Do You Really Know What Is Going On In Your Organisation?

We are at an inflection point:

When it comes to workplace culture, there is a large gap between what leaders think is going on and what employees say is happening on the ground.

The Hidden Value Of Culture Makers

According to the latest Accenture report – two thirds of leaders feel they create empowering environments—in which employees can be themselves, raise concerns and innovate without fear of failure— but only one third of employees agree.

This perception gap has consequences for both colleagues and customers. It results in a kind of organisational drift – an ever widening gap between what processes say should happen, and what actually happens. ‘Work as imagined by management’ versus ‘Work as is actually done by colleagues’.

In a steep hierarchy it is a happier and happier story that reaches the top ranks

Robert I. Sutton

If you just hang around organisations and watch and listen you have a much clearer picture of how things really work than you do by reading a board report or press release.

I was recently in hospital for an 11 day period, and after a while you begin to be part of the furniture – and are exposed to all sorts of unguarded conversations from staff. I’d say I had a pretty good insight into how people felt about how the trust was coping with Coronavirus and PPE supplies. A better insight than I’d get from official channels that’s for sure.

Credit: Virpi Oinonen

The concept of the ‘iceberg of ignorance’ – that most problems in organisations are invisible to leaders, and therefore unsolvable – was popularised by Sidney Yoshida in the late 1980’s.  Whether or not the numbers are correct ( I’d suggest that executives see a lot more than 4% of the problems or even see entirely different challenges ) it remains a useful metaphor.

‘Clowns Supervised By Monkeys’ – Lessons From Boeing

On 10 March 2019 Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed just minutes after takeoff and killed all 157 people on board. The circumstances echoed an accident the previous October in which another 737 operated by Lion Air, an Indonesian carrier, had crashed and killed 189 people.

For Boeing the fatal crashes of two of its new 737 Max jets was about to shine a light on a corporate culture which had prioritised production speed over quality and safety.

The redacted emails (you can read herehere, and here) that come from documents Boeing sent to Congress show a culture in which everyone was talking about problems , but no-one was solving them.

According to Peter DeFazio the Congressman who led the investigation into the development of the 737 Max the messages “paint a deeply disturbing picture of the lengths Boeing was apparently willing to go to in order to evade scrutiny from regulators, flight crews and the flying public even as its own employees were sounding alarms internally.”

It’s too easy to blame this type of scenario on one person. This is a complex problem that involves more than just the CEO. Indeed, organisational systems and cultures often prevent people speaking truth to power, even if the ultimate boss is willing to listen. I once worked with a leader whose entire organisational department were told in explicit terms that ‘dirty linen was not to be washed in public’. Whatever the flaws and screw ups of the business unit – none of it would make it beyond the local management team.

As Amy C. Edmondson has written , the absence of psychological safety — the assurance that someone can speak up, offer ideas, point out problems, or deliver bad news without fear of retribution — can lead to disastrous results.

Most of our organisational disasters don’t kill people – they just waste people’s time. All of us have worked in organisations where large change or transformation projects have either failed completely or failed to deliver the intended results. I’m willing to bet that failure was not a surprise to you or any of your colleagues.

Why is this so common?

In psychology, there is a phenomenon called the Bystander Effect where individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present. Indeed, the likelihood of someone taking action in a particular setting is inversely proportional to the number of people present.

The same rule holds true in most companies. Imagine a scenario where most of an organisation has the roughly the same view on the set of things that ought to be done to improve performance. Why are these changes not immediately adopted?

There’s a complex mix of reasons people walk on by – and it’s a never ending leadership task to understand why and reduce barriers to personal empowerment.

Post-COVID – Walking The Virtual Floor

It’s now almost certain that we’ll never return to the same office life that existed before. Of course we will see some go back to their default and be happy to be back in a physical office together again, but we’ll also see the other end of the spectrum where the prospects of huge savings in capital expenditure and zero travel costs lead to a default remote working plan.

This places a challenge and an opportunity:

  • How do you pick up the weak signals of emerging problems in a majority remote workforce?
  • How do you have water cooler conversations when the water cooler no longer exists?

There’s no silver bullet here. The best bosses are those who know that they are always prone to discovering blind spots about themselves, their colleagues, and problems in the organisation. They work to minimise these blind spots by remaining curious, visible and actively seeking out feedback.

When management talks about the challenges of remote work it often focuses inside out:

  • How do you give feedback virtually?
  • How do you communicate effectively?

The problem we must overcome is exactly the opposite.

  • How do you sense, listen and respond in a digital world?
  • How do you create psychologically safe virtual spaces where people can speak truth to power?

Most of us, if we are honest, choose to stay silent on some of the most obvious changes that our organisations should make. We can all be bystanders – but we don’t have to be.

Do we really know what’s happening in our own organisation? Probably not as much as we could or indeed, should.


Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

(Note: there is conjecture that the Yoshida paper, and the conference that he purportedly presented it to, is an urban myth )

Failure: We Need To Move From Slow And Stupid To Fast And Intelligent

twitterpeek

In the history of pointless technology, it takes a lot to beat the Twitter Peek.

Aimed at those interested in Twitter, but who didn’t own a smartphone,  it asked customers to spend $100 plus a monthly subscription.

With the benefit of hindsight, it was clearly designed to solve a problem that didn’t really exist.  If you were using Twitter in 2009 you could count yourself as an early adopter – the tech-savvy and digitally engaged folk who probably already owned a smartphone.


Last week we learned a new word from Samuel West, Founder and Curator of the Museum of Failure – Atychiphobia. We were presenting alongside Samuel to discuss why we find it so hard to talk about failure at work.

The Museum of Failure started as a collection of nearly 100 ‘innovative’ products that launched, but in one way or another ended up going horribly wrong.

Rather than condemning the failure – the museum is actually a celebration of creativity. Every item provides unique insight into the risky business of innovation.

It’s easy to laugh at likes of Twitter Peek, or Colgate Lasagne, but if we are honest our own careers will be full of bad ideas and false starts.

credit-dr-samuel-west

Nielsen research suggests that “two out of every three products are destined to fail.” However, this is rarely acknowledged or discussed.  

In the social sector, where projects take years rather than weeks,  and pilots become mainstream services without any evaluation – things are worse.

Nothing publicly fails.

Everything is a success.

Chris Bolton has suggested we need our own Museum – a Museum of Failed Products for the social sector – to share the learning from things that haven’t worked.

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Our Problem With Failing

The truth is that even though the wisdom of learning from failure is incontrovertible, in most organisations we simply think of failure in the wrong way.

Amy Edmonson has outlined the big difference between knowing that failure is a valuable learning experience and actually making it a core part of your ethos.

As she explains,  every child learns at some point that admitting failure sometimes means taking the blame. Failure then gets inextricably linked with fault – and we learn that it sometimes pays to cover up failure , or even blame it on someone else.

THE SPECTRUM OF FAILURE

There’s a world of difference between deliberately breaking the rules, thinking on your feet in a complex situation and purposeful exploration.

The organisation that implements lots of ideas will most likely have many failures. Innovation only thrives in a forgiving organisation. And if failure is the engine for innovation, our challenge is to make our organisations more forgiving.

Again we come back to culture – and the need for organisations to become places of psychological safety where learning from failure is openly discussed.

When we initially pitched Bromford Lab the number one objective was to create an environment where failure was not just accepted but encouraged. 75% of the things we worked on would fail.

This was not to create a culture that celebrated failure. It was to create a place where people felt it was safe to fail. They wouldn’t get punished for messing up.

Good Failure/Bad Failure

In exploration, Failure is just an alert, warning us about the way work is progressing.

You wouldn’t close down cancer research on the basis of failed trials, you take the learning and use it to continue the research and development process.

At Bromford we are closing down our Starting Well Engineer pilot, but the findings we have are invaluable and will inform the next stage of exploration.  Indeed our Neighbourhood Coaching model was the result of five years of tiny failures.

Where we need to get better is we just aren’t fast enough.  We take too long and we now need to focus on smart failure for a fast-changing world.

Quick, decisive failures:

  • Save you from throwing extra resources at a poor proposition
  • Make it easier to learn – as actions and outcomes are close together in time
  • Mean you can rule out a given course of action and move on and do something else
  • Lessen the pressure to continue with the project regardless because your investment in it is not large

In reality – failure is never one thing. It is sometimes bad, sometimes inevitable, and sometimes even good.

We need to shift our failure from being slow and stupid to fast and intelligent.

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