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).

People

  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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One Response to Note to Self – Part 1

  1. Pingback: #NZLEAD PREVIEW: Working in the logasphere; an approach to building effective leadership | NZLEAD

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