Your Guru lied

One of the most pernicious, sanctimonious and unhelpful lies told on conference stages and in books is that you have to look after your people and customers to be a success. You’ve been told it many times – that if you don’t do these things then you are doomed to failure. It’s unhelpful and untrue. I know some of my friends buy into this lie. I know I spent a lot of my career doing so too. Apologies to anyone offended and also to those I have misled with my good intentions.

There are obvious and notable instances where we know that success being down to ‘doing all the right things’ is a lie. Conference speakers and writers don’t talk about them – or if they do they edit the story so it is more positive. Someone said to me recently that ‘people don’t buy products – they buy the purpose of the company’. I’m curious as to who is buying the purpose of Amazon, Sports Direct or even McDonald’s. Next time you fly Ryanair is it due to ‘values congruence’? These concepts come from marketeers and gurus trying to sell their services and telling you this as fact. It’s obvious bunkum. Just look at the world’s most successful organisations and ask who is ‘buying purpose’? The answer is patently ‘not enough people to make a difference’. It’s just a nicer thought.

To all of the people who say that success won’t be sustainable without a compelling purpose, just look at the average tenure of a CEO and reflect on to what extent that matters to them. I’m sure the vast majority would like to build sustainable organisations – but a bit like our political system – short term market popularity is overly rewarded compared to sustainable growth. It’s like the world’s biggest Skinner Box. So if you pop up and tell your CEO that doing x and y is the only way you will succeed then i) they probably know that isn’t true ii) their definition of success may be different to yours.

You could argue that more engaged/happier/purposeful/meaningful workplaces are more likely to outstrip the market over time, but reliable indicators for that are few and far between as we ignore survivor bias – how many well intentioned orgs aren’t there to report on because they never became successful. People have studies they’ll quote – but just reflect on the source, credibility and motivation for those studies. Then look at the world’s most profitable companies and see how well you can reconcile that list with what you’ve been told.

Now comes the important part…

I know all of the above. I know telling people that you can’t be a success without a great working environment and great people and great leadership and a wonderful social purpose is a lie. And yet I choose to work at an organisation that has an explicit purpose of ‘Championing Better Work and Working Lives’. We advocate good work – every single day.

Because I firmly believe that people deserve a great working environment, great people around them, great leaders and a sense of purpose in their work. I believe that is a broader social good and obligation. I believe in the right balance being struck between organisational commitment, commitment to employees and customer. I believe it doesn’t have to be a trade off.

I concede that I might not be able to tell a CEO that it’s this way or failure. But I believe that there are different ways to succeed. Some of them more likely. And that’s important. I believe the more people who have good work available to them the better ‘we’ will be as a community and society. And that matters very much to me.

So don’t pursue the goal of better work because it’s a commercial obligation. Embrace the fact that there are ways organisations can have an impact beyond the P&L. There’s a bigger net cost and benefit being played out here than shows in the accounts. Similar to Bobby Kennedy’s exceptional speech on GDP

Even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction – purpose and dignity – that afflicts us all

We have agency and influence – and maybe even obligation – but don’t start with the marketing.

On the future of work – a brief note

The brightest thinkers paint different views of our near to mid future. They describe alternate realities where automation and AI (often used interchangeably) come to rob us of our jobs or free us of our shackles. It’s possible that both camps might be right.

That we face an ever more divisive future, where vastly different fates and experiences will be enjoyed or endured by different segments of society. I believe that the future is still there to be shaped, but we need to pay heed to the less optimistic voices as well. The human race consistently shows an ability to prove its ability to reinvent itself and prosper – but also to sacrifice our long term benefit for short term gain. I understand those optimistic of a new era and also those who are fearful of what we will do with technology – technology which increasingly stretches the boundaries of credulity in terms of capability on a near a daily basis.

We already see exploration of emergent tech through shows like the brilliantly dark and prescient Black Mirror – stark provocations for us to explore the possible misuses to contrast with the benefits that we know we are sold. What happens when we are able to track people ever more effectively? To connect more effectively? To manipulate thinking more effectively? We can’t let the opportunities blind us to the risks, nor the risks blind us to the evident and profound opportunities.

It would be fair to say that we failed to heed the warnings from the Snowden revelations and we may be in danger of failing to heed a second warning from the Cambridge Analytica revelations. It would be reasonable to assume that we will get only so many warnings before our course is largely set. It would be a dangerously naive assumption that the profit motive will drive organisations to make the right choices about tech adoption and application. We’ve already seen examples of these lines being crossed from Facebook’s well documented, but poorly judged, attempts to attempt to see if emotions are contagious through to an online dating organisation deliberately setting up ‘bad dates’ to check the efficacy of their algorithms.

With regards to employment and the world of work we already hear of workers being tracked and even ‘progressive’ organisations experimenting with chipping employees. It does raise the question as to what progress really is. And who ‘progress’ is for. There is no doubt that we have questions to ask around motivations for these initiatives and about the impact on privacy. We also need to ensure that the employer/employee relationship does not become out of kilter as the years go by. At what point would a refusal to be chipped be a reason to decline someone for a role? At what point does opting out cease to be an option for us all? Freedoms so hard fought for by our ancestors being given up for convenience and productivity gains.

Or course there is an almost wonderous flipside of this technology and the contrast here is stark. For technology really does have the ability to free us. To free us of repetitive admin and what have been colourfully termed as ‘bullshit jobs’. To operate more efficiently and be better for the environment and free up our time to be more creative and connected. To allow us to take on jobs on the other side of the world without having to leave our friends and family behind. To allow work to be less dependent on physical mobility and more on output. To solve better for hiring decisons in terms of fairness and inclusion.

And that is at the heart of the problem. Our expectations of technology are all too often that it will represent perfection – a total solution – whereas it just needs to be better. It doesn’t need to be free of bias – it just needs to be less biased than us and a quick look at any relevant demographic breakdowns will tell you that we have set a low bar for fairness and equality. As a cautionary note the most dangerous thing we might do is rest on our laurels and assume our solutions are unbiased simply because the organisations providing them tell us so.

Technology can help us get ‘better’, but the challenge is to ensure that we define and agree ‘better’ in a socially cohesive and inclusive way. Because we need it to be better for us. Just in case better for me means worse for you. We wouldn’t design that so we shouldn’t enable that.

*not entirely sure how long this has just been sitting in drafts, I’m sure the future has moved on now*


Please note. This picture is dedicated to @robmccargow

A (rejected) Evidence Based Review

My review of

Evidence-Based Management: How to Use Evidence to Make Better Organizational Decisions which you can buy here

was rejected by Amazon yesterday for not following their guidelines. I think it does, I imagine they objected to the cow in a tornado. Anyway… the review follows…

Thanks to Rob Briner for suggesting I just find another place to publish…

Invaluable and accessible

The book is a hugely practical guide to a methodology that helps organisations with one of their most important challenges: making sure that they are investing time and resource in the right things. Business decision making remains poor and reflective, all too often, of fads rather than intelligent problem solving that is reflective of context and evidence. The book outlines clearly and helpfully they ‘why’ and ‘how’ of an evidence based approach. It’s both an important and useful text that should be on the shelf of any leader in a business who has to make decisions over where to invest time and effort.

If you are busy then your time is at a premium – this book gives you an approach that will help minimise the likelihood of wasted time. I spend a considerable amount of time with some of the best management and leadership thinkers of the day – I’m lucky enough to get a chance to do that – this book is a hugely important work to help you better evaluate everything from the last TED talk you watched (that seemed disturbingly compelling…) through to how you evaluate the request that just came in from your CEO.

It helps you structure your thinking in an age where the quality of ideas is often outstripped by how rapidly they multiply.

Credibility of reviewer: I’ve worked in HR and leadership positions for over 15 years – and am (somehow) well respected in the industry. I spend a good chunk of my time helping organisations and leaders reconsider their approach to both strategic and operational work – both within organisations and as a regular conference speaker and commentator.

Conflicts of interest: I know Eric. I’m a supporter of CEMBA. My organisation has an MOU with CEBMA. Since I’ve been looking forward to the publication there is a huge amount of confirmation bias at play. I expected it to be good and it is.

Note:

1. Last time I spoke to Eric properly he told me I didn’t actually work in the real world and needed to get practical – I would offer up my team and P&L as evidence to the contrary – but it’s nice to mistaken for an academic occasionally 🙂

2. Amazon told me shoppers find images more helpful than text alone. So I’ve included a picture by Simon Heath of a cow in a tornado in the hope that this somehow increases the utility of this review.

Notes from Amazon:
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How do you value improving others?

I was talking a while back with the very wise Stefan Stern about the notion of talent and where we place value. One of the things I think we genuinely undervalue is the ability to build or realise capacity/capability in others. The ability to support the development of colleagues or your team to be better. This post is about me not being smart enough to solve something.

Throughout my career I’ve known a top tier within this group – a group of leaders that other people tend to find out by repute. People that folk would move organisation or team to work for them – at times even taking a salary hit compared to what they could get on the open market. Despite the fact these people stand out I often think we fail to recognise their value, all too often focusing on the individual contribution. A person’s performance – for me – should be the net amount the business benefits from their presence. That includes the uplift in the performance of colleagues.

So my half baked idea is to try and create a market for these skills by giving that recognition a market value. I’ve been intrigued by an organisation called Satalia recently that have allowed individuals to set their own salaries. I’m wondering how this would work for choice of manager. I have a few ideas – all flawed – but I’d like to hear better ones (I’m using manager and leader interchangeably below – I’m sure some of you will struggle with that and I’m sorry for your struggles. Stay strong)

i) give people a set amount (similar to benefits) that allows them to bid to work for a manager issues: it takes more funds and there’s no guarantee of an uplift in performance

ii) use a pretend currency to allow people to vote who they would like to work for and then reward the managers accordingly issues: votes might well be cast on popularity rather than capability

iii) give managers a cash bonus for successful promotions from their area issues: it could incentivise the wrong type of behaviour and there is quite often a significant lag in terms of working out if a promotion has worked out and causes of success/failure can be varied

iv) ask people to rate their manager based on how well they support their development issues: it falls foul of the popular vs good issue again

It’s clear that I’m coming up short – well short – but finding a way to value something that is undervalued would be quite a trick. We simply undervalue the importance of managers who are localised talent factories (or finishing schools or any term you prefer). Any ideas? Let me know.

We are moving towards letting people take more control of their development – but the biggest influence on most people’s careers is still the people they get the fortune or misfortune to work for…

We didn’t care enough

Yesterday someone asked me why a problem hadn’t been solved before and I replied that we obviously just hadn’t cared enough. It felt like that needed a longer explanation, so I told them what I’m about to tell you…

Things that organisations really care about get done. They are the things that people chase up. They are (often) the things we measure. If an organisation really wants something to happen then it will tend to find a way. I feel the same about ‘difficult conversations’ – if you care enough you find a way. If you don’t then you didn’t care enough. All the ‘I didn’t know how’ was bluster to make you feel better. If we care enough we find a way.

Things that organisations would like to get done – which might be awkward or tricky – are the ones that path the way to hell. They are the ones where everyone agreed it was a good idea to do something but… You had the list of things that you would get chased for and this isn’t on it.

That’s common sense. It’s not a judgment on your organisation or mine. The stuff the CEO/Board/Senior Team prioritise tends to be the stuff that gets prioritised. That’s why common assent that something should be done has far less likelihood of action resulting than one person believing something has to be done.

Someone once told me that the most powerful tool a leader has in their kit is the ability to clearly signal what they value.

  • What do you talk about?
  • What do you reward?
  • Where do you spend your time?

Arguably the first point there is easily overwhelmed by the second and third. If you talk a good game yet spend your time elsewhere and reward different activity then people will guess what you really value is different to what you describe.

So have a think about how you show what you care about – and reflect on the things you might want to happen but somehow your signals aren’t congruent with showing that. And then have a think on why.

From #metoo through to simplifying your processes if you really want things to be different then you need to care enough.

You can’t care about everything – so be honest with yourself and others.

I can’t see any reason this picture would be here, but I couldn’t be bothered to spend time looking for a better one. That’s a clear signal that I’m done here.

Whole lot of history

There is a way the conversation often goes when you are new to a role. And a way it can go

How it often goes

“Why don’t we do my brilliant idea. I’m the breath of fresh air new boss?”

“Tried it, didn’t work”

How it can go

“I was looking through some of your old proposals on the shared drive and this one really stood out. I imagine we tried it at the time, but I was wondering if you fancied another attempt getting it off the ground? It might just have been the wrong timing”

“Ok, that sounds great. You are very wonderful”

I may be slightly overselling the second scenario, but I wanted to explore the concept of shared folders and organisational history. When you start in a new role I suggest that instead of just thinking about what changes you want to make you should spend some serious time looking back.

Here are some ways you can do it – at least one is likely to be possible in your next role

  • Talk to people about their career history and experience working there
  • Google the organisation to see what was written about it and what it published/put into the world
  • Poke about in shared folders looking at old comms ans proposals. I bet you find at least one old PowerPoint deck explaining the things that you think need doing
  • Ask people what they think are the important changes or historical decisions that you should be aware of
  • Just ask people ‘Have we already got something similar in a musty desk drawer?’ at the start of any project
  • Read the annual reports and look at changes in emphasis and stats over time

Shared folders. Virtual and mental.

You should never be beholden to organisational history, it should not be a constraint. It is, however, the rich backdrop against which you will operate and a source of learning that can provide a context that, once understood, can help you move forward more effectively.

I spent my weekend reading about the reports my organisation published half a decade ago. About CEO pay disputes (kudos to Donald Clark for his always challenging work). About commitments we made to people a decade ago. It was an education.

And I go into today better armed because of yesterday.

Feedback is a gift

Feedback is a gift. Or it is like a gift in many ways. Or at least 10.

My Auntie Rosie was the worst gift giver in our family – and also brought the most joy. Watching my cousin pretend to be delighted at receiving an electric lemon squeezer as a present for getting into University was a special moment.

Likewise I appreciated the selection of Postman Pat books I received when I was 16.

Anyway, I digress… This is how feedback is like a gift

  • Sometimes someone gives it to you and you think ‘Pants, now I have to do the same for you and I didn’t think we were that close’
  • Sometimes someone gets it just right and it is a really pleasant surprise
  • Sometimes the wrapping is awful but it is still a really good gift. Sometimes the wrapping is brilliant, but the contents…
  • Sometimes you think ‘You’ve known me years and that’s what you thought I’d like? Wow’
  • Sometimes it is obviously regifted and just what they had left spare in a drawer
  • Sometimes the thought that has gone into it is really clear and that makes the gift more valuable
  • Sometimes the person giving the gift looks at you like you should be really impressed – and internally you are just doing a confused shrug
  • Sometimes it’s like being given deodorant. You understand it is useful but you think… Hey, are you trying to tell me something else here?
  • Some people only give once a year and still get it wrong
  • If you don’t say thank you or make use of it then it reduces the chance of gifts in the future