Gauging the speed of change

We’ve all been there, the conversation where the speed of change is, “just not quick enough”. I’ve probably uttered the words myself. One of the biggest tricks for any leader in this circumstance is being able to differentiate between the input activity and the desired output. Or, the things we need to do in order to get the results we want to see.

It’s a wonderfully alluring concept to equate the speed of delivering the first with the achievement of the second, but sadly there is no direct line between the two. Regardless of their experience, leaders will be told to reduce the time to implement, to condense the programme of activities to realise results much more quickly.  And many will happily comply to demonstrate the activities have been done, ahead of schedule. Which is good, right?

Except the desired change doesn’t happen as we wanted.

But that’s ok, because it must be the fault of someone else, somewhere else. We absolutely nailed our contribution – they just didn’t do what we needed.

The inescapable issue is that there is an optimum rate of change in any organisation and in any situation and it won’t always be the same, dependent on context. The key to successful change is twofold –

  • Understanding the contextual climate for change
  • Measuring success on outputs and inputs

To give a simple example, let’s imagine a bottle of organisational goodness (aka water) which we trying to unlock and set free into a new organisational design (aka a bowl). On one end of the spectrum, we could hold the bottle upside down and shake it frantically, the water will probably come out pretty quickly, the chance of splashing, missing the bowl and causing a mess though are high. At the other end the spectrum, we could tip it slightly below horizontal, place the neck against the lip of the bowl and transfer all the water. It will be super slow, but highly effective.

The reality is that somewhere between the two is the most effective spot, based on the deign of the bottle and the bowl.

Ultimately, the answer to success lies in the name itself – “change”. If all we were interested in was the activity, we’d probably call it “stuff”. One of the key skills of any leader is to be able to articulate the importance of the embedding and sustaining of change and not get caught into the organisational pressure to do some stuff quickly. It won’t always be the answer people want to hear, it won’t always make you the most popular, but if you’re genuinely keen on delivering success, you need to be sure everyone knows and agree what it actually looks like.

Note: Having researched the optimum way to extract water from a bottle at speed, I’m led to believe that in principle it is to swirl the bottle in a circular motion, creating a vortex through the centre that allows water to extract via the sides whilst air rises through the vortex. Sounds complicated.

SMART objectives are stupid

I don’t think there are many employees, managers or people professionals in business that won’t, at some point in time, have been told to make their objectives SMART.  It’s the 101 of management training and something that has spread through organisations like Japanese bindweed.

If you’ve just landed from another planet, have been having a particularly long snooze, or are just very lucky and haven’t had the pleasure yet, SMART stands for:

Specific

Measurable

Achievable/Attainable

Realistic

Time-bound/Timely

The idea being that if you want to set a goal/objective then it should be all of these things – which is cute, but wrong.

My major issue is, that by the very nature of their construct, they’re limiting. They focus you on committing to do one thing, when another – which you may not have come across yet – might be three, four or five times better. The evidence to this is in the million plus performance conversations that happen each year when an employee is explaining that they didn’t do the five objectives they agreed, but have delivered x amount of other things that have added greater value.

Next, they’re entirely left brain and play to a Taylorian vision of business and process. They are the antithesis of creativity, innovation, and the search for exponential value add. It is hard to get passionate, emotional or excited about a SMART goal, because they’re intended to lock down your energy, rather than unleash it.

Finally, they’re linked to a performance management culture and approach that we’ve all pretty much decided is dead, done and buried – I know, I’ve been writing about it for ten years. The idea that there are such things as performance cycles, that we have the level of predictability and that we can improve organisational performance by setting a bunch of spurious goals and having a bad conversation once, twice or even four times a year through a “performance” review is nothing more than a hopeful, collective misnomer.

Let me tell you what works better – a shared and understood vision of success, empowered teams and individuals who are committed to creating that vision and leaders that coach, develop and support their teams. And whilst in one sense achieving this may not be SMART, it is sure to be the cleverest thing you could possibly do.

 

 

Toxic cultures and ticking time bombs

The strange thing about toxic cultures, is the inability of those within to see how bad things have really got. It normally takes an inflection point or disruptive external event to raise levels of awareness to the point of consciousness. Looking at the recent tribulations of the UK Labour party and the Australian cricket team, we can see perfect examples (in different ways) of the way that toxic cultures become all-encompassing in a blinding fog of self-delusion. We’ve seen similar situations play out in the banking sector and other industries, which I’ve written about before.

It raises the question whether there is anything that can be done to prevent the slow slip towards implosion, or if a turbulent outcome is inevitable. What can leaders do to intervene?

Recognise it starts small – recognising small behavioural changes and calling them out is crucial to preventing the situation getting worse. Tolerance to bad cultural epithets increases over time unless they’re nipped in the bud.

Don’t explain away – it is very easy to explain things away, even when they get to seemingly gargantuan proportions. We’re just highly competitive, we have an overarching will to win, others are just jealous, they’re trying to drag us down, we know the real truth. And yes, you probably do but you won’t admit it.

Listen and be willing to hear – There are people who know that things are going the wrong way, there is seldom a lone bad apple or renegade group. People see and know, they just need to be given permission to talk and leaders need to listen and hear. If people think you’re just paying lip service, they won’t bother to risk the wrath and the pain.

Define your values and stick to them – The corridors of corporate power are littered with mission statements, values and charters which no-one knows and no-one applies in business decisions. Values in business are important, but only when they come off the poster and enter the psyche.

Look outside in – Don’t be afraid to ask someone else to take a regular look at your culture, behaviours and ethics. In business we are used to having people look at our accounts, our data and reports, our supply chain and other areas of our operation. So why not culture? An annual health check, by an independent third-party would go along way to holding yourselves to account.

Sometimes people will fail

Here’s a thing; Not everyone can be successful in their job.

And that’s ok.

There are multiple reasons why failure happens, it can be the role, the requirements, the skills, the culture of the organisation, the leadership and management or just dumb luck. But we need to be ok with the fact that failure in role is real and normal. It is an inevitable factor of multiple people coming together to deliver an outcome or result.

I’ve worked in organisations with hire and fire cultures, they normally have little to do with performance and are more about dominant personalities, prejudice and conformity. Those that aren’t seen to “fit in” are rapidly shown the door, normally with some reference to, “not cutting it” or some other imprecise statement.

I’ve also worked in organisations where individual, persistent failure is normalised and accepted for far too long until a moment of  “truth” that often leads to a bloody and ugly end. Polite organisations which will tell individuals one thing, then moan to anyone who will listen behind their back.

Failure and underperformance can be the result of the individual or the organisation, it really doesn’t matter. The point is that it happens and dealing with it at the earliest possible moment is the best thing for all of the parties concerned. Nobody wants to come to work thinking that they’re doing a good job, but failing to meet requirements. Nobody wants to work with someone who is under delivering or performing. And nobody wants to manage or lead someone who simply doesn’t deliver.

Recognising and accepting failure is an important part of being able to deal with it in a mature, supportive and grown up way. When we avoid it, fail to recognise or accept it, we tend to want to make it disappear as quickly as possible – that’s why you have the cultures I’ve described above. Instead, what if we were to embrace it, to discuss it and to approach it as a natural facet of our human existence? How would that change the working live of the people in the organisations in which we exist?