The Surprising Truth About Obvious Truths

The Surprising Truth About Obvious Truths

I regularly talk and write about the need for a more evidence based approach to creating work that works better for more people. Less guff. There is too much faddishness and too many poorly thought out and poorly joined up initiatives. I’m therefore naturally grumpy when people attempt to sell solutions packaged with overclaims or rubbish evidence to back it up (‘Our product has used neuroscience to improve 107% of orgs we worked with’). I’m the one that says ‘prove it’ because not enough time is spent really reflecting on what is most likely to work. We rush to action.

That said… It’s worth making sure that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater when taking this approach and I’ve seen some of that recently. In an effort to, rightfully, avoid overclaims it is easy to undermine legitimate claims in the same space. Or maybe more obvious truths just become collateral damage. I thought I’d share a couple of examples

1. Growth mindset

Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset (the need for a belief in possible improvement being central to performance, expanded on in Bounce by Matthew Syed) has come in for criticism. Some criticism centres around falsifiability (if you say something must not have been done properly if it doesn’t work then it’s hard to prove it doesn’t work) and some applicability (a lot of the work in this area has been done with children, not in work environments). And there is absolutely validity in the criticism. The challenge however is that it would be absolutely perverse to believe that a willingness to persevere and practice isn’t strongly linked to the ability to improve. If you remove the research and just think it through it must to some extent be true. It would be theoretically possible to fundamentally disagree with research (methodology or conclusions) and still hold that practice makes perfect (or at least better) and that people who give up aren’t likely to get better at things. It’s a surprisingly obvious truth.

2. Engagement

For years we’ve been told that better levels of engagement guarantee business success. Or are inescapably linked to business success. But the academic evidence for this is weak. Rob Briner provides an excellent overview here and was commissioned by Engage For Success to do an evidence review which concluded… There isn’t a lot of credible evidence for what are some quite often incredible claims (made by a host of providers). Yet having said that… if you ignore all of overclaims and pseudoscience and reduced the engagement case from something akin to organisational magic to something more mundane then… the claim is simply that ‘People who want your organisation to succeed are more likely to contribute than people who really don’t care’. That seems relatively uncontroversial. To what extent it makes a difference might be debatable, but not that a difference exists. The packaging is the problem, not the potential mundane but important truth.

Where people are making claims we should examine them, but we should also remember that our own experiences and those of others are a type of evidence. And a valid type of evidence. A little more joined up common sense and a little less ‘studies show organisations that do one thing succeed’ might get us a long way.

If you are interested in taking a more evidence based approach then I’d recommend

Customer focus, leadership visits and police cars

I’m working up in London a fair bit at the moment and most days I head for sushi at the itsu on Sackville Street. The staff there are warm, welcoming, smiley, prompt, efficient and the store/restaurant always looks great. They remember me, they engage and they never do anything but enhance my day. The food is always lovely and the soup is healthy and great value. They also follow up when people mention them on Twitter…

Last week they had some people bouncing around the store giving them feedback, asking them questions, laughing and joking with them. I asked one of the staff who they were and they said ‘it is a head office visit’ and then they grinned and said ‘so I better pretend that I’m talking to you’. It was a joke because we were both aware that the observation by head office didn’t make any difference to the way I was being treated. They are nice every single day.They didn’t have to fake an experience for Head Office to see – the experience they give comes out of habit and passion.

A week before the itsu visit I had been chatting to someone who works for a large Financial Services firm. They were also due a Head Office visit – so the following things had happened.

  • Desks tidied
  • Meetings rearranged
  • Dress down Friday had been cancelled.

Essentially for the duration of the visit by ‘Head Office’ a fake environment would be created in order for that office to pass muster.

I had a similar experience when I worked in retail (yes, retail) when a Head Office visit to the store I worked in resulted in the following

  • holidays cancelled
  • extra shifts brought in to tidy the store
  • double staffing on the day of the visit to ensure no queues at the tills
  • large scale panic

The knock on effects were that in order to hit staffing budget for the rest of the week after the visit the levels of cover were cut , so you had a superb service if you happened to be there on the same day as the Head Office visit but ‘not just queues, but M&S queues’ for the rest of the week.

There are a number of tools available to better understand culture. I favour Burke Litwin for looking at causality and interrelationships and Johnson and Scholes’ Cultural Web for drawing things on napkins that can readily be communicated. I was once told that making complicated things simple is an important trick and the cultural web does that well.

Or you can just look at what people do differently when leaders are about – and understand how strong the culture really is.

  1. Whether observed or not the team at itsu are committed to doing an excellent job for their customer. Their standards don’t vary based on if they think they can be seen. There were good conversations happening that I heard about how to make things better for customers. There was trust and a desire to get things right. There was energy. Everybody wins
  2. At the FS company there is obviously a level of concern at local management level that if the senior team saw the state of the office as it normally is they would be displeased. That dressing down on a Friday wouldn’t be acceptable. That speaks to a lack of alignment and a lack of trust – also of the emergence of a subculture that isn’t brave enough to exist in the open. The leader that did the visit won’t have been able to learn about how things really operate. Nobody gains
  3. At the retailer the impacts were even worse. Having worked there for several years I can say that the usual commitment to customer was excellent. What I saw was genuine customer detriment being caused by leaders attempting to get closer to the situation. Leaders who created such fear that they disrupted work that they would actually have been proud of. If they had done an unannounced visit normally they would have been relatively pleased but found the odd mistake. If they did an unannounced visit the day after their tour, when staffing levels were down…Everybody loses

I heard a wonderful speech a couple of weeks ago about leaders being treated like police cars on a motorway. People stick slavishly to the speed limit so as not to get in trouble with you. It creates an artificial strip of motorway where the behaviour is different – and then people revert back to breaking the law.

Great leaders and great customer focused cultures operate on the understanding that people should be focused on doing things well, not avoiding getting in trouble. This operates at team as well as organisational level.

  • Ask yourself if your team are the same when you aren’t around (or even ask them…)
  • Ask yourself if you would be happy for a customer to observe your meetings

If the answer to either is ‘no’ then you might just be a police car.

 

 

Update: popped into Itsu today and the manager sent this across to say thanks for being so nice about his team 🙂
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