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It’s likely that every time you ask for a definition of change you get a different answer. For some change is a threat, for others it’s an opportunity. Change can mean progress and change can mean throwing out all you hold dear. Change can be radical and it can be incremental. And yet, as we all know, it is a constant.
Leaders and innovators understand this. They know that nothing lasts forever. And never more so than in our present era where more and more people are struggling to keep pace with the implications of globally influenced 24-hr, always-on decision-making.
As change agents we help you navigate your way through change. We do it by trying to make complex things simple. Many businesses make it difficult for themselves by thinking and acting in ways that are becoming less relevant. The most successful businesses are those that are flexible, resilient and adaptable. They don’t operate in silos, and they recognise that their digitally-literate employees are capable of problem solving and effective collaboration.
We like to think, read, talk and write on these subjects. And we like to share our thoughts. Follow us, join in the conversation, and come with us as we play our small role in making change real in the world.
Events, dear boy, events
When the then UK Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, was asked what could blow his government off its course he famously replied: “Events, my dear boy, events.” Things rarely go in a straight line, shit happens (as the phrase goes), and few strategies stand the test of time. This conflict of strategy meeting reality was probably most eloquently summed up by Mike Tyson who said that everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. Our collective addiction to news gives us a constant stream of events, large and small, human and natural. Making sense of them and learning to live with ambiguity is something that many people struggle with. This is because events represent a change from what came before and we all find change unsettling.
Organisations are highly complex and interwoven and they operate in highly complex interwoven, environments. Events, large and small, happen all the time. But it may be that the traditional approach to leadership is negatively impacting the corporate ability to evolve and react to change and opportunities. Many leaders still picture themselves as being in charge; standing at the helm and steering their ship towards its ultimate destination. Their corporate narrative describes a journey, a transformation to a glorious future of prosperity and success. There is a marvellous naivety in the idea that one person has the ability to influence and others merely follow. Such is the need for decision-making and productive activity that top-down, hierarchical structures are no longer appropriate.
Leadership, in all its various definitions, needs to be a core competency of every individual. Yet the reality is that too many have delegated and outsourced their personal responsibility to people “above” them. Many organisations have fostered a dependency model. However, to survive and thrive organisations need a cultural revolution where everyone sees themselves as a leader, and where the power of the swarm can self-organise to create solutions. This means that any culture change programme needs to start with the idea of encouraging individuals to take responsibility. In other words, to become leaders. And that also means that those who currently see themselves as leaders need to let go. The more they let go of control, the more they allow others to succeed.
And on the macro scale, of course, some events are demonstrably beyond control. Once in 500-year storms over flood plains that have been covered in concrete will test any water management systems. Communities can only survive such cataclysmic events through individual instances of leadership. One person, be it a Mayor or President, can’t solve such problems. Leadership can’t prevent natural events, as King Canute will attest, but it can try to limit and mitigate by empowering others to make decisions and act. True leadership is about creating the environment in which decisions can be taken.
And then there are events such as solar eclipses which are so beyond human intervention that one can only stand back and remember just how insignificant humanity is. This impotence is best summed up by one of my favourite quotes, first read over 35 years ago: Bertrand Russell demolishing Karl Marx: “He is too practical, too much wrapped up in the problems of his time. His purview is confined to this planet, and, within this planet, to Man. Since Copernicus, it has been evident that Man has not cosmic importance which he formerly arrogated to himself. No man who has failed to assimilate this fact has a right to call his philosophy scientific.”
You’ve got no mail
As cheesy romcoms go, You’ve got mail is on most lists. We all remember the visceral excitement of getting our first emails: the sense of communion, and of being part of a brave new digital world. 20 years later and perhaps we have hit peak email. Few work-related issues seem to stress people out more than the size of their inbox. For many, work has been reduced to sending and responding to emails. Input is receiving emails and output is replying, whereas outcome is measured solely by the number of unread emails left at the end of the day. This, perhaps, is why the UK has amongst the lowest productivity of any Nation in Europe. Technology that was meant to liberate has done the opposite. As Nicholas Taleb put it: “The difference between technology and slavery is that slaves are fully aware that they are not free.”
Last week I heard of an accidental anthropological study. The experiment took place in an office and it was an accident because the company concerned was the victim of a ransomware attack aimed at their global parent. The longshot was that for three days they couldn’t use their systems. No email, no normal. All routine and all schedules disappeared, and with no typewriters to fall back on (incidentally, if you ever fancy a laugh, try explaining “cc” carbon copies to a Millennial.) The shutdown, however, led to some interesting outcomes.
Firstly, people started to talk to each other. Despite being full of people, many offices can be impersonal places. Teams sit together, workers have their heads down, and functions rarely break out of their self-imposed silos. People don’t talk because to talk is to interrupt screen-based work. Take away the screens and the people in this office started to communicate more openly than they could remember. People offered to help; people made creative suggestions; leaders emerged from unexpected places. Business as unusual created different behaviours.
Secondly, work became more effective. Without the constant waterfall of new emails, people were able to work without interruption. They triaged and prioritised work. They were better at making the distinction between urgent and important. Clients and customers were the focus rather than satisfying internal processes or managers.
Thirdly, there seemed to be fewer meetings. Perhaps it was because the routine had been broken, but it may also have been a subconscious realisation that not only were emails unproductive but also that so were meetings. And if they could do without the one then perhaps they also didn’t need the other.
Fourthly, people proved to be far more creative than their normal work suggested. As if no longer shackled to their desk, people broke free and came up with other ways to solve problems. They shared ideas beyond their usual groups and worked with others on issues outside their normal role. It demonstrated how often people are forced into work-related straight-jackets, unable to use their wider skills because they’re not part of their usual business objectives.
Finally, it was observed that there were far fewer free riders than would have been expected. Yes, there were some who made excuses, saw an opportunity to go home early, or to work from Starbucks. But the majority enjoyed the challenge that came with the unexpected crisis and rose to it.
And so, the questions are what were the lessons learnt and has any change been sustained? The answer to the first question is that many people for a long time have realised that email is a blunt instrument. It is good for sending messages or for posting documents to clients, but it is a bad way to run business, work collaboratively or make ironic jokes. Email is effective as a postbox but not much else. Many companies have for a while been working with digital communication solutions that are designed specifically for team tasks and co-working that encourage and enable creative collaboration (for instance, Yammer, Slack @Workplace by Facebook. Check out experts such as @simply-communicate for advice). In fact, internal communications as a discipline is fast changing from a top-down channel for senior management messages to one that gives people the tools they need to do their job properly. Technology, properly used, can liberate rather than enslave.
And has the change been sustained? What do you think? It’s probably too early to say. But as Sir Arthur Strieb-Griebling (aka Peter Cook) said: “Certainly, I have learned from my mistakes. If I had to start all over again, I’m sure I could repeat them exactly.”
Things have changed
I used to think that I was good at change; after all, I coach people and organisations on embracing change and even call myself a change agent. But, as Bob Dylan said, things have changed. And I don’t think I’m alone in finding it all rather wearisome. I sense that one of the chief outcomes of the political, social, environmental and technological turbulence that we’re all experiencing is a rise in discombobulation. Even high energy, go-getting enthusiasts for change seem to be running out of breath. In organisations, long-term employees would often roll their eyes when (yet) another change programme with a fancy project name was announced. Clichés such as the only constant is change only adds to the sense of change fatigue. But one is now observing a sense in society generally that not only is the pace and frequency of change exhausting but also that the promised outcomes either never materialise or leave us worse off. So why bother. The general feeling seems to be to question whether all this change is actually necessary, whether that be macro political upheaval or the latest corporate restructure.
There are some who maintain that the lessons of history point to change occurring in cycles. There’s social cycle theory, generational theory and Schlesinger’s cyclical theory which states that in the US the hegemony shifts between public purpose and private interest. Others see our current situation, especially with the exponential growth in technology, as unprecedented. Some call it liquid modernity, others talk of flexible capitalism, or of an accelerating culture. Whatever it is, the search for peace of mind is more difficult.
Four seemingly interrelated concepts are at play in the never-ending cycle of change. The first is the pervasive idea that everything, and everybody, has to constantly improve. Nothing and no-one can stand still. Each of us has to be the best we can be at everything, all the time. The world of work is one long clarion call of self-advancement. We’re told of stretching ourselves and marginal gains. To be average or settled is a sign of failure. Only ceaseless betterment will be allowed. (Incidentally, is it only me who thinks that “constant change” is an oxymoron?).
The second is the demand for certainty. Ambiguity will not be tolerated. Good is good and bad is evil. Nuance is a French word and we don’t like French words. This thinking has influenced our political discourse where there can only be one truth. Listening and engaging with those with opposing views is for a small minority.
The third issue is that of the tyranny of the positive. Everything, it seems, is about being happy. Negative language and ideas are for losers. Businesses only want people who see opportunities and not problems.
Finally, there is FOMO – the fear of missing out. In our fractured state we want to belong. Standing out from the crowd and being on the edge of thoughts and movements relegates us to the margin. We need to be with the in-crowd, never more so than in times of great uncertainty. Social media, of course, exacerbates this feeling.
And so, we’re told to change and improve, to always want to be right, to be positive and to be on the winning side. No wonder that, given the circumstances, discombobulation is on the rise. What is the answer? One has been given by the Danish psychologist, Svend Brinkman. His new book, Stand Firm: resisting the self-improvement craze, is a cracking read that puts Stoic philosophy centre stage. It’s not meant to be taken too literally, but it is a marvellous antidote to the 100mph, positive psychology movement. It reminds us that things aren’t meant to be happy all the time, and that negativity is a human condition which, if we lose it, means that we lose much of what makes us who we are. He reminds us that we only know for certain what we know and, therefore, rather than moving forward in doubt it is often best to say no and stay where you are. It is a rewarding and reflective read.
But if we don’t want to be as accepting as the Stoics, how else can we respond to our troubled times? Some people I know are becoming politically engaged for the first time; others are getting involved in social projects to do their small bit to heal a broken society. And, of course, there are those who are checking out. Me? Well, I’m too old to become a fully paid-up optimist and so the best I can do is to try and become a positively-minded pessimist. Things have changed, but I still care.
People are crazy and times are strange
I’m locked in tight and out of range
I used to care but things have changed
Bob Dylan, Modern Times
Interesting times, and how to respond.
May you live in interesting times, says the famous Chinese curse. Well, it certainly feels as if we’re all cursed at the moment. Social, political, and economic turmoil, coupled with growing environmental issues, are all combining to such an extent that we’re seemingly suffering from corporate discombobulation. Every day there’s yet more bad news, raising the already raised blood pressure of the Nation. And so, given the extraordinary events that we wake up to every morning, what should be the rational response to our raised emotions? There are, I think, four potential responses, each rational in their own way. The question is which is the best in the long term.
The first response is to ignore all that is happening and try and remain in a state of blissful ignorance. There is a lot to be said for this Peekaboo(*) approach. We know that constantly worrying about things, and talking with others, can create a negative spiral into an even greater slough of despond. For me, this can be summed up with the morning dilemma of either choosing to switch on Radio 3 (calming classical music) or Radio 4 (more news about Truxit or Brexump). The first choice will set me up for the day in a good mood, whilst the other makes me angry and depressed. But is it right in the long-term to deny the reality of the situation in which we find ourselves? Which leads us to the second response.
Eternal optimism, or glass half full syndrome, to give it its proper name, can be a sensible alternative to ignorance. Mr Micawber, Dickens’ famous positive thinker, as his guiding principal said that something will turn up. Business is full of people who say that there’s no such thing as a problem, only an opportunity. More recently, a whole industry has developed around the idea of positive thinking and self-help. The shelves of airport bookshops groan with tomes devoted to the idea that we can take control of our destiny and, through the power of positive affirmation, guide ourselves to the life we want to lead. Recently, however, the Pollyanna brigade have taken a bit of a knock with academics attacking the idea that we can think our way to success and, instead, that achievement comes from practice, focus, and perseverance (see: Angels Duckworth, Grit; Roy Baumeister, Willpower ; Dan Pink, Focus). And see also the work of the Danish academic, Svend Brinkmann, who is so anti self-help that he thinks we should focus on negative aspects and repress our emotions. So, if optimism isn’t the right response, what else is there?
This week I found myself in a choir singing a chorus from Les Misérables (please don’t ask the details although, in my defence, it was for the Lord Mayor). It was the famous call to arms, the song of the angry men. (**) As I was singing lustily and heartedly (it’s impossible not to with these words) it struck me how perfect a sentiment it represented for our times. The rational response is to fight fire with fire. A new foe demands a new movement, a movement of right-thinking people. Citizens needs to organise and take the battle of societal engagement to those who try to impose their world order on others. And this, of course, is the right thing to do in the right circumstances. There comes a point when we say to ourselves, as Churchill did, that this is something up with which I will not put. But it seems to me that combating anger and hatred with anger and hatred, banning people from visiting us because they ban people from visiting them, has the effect of raising the nastiness and outrage to irrational levels of nastiness and outrage. And that can only end in tears.
And so to the fourth response. Call me naïve and foolish but surely a better long term approach is to be the change that you want to see. If you want to live in an open, tolerant, liberal, law-abiding environment, then act as a role model. The age of anger needs to be countered, but countering it with anger merely replaces one bad thing with another. Take road rage. US figures show that 66% of traffic fatalities were caused by aggressive driving. Responding to road rage with road rage makes a bad situation worse. And before you dismiss my hopelessly credulous thinking, I heard a story recently of a US professor who had been taking the same journey to work for 30 years. During that time he had experienced so many examples of bad traffic that he had been able to conduct his own experiment. He found that when he drove aggressively (constantly changing lane, driving too close to the car in front, not letting others cut in, accelerating quickly at the lights) it actually took him longer to get to work. When he drove well it was always quicker. He found that his bad, aggressive driving seemed to encourage others to act in the same way. When he was calm and polite, others were as well. Surely this is a metaphor for our times. And then there was the story from Texas of after a recent arson attack on a mosque, the local Jewish community handed the Muslims the keys to their synagogue so that the Muslims had somewhere to worship. Tolerance and decency seem far stronger long-terms weapons than hatred and reprisals.
I accept all accusations of foolishness, and I know that although Pastor Niemöller, in his famous poem (***), didn’t explicitly mention sherry-drinking, Renaissance music-loving, bibliophiles, but that I’m included by default. Nevertheless, I will leave anger for later. For the moment, I will stick to trying to be a role model.
Peek-a-Boo, I can’t see you,
Everything must be grand.
Boo-ka-Pee, they can’t see me,
As long as I’ve got me head in the sand.
Peek-a-Boo, it may be true,
There’s something in what you’ve said,
But we’ve got enough troubles in everyday life,
I just bury me head.
The Ostrich Song
Flanders & Swann
Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the songs of angry men?
It is the music of the people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!
Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
That will give you the right to be free!
Herbert Kretzmeur – Les Misérables
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)
[This blog also appeared on www.oratoconsulting.co.uk]
The truth about post-truth
We are now living in a post-truth world, apparently. Recent political events have led some to conjecture that truth is passé, that facts are debatable, and that fake news is to blame. Some of this analysis comes from people genuinely concerned by how public discourse has become fact-lite, but the rest seemingly comes from those struggling to make sense of how their side lost. They perhaps feel cheated of their birth-right as a result of the other side not playing fair. But the “truth” is surely that this has always been the case: in a battle between facts and perception, facts will always be on the losing side. Social media, as ever, may have exacerbated the situation but the elements that make up a post-truth society have always been with us.
The history of humankind is based on myth. In fact, one of the main distinguishers between our species and others is our ability to make sense of our existence by telling each other stories, as Yuval Noah Harari reminded us in Sapiens. Money doesn’t exist: we invented it in order to create trade; nation states don’t exist, but we use them for our identity. Myths and the telling of stories is part of our humanity. For thousands of years people have lived in societies where actual truth is only a bit-part player. Religious doctrines, which in nearly all instances began mostly as myth, tend to be full of literal, historical and, of course, scientific contradictions and inaccuracies. Yet for vast swathes of the world the facts of these religions are the basis of how people live their lives. Repressive political regimes have, again throughout history, used a wide interpretation of the word truth to keep their people in check. What constitutes propaganda often depends on which side of the curtain you’re sitting. And, of course, it was Edward Bernays (nephew of Sigmund Freud) who was so impressed by the propaganda techniques that he’d seen during the war that he wanted to deploy them in peacetime. He thought, however, that propaganda sounded a rather dirty word; instead, he chose the phrase Public Relations.
The post-truth brigade also miss the lessons of behavioural science. All our decision-making is post-rationalised. We choose based on assumptions and emotions and then retrofit a rational explanation. Our free will is constrained by our neuro-chemistry and our social conditioning. Facts, such as they are, rarely come into it. Group think, for instance, can place unbearable demands on our understanding of what is true. There have been numerable psychological experiments where a group of “experts” get together to argue for something they know to be false leaving another in the dark arguing for what (they all know) is right. In all cases this experiment ends with the lone voice so doubting themselves in the face of such peer pressure that they “change their mind.” Scarily this experiment has been tested with groups such as lawyers, doctors, and airline pilots, each time with the same effect. It can also be the sheer volume of facts that can be the problem. Such are the many permutations of options that there can never, for instance, be a factually correct data/phone tariff choice. Therefore, we either best guess, or use other surrogate decision-making substitutes. And, of course, there’s our old friend confirmation bias, where we seek out information to support our pre-existing views. As Orwell said, the best books are those that tell you what you already know. Quid est veritas, you might say.
Brexit and Trump both provide other good lessons. There are those who may like to think that facts played a part, especially those incorrect facts deliberately deployed to scare. There are no facts, only interpretations, as Nietzsche reminded us. But really both these political events probably demonstrate two inter-related points. Firstly, the power of myth, or story-telling to give it it’s nom du jour. In both cases, one side deployed stories and the other deployed logical facts. Soft (tall) stories beat hard facts. Secondly, communication will always be a poor proxy for behaviour. People listened less to the words and more to the body language. In times of difficulty we seek out people like us. We are, after all, a highly tribal species. People looked for those that they thought were on their side. They listened to them and they believed their myths. They ignored the others not because of what they said but because how they behaved demonstrated whether they were on their side, sharing values and aspirations. Fake news, lies, conspiracy theories…all these things were in the margin. People picked personalities that were part of their tribe, and in both cases it was the left behind attacking the elite.
So where does this leave us? Firstly, it does make us question the role of communication to influence. Perhaps we need to focus more on behaviour and attitude and less on words. Secondly, when we do focus on words we must tell stories rather than try and bludgeon people with facts. And thirdly, despite society’s seemingly endless need for certainty perhaps we should occasionally admit that sometimes we really don’t know the answer. There often is no black and white. The truth, as Oscar Wilde put it, is rarely pure and never simple. Seeing things from the other persons point of view and building for consensus rather than difference may be the only way forward, but blaming them for not understanding facts is unlikely to help.
Summer is over, annual leave has ended, Autumn is upon us, and it’s back to work. Despite the summer break it is all too easy to settle back into the same old routine and roll downhill to Christmas. All those dreams and ambitions of the summer, the wistful feelings of another way of living, all land with a bump when real life comes back with a vengeance. It is surprising how many people jump back onto the treadmill and carry on as if nothing has happened. They shake the sand off their flip-flops and they’re back at their desk as if they’ve never been away. Some people see the new year as heralding a new start but for me it’s always been the beginning of the Michaelmas term and the rugby season that gets me thinking. Every time the leaves start to turn I see it as an opportunity to pause, reflect and, in modern parlance, reboot.
The environment in which we all operate is more complex, volatile and uncertain than ever before. And yet many seem programmed to carry on working and living as if it is business as usual. This silo mentality is instilled in us from an early age. We are put into compartments by, on the whole, well-meaning parents and teachers; we are either good or bad (delete where applicable) at games, music, maths, science, languages, art; we are either academic or good with our hands; we are shy or gregarious, and so on… But this language is important because it goes a long way to shaping how with think of ourselves and, especially, our attitude to our work lives. It dominates our life choices and shapes our destiny.
Coaches frequently come across people who are stuck. They’re people who are very good at what they do but they feel stranded, trapped by their own success and with a feeling that they’re pointing in the wrong direction. It is extraordinary how many brilliant people can suffer from poverty of ambition. They can see clearly from their current vantage point but struggle with being able to imagine other scenarios. Sometimes it is because their view is coloured by extrinsic issues: for instance, their perception of their own status or their financial needs. But other times it is due to their intrinsic sense of what they’re good at and their sense of purpose. One technique that coaches use to unblock some of these issues is visualisation: getting people to imagine multiple possible alternatives. Reimaging oneself can be a useful tool in helping unblock the sort of rigid thinking that keeps people, and their talents, in a box. For instance, just because you were good at maths and became an accountant doesn’t mean that’s what you have to do for the whole of your life (although as Monty Python showed us, if you are an accountant and want to be a lion tamer it is probably best to make the transition via banking). Similarly, pausing to reflect can also be helpful in reaffirming commitment to one’s current path.
The world may be uncertain and volatile but is also exciting. To prosper people are going to have to be more flexible and fluid in their approach to work than ever before. The nature of work is being disrupted (by, inter alia, big data and AI), and the gig economy and freelancing are both growing rapidly. Rigid thinking towards careers and work are being challenged. More people are seeking to seize control of their destiny and make their own luck. After all, it is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves, as Shakespeare put it.
With or without a coach, Autumn is a good time to challenge oneself instead of jumping straight back into the old routine. Rather than seeing it as a time of twilight, try and kindle the memories of the summer when you managed to not think about work. If you’re content with the status quo, fine, carry on. But if there’s a nagging doubt, then pause and try and let the voice make itself heard. Either way, rather than allow yourself to be stuck in your self-imposed silo, aim to do remarkable things. After all, we only get one chance.
And, by way of a bonus track, here is the English Chamber Choir singing Autumn Leaves, by Joseph Kosma arranged by Andrew Carter http://bit.ly/2c09et3
Brexit lessons in change management
Irrespective of which side we took in the referendum, it has provided valuable lessons in anticipating, planning and managing change which, after all, is our business at Change Agency.
Remarkably, the political and economic lessons from this exercise in democracy resonate with the evidence we have gathered in helping companies and non-profit organisations to manage change effectively. In particular:
- Address clearly the issue of ‘what’s in it for me’
- Don’t take your stakeholders for granted
- Set clear and measurable goals so that you know what success will look like
- Be clear about the costs
- Consistent and frequent messaging is effective
- Tell the truth
The Remain side failed to make a clear value proposition to a significant part of the electorate. In focusing on the likely negative consequences of leaving the EU, it failed to explain to millions of disaffected citizens how the EU benefited them.
Every successful change management project requires the investment of time and empathy to understand the hopes and concerns of those who will be most affected. Remain clearly failed to do this – particularly the Labour Remainers who had not heard or acted upon the anger and frustration of their members. The election of Jeremy Corbyn ought to have been a clue about the disaffection with politics as usual among those who have experienced nothing of the economic recovery since 2008.
There wasn’t any suggestion of a strategic plan on either side. Remain had no Plan B and Leave didn’t even have a Plan A. The absence of any sort of plan was evident in the subdued winner’s speech in which Boris seemed surprised to have won and uncertain about what to do next. We suspect that he was even more disconcerted when stabbed in the back by his very own Brutus. Change needs more than a negative purpose but neither side was able to articulate what success looks like.
All change comes with cost implications. It would have been helpful for the voters to have had some idea of the impact of leaving on the cost of imports, the value of sterling and the billions needed to shore up our currency.
There’s also an important lesson in the messaging. Our experience as communicators compels us to admire the Leave campaign’s ability to communicate a simple idea and do so with frenetic frequency without fear of excessive repetition. In the last of the Dimbleby Debates, the Leavers adeptly repeated their slogan ‘Take back control’ at least once every three minutes to ensure that their message reached viewers with a limited attention span.
Truth was, as always, an early victim of this war yet all successful change depends on it. We urge clients to give clear and reasoned expectations of what change will achieve. We would have liked both sides to be more honest with the data and to clearly differentiate evidence from speculation. Change management fails when expectations are not met.
The referendum majority expects massive investment in the NHS, a continuation of all regional development funds, higher earnings and selective immigration. We suggest the early and comprehensive design of Plan A with extensive mitigation provisions in the event that taking back control requires more than just a slogan.
Compromising at Work
There are few aspects of life that don’t involve making compromises. Every part of our existence involves curtailing individual freedom or postponing desires in order to co-exist with others. We happily obey rules that limit our personal liberty, such as driving on the left or paying taxes, in order to benefit from the security that a civilised society offers. Even those people who opt out make a compromise, trading their freedom against the ability to avail themselves of the many upsides of a consumer society. At a more basic level, successful relationships are based entirely on two people deciding on issues together, something that inevitably involves the art of making sacrifices.
The world of work is no different. But, in this instance, I often get a sense from talking to people just how many have made their compromises unconsciously. They started out perfectly sanguine about what was required from them and what unwritten contract they made with themselves. Before they know it, they have fallen into a routine of long hours, commuting, endless unproductive meetings, bureaucracy, and hierarchies. Work has, for many, become a straight-jacket from which it is difficult to escape until, that is, a way has been found to exist without money. Until then, the need to pay mortgages, school fees and holidays provides a constant reminder to keep working. It is a necessary evil although, as C S Lewis reminded us, we should never mistake necessary evils for good.
Businesses also incentivise people to stay. That can only be a good thing, right? Well, I see so many people who continue to postpone what they really want to do until their long term incentives pay out. These LTIPs or CNCL (crap now, cash later) as I call them, have the effect of rewarding the wrong behaviour. The famous Marshmallow Test experiment of Walter Mischel tried to test whether a child’s ability to defer gratification (one marshmallow now versus three later) could predict the strength of their willpower. These long term incentives, rather than spawning improved performance, have a habit of encouraging people to keep their heads down and stay past their sell-by date. I also see people who have stayed so long that they’ve forgotten what it is that they made those compromises for in the first place. It’s a bit like the reverse of Wilde’s Dorian Grey. In this instance, they’ve grown grey and gaunt after a lifetime of work and now barely recognise the portrait in their loft of them as a young, thrusting person with an ambition for life.
All this occurred to me as I recently read the latest Julian Barnes’ novel, The Noise of Time. It’s a quasi-biographical novel about the life of the Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich. It is fascinating and can be read on many levels. But it is essentially about the compromises that Shostakovich makes, both personally and artistically, in order to survive in Stalin’s Russia. As Barnes said: “If you saved yourself, you might also save those around you. And since you would do anything in the world to save those you loved, you did anything in the world to save yourself.” Of course, I am not in any way trying to compare corporate life with the heinous Stalinist regime, but this is, I feel, as good an insight as any into the nature of compromise. People at work do, consciously and unconsciously, make sacrifices that eat into their very nature. And so much so that they move inexorably away from being the person that they used to be. Again, as Barnes says in the novel: “…one of the tragedies life plots for us: it is our destiny to become in old age what in youth we would have most despised.”
Staying true to our dreams and ambitions is tough, because life does require us to make compromises. Life can never be a straight line. But having a sense of one’s non-negotiables – those values and needs that we will not forgo – can help us enormously to navigate our way through life. It is important for us to be conscious of those decisions rather than let them sink below the surface only to re-emerge when it’s possibly too late. And that requires a high degree of bravery. As e e cummings said; “it takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”
Loneliness of MSI leadership
The executive leadership of even the most successful multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) is often a lonely and unrewarding task.
Over the past two decades, we have seen impressive growth in the number and reach of MSIs which formalise and encourage the design, development and implementation of systems to transform production methods and supply chains for the benefit of people and the environment. These voluntary standard systems have become models of effective pre-competitive collaboration between multi-national companies, their suppliers, commodity producers and civil society organisations.
The largest and longest established of these standards systems, have achieved global impact in sectors ranging from forestry and fishing to cocoa and coffee. Some, such as the Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade, have succeeded in raising levels of awareness among consumers as well as influencing the policies and practices of governments and behaviour throughout supply chains.
Many of these systems share knowledge and experience through membership of the ISEAL Alliance which currently has 23 full and associate member organisations which can demonstrate how they are contributing to economic, environmental and social sustainability. Beyond the current membership, there are dozens of other sustainability standards at various stages of evolution.
While each organisation has a different mission, our work has enabled us to see evidence of the effectiveness of the cross-sector collaboration while appreciating the challenging and often dispiriting nature of executive leadership in MSIs. These organisations are extremely tough to manage.
As we see it, there are four key factors which contribute to the loneliness and frustration of MSI chief executives: reconciling stakeholder priorities, serving a multi-stakeholder board, securing income and attracting key staff.
It can be difficult to manage the expectations and interests of all the stakeholders. While the participants share a common vision, their culture, resources and priorities are quite different. Agreement on long-term goals does not equate to a consensus view of short-term action. The initiative’s supporters have differing reporting obligations to their own stakeholders, different concepts of how governance relates to management and different notions of return on investment.
MSI Boards tend to be made up of experienced and authoritative individuals who are highly skilled but time poor. For the chief executive, the MSI is an overriding concern while for her or his board members it is just one of a wide range of interests and concerns and may be something to think about just before or during occasional board meetings.
Funding is a major issue for newer MSIs while they are testing and developing a viable business model. Not surprisingly, there can be significant differences around the board about who should contribute how much and the extent to which the organisation’s work should be funded through earned income as opposed to donor philanthropy. It is invariably the chief executive who is held responsible for securing income and meeting the diverse and possibly conflicting expectations of those provide it.
Arguably, the greatest challenge of all is attracting and retaining the high quality talent which is essential to the success of the initiative and to the performance of the chief executive. Senior roles in these organisations require exceptional specialist expertise yet the compensation on offer compares unfavourably with that on offer in the public and private sectors.
Our conclusion is that MSI leaders have a great deal to gain by sharing experiences with each other. The World Bank sponsored conference at Wilton Park in 2014 was a welcome effort to bring together MSI leaders to address issues of mutual interest but there’s much more that could be done by promoting and enabling collaboration among the collaborators.
The ISEAL Alliance Global Sustainability Standards Conference in Washington DC in May could prove to be an opportunity to share learning and build a mutual support network for this small but essential group of leaders who deserve more reliable backing than they currently receive.
Wogan & me
The passing of well-loved celebrities is always marked not only by an outpouring of grief but also by an outpouring of newspaper copy. These panegyrics are often parodied in Private Eye with versions such as the “celebrity and me” and “how I taught the celebrity everything he knew” whereby the writer manages to place themselves at the centre of attention at the expense of the late-departed celebrity. This is my attempt at the genre.
I did not know Wogan (although I did bump into him a couple of times) but his passing did give me pause for thought. However, it is worth stating that, like all previous posts, this is a blog about leadership, coaching and communications. But the point is that Terry Wogan presents a remarkable case study. He may not have recognised it, but he was an extraordinary leader with millions of followers who loved and admired him. He was also, it seems, universally liked by everyone who worked with him and he treated all his teams with the utmost respect. Let’s be honest, there are very few CEOs who could claim a legacy anything like that. And so we need to ask ourselves why that was the case and what others can learn.
Wogan’s style was warm and gentle. He was unthreatening. He told stories and he treated all equally. He possessed, it seems, the most extraordinary gift of putting other people first. And he was genuine. There was only one side to him. He himself made the point that there could only be one Wogan because in order to be successful on the radio you had to be yourself and that meant being yourself when you were off-air as well. As CEOs and leaders search for authenticity they could learn a lot from people like him.
But enough of him, where do I come in? The truth is that I always used to think of Wogan as rather naff. I never listened to Radio 2 because it was naff. Blankety Blank was naff, Children in Need was super naff, and the Eurovision was the acme of naff (before, of course, becoming post-ironic). It therefore took me a long time to recognise just how good he was, and how hard he worked to make it all seem effortless. He never took himself seriously nor his audience for granted. And when these elements of his projected personality came through I realised that there was more to admire in that man then in most so-called leaders. And so to the legions of leadership qualities perhaps we can add those Wogan traits: story-telling, self-deprecating, hubris-free, light-hearted, generous of spirit, genuine of mind, and always putting others first. These, for me, are the characteristics of true leadership. After all, as Mark Twain said: “Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”
Changing one’s mind (again)
Much of my business life is spent coaching and supporting people through change, both personal and professional. One of the many reasons people seek me out is because I’m viewed as being someone who is comfortable with change; somebody who is able to navigate complex, uncertain and ambiguous environments where events seem to be constantly upsetting apple carts. And it’s true. Too much certainty and stability makes me nervous. I’m constantly looking for new and better ways to do things, challenging the status quo and generally enjoying poking the shibboleths of received wisdom. Except that recently I found myself realising that I was often reluctant to change my mind. And when I dug deeper I had to confess that I in many things rather than changing frequently I had in fact retrenched into a rather stubborn fixity.
We’re all guilty of not changing our mind. We’re slaves to confirmation bias where we seek out information that confirm our views and ignore facts that don’t comply. We let our hot cognition dominate our executive functions; we favour fast thinking over slow; and we’re too often swayed by emotions over logic. To be fair, it’s not just that we’re stubborn. The paradox of choice means that the more things there are to consider the more anxiety we feel about the decision-making. So it’s often far better to stick to what we know rather than venturing out into an uncertain world.
Political affiliation often produces fixed thinking. As WS Gilbert’s First Lord of the Admiralty sings in HMS Pinafore: “I always voted at my party’s call and never thought of thinking for myself at all.” Slavish adherence to ideological positions may make for more efficient party management but it doesn’t encourage independent thinking. On the other hand, the debate on Europe that is just kicking off in the UK provides an interesting case study of what happens when a degree of latitude is allowed. Stayers and leavers are found across the whole political spectrum. The right is as likely to be split on the issue as the left. And how are we to make up our minds? Both sides have their supporters (eminence gris, academics, economists, business leaders, and celebrities). Each side is able to lay out irrefutable evidence in the form of facts. If confirmation bias doesn’t get us first we’ll all probably either be using our fast thinking or we’ll take the easy option and opt out altogether.
Anyway, the point of all this is that last week I changed my mind. There’s an issue on which I’ve moved from being implacably opposed to being implacably curious to being implacably contemplative. The issue is that of a universal basic income. I’ve always thought that the whole idea was rather silly. I thought that such an idea went against all my principles of self-resilience; that it would encourage the wrong behaviours (including free riders) and that it couldn’t work. And then the Royal Society of Arts (disclosure: I’ve been a fellow for 20yrs) produced a very thoughtful report. The idea has supporters (and detractors) from across the political spectrum, so rather than picking a response off the shelf I had to do my own thinking. My journey from closed mind to potential advocate allowed me the opportunity to challenge my thinking about welfare, self-motivation, fairness, the nature of work, and of citizenship. I’m still thinking, but the more that I think and read about it, the closer I become to changing my mind. [You can read the RSA report here http://bit.ly/1PwyDJ1 together with a blog from @RSAMatthew http://bit.ly/1OkrLgQ]
So how about, as a New Year’s resolution, a bit less fixed thinking and a bit more recognition of the benefits of changing one’s mind. It can all be rather refreshing. Out with the old and in with the new. As Isaac Asimov once said: ”Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”
The Pursuit of Happiness
In my mid-teens I was given as a present the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. I started to read at the beginning and worked my way up to letter C where I arrived at Churchill. I was hugely enjoying reading his famous motivational and inspirational quotes when I read: “It is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations.” This hit me hard. Although it wasn’t what he meant, I took it to mean that I was a bit of a cheat. Rather than reading the original texts I was in effect cherry picking to make myself seem cleverer than I was. As a consequence, I’ve always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with the profound quotation industry.
And so it was that two things caught my eye this week. The first was a report, which appeared on Quartz.com, of a Canadian academic study which claimed to have found a proven link that shows that people who buy into pseudo-scientific quotes are less intelligent. As they say: “Those more receptive to bullshit are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.” (http://bit.ly/1XMAb6W)
The second thing I read was a line someone posted on the benefit of motivational quotes which stated that miserable people produce miserable results. This point was, I felt, not only devoid of any factual underpinning but completely fatuous. It certainly scored high on my bullshit barometer. To imply that only happy people can produce good (happy?) work is naïve. Think of the great artists who have struggled with varying degrees of melancholy and depression: Blake, Conrad, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Gaugin, Van Goth, et al, and not forgetting the self-portraits of Rembrandt, works that seemingly penetrate the very soul of the human condition. Personally I find the PPP leadership model (Perpetual Polyanna Personality) irritating. Excessive and, often, contrived positivity can be draining. Similarly, I once wrote about the downside of open-plan offices and extrovert-driven brainstorms. The reality being that it is often the quiet, focused, pragmatic, realistic, introverts who are most effective. The endlessly positive motivators miss the point of both true leadership and of the human condition. One of my favourite writers, the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, has written extensively about how foolish the pursuit of happiness is. He describes it as being wildly unrealistic and unconsciously destructive. Realism and unhappiness are as important to our sanity as happiness which, he says, should be a side effect.
So where does this leave the workplace happiness industry? For me happiness in business should be, like employee engagement, a consequence of doing the basics well. Rather than focus on initiatives to address (un)happiness, the attention should be on what really matters: being well-paid, well-respected, involved (agents of change not objects of change), and with the time and the tools to achieve realistic goals. In other words, a pragmatic, realistic and grown-up approach to the workplace in place of the ra-ra focus on endlessly uplifting motivation.
And where does this leave motivational quotes? How about this one from AA Milne, creator of that famous curmudgeon Eeyore: “A quotation is a handy thing to have about, saving one the trouble of thinking for oneself.”
Silo thinking, silo politics
The UK General Election in May 2015 produced a result that few had expected. One of the outcomes was the virtual disappearance of the LibDems. At the time I predicted that it could mark the re-emergence of a new political force based on the original Social Democratic Party of the mid 1980’s (the fact that there are no signs of life to date is yet another example of my lack of prowess as a soothsayer). My premise was based on the fact that all political parties are coalitions and that as the right and the left inexorably move to take up more polarised positions, there will always be fertile ground in the centre. Some rightly say that the Conservative party has moved to take much of that ground, although recent events in the Labour Party, together with the forthcoming referendum on Europe, leave me fairly confident that my prediction has a fighting chance of becoming reality.
Political parties are good examples of silos. They are rigid, tribal, hierarchical, and self-reaffirming. They encourage collective thought, group think and, as a result, confirmation bias. In a Manichean way, they divide between their position, good; and that of others, bad. They preach to the converted, see what they want to see, and hear what they want to hear. Not only are they disenfranchising people who see them as of growing irrelevance to their day-to-day lives, but, more importantly, they’re not very effective. As Christopher Hitchen said: “The only real radicalism in our time will come as it always has – from people who insist on thinking for themselves and who reject party-mindedness.”
The world that we live in is both complex and ambiguous. Issues that affect us have a habit of being inter-twined and often intractable. Our small island faces challenges that are supra-national, long-term, expensive and existential. Many of these challenges defy traditional ideological compartmentalisation. And yet despite huge advances in technology and methods of organising, we’re still using a political process designed in the 18th Century. Our political parties are organised to have non-negotiable positions which they put to those in the electorate who can be bothered to vote. The party with a winning mandate (based on first-past-the-post in 650 unequally sized constituencies) try and manage their response to these complex issues through a party machine. It does seem as if we are using old tools to fix new problems.
The business world is waking up to similar challenges. In a global, disruptive, Uber world, corporations are facing threats to their very existence. The models that they have used to organise and manage their affairs are having to be rethought. In fact, the very idea of organisational design is being put to the test. We may have thought that specialisation and organisation was the way to success but now we’re having to reconsider whether what we gain in efficiency we lose in effectiveness (Gillian Tett’s book, “The Silo Effect” is an excellent read on the whole subject). Social technology is slowly seeing the end of hierarchy, command and control leadership, and vertical silos. The best companies recognise that the route to success is paved with curiosity, collaboration, challenge, dissent, and action. Solutions are created most effectively by groups of inter-linked people who come together specifically to solve issues. Having teams for the sake of having leadership team meetings doesn’t work any longer. They may have the responsibility but the power left long ago.
We no longer benefit from silo thinking and silo organisations and, indeed, we no longer need to. Social technology can provide us with far more effective ways to come together to solve complex problems. What this means for business is becoming clearer (non-hierarchical, self-organising, social teams). What it means for politics is far less clear. However, what is certain is that we could all benefit from taking a look at all issues from outside whatever social or political silo we find ourselves in. As Bertrand Russell said: “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”