Monthly Archives: June 2010

Why change the rules?

My Grandfather was a highly skilled cabinet maker.  He worked out of a small workshop from where he produced fine furniture.  His apprenticeship had been long and exacting such that his skills were of the very highest standard.

I was with my father sorting through a trunk which contained some of his tools. As we unwrapped oil soaked cloths to reveal beautiful tenon saws and wooden planes I remarked that my grandfather would have turned in his grave if he could see the power tools that unskilled people like me used these days.  He just laughed and confessed that grandfather’s workshop was as automated as it was possible to get.  He made electric planes, band saws and many other gizmos to make his work easier, faster and better. 

At one time if you drove a motor car you had to have a man walk in front of your vehicle with a flag to warn people and particularly horse riders that you were approaching.

In exams you couldn’t use an electronic calculator but you could do calculations with a slide rule: a wide ruler with a slide-able central bar which when lined up with its numerous scales allowed you to multiply numbers. When used in conjunction with a book of logarithm tables the young mathematician was able to perform amazing computation.  Or not.  Thank heaven these have been confined to the fires of hell!

History is littered with examples of how our lives would be different if people hadn’t challenged the rules, the social norms or (in the case of my grandfather) established practice.

Many people have argued with me that rules are there for a reason.  I accept this up to a point.  What we have to do is be prepared to challenge the rules especially when we can’t find improvements within established practice.  How many laws have been repealed as society moves on and they are no longer appropriate?

There is always a better way.  Achieving it might be painful but transformation can’t happen  if you won’t accept the possibility that the current rules might need to change.

Hold the front page!

Mention Eddy Shah to people and you get a mixed reaction. In 1983, as the owner of a print works in Warrington in Northern England he was at the centre of one of the most bitter industrial disputes seen in the UK.
As the owner of six local newspapers he was determined to use modern technology (desktop publishing) to print them, this meant breaking the monopoly of the print-workers supported by their Trades Union to operate the print machinery. The newspapers and magazines of the time were written by journalists on their typewriters and their words were either typeset by using hot metal to create a printing plate or by operating computers to set the page. The traditional technique was highly skilled work and required a seven year apprenticeship. The workers were in short supply because they restricted the number of apprentices; as a result they had great power and commanded high wages.
During the dispute there were times when 10,000 people were picketing Eddy Shah’s premises. This was a protest not only against the threat to the print workers livelihood but also against the new labour laws which restricted the right to strike. After seven months the dispute came to an end and the way was paved for newspapers to be printed using modern technology.
Rupert Murdoch went through a similar dispute in January 1986 as News International moved print operations from their traditional home in Fleet Street, to modern, purpose built, highly automated premises in Wapping.
It could be argued that the transformation of the UK newspaper industry could have been achieved in a more co-operative way. However, when established practices become intractable and the rules become immovable it becomes highly risky to get to the next level. Eddy Shah took the risk, showed great determination and ultimately allowed the printing industry to develop. He was a Paradigmeer of his time.

Freedom of speech in the workplace?

Nearly 3000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Homer wrote in ‘The Iliad’ that ‘to speak his thoughts is every freeman’s right’.   Now established in English case law since 1999 is that freedom of speech could not be limited to the inoffensive but extended also to ‘the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome, and the provocative, as long as such speech did not tend to provoke violence’.  Brilliant.  Or is it?
In organisations can we really allow our people the opportunity to say what they want?  To air their views in public whenever they want?  If we did, it could be disastrous.  We might find people turning up to work with a small plastic box which, when flipped over, is a perfect one-person stage upon which they can stand and address anyone that cares to listen.  Clive, the handyman stands on his toolbox and publicly decries those that have blocked his toilets for the third time this week.  Mary in accounts puts up her stage in the corner of the shop floor and rants at all those who seem unable to fill out an expenses claim form on time.  Barry in IT…  sends an e mail picture of himself standing on a box with a message under it, usually with some Star Wars reference.
Is this too frightening? 
Let’s consider the benefits.  Everyone in your organisation would feel that they can have their opinions heard by anyone that cares to listen.  This means you can bring all those gripes and grumbles out into the open where they can be addressed.  It would spark debate over the issues which are important to people.  There is obviously the right to reply, agreeing with the orator or suggesting improvements or actions.  This could be a very powerful vehicle for change.  Don’t forget you can say anything from your platform – why not thank someone for their great work, praise achievement or applaud improvement?
I know of one MD who does just this.  He heads out regularly around his factories with his box from which to carry out impromptu discussions with anyone who happens to be able to listen.  People join in the debates and have a lot of fun.  Direct, personal, face to face dialogue between the leader and the masses.
There is just one historical precedent that you need to be aware of before you rush off and buy your rostrum.  Socrates, arguably the father of philosophy, enjoyed this type of oratory and debate in the forum of Athens.  After many years of his antics he was poisoned to death. Now that’s what I call heckling!

The Power of DIY

We come across so many leadership teams that want their people to take more responsibility for their actions.  In order to achieve more as an organisation, to get to the next level, they have realised that everyone needs to be engaged, involved and taking a personal responsibility.  Sound familiar?
When we break this down it raises some interesting points.
  1. There is a recognition that leaders can’t transform an organisation by themselves
  2. They need to engage their workforce
  3. This means giving responsibility to the people that do the job
  4. Which means that there is a change in the way people are led and managed.  (The fulcrum around which this transformation revolves)
  5. People have to want to take responsibility
  6. Engagement is it is about people declaring their own outcomes, (linked to how they will support the outcomes of the business)not about giving them targets
  7. With everyone feeling they have control over what they do and are accountable for achieving their outcomes.

This process requires a subtle yet fundamental shift in control from telling people what to do – to people feeling accountable for their outputs; which is usually the stumbling block.  We hear lots of leadership and management rhetoric about empowerment and continue to witness management target-setting.  Managers want to tell people what to do because that’s what managers do.  Only when this switches to managers wanting to lead and relinquish command and control do people take responsibility. 
This doesn’t mean letting go and allowing people to do whatever they want – which would be a disaster.  If you want your people to take responsibility then you have to give them responsibility.  People feeling that they are accountable is the key. 
It’s like doing DIY.  The moment you decide to put up some shelves is when you take responsibility for your desired outcome.  At this point you take control and organise everything to do a great job.  At the end of half an hour of labour you are able to stand back and admire your priceless heirloom displayed on the shelf you put up. 
This is the feeling we are aiming at giving all our people. To do so requires a different way of thinking and managing.  It is a subtle change which will transform an organisation.

Role Models

As a schoolchild I had compulsory swimming lessons at the local baths every week. Being quite competitive, I was determined to be in the top set which meant the chance to go in for the hard swimming achievement badges. On the day of group selection I was horrified to find we had to swim across the pool using front crawl. I was a reasonable swimmer but I’d never even attempted front crawl I didn’t even know the rudiments of the stroke. All seemed doomed to failure. Luckily a new girl had recently arrived in school, she was American and was an amazing swimmer. She glided effortlessly through the water using whatever stroke she wanted. I decided upon a foolhardy, yet with hindsight, quite good plan. I would watch carefully what she did and simply copy her technique. Which I did, incorporating a long dive and holding my breath for the whole distance I managed exemplary front crawl and learned some valuable lessons.
  1. Always do the things with complete confidence, it gives the impression you know what you’re doing
  2. Technique is everything
  3. Be prepared to take a risk, the worst thing that can happen is you will drown
  4. Find the very best people and learn from what they do
  5. God Bless Americans

People hold the customer experience you get in USA as the role model for customer service. I have had great service when visiting America; I have also had quite the reverse. What you notice wherever you go is that you will get pockets of great practice. If one person is brilliant then usually many are all brilliant. People follow a role model. They want to be like the person most admired in the organisation.
Culture is contagious and self managing. Take the example of the fantastic Italian waiter we had at a restaurant recently. He had the accent, the mannerisms, the skills and the look of the other brilliant waiters. When you heard him ‘off duty’ he had the broadest Yorkshire accent and had no connections with Italy except that he served pizzas for a living. He probably didn’t even realise that when he was at work he became Italian! The culture he immersed himself in everyday meant he could give his best, indeed he couldn’t give anything else.
Managers in particular need to be constantly vigilant of themselves. Their team is a reflection of themselves, they are the role models. Their team want to be like them. If they are not what you want them to be – then you need to look to yourself. People learn by copying the actions of those that look like they know what they are doing.
WARNING. This doesn’t apply to learning front crawl. If you want to become a master swimmer, get lessons. If you use my technique as a model be warned it could result in being humiliated at the public swimming pool as the lifeguard pulls you from the water.

Vinegar Vera’s

Welcome to the matriarchs of the shadow side, a group of people skilled at undermining any change initiative.  Ignore them at your peril because they certainly won’t ignore you. 
Your shiny new change programme is ready for launch.  It’s going to vastly improve the way you approach your business.  Everyone has been consulted and is apparently on board.  Naturally there will be people with reservations, some will want to see how it goes before they fully subscribe to your plan – this is to be expected.  Then there are those whose sole purpose in life is to undermine.  It doesn’t really matter what it is, they are against it, or can see why it shouldn’t be allowed to work, they are organisational luddites.
If only it was this simple.  It’s easy to handle sledge hammer wielding detractors because they make a lot of noise.  The Vinegar Vera’s are master ‘well poisoners’.  They don’t reveal themselves, ever.  When you talk to them they will be as nice as can be to your face, but then, as soon as you turn away…  You might suspect their motives but they are astute at slipping away into the shadows.  
They operate in small cells or cliques, recruiting followers from the ranks of the disaffected.  Picking them off one at a time as they reveal an opinion or misgiving about what is happening.  A little comment here, an observation there is enough to prize the lid off a can of worms.  Then they stand back and watch the mayhem.  Stirring occasionally when necessary to re-agitate discontent…
Don’t panic.  Already you are thinking about who are your Vinegar Veras.  Once you become adept at spotting the signs, narrowing down the possible ringleaders, you are in a position to deal with them.  There are now two courses of action:
  1. Befriend a Vinegar Vera.  Spot the waverers, work on them individually.  Personal attention makes them feel listened to and valued.  Bring them back ever so gently to your side.
  2. Bring them into the open and force them to declare their hand.  They will either voice all their issues publically which makes them easy to address or they will reveal to your assembled audience their lack of support thus undermining their undermining.

Don’t ever think you don’t have a Vinegar Vera problem; they are all around, skulking in the shadows.  Be afraid, be very afraid.
NB.  (It is their matriarchal, nurturing behaviour rather than their gender that distinguishes this group, you can have male Vinegar Vera’s)