where, in the words of Professor Gary Hamel, we have 21st century internet-enabled business processes and mid-20th century management practices built atop 19th century management principles? Allow me to offer some complementary explanations:

  • It is borne of the necessity to meet stakeholder expectations, especially those of Boards of Directors and institutional shareholders, and no CEO in their right mind would approach this in any other way than to behave as though they are in complete control (this is fundamentally what has put CEOs on such high pedestals and why their remuneration packages have grown exponentially in recent years)
  • The status quo is maintained by the vested interests and inertia of various consultant organisations, lobby groups and professional bodies, none of whom will ever bite the hand that has kept them well fed for many years
  • C&C theories and practices are embedded across all disciplines in the education system from secondary schools to universities to professional bodies – we are conditioned to think in a C&C way about work before we even enter the workplace
  • Many people are ignorant to the existence of alternative approaches, such as Systems Thinking, to the design and management of work and/or these approaches are beyond their normal frames of reference (deeply-held mental models of how the world works)
  • It is easier to believe that poor performance is primarily a people issue as opposed to something that is caused by a dysfunctional system i.e. we would rather believe it is the result of people not having understood what they are supposed to do and/or not having done it well enough

For certain requirements, C&C is absolutely essential; for example, you would not want to administer a nuclear power plant under anything other than a strict operational C&C regime. However, in most instances, the upshot of C&C is a triumph of ideology over pragmatism which, perversely, is destroying shareholder value and making work a joyless and inorganic experience for many people. This is a wholly unsatisfactory and unnecessary state of affairs. In the words of Peter Senge: “Profit for a company is like oxygen for a person…unfortunately most businesses operate as if their purpose is breathing”.

So what is the alternative then? I believe what is required is a fundamental shift in thinking towards conceptualising business success (strong financial performance) as a highly probable consequence of being effective – in other words, doing the right things. The test of a “right thing” is whether it contributes to achieving organisational purpose which is, in the words of Peter Drucker, to create a customer. Drucker recognised that it is the purpose of any organisation to create a customer because no organisation can exist without its customers. Customers are created (and retained) by ensuring that the variety of customers’ requirements (“value demand”, which is very different to failure demand which is the demand we do not want from our customers) are fully understood and all of our work activities are designed to ultimately facilitate the efficient servicing of these value demands.

What do I mean by this? Well, take a look at your organisation and particularly at your logasphere and give some serious consideration to your policies, processes, procedures, practices, IT systems, compliance (audit/assurance/inspection) activities and…oh you get the idea. Are they production-centric or are they customer-centric? Can a clear line of sight to organisational purpose be established? If an activity cannot be directly related to customer requirements, does it exist to provide necessary safeguards or checks & balances without detracting from the servicing of your customers’ value demands? I will hazard a wild guess that the majority will be production-centric…and therefore may be of little or no value to your customers from their perspective.

Given that there is a mountain to climb, it may take a generation to change the status quo. As such, it is imperative that we in the logasphere take personal responsibility for driving this customer- and human-centric change and demonstrating beyond any reasonable doubt that doing the right things, including doing better people things, is directly correlated to better business performance.

Why us? Because I unequivocally believe that we are uniquely positioned to drive performance improvements in organisations because when the logasphere is curated well, it has a profound impact on people in terms of how they experience work and it enables them to do their work as enthusiastically, productively, efficiently and safely as possible. People are at the heart of the matter: irrespective of the on-going technological advancements that are supporting the automation of certain types of work, people will continue to be at the heart of organisational performance since work is predominantly designed, performed and directed by people and consumed by people whether as customers or shareholders.

Control? Let it go. And, in the words of Anne-Marie, carry on thinking.

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