Simplicity in practice

For years I’ve been banging on about the unnecessary complexity of the modern workplace. And whilst it is reassuring to hear more and more people talk about the need to make things simpler and, “more human”, I’m more concerned than ever that we just don’t understand what that means.

It means doing less – which probably means smaller teams and lower budgets.

It means stopping – which probably means losing elements of perceived control.

It means thinking differently – which probably means losing people.

It means a new alignment – which means creating a new purpose.

And this is why it is easier for people to stand on conference stages, write articles or sell services, than it is to achieve as a practitioner. Because these changes go directly to the heart of the way in which we operate and have operated for years. They go to the heart of everything we have been taught is right and told to value.

In many ways, the world of “management” is very like the world of diet, health and wellbeing. Full of fads and initiatives that are layered on top of one another, each promising to be the answer, when deep down we know that the problem itself is one that never used to exist – until we created it ourselves.

We celebrate the ditching of the performance review – when that is simply a symptom of a problem that we created. The desire to differentiate and measure individuals within a group.

We champion the need for candidate and employee experience – presenting the treatment of people with dignity and respect as revolutionary or new.

Understanding the solution, means looking beyond the symptoms to the root causes. In the same way that faddy diets don’t deal with obesity and can instead contribute to the problem. We need to take a systemic and focused approach that recognises the multiple complex drivers, that recognises our contribution to them and starts to unpick and unwind, rather than layer on top.

To put it simply, we are the problem and we are also the solution; but only if we choose to change.

Nobody needs feedback

Of all the sickening management constructs that we’ve introduced into the workplace, the industry around feedback is perhaps the most pervasive and unhelpful. We are living in a world with a constant pressure and need to seek and give feedback but without really considering to what end.

A quick Google search for “feedback at work” shows just shy of a billion articles. A billion articles written about something that didn’t really exist until the middle of last century. And in that time, have we seen workplaces become happier? More productive? More enjoyable? Or have we seen the reverse?

The problem is, that over 90% of feedback is unhelpful. It doesn’t actually make anything better, doesn’t make anyone improve, doesn’t facilitate learning or enlightenment. If you don’t believe me, consider this:

What is the most useful piece of feedback you’ve received?

I bet you can think of one, an incisive and helpful moment. Now, place this piece of feedback in proportion to the entire amount that you’ve been given over your life. And quite frankly, I’d be surprised if it doesn’t fall into insignificance. You will have been given more pointless, unhelpful and sometimes dangerous pieces of feedback than helpful ones, probably to the power of ten.

The other issue with feedback is that it is, by nature, entirely subjective. And therefore is subject to bias. When you receive feedback you’re not getting the truth, you’re getting opinion. And that opinion is only one set of data. So on any, genuine, scientific basis it would be completely unreliable. There are no controls, there are multiple variables, it simply would not pass muster.Yet in organisations, we treat it as a means for development.

Here’s the thing. If you want feedback on something, or from someone then fine. Go and ask. But if people start telling you that you need it, or your organisation starts telling you that it wants to develop a feedback culture. Run like the wind. Or simply put your headphones on. You’ll end up wasting time, being confused, getting contradictory messages and choosing to believe only the information that supports your own confirmation bias – whether positive, or negative.

Feedback in organisations? Its something nobody needs to “see more of” and we could all do with “doing differently”. “Stop” the obsession with it, “Start” thinking more creatively, “Continue” getting on with your jobs.

Give yourself a chance

How many times have you heard, “I’m not very good at” or listened to yourself say the same? Our ability to artfully segment activities in to “the things we can do” and “the things we can’t do” is legendary.

But how do we really know?

To give you an example, let’s say that I’m tasked with cooking a meal for a group of friends. I don’t normally cook, but for circumstances beyond my control I”m left to do so. I have the ingredients, I have the recipe, I have the cooker and the utensils. When everyone turns up on the saturday night to a pile of ill-determined, semi-burnt mush, I look at the evidence and declare, “I can’t cook”.

And from there on, I have the belief that this is an activity that I cannot perform.

I use cooking as a simple example, but what about maths, finance, presentations or public speaking? How often do we hear people declare in the workplace that they can’t do these things? And on what basis do they hold that belief?

What if instead we were to hold the belief that we could do anything? Well, anything biologically possible for a start. But rather than being about ability, instead we choose where we want to put our time, energy and effort? What if we were to accept that people had almost unlimited potential, just limited resource?

“I can cook. I just haven’t put the practice in to become good at it.”
“I can do numbers, I just haven’t had the exposure and I don’t really have the inclination.”
“I can speak in public, but I have to get used to handling the fear that comes with standing on stage.”

Ultimately, what we can and can’t do, comes down broadly to the things we want to invest in and the things we don’t. If we find that we also have an aptitude, that investment feels simple. If it is the opposite, sometimes the investment can feel too much.

The simple truth is that we choose the elements where we want competence or even mastery and we eschew those that we feel are a step too far. That choice is important in helping us come to terms with the essence of self determination and in turn how we manage and interact with those around us.

So next time you hear yourself professing that “you can’t”, instead try asking yourself how hard you’ve tried.

Meeting the productivity gap

I have a confession to make, I’ve become a little obsessed by meetings. I’m fascinated by the way in which we, in organisations, fill significant proportions of our time talking about the things that need to be done.

Which feels kind of weird.

I saw some data last week that showed that the higher up you go in an organisation, the higher proportion of your time is spent in meetings. Now assuming that people have succeeded in work because of a level of competence in doing “something”, to take them away from that to instead talk about “stuff” seems slightly counter intuitive.

And even accepting that the coming together of people within organisations is a valuable part of the working agenda (which I absolutely believe to be true). How often are meetings run by the most skilled most adept facilitator versus how often are they run by the most senior person?

What happens is that we are stuck in a historical model of business, where those on high would call together their underlings to convey, check, question or hold to account. And whilst so many aspects of our business life have changed, this one part still remains firmly planted in the past.

The much talked productivity gap that exists within UK business surely can’t be helped by the amount of unproductive time spent in unnecessary or badly run or defined meetings. Freeing people up to do rather than talk, to create rather than discuss.

When our lives become about meetings, we have to ask ourselves whether we are adding value, or simply taking resources away from the main purpose of our organisation.