Isn’t it infuriating when things you come to rely on to work perfectly – even (or perhaps especially) when you only use them occasionally – suddenly don’t? I had one of those experiences with my (fairly new) shredder recently. It worked perfectly last time I used it. This time – no sign of life whatsoever. With anything electrical, there are a few things I always try first. A different socket? Nothing. Change the fuse in the plug? Still nothing. See if it’s just having an off day and will feel better tomorrow? No different next day. Painstakingly fish out from between the sharp blades as much of the old shreddings as I can, in case it’s just a jam? No good. At that point I hunted around until I found the user instructions. They didn’t seem to have a trouble-shooting section. Perhaps it was time to look at the guarantee, so I went to the website looking for details. Nothing much helped, but I did find a ‘contact us’ button, so as it was a weekend I wrote an email explaining the situation. Much to my surprise, I got a phone call on the Monday morning from a lady saying she was from Fellowes and she believed I had a problem with my shredder? She took me through a fault-diagnosis process, tailored to my shredder model, and including the sorts of things users do uninstructed (like putting a plastic bag in the bin to collect shreddings). In less than five minutes the problem was solved.
Great customer serviceWhat a great customer service experience! I finished up being a very satisfied customer with a working shredder. It felt a more positive experience than I would have had if I had identified the problem myself from the instructions. There were minimal delays and no one had any costs of shipping the unit anywhere. The cost to the company must have been minimal. In fact it was a very economical bit of promotion. Providing written fault-finding might seem the obvious thing to do. In fact, even if it had worked it would have been a missed opportunity. It pays to think beyond the obvious! This article was first published at www.otteryconsulting.co.uk.
Just before Christmas, I was doing some last-minute shopping in one of the Oxford Street department stores. As usual at that time of year, there was a long queue for the checkouts. When I eventually got to a till, I was surprised to see two people there. There was a young man operating the till. And there was a tall older man bagging the goods sold. Although they were busy, you could tell that they were working well together, and enjoying exchanging a few words with customers and each other when they could. Despite this, the older man had a gravitas that you associate more with the Board room than with the tills of a busy store. Not surprising really – he was a senior manager doing a shift supporting the front-line staff at their busiest time. What was surprising (apart from him being there at all) was the easy way he appeared to be accepted as part of the team. Here was a real “one-team” culture in action. He was not just doing what the organisation expected. He was doing what he believed in, and so it came naturally. His colleagues saw it as perfectly natural and normal too. Everyone was comfortable, and it worked. Culture is the pattern of behaviours that people adopt in order to be accepted in a community. It is defined by what people really value, not what they say they value. In that store, people really valued working together as one team to deliver happy customers. That meant that there was nothing awkward about managers working on the tills. Actions speak louder than words, and clearly it works for them.
Walking the TalkThat experience prompted me to re-read Carolyn Taylor’s “Walking the Talk”, an excellent introduction to corporate culture. Here was an organisation that has a clearly-defined culture, and knows how to maintain it by walking the talk. Sadly, in my experience most leaders are better at the talking than the walking, and in any case most organisations don’t really know what culture they want (if they think about it at all). That’s a lot of value to be losing.
I’ve just come back from the local parcel office with a parcel. Yesterday I had one of those cards through the letterbox that tell you that they had tried to deliver a parcel, and I could collect it from the office. The thing is, I know that they didn’t try to deliver the parcel. I was in, and the card just came through the letterbox with the other mail. I was next to the front door at the time - no ring, no knock. Of course I understand that a large proportion of people they have parcels for are out when they call. I can see that they are just trying to make the jobs of the delivery people more efficient. It saves them the effort of carrying all that extra weight and bringing most of it back again. It saves them waiting to see if someone answers. And it saves them having to write out cards on the doorstep, possibly with rain smudging the ink and making the card go soggy. The thing is though, I have paid to have that parcel delivered. I knew that I was most probably going to be in when the mail came round, so I was happy to take the small risk that I wouldn’t be and that I would have to collect it. I paid them to take the risk that I wouldn’t be in, with its efficiency implications. By writing out the cards without the parcel even leaving the office, they avoided the risk I have paid them to take, and transferred the inefficiency to me. Sadly, it is not just one organisation doing this – I have had similar experiences with other delivery services.
Keep your promisesA more honest approach would be to offer two categories of delivery at two different prices: a cheaper service, where you know you will have to collect, and a more expensive one where the attempt to deliver will be made. That way you could price the risk realistically. But providing the cheaper service when the customer has paid for the more expensive one is just wrong. In most industries, you would not get away with it. I have no doubt that they are all under a lot of competitive pressure. Probably local managers have concluded that it is necessary to do this to meet the tough performance targets which result. If so, that betrays both a cavalier approach, and a lack of joined-up thinking. If you don’t give your customers what they pay for, sooner or later they stop being customers.
I recently asked a friend at a public sector organisation what morale was like following some challenging developments. His reply surprised me: he said “I don’t think we have morale!” That started me thinking about what we mean by morale, and so what not having any could imply. High morale seems easy to understand. We associate it with confidence and optimism, and a belief that whatever the challenges facing us we have the capability, strength and resilience to overcome them. Similarly, low morale describes a situation where there is no such confidence or optimism, and far from overcoming the challenges, we feel they are more likely to overwhelm us. That could include situations where we have simply lost hope that an unhappy situation can get any better. It appears then that there are two components necessary to describe morale: first there must be a situation involving uncertainty or change that creates threats or challenges, and then there is our response to that situation. “No morale” must mean that either there is no uncertainty, change or need for change (unlikely), or, if there is, there is no apparent response to it. In my friend’s organisation, it was clearly the latter. The status quo was tolerable, even comfortable, and there was a belief (based on past experience?) that whatever anyone said, in practice nothing much would change. No one felt any particular discomfort with the status quo. Consequently, the best thing to do was to ignore the whole thing. They felt no need to respond.
No morale = no changeIf that is what “No morale” means, the consequences seem almost certain to be “No change”. For anyone trying to lead change, “No morale” is far worse than low morale. At least the latter recognises the challenges. You can develop confidence in the ability to overcome them. If there is no morale, the change leader’s first job is to create some – even if it is low.
Last week I attended the inaugural meeting of the Change Management Institute’s Thought Leadership Panel. Getting a group of senior practitioners together is always interesting. I’m sure that if we hadn’t all had other things to do the conversation could have gone on a long time! I have been thinking some more about two related questions which we didn’t have time to explore very far. What makes a change manager? And why do so many senior leaders struggle to ‘get’ how change management works? Perhaps the best starting point for thinking about what makes a change manager is to look at people who are change managers and consider how they got there. The first thing that is clear is that they come from a wide variety of different backgrounds. Indeed, many change managers have done a wide variety of different things in their careers. That was certainly true of those present last week. All of that suggests that there is no standard model. A good change leader probably takes advantage of having a wide variety of experience and examples to draw on - stories to tell, if you will. Where those experiences come from is less important. Then there is a tension between two different kinds of approach. Change managers have to be project managers to get things done. But change is not like most projects: there is a limit to how far you can push the pace (and still have the change stick) because that depends on changing the mindsets of people affected. Thumping the table or throwing money at it hardly ever speeds that up. Successful change managers moderate the push for quick results with a sensitivity to how those people are reacting. Not all project managers can do that. So I think you need three main ingredients for a successful change leader:
- The analytical and planning skills to manage projects;
- The people skills to listen and to influence and manage accordingly;
- Enough varied experiences to draw on to be able to tell helpful stories from similar situations.
Senior managers and changeWhy do many senior managers struggle to understand the change process? They may well have the same basic skills, but the blending is usually more focused on results than on process. That is not surprising; their jobs depend on delivering results. A pure ‘results’ focus may be OK to run a stable operation. Problems are likely to arise when change is required if the process component is too limited. Delivering change successfully usually depends on the senior managers as well as the change manager understanding that difference.
I’ve just started trying to organise a local walking group for alumni from my university. The initial process was simple: I wrote an email asking for interest, the alumni office sent it out to people on their database with postcodes in the local area, and I collected the responses. The outcome has been pleasantly surprising. The response rate was over 10%, which under almost any circumstances I would think was a fantastic return for a single ‘cold call’ message out of the blue. But almost as surprising was the proportion of responses which included words along the lines of ‘what a good idea’ with at least the implication of ‘why has no-one suggested this before?’. It seemed as if all that latent demand was just sitting there waiting to be tapped.
InnovationThat set me thinking about how innovation happens. This was not a complicated idea; anyone could have tried it. But no one else did. So what does innovation need? I think there are usually two ingredients. The first is some kind of investment. Often that is financial, but (as in this case) it may just be time and emotional energy. Investment means that you have to put something in, but that success is uncertain and although you may be rewarded well, you may also get nothing back. So the innovator must be willing to take that risk. The second is some relevant knowledge. I had done something similar before, so I knew an easy way to reach my target audience. That knowledge reduced both my investment of time and the risk of failure I saw. I might have been willing to try anyway, but this made it more likely that I would. Certainly I was more likely to try than people without that knowledge. All of us prioritise what we will spend our time on, largely based on our perception of the risk-reward balances of our options. Making innovation happen is usually not about brilliant ideas; it is far more about simply taking the risk to put a simple idea into practice. There is little you can do to change someone’s appetite for risk. If you want to encourage innovation, then, try to find ways to reduce the risk that they see.
There you are, head down in a report, a spreadsheet, or some other urgent bit of business. There’s a knock, and your mind returns to your desk from miles away. Someone says they have a problem and can they talk it over with you please? An interruption. What are you going to say? Your work is high-value, it takes real concentration, and you need to keep your focus to get it done right. On the other hand, if you send them away, you may be telling them that you do not value them and what they do. Of course my own work seems urgent, but I know I’ll get it done one way or another. My colleague on the other hand is important, because it is essential for the longer term that they feel valued. I could easily – and quickly – damage a relationship I have taken a long time to build. I know they would not interrupt me when I’m busy unless they felt it was important. It is really important to give them something to show that I’m taking them seriously. Even if I decide I can only spare 5 minutes now, I’ll always offer that as a first step, at least to give them things to be thinking about until I can pay full attention. If I give them proper respect, value them, take their problems seriously, I find that they respect me back – and interruption is rare unless it really is necessary. So if you really can't deal with the interruption fully there and then, at least find some compromise. It will pay you back in the long run.
I was once asked in an interview about tough decisions I’ve made, and how I made them. I understand why it might be thought important in the selection process: it seems like a good question. Doesn’t it tell you something about the individual’s ability to cope in difficult situations? However, on reflection I’m less convinced! Thinking back over a number of my roles, I realised (to my surprise) that most of the important decisions I have taken have not seemed tough at all. By ‘tough’ I mean difficult to make; they may still have been hard to implement. Conversely, tough decisions (on that definition) have often not been particularly important.
What makes tough decisions?So what makes a decision tough? Often it is when there are two potentially conflicting drivers for the decision which can’t be measured against each other. Most commonly, it is when my rational, analytical side is pulling me one way – and my emotional, intuitive side is pulling another. Weighing up the pros and cons of different choices is relatively easy when it can be an analytical exercise, but that depends on comparing apples with apples. When two choices are evenly balanced on that basis, your choice will make little difference, so there is no point agonising about it. The problem comes when the rational comparison gives one answer, but intuitively you feel it is wrong. Comparing a rational conclusion with an emotional one is like comparing apples and roses – there is simply no basis for the comparison. When they are in conflict, you must decide (without recourse to analysis or feeling!) whether to back the rational conclusion or the intuitive one. A simple example is selecting candidates for roles. Sometimes a candidate appears to tick all the boxes convincingly, but intuition gives a different answer. On the rare occasions when I have over-ridden my intuition, it has usually turned out to be a mistake. Based on experience, then, I know that I should normally go with intuition, however hard that feels. We are all different though. Perhaps everyone has to find out from their mistakes how to make their own tough decisions. What we should not do is confuse how hard it is to make a decision with how important it is.
In the old days, efficiency (doing things right) ruled. You made money by having more efficient processes than competitors, so your margin was higher on the same price. Scale was rewarded, because it brought efficiency, encouraging huge companies and standardised products. Flexibility was your enemy. Now, technology has changed everything. Just because it is possible, effectiveness (doing the right thing) will rule. The customer will always be right, whatever they want. Can you imagine people now accepting Henry Ford’s statement that people could have any colour they wanted, so long as it was black? Scale and efficiency is not the only thing that matters any more – in this new world, value comes from responsiveness. Success requires using connections, building a community with customers and suppliers, and being creative. In the days when efficiency led, market domination was the objective, because that was what allowed you to hold onto your “most efficient producer” badge. In the new world, domination is not the only determinant of success. Your company needs to be like a lumberjack on a log flume – constantly moving to stay on top despite the logs rolling, and needing the agility that comes most easily to small companies to do so.
Use consultants and interims for ideas and flexibilityThis model lends itself readily to the de-centralised organisation, using consultants, interims, and other forms of flexible working to provide the skills needed when they are needed. To do this well, the organisation needs to be networked and connected; old-style hierarchies, linear processes and so on inhibit the flexibility required. In this post-Brexit-vote world, where no-one quite knows where we are going or what it will mean, that flexibility to adapt rapidly as the shape of the future emerges will be even more important. Winning will depend on having a culture which embraces flexibility and adapts to change. Darwin had a phrase for it: survival of the fittest. The species that survived were the ones with most variability. Work flexibly; bring in and try out new ideas; find better ways to succeed. Voting to be dinosaurs can’t change the laws of nature.
A long time ago, I proposed an important change to a committee of senior colleagues. The overall intent was hardly arguable, and I had carefully thought out the details. Overall, it got a good hearing. But then the trouble started. One manager picked on a point of detail which he didn’t like. OK, I thought, I can find a way round that. But then other managers piled in, some supporting my position on that, but objecting to different details. The discussion descended into a squabble about detailed points on which no-one could agree, and as a result the whole project was shelved despite its overall merits. I learnt an important lesson from that experience. When a collective decision is required, detail is your enemy. Most projects will have – or at least may be perceived to have – some negative impacts on some people, even though overall they benefit everyone. Maybe someone loses autonomy in some area, or needs to loan some staff. Maybe there is some overlap with a pet project of their own. Whatever the reason, providing detail at the outset makes those losses visible, and can lead to opposition based on self-interest (even if that is well-concealed) which kills the whole project. As we all know, you can’t negotiate with a committee. So what is the answer? The approach I have found works best is to start by seeking agreement for general principles with which the implementation must be consistent. The absence of detail means that the eventual impacts on individual colleagues are uncertain, and consequently the discussion is more likely to stay focused on the bigger picture. Ideally you are given authority to implement within the approved principles. But even if you have to go back with a detailed plan, once the committee has approved the outcome and the principles to be followed it is much harder for them to reject a solution that sticks to those, let alone to kill the project. Looking at the wider world, perhaps the Ten Commandments of the Bible provide a good example of this approach. For a more business-relevant example, see my earlier posts on the principles behind good internal governance. More generally, defining top-level principles is also the key to delegating decision-making to local managers. It means that they can make decisions which take proper account of local conditions, while ensuring that decisions made by different managers in different areas all have an underlying consistency.