How Good Company Culture Can Go Bad

Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.

One of the best hours I spent this week was with our Governance, Risk and Assurance Team.

There – I said it.

Joking aside, the relationship between governance and innovation is an important one.  As I wrote in my last post – for an organisation to support innovation the culture must accommodate the risk and uncertainty that accompanies it.

A culture of risk aversion is a culture that limits innovation. The bedrock of innovation is experimentation, and this requires a relaxed attitude to failure. That failure though has to be well governed, to make sure you don’t flagrantly waste money or harm organisational reputation.

If your innovation efforts are to be taken seriously, and to scale and spread, you need to have a mature approach to risk. At Bromford, a member of the Governance team sits on our weekly Design Group, jointly agreeing every new concept we test.

The session made me reflect on how the organisational cultures I promoted last week , can become so constraining that they start to promote the wrong behaviours.

Can good cultures go bad?  

A lot of organisational assessments (Best Companies etc)  seem to hold teamwork, cooperation and shared purpose up as a kind of holy grail.

However, innovation often thrives because of diversity and discord. “The idea that will get you fired” is often the best one to explore.

Strong cultures are a positive – but there’s a tipping point. A point where conflicting opinions can get stifled rather than being actively cultivated.

Phrases such as “That’s the way things get done around here” or “That person isn’t really a (insert company name) sort of person” are red flags you’re reaching that point.

In The Three Box Solution by VG Govindarajan he proposes a simple test to assess the size of the challenge in forgetting your organisational past.  

Here are some of the questions:

  • We primarily promote from within
  • Our culture is homogeneous
  • We have a strong culture
  • Employees have a long tenure
  • We rarely recruit from outside apart from entry level positions
  • When people are recruited from outside, we have strong socialisation methods
  • We have a track record of success
  • We don’t mess with success
  • The senior management team has a long tenure and has also worked primarily in our sector

VG asks us to answer the questions scoring 1-5, with 1 representing ‘strongly disagree’, and 5 representing ‘strongly agree’. The higher the score the bigger the challenge.

I ran my own organisation through this and found we score pretty highly. As VG teaches us – this is not cause to throw our heads into our hands and despair. Rather it’s about surfacing awareness of the weight of our history – and the chains we may need to break to move forward.

This history can lead to what Donald Sull called active intertia, which is when managers get stuck in a rut so that when an entirely new situation arises they revert to old responses. Active inertia, Sull says, is “management’s tendency to respond to the most disruptive changes by accelerating activities that succeeded in the past”.

These can become cultures built around an excessive drive for performance at all costs, where status is more important than relationships based on equality, challenge and collaboration.

How can we mitigate against this? In the session this week we discussed the following activities:

  • Keeping teams curious. Encourage them to go out and explore the wider world beyond the office door. Maintain a high degree of customer closeness and never believe your hype.
  • Maintain relationships with people who actively disagree with you. This means embracing misfits – not rejecting them from “your” culture.
  • Go beyond your sector and generally avoid the places your peers gather. People are working on the same things as us across the globe and we won’t solve things on our own. We are desperately inward looking as sectors.
  • Encourage informal teams to work on cross cutting problems. More work in innovative organisations is accomplished through informal teams than formal ones. 
  • Have the right set of organisational design principles that ensures your company is joined up and consistent. However this needs to be capable of challenge , so the way we do things around here is constantly under scrutiny and capable of iteration.

Contained in our own personal and organisational histories are thousands of assumptions. Assumptions that we live by everyday.

Organisational DNA can become so baked in that we don’t even question what we are doing.

A crucial part of keeping a good company culture is about challenging our assumptions about why we do what we do, how we do it, and who does it.

Everyday.

Creating The Right Culture For Innovation and Change

I’m not sure I buy into the concept of organisations having a culture of innovation.

After all, innovation is a process consisting of four things:

  • Having an idea that solves a problem
  • Doing something with that idea
  • Proving that it delivers new value for people
  • Translating it into reality and making it part of the everyday

The idea then that innovation is everyone’s job is naive at best.  Successful organisations need to be boringly reliable and radically disruptive at the same time, living with two competing sets of values.

However I do believe in creating the right culture for innovation.

Indeed, for an organisation to support innovation the culture must accommodate the risk and uncertainty that accompanies it.

What kind of culture are we looking for?

For me there are four elements to this:

Just enough friction: the most effective teams have regular, intense debates. As leaders, we need to help our teams disagree more. Discord has to be allowed to take its proper place if we are to solve the problems that matter.

The practice of high standards: innovation requires a set of crosscutting practices and processes to structure, organise, and encourage it. This requires a steady supply of high performing people who are committed. And if you create an environment of energy and high performance it will attract other high performers.

Permission to be different: a culture where it’s allowable, even encouraged, to push back. Everyone should be OK with questioning assumptions,  calling out inconsistent behavior and challenging old business models.

The ability to think and act experimentally: a tolerance for failure through practical experiments that show whether the fundamental assumptions about innovation are correct and what they mean for the business.

These traits only happen through a commitment to creating the right conditions. These are cultures that are reinforced every day, not just by the leadership , but with active collaboration from people at every tier of the organisation.

Let’s face it – most Mission Statements and Company Values are a complete waste of time. They exist as tacked up bits of paper on a wall rather than something that sits in the hearts and minds of people.

Here are three organisations from very different industries whose values are conducive to supporting innovation:

Zappos

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Zappos , the online shoe and clothing store, are known for their unique culture and values. Their CEO Tony Hsieh has said his company’s number one priority is the company culture. “Our whole belief is that if we get the culture right, then most of the other stuff, like delivering great customer service or building a long-term enduring brand or business, will just be a natural by-product of that.”

Here are the Zappos core values that are designed to be different:

  • Deliver WOW Through Service
  • Embrace and Drive Change
  • Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
  •  Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  •  Pursue Growth and Learning
  • Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  • Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  • Do More With Less
  • Be Passionate and Determined
  • Be Humble

With the call to “create fun and a little weirdness”, Zappos are making it a place that supports innovation.

Buffer

I love the culture of Buffer, a service that helps you share to social networks.  You can feel the genuine enthusiasm for the organisation from the people who work there and what they tweet and blog about.

The Buffer team has jointly decided which words define the culture and put together this list of the 10 Buffer Values and how they live them.

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What’s impressive here is that they are a continual work in progress, with all members developing them in the open.

Having dealt with Buffer on a number of occasions I can say their values are displayed both in 1:1 dealings and in their online social presence: Listen First , Then Listen More.

Bromford

(Disclosure:  I work for Bromford and have a hand in developing the DNA – but I think it’s worth sharing the story)

Imagine screwing up your mission statement , vision and values and handing it over to three colleagues to start all over again and pitch it direct to the CEO. That’s what Bromford did and it’s how they came up with their original Bromford DNA.

The latest version of the DNA though, developed under new CEO Robert Nettleton, had a completely different genesis – focusing on collaboration. Bromford held more than 30 workshops with over 500 colleagues attending and sharing their views.  After these sessions a smaller group of colleagues took part in a fusion session with Bromford Lab – and from this the final definitions of our DNA emerged.

DNA Slides

 

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The fact so many people have co-developed the DNA gives Bromford a head start in embedding the culture. When you’ve energised the early adopters, you have given the framework for the culture added impetus and traction.

Bromford have even provided colleagues with a personalised notebook for them to record their actions and barriers to consistently living the DNA.

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Supporting ideas from fruition, selecting the best ones, experimenting and growing them is a very fragile process.

All we can really do as leaders is to create a climate that supports innovation –  a climate that will help to sustain a future ready organisation over the years to come.

The Fruitless Quest For Inbox Zero: Eight Tips To Protect Your Time

You can seek to impose order on your inbox all you like – but eventually you’ll need to confront the fact that the deluge of messages, and the urge you feel to get them all dealt with, aren’t really about technology.

They’re manifestations of larger, more personal dilemmas – Oliver Burkeman

At the back-end of 2018, I did an experiment, I exported nearly two years worth of email and meeting data into an analytics tool.

The results were unsurprising to me , but still alarming.

Time spent in meetings , especially meetings arranged by others, was increasing exponentially.  The amount of email was increasing too.

Four years earlier I wrote a post called Six Ways To Kill Email , which set out a discipline for drastic email reduction.

This regime worked for a long time, my inbox never contained more than half a dozen items. So what failed and why?

We don’t have a technology problem, we have a boundary problem

We’ve never had more productivity tools than we’ve had today, and yet we’ve rarely felt less productive.

Part of the problem is that our new tools have given people unparalleled powers to intruding into one anothers time.

  • Want a meeting? Spot some free time in their calendar and grab it.
  • Need them at the weekend? Message them from your phone.
  • Can’t get hold of them? DM them via their preferred social network

As Jason Fried and David Heinemeir Hansson write in their book It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work companies are failing to protect their most precious resource – their employees time and attention.

It’s now perfectly acceptable to have a culture of back to back meetings, and even double or triple booked meetings.

As they write “the shared calendar is one of the most destructive inventions of modern times. People’s calendars are not only completely transparent, they are optimized to be filled in by anyone who simply feels like it”.

It was this realisation , that most things in my calendar had been put there by other people, that led me to create some new rules at the beginning of the year.

It was a silent new years resolution to myself to do something to address the overload. As a third of the year has gone – this is how I’ve gotten on.


1: Ignore the quest for Inbox Zero

Inbox Zero (the idea that every time you visit your inbox, you should systematically “process to zero”) was quite the thing a few years ago but in my experience it doesn’t work – as it actually focuses on email as the cause of the problem rather than the symptom.

Even when you do successfully reach Inbox Zero, it doesn’t reliably bring calm if you’re still being invited to lots of meetings and assaulted by instant messaging.

2: Give yourself permission to walk out of meetings

Last year Elon Musk sent a memo to his staff advising them to ‘just walk out of bad meetings’.  Funnily enough it was a rule we had at Bromford many years ago instigated by then CEO Mick Kent.

Walking out of meetings, or not turning up to ones that you’ve previously accepted may seem like bad manners. However if we are serious about valuing peoples time we have to develop new codes that allow people to maximise their productivity and creativity rather than just be polite and wasteful.

3: Don’t send any emails

This is by far the most effective thing you can do. Every email you send begs a reply – sometimes several. By pressing send you are literally making work for yourself. Copying people in to every email is not effective information sharing. Email in 2019 is still effective, but it’s best used sparingly.

4: Divert long chat threads to Chat Apps 

At the formation of Bromford Lab , we turned off in-team email and moved to Whatsapp. Along with Trello and Google Docs, it’s the tool that’s survived five years of uninterrupted use. WhatsApp is great for creating groups and promoting a more social place to chat and interact without the annoyance of email threads. It doesn’t beg you to respond.

4: Delete emails that are three days old 

This takes some bravery – but trust me it works. If you haven’t looked at something for three days it simply can’t be very important. Delete it. If anyone is bothered they will chase you up on it. 90% of the time they don’t – it was low value work that never really needed doing.

5: Unsubscribe from everything 

Make it part of your day to unsubscribe from at least five email lists. Email marketeers breed like rabbits but you can stem the flow by turning off their constant distractions. Don’t just delete them and hope they will go away – they won’t. Also go into the notification settings of any work networks like Yammer you are part of. Turn them off – you’ll see a huge difference instantly.

6: Use Pomodoro for manageable periods of focus

It might sound easy to work on one task for 25 minutes with no interruptions, but it actually isn’t. Pomodoro is a cyclical system where you work in short sprints , which makes sure you’re consistently productive. You also get to take regular breaks that boost your motivation. Use a Pomodoro app on your phone and put it into flight mode to kill other distractions. It’s the best way I’ve found of powering through the work you need to do, but don’t always want to. There’s a more extreme 50 minute  version of it called Focusmate, where your concentration is remotely observed by a total stranger. Try it if you dare.

7: Try Trello for transparent work sharing and delegation across teams

Screenshot 2019-05-03 at 07.53.22

We are big Trello fans at Bromford Lab with our work shared openly for all. We also keep a private board as well to prioritize work across the team. Making it visible this way means we can call for help when we are blocked or delegate work when people have capacity. It shifts the focus completely away from your inbox.

8: Set visible boundaries

The way you work has to be the way that works for you, not for everyone else. That might mean setting an email out of office communicating you only check in once a day. It might turning your phone off and saying you are concentrating on deep work. It might be wearing headphones in the office to signal you don’t want interruptions.

Whatever it is – set your own boundaries and make them known.


 

I haven’t cracked this 100%. However as I finish writing this post at 8:15am I have nine unanswered emails and just 90 minutes of meetings today. Something is beginning to work.

Most productivity hacks fail, no doubt many of the above would fail for you personally.

The trick is finding the ones that work for you and balance your needs with those of your colleagues. My advice however would be to not sit around waiting for this, it’s a truly rare employer than places restrictions on meetings, emails and phone calls.

You need to develop your own rules and boundaries that protect your time and creativity, never mind your sanity.

Who Really Wins From Digital Transformation?

The birth of the change management movement began in the 1960s and 70s – when big consultancy began to see a vast new market – convincing organisations of the benefits of ‘transformation’.

Alongside this came the development of a distinctive, pseudo-scientific language of change which the consultants needed to pitch themselves to new clients.

It aimed to take advantage of a sort of corporate narcissism – hoping that senior executives and boards would swoon at the chance to ‘made over’ by slick looking outsiders.

They certainly did swoon, in fact they fell head over heels. As Jacob Dutton writes in a challenging piece – helping companies ‘do transformation’ is now very big business.

“The total size of the global transformation market is expected to grow from $445.4bn in 2017 to $2,279.4bn by 2025. The consulting component of a transformation programme alone is worth $44bn. As a result, the likes of PwC, Deloitte, KPMG and EY have all reacted and developed their transformation capabilities.”

The size of this market , and the riches on offer, arguably drive three key behaviours:

  • A focus on agile solutions rather than contemplative problem definition.
  • A subsequent focus on low hanging fruit – the easier problem to solve is often through tech, rather than the more complex wicked problems 
  • A focus on benefits realisation rather than value production – which often puts the emphasis squarely on efficiency.  Humans are expensive right?

Which then leads to:  The rush towards technological transformation – as if cheap tech is the only solution.

But what are we losing from our organisations, from our community, when we approach transformation as purely a means to be quicker, slicker and more convenient?

NI Housing - Paul Taylor (2)

We could be seeing the digitsiation of the most important thing your organisation has – the relationship with your customer.

As Gerry McGovern has written, looking at technology as cost minimization results in the hollowing out of organizations into technological shells, in which staff spend far more time interacting with numbers, code, and content than they do with their customers.

These avoidance tactics presume the customer is a cost on your time rather than an opportunity. In our own work we have learned that our customers and communities have many skills, often untapped and completely underutilized by us and others like us.

This change evangelism and the hollowing out of relationships can make us embark on the worst kind of technological solutionism – that risks ignoring the skills, assets and sheer talent that exists in our communities.

Starting With a Clean Slate

At Bromford we’ve done a lot of work on the standardisation of our processes and service offerings. It’s not sexy, but some of the most innovative companies operate very standard operating models. It allows them move exponentially quicker.

Focusing purely on the relationship your customer wants, and the simpler processes that support it,  helps resist the need to transform.

Jacob Dutton proposes that big companies abandon the idea of transformation programmes altogether and suggests some tips for kicking the habit. I agree and would also add:

  • Let’s have more reflection and contemplation rather than lots of management activity.
  • Let’s devolve resources and influence to those closest to the problem rather than outsource them.
  • Let’s change little and often through small-scale experimentation.
  • Let’s not roll anything out until we have evidence that it actually works.

As Neil Tamplin has said perhaps our organisations need to be more amenable to gentle iterative change rather than lurching forward intermittently to catch up?

Being a human organisation means resisting someone else’s idea of best practice.

Who is really winning from transformation?

  • Is it the customer who now has a digital portal and a chatbot with a pre-determined series of options between them and the person they really need to deal with?
  • Is it the organisation who were promised a bright new future but find they have the same fundamental problems they always had?
  • Is it the employee who was told they shouldn’t resist change and that their job would be made easier, but found that their job would eliminated altogether?

The global transformation market will be worth $2,279.4bn by 2025.

Someone is winning and it’s not necessarily going to be you or your customer.

View at Medium.com

 

If We Want Different Relationships, The Doing Must Be New And Different Too

There’s a reason some of our public services feel remote, unaccountable and uninterested.

Many of our organisations are products of failure. They only exist because things don’t work.

Fixing other people’s problems keeps you very busy. It creates vast organisational empires and complex group structures.

On the other hand actually believing in what people can do for themselves means being brave enough to admit that you won’t always be needed. It means stepping back.

There’s a familiar theme across the social sector: demand for services is rising rapidly and citizens want more of a say in what those services look and feel like.

Whilst there’s a lot of noise about the former, there’s generally little focus on the opportunity of people wanting more influence and even control of the services they receive.

Adam Lent writing about the NHS 10 Year Plan points out the fatal flaw in organisational thinking :

There’s a belief that we can solve our own problems through structural, process and technological fixes rather than realizing the starting point for change is the creation of a completely different relationship with the communities we serve.

This obsession with tinkering with structure, process and ‘digital transformation’ is fundamentally limiting – when instead we should be looking at a much more radical redesign of services.

Adam points out that’s no sense of the need for a different and potentially difficult conversation between services and citizens about communities taking on more responsibility.  Importantly “there’s no self-analysis of how a hierarchical, status-obsessed culture militates against relationships based on empowerment and collaboration”.

This theme is picked up by Tony Stacey in Inside Housing. “Why isn’t the sector squirming right now?” he asks. Faced with serious charges about remoteness and a lack of trust the professional response seems to be: we’ll publish a new charter and make some tweaks to our code of governance.

As Tony says – this on its own is not going to rebuild trust in the way we need.

We explored this in a recent Bromford Lab workshop where people spoke of a more fundamental shift being required:

  • Democratising organisational strategy; enabling communities to have their say on how money should be spent.
  • Starting to talk in terms of ‘collaboration’ rather than ‘engagement’.
  • Being openly competent and building trust through relationship building and positive action, not marketing and spin.
  • Visibly doing something with the feedback we get
  • Doing what we say we will do and being open and honest when we get it wrong.
  • Challenging how sectors work ‘as one’, and protect their own image.

Serious stuff. Which speaks more of a need of actually ceding power than it does of tinkering with policy.

Leading by Stepping Back 

If we approach public service purely as a one to one consumer transaction we view the world through the lens of efficiency, reduced contact, metrics and performance indicators.

In an economy moving towards sharing rather than just transacting we need to build a new set of behaviours based on trust and collaboration.

At Bromford we are trying to reshape our organisation around the latter.  A move away from managing to coaching and connecting.

Every individual and community has assets, talents, skills and abilities. Better to focus on helping to develop and release these, rather than treating people as a series of ‘problems’ that need to be solved.

circles of support

We recently agreed a set of principles that underpin this kind of relationship and I think they are useful in outlining the shift organisations may need to make.

It requires a change in beliefs:

  • A belief in an adult-adult relationships. We invite feedback and challenge. We are comfortable being uncomfortable.
  • A belief in the strengths and abilities of others.
  • Doing more listening than talking – asking the right questions and letting people think through their options rather than advising them.
  • We don’t judge other people’s choices.
  • We start with the individual and take an asset based approach to coaching which is personal to them
  • We don’t see people as needing to be fixed and we don’t collect problems.

Importantly this means we will always look to how existing strengths in the community can be built upon rather than providing services. We should never provide or support services that replace, control or overwhelm the skills within community.

When people opine that the ‘system is broken’, it’s a red flag that organisations have stepped too far forward. That they are becoming omnipresent in peoples lives.

Perhaps the answer lies in rebuilding organisations around communities, with a modern sense of trust and compassion.

You can’t change a relationship without actual changing your behaviour.

In today’s world of rising demand and scarce resources the doing, not just the talking, needs to be new and different.

Is It Time To Get Rid Of The Job Title?

Last week Elon Musk dropped all job titles associated with Tesla referring to himself as CEO of nothing.

Although he soon discovered that some jobs are legally required – for now at least.

He said he deleted all his Tesla titles to ‘see what would happen’ , so it could be just another outlandish statement – but he may be right in general about the futility of job titles.

Titles exist to to signal to others what we do and our relative status within an organisation. Their main role is to provide clarity to others about the person they are dealing with.

However , in an era when many of us will work from our teens to our 70’s, and beyond, the idea that all our skills and experiences – that everything we have to offer the world of work- can be neatly summed up in a couple of words, is naive.

Additionally job title inflation – the increasing number and size of grandiose job titles in corporations and organisations – is everywhere.

Last year the BBC announced it would reduce over 5000 baffling titles to just 400. In the public sector there’s a surfeit of Officers, Directors and Heads of Everything, all designated to make people feel a lot more important than they actually are.

I once ran a team that abandoned job titles. It worked for a while. People actually had to define themselves by what they contributed rather than use a title as a signal of their identity, self-esteem and status.

After a few months though we bowed to pressure to bring them back – the wider corporate structure couldn’t cope without badges to label people with, and a couple of the more established members didn’t like the fact that there was no way of signalling their seniority. I gave in to the desire for hierarchy. That’s why most people hold on to titles: they want their fair share of recognition.

The inability of our organisations to think beyond job titles and job descriptions – of neat little boxes – is in part linked to our failure to shift from an industrialised model of work.

As Roger L. Martin has written – companies everywhere struggle with the management of knowledge workers. Many modern workers don’t manufacture products or perform basic services or tasks, rather they produce decisions, thoughts or ideas.

This results in an almost primitive form of design – the organisational structure chart – which places knowledge within neat directorates and then draws boxes around people.

The end result of this is there for all to see: an inability of organisations to tap into the skills of people across the wider organisation and a cyclical round of growth, redundancy, hiring and firing as the company recruits based on a job description only to realise it doesn’t need it a few years later.

There are companies who have made the successful shift away from job titles:

Gusto:  “The most immediate change was in our recruiting. Our hiring managers saw incredible people come through—people who never would’ve applied before because all the titles were preventing them from taking the leap. Eliminating job titles helps create a “no ego” culture”.

CloudFare: – “Titles definitely come with a cost. The best ideas are bottom-up, not top-down. But in most companies, the ideas come from the top, and hierarchy can mean artificial authority wins, not the best idea”

Valve:  We have no formal titles. The few employees who’ve put titles on business cards do so to satisfy outsiders apprehensive about working with people without labels. The same applies to Gabe Newell, one of Valve’s founders. “I think he’s technically the C.E.O., but it’s funny that I’m not even sure of that.”

We Are All Project Managers Now

Today’s workplace is complex and dynamic, needing a high degree of technological proficiency. There is a generational shift in the workplace, making it a new HR challenge to lead multi-generational and more diverse teams.  There is a need for people who can lead or execute projects from beginning to end.

Let’s get rid of “jobs,” argues Roger L. Martin, and instead give everyone “a portfolio of projects.”

If we used the project rather than the job or the job title as the organising principle, we’d be much more productive, efficient and happier.

This would avoid progression being seen from jumping from title to title, climbing a hierarchy and grabbing “director” accolades along the way. People will know that you’ve advanced because you’re tackling more advanced projects.

The Rise Of Quirky Titles

“We have our fun titles, and everyone has the opportunity to consider their title and come up with something that means something to them…”

Maybe if we are to have job titles we need ones that are more reflective of who we are personally. A study by the University of Pennsylvania and London Business School found that “self-reflective” job titles reduced workers’ emotional exhaustion, helped them cope with emotional challenges, and let them affirm their identity at work. The team tested their findings in hospitals, where they asked workers to give themselves new job titles. An infectious disease specialist became a “germ slayer,” and an X-ray technician was dubbed a “bone seeker”.

Tightly defined job titles and job descriptions can kill innovation at a time when we need to create more concept and value-driven teams.

They cause inertia because the moment employees are given specific responsibilities they expect them to stand still. They cause people to focus on “just doing the job”.  Huge resources lie untapped.

The networked organisation of the future will utilise the skills of people regardless of who they are, where they sit or what their title is.