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.
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.
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.
I once worked for a young organisation with big ambitions. The managers were all highly experienced, but had only recently come together as a team. They decided to contract with a long-established and very stable international firm to help with operations. I don’t think anybody was expecting what happened next. The partner firm arrived, and immediately started to call the shots. Needless to say, hackles rose amongst my colleagues – we were the customer, after all: isn’t the customer always right? It took some considerable (and uncomfortable) time to make the relationships work. What happened? This was all about organisational maturity. The partner organisation had well-established ways of doing things and strong internal relationships. Everyone knew what they were there to do, and how it related to everyone else. They knew that their colleagues could be trusted to do what they expected, and to back them up when necessary. That organisational maturity gave them a high degree of confidence. My organisation, on the other hand, had none of that. Although individuals (as individuals) were highly competent and confident, there had not been time for strong relationships to develop between us. Although there would be an expectation of support from others, without having been there before certainty about its strength, timeliness and content was lacking. In those circumstances, collective confidence cannot be high. Eventually our differences were sorted out, but it might have been quicker and easier if the relative lack of organisational maturity and its consequences had been recognised at the start. Confidence comes not just from the confidence of individuals. It is also about the strength of teamwork, and a team has to work together for some time to develop that trust and mutual confidence. When two organisations interact, expect their relative maturities to affect the outcome.
Yesterday I spent the morning at WBMS, in a fascinating workshop run by Quirk Solutions exploring the value of ‘Wargaming’ as a way of testing the resilience of a strategy and related plans before putting them into effect.
Wargaming, as you might imagine, is based on the process developed by the military to evaluate their plans, but that is where any direct connection to anything military ends. If you called the process something else, nothing about it would tell you its origins. And in practice, it is really a somewhat more formalised and disciplined extension of testing approaches which you may well already use to some extent. Where Chis Paton and his team at Quirk really add value is in their in-depth experience of what works, and highly-polished skills for facilitating the process to make it maximally effective. I took away a number of key ideas for running a good process which I thought it would be worth sharing.
WargamingThe process is based around two teams: the Blue (plan-owning) Team and the Red (plan-challenging) Team. Although that sounds similar to the common approach of ‘Red Team Review’ for proposal improvement, in this process it is made more effective by asking each Red Team player to represent the views of a major interested party or parties. This makes for a much more engaged and lively process, better bringing out emotive issues. It can also bring out the important potential conflicts between different interests which may otherwise be ‘averaged out’. At least some of the Red Team can be externals – where there are no commercial issues, they could even be the relevant interest groups themselves! – which is clearly likely to help avoid blind spots. Even in a brief exercise, it was clear that the role-playing approach could bring much greater richness to the output. The process is also iterative: the Blue Team present their outline plan (best not to develop too much detail early, as it is likely to change!); the Red Team make challenges back from their ‘interest’ perspectives; the Blue Team re-work the proposal to address as many of the issues as possible; further challenge, and so on. Clearly in a relatively brief review meeting, there will be very limited time for further analysis or data gathering between iterations, so the objective is not a finished plan, but the best possible framework to take away and work up, together with lists of actions and owners. That leads me to my final point: While a Red Team Review would normally be looking at a more-or-less finished proposal, the process we tested will add most value early in the process of development. No-one likes to make significant changes to a plan that they have put a lot of effort into, however important, and that may well lead to the smallest adaptation possible, rather than the best. Thanks WBMS and Quirk for organising a stimulating event!
What is governance for?Wouldn’t it be wonderful if whenever you asked someone to do something, they just did it? And of course, on the other hand, that they didn’t do things which they had not been asked to do? Oh for perfect control! But wait a moment. Midas asked that everything he touched should turn to gold – and look where that got him. Perhaps we had better be careful what we wish for. How often have you said “No, that’s not what I meant!”? Or “I’d have thought it was obvious that that needed doing!”? Let’s face it, most of us are not that great at giving really good instructions about what we need, and we certainly don’t have time to include every detail. At the same time, the people we ask are intelligent and creative. We get better outcomes, and they enjoy the work more and so are more motivated, when we expect them to use those abilities to interpret our needs sensibly and come up with the best solutions, even when we didn’t think to ask. In summary, then, we have specific outcomes we require, but it is neither practical nor desirable for us to be completely prescriptive about how they should be delivered. Governance provides a framework within which the desires for control of outcomes and for flexibility over means can be reconciled with the minimum of effort. Such a framework is fundamentally about good behaviours. Most of us want to behave well, but doing things the way we know would be best often takes more time and effort (at least in the short term), and time is one thing that is always in short supply. Formal governance arrangements help to stop us taking the short cuts which may be unhelpful in the long run. They ensure that we communicate what we are doing – so that changes can be made if required – and may force us to plan a bit further ahead. Being able to see good governance in place reassures stakeholders that the organisation is behaving transparently. It gives Government bodies and Regulators confidence that the organisation is complying with legislation and other requirements. And it allows Boards and managers to delegate authority while retaining sufficient control. Good governance means that we not only behave honestly and competently, but are seen to be doing so, which builds trust. In short, it is the rock on which a well-managed organisation is built. What good governance is NOT about is bureaucracy, box-ticking and delays. It requires finding balances – between control and practical delivery; between the risks of delegation and the cost of control; between wide ownership of decisions and strong accountability for them; between a simple structure and efficient decision-making; between minimum overhead and an effective audit trail – which provide the optimum basis for success. Every organisation has different arrangements because the optimum trade-offs depend on the context. This is the first of a series of articles will set out the main issues to be considered in designing an internal governance system and the principles which should underlie it.
I’ve just been asked by some consultants I’m working with to give feedback for their annual appraisals. As usual there is a standard set of questions they need addressed – and one of them is about leadership. That seems a tough ask for someone junior who has only started recently, and set me thinking about how I could help them. Here’s what I said. Leadership is different for every individual. Everyone has their own personality, and so everyone has to do it in their own way. Why? It’s very simple. Leadership means that people are willing to follow you, and for that to happen, two things are necessary: people must trust you, and you must have something to say. Trust comes when you behave with integrity. Everything you do is consistent, both with your values and with your personality, so people have confidence about outcomes. You are ‘authentic’. Everyone has their own personality, so everyone’s leadership is different. If you try to lead the way someone else does, you are inevitably trying to be consistent with their personality and not with your own. Even if you can do it, you will feel uncomfortable. You will come over as not authentic, and you won’t be fully trusted. As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken!”
Leadership is for everyoneEveryone has something to say. We all have unique experiences starting from our earliest days, and it is human nature to use the stories of our past experiences to help us decide how to deal with new situations. Everyone has insights they can contribute, although of course the more experience you have the more you have to offer. If everyone can do these two things, leadership is not just for Leaders with a capital L. Leadership is about having the confidence to be yourself, and to share whatever your experience tells you about the situation you are in. Followers will follow!
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300"] English: neck of bottle of champagne (Photo credit: Wikipedia)[/caption] What? Don’t you mean success? Well, no – although that is worth celebrating too. I came across the idea that you should celebrate failure recently in “Co-active Coaching”, and it makes a lot of sense. People rarely fail at things because they didn’t really try – or at least not at things that matter. First they had to find the courage to attempt something which they knew might to expose them to failure. Then, wanting to avoid failure, they tried hard, probably attempting things they had never done before. Finally they had to admit they had failed - even though in the process they had probably achieved more than they ever thought possible. All of those things are difficult, and worthy of celebration in themselves. But there is more to it than that. Failure is an excellent teacher! When you fail, you have to face up to things you tried which did not work. Often you will want to understand why they did not work, and this may lead to more success next time. There is also a less obvious reason. When we are criticised, blamed and shamed for failing, it usually has the desired effect of making us very keen to avoid failing again. Unfortunately, the consequences of that very understandable urge are not necessarily to make us try harder. We are very likely to learn to avoid taking the risky option in the first place, or to limit the options we consider only to the ones which appear ‘safe’. You can’t stop failure hurting, but instead of adding to the hurt, celebrate failure – the courage, the effort, the learning involved – and at the same time create a culture in which even risky options can be seriously considered.
 “Co-Active Coaching” By Henry and Karen Kimsey-House, Phillip Sandahl and Laura Whitworth
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300"] English: Terraced house façades, Montague Street See also 1608624 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)[/caption] I’ll never forget my first serious experience of negotiation. I was selling my first house, a small, terraced house in a cheap part of the city. I loved it, because it was the first house I had owned, and because I had put a lot of work – and a lot of myself – into it. I had decorated every room; I had refitted the kitchen; I had installed central heating to replace electric storage heaters. I was moving to a new area, where I knew housing was going to be a lot more expensive. I had received an offer to buy my house from a junior colleague at work. Obviously that made things slightly awkward to start with. But I was unprepared for what happened when he asked if he could visit again, with a family friend. They duly arrived, and I showed them around. The family friend, an older gentleman, was very appreciative, admiring everything I had done, complimenting me on my workmanship, and so on. And then, at the end of the visit, he pitched me a new price, substantially lower than the offer my colleague had previously made. I was caught off guard. Having refused the new price, I felt I had to respond to his questions, starting with what was the lowest price I would accept? He came back with requests to throw in this and that if they agreed to a higher price, and so on. We eventually agreed a deal – which actually was not such a bad deal from my point of view – but I was left feeling bruised. Looking back, I have to admire the technique. All the praise, all the efforts to make me feel good first, worked a treat, and there was nothing in the negotiation itself that I could criticise. He did a good job for my colleague. So why did I feel bruised? The one thing that was missing in the exchange was creating an honest expectation. I had been led to believe that the friend was there to give a second opinion. It was my colleague’s first house purchase, just as it had been mine, so understandably he wanted someone else to endorse his judgement. I had not expected that the friend was there to negotiate on his behalf – after all, an offer had already been made. Perhaps I was a bit naïve, but I was caught unprepared; the negotiation had high financial and emotional value for me, and I had no experience of handling something like that. I felt that I was backed into a corner, and that personal trust had been breached. So what is the lesson? Don’t just play fair – make sure everyone knows what game you are going to be playing beforehand, especially if personal relationships are involved. Trust is too important, and too hard to rebuild, to risk losing.