01 June 2016

"Moving to Serve You Better!"

When I was a kid, businesses always moved "to serve you better." Never because they got a better deal on the rent, or because they simply outgrew their old space. Always, to serve you better.

I suppose I'm not that different from businesses of old. This blog is moving - has moved - to a new home at Reengagement Realized, and it is indeed to serve you - my readers and the various constituencies whom I serve - better.

My practice has transformed, in some ways expanded; in some ways become more focused.
I do some of the same things, some different things, and some same things differently. You'll see what I mean. How's that working out for me? Well, you can judge for yourself.
There's even a cool white paper that describes the underpinnings of my practice's focus: What 21st-century Leaders Know that You Don't - Yet!

Come visit. Read. Learn. Think. Help me help you transform, if not the whole world, then at least your world. And please do stay in touch!

17 May 2016

Does Your Organization Promote Negative Productivity? The Answer is Probably YES!

An employee resigns from a department and isn't replaced (not through any affirmative decision to reduce headcount - no one would take the job). Productivity in the department goes up. Another employee goes on maternity leave. Their direct supervisor decides to earmark her salary to hire outside contractors if necessary to backfill the workload rather than hire a maternity leave replacement. None were necessary, and productivity goes up once more. The department manager resigns and those remaining operate relatively autonomously, reporting in to the VP to whom the former manager reported. Once again, productivity, effectiveness, quality, interactions among both internal and external constituencies, all increase. By any accounting, these three particular individuals contributed negative productivity to the department.

I wouldn't be surprised to hear that you're not surprised. We all have run into people among our organizations who are negative contributors. I'm not talking about those who "contribute" their negative personalities - each of these individuals was quite likable, affable, and pleasant to be around. They merely took far more resource to manage, to brief, to keep in the loop, and to work around than the value they contributed to the organization and its various constituencies. What's perhaps surprising about this situation is, the company has an extensive, rigorous, Taleo-based performance management system to track contribution against plan. All goals entered into the system are necessarily "SMART" goals. All performance reporting involves a self-assessment, a next-level, supervisory assessment, an objective achievement-against-metrics measurement, and tracking individuals' demonstrated competencies against standards for competencies required by job function according to the values pillars of the organization. (Yes, I realize that last one is a bit headache inducing, but it's real.) And each of these negatively contributing employees were rated as "meets expectations" in their most recent annual performance review.

For all its industrial-model soundness, a performance management system that cannot detect and correct negative productivity isn't worth very much. This becomes especially galling when one considers that administering such a system in an organization of any significant size - that is, one large enough to consider using such a system - is itself a productivity sink-hole with an annual cost of countless person-years of effort, not to mention several full-time employees to administer it. This is not (entirely) the fault of the software system, although technology will often intensify a problematic system so that it becomes even more problematic, faster. The fault lies in the underlying industrial assumptions: that decomposing organizational missions into so-called SMART goals, distributed among departments and from there to individuals will sum back up to accomplishing the organization's mission. That a job-holder whose resume best satisfies all the requirements of the abstraction that is a job description is the best person to fulfill a particular role in an organization. That an individual working against a checklist of tasks - even if they nominally accomplish every single one of those tasks - will necessarily contribute to the overall success of the organization.

If those assumptions were ever true, even in the prior century in which businesses operated on an explicitly industrial-age model, they certainly aren't true now. The sum of individual goals will not necessarily fulfill the department's goal. Neither will the sum of departments' objectives yield the organization's mission. The best person-on-paper for the job who is also the best performer in an interview situation is rarely, if ever, the best person for the actual embodied role. Pre-determined tasks set in annual planning cycles - whether top-down or bottom-up - cannot accurately predict the location and direction of the organization's trajectory a year out, let alone several years from now, in a complex, volatile business environment.

Supposedly, the job of a performance management system is to ensure that the right tasks are being done by the right people at least to an extent that "meets expectations." The intention is for the organization to be ever more efficient and effective at accomplishing its annual objectives towards an overarching mission, in service of some long-term vision. In instances where people leaving the organization actually increase productivity, the performance management system clearly operates "below expectations." It therefore needs to be put onto a "Performance Improvement Plan," or simply managed out of contemporary organizations.

Perhaps outplacement services can find it an appropriate new home. Maybe there's a role for it in managing athletes' training. Or in a weight-loss clinic. Because those are the types of environments for which the traditional, industrial models of performance management systems are best suited. If your role in your real organization does not share attributes, characteristics, and interactions akin to losing weight or training for athletics, one size does not fit all. What might a better, more effective approach be? Something more like this.

18 April 2016

How to Recover Up to $17 Billion in Productivity and Help 50% of Workers

Okay, the headline applies to the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area in Southern Ontario, Canada, but I’ll bet the per capita numbers are probably about the same in your local area. A new report from CivicAction, “an independent and nimble developer of broad civic leadership creating collaborative solutions to unresolved regional challenges,” reports that nearly 50% of workers in the GTHA have experience mental health issues, and that the projected productivity loss over the next decade could amount to $17 billion.

Among the main causes reported in the report are: Income inequality, Job insecurity, Racial discrimination, Family care demands, and Housing conditions and affordability. Big, systemic issues, to be sure, and issues that need systemic approaches that recognize the inherent complexity of the contextualizing circumstances. Not surprisingly, the report highlights a medicalized, mental health support approach. It talks about physician-related stigma, access to Employee and Family Assistance Programs, and psychological/psychiatric counselling. In other words, irrespective of the root causes, a person who is feeling the effects of whatever the overwhelming stressers in their life might be, should be considered only as an individual, one who should be supported to overcome what is considered only their problem..

What’s wrong with this picture? Systemic, causal issues do not lend themselves effectively to individual solutions.

The biggest contributor, by the way, to workplace emotional distress (almost listed as an afterthought in the infographic and media reportage) is workplace culture. That’s right: 60% of the workers surveyed report “that emotional / interpersonal issues are the top source of workplace stress; the top … issue identified is the culture of the workplace” (emphasis mine).

This is potentially good news. Never mind, “potentially”—this is VERY good news. What it means is that a substantial solution to the seeming epidemic of mental health issues that workers experience every day in almost every workplace does not require solving job insecurity, eliminating racial discrimination, addressing family care demands, and remediating housing conditions and affordability. Those would be wonderful, to be sure. But, addressing the number one cause of workplace distress can be accomplished in the workplaces themselves, and for very little money.

In fact, many of the changes that would effect a remarkable transformation of workplace culture can be accomplished for almost NO MONEY AT ALL, aside from a little education, a little coaching, and a bunch of practice. By transitioning to a culture based on Appreciative Management Practices, the distress that half the workforce experiences can be greatly reduced. The savings in Employee Support Programs, not to mention eliminating the lost productivity, and gaining the ancillary benefits of improved motivation, higher work quality, and enabling considerable innovation more than justifies the minimal investment of almost no money at all.

For a taste of what could be possible, it just so happens that I’m teaching a seminar in June on behalf of the HRPA, open to everyone (with a class size limited to 20) called “The Human Side of Contemporary Leadership” that covers exactly this. Here are a couple of comments from people who have attended the same program (offered by a different organization):
  • Mark is an illuminating speaker, provocative presenter and incisive coach. His ability to make sense of organizational behaviour from an individual point of view to a larger dynamic corporate entity is remarkable. His thoughts on the workplace and people within it are relevant, timely, humanistic and creative. He allows one to reimagine a workplace environment where workers thrive and ultimately drive success at a time when 20th century business models no longer make sense.
  • Mark taught a one-day session in our 2016 Leadership Program. His approach to the material was well-balanced between theory and practice providing insightful approaches on how to cultivate the best in people. Mark is a complete professional in his approach to teaching but manages to be very accessible by incorporating his own flair and personality into the session, resulting in a very engaging learning environment.
Interested in helping to recover up to $17B in productivity and helping 50% of workers? Sign up and register here.

08 March 2016

In Today’s Complex World, Navigate for Effects.

Spoiler alert: The 20th century business environment was complicated.

I mean, really complicated. There was so much going on among customers and supply chains and plants and distribution centres and you-name-it that it was a challenge to keep track of it all. But that’s the point: We could keep track of it all. We could plan, set goals to accomplish a mission, break down those goals into manageable tasks, and provide sufficient individual incentives so that if everyone did their part and met their targets, the organization as a whole would accomplish its overall objectives, year-by-year.

Then came that darned millennium, fuelled by technologies that made our complicated but mostly predictable business world go haywire. Now, stuff happens (and feel free to substitute your favourite synonym for “stuff”). Unpredictably. Out of our control. If you try to fix something over here, then something goes wrong over there. When you try to implement big initiatives, nothing really seems to change (unless we hold metaphorical guns to people’s heads—there’s that whole “resistance to change” thing going on). Yet sometimes, when something seemingly small or what looks like a fad pops up, it turns out to be a complete game-changer that few people seem to be able to resist. Who would have ever thought that an online bulletin board would eventually doom newspapers’ classified ads? Or that a couple of guys hauling an air mattress out of a cupboard would threaten hotels? Or that people sharing rides would cause taxi industries all over the world apoplexy?

Part of the reason I think that this stuff seems so challenging for most people is that we've all been trained to see things in a complicated way. This way of seeing really came out of the Enlightenment era when people began to think about science, art, music, literature, architecture, education, economics, and other undertakings of humankind in a step-wise, break-it-down-into-little-pieces, make-it-comprehensible, fashion. In a model that is based in complication, the individual parts (as many as there might be) are enumerable and identifiable. Once you get the plan or recipe for putting them all together, you can repeat that plan as often as you like with pretty much the same outcome each time. Small interventions will yield small changes; big interventions yield big changes (and the changes will likely cascade in a way that is more-or-less predictable).

Most of what we know and have been taught works this way: factory floors, scientific method, education system, most organizations through the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and into the 70s. On the other hand, complex systems work differently. You can't identify most of the moving (influencing) parts. Following the same plan twice won't get you the same outcome except by chance. Small interventions eventually will result in large, systemic, but largely unpredictable, change.

Think of it this way:
Building a house or going to the moon?
That's complicated.
Raising children? Complex.

Think about raising children for a moment. Start with two babies in the same family and treat them in as close to the same way as possible. You'll end up with two different teenage or adult outcomes. However, many of the effects/intentions will likely be the same—are they polite? Do they value learning? Do they have strong, healthy self-esteem? So long as you watch for indications that might signal these intentions going off the rails, and step in with a few, well-chosen conversations and soft nudges (small interventions), your real objectives as a parent will more-or-less be realized. Going in with a heavy, disciplinary hand, however (a big intervention), will likely result in little positive change but an unpredictable new trajectory that may lead who-knows-where.

In an organizational environment, when someone presents me with a list of goals or objectives (especially so-called SMART goals) I always ask for each one: What is the intention behind this? Whom does it serve? In what way? Why is this important to the organization? What about this goal is important to you, personally? What's important to those who are also touched by what this goal might do? These sorts of questions will help everyone explicitly understand the intended effects. These effects are the real "objectives" and intentions for the organization, the changes in relationships and interactions for which the organization strives. The nominal goals themselves are merely proxies, representing a few of possibly many manifestations of the intention. Understanding what it would look, sound, feel, or even smell like when the intention is being realized – and conversely, when events move in an different direction from that intention – provide a manager's navigational guidance.

The tricky thing about a complex environment is that the organization's trajectory – its eventual path through its business environment – is not really predictable with any accuracy. However you may think that path will unfold will likely change because of any number of factors not in the leaders' or managers' control. This simple reality that corresponds to most people's experiences means that this planning cycle’s goal might not be relevant or useful by next planning cycle. Or, it might not actually represent the organization’s intention or effect. “It seemed like a good idea at the time” isn’t really what most leaders want to report to their board.

Specific goals can, do, and should change with changing circumstances. A well-understood and well-thought-through intention sustains over a much longer time. Intentions are realized through the effects the organization has on all whom it touches. In a complex environment, like that engulfing most contemporary organizations, navigating for effect is the way to manage the organization's trajectory, rather than striving to accomplish predetermined goals.

This framing creates an interesting challenge for leaders, managers, and especially for HR professionals. It's no exaggeration to say, quite literally:
This. Changes. Everything.
By that I mean policies, procedures, and systems for deciding what should be done, how individual and group performance are tracked, how feedback and acknowledgement work in the organization, how tasks are delegated and coordinated, how to engage and motivate workers and managers alike, how personal development occurs, and how correction and discipline can be transformed from “difficult conversations” into empowering learning.

Throughout the complicated 20th century, we needed to achieve scalable efficiency. Now, in the complex 21st century, we need to achieve scalable capability, creating conditions throughout organizations where, the bigger you grow the more you know. That's where contemporary organization development methods kick in, with organizational and individual coaching, facilitated interventions, and experiential learning. It is the heart of my practice.