Hard work! Aligning organisational values and behaviour

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Alignment of articulated and enacted values in business

The issue of how well an organisation’s values align between what they say they are and what they actually do in practise was illustrated very graphically by a large software company this past week. It also shows how difficult it is to get all parts of a large organisation to act in the same way on the same issue. The news coverage aggregation via Google is fascinating to review.

In that case we see an organisation that has articulated a particular value – diversity – very strongly. It has successfully enacted this value in many ways and places within the organisation and is seen as a leader in the broader community. And yet there still remained a pocket of that organisation that did not see how that value did not align with some planned promotional activities.

As a former manager within large corporations I know how challenging it can be to get the values enacted across the entire organisation. And I have a great deal of sympathy for Microsoft and their recent predicament. It could happen to any of us.

But their predicament did get me thinking about how this kind of thing could be prevented in future, and how other organisations could learn from this.

Blame is not the answer
Hardly anyone wakes up in the morning thinking that they want to head into the office and damage the company’s reputation. Mostly these things result from misunderstanding what is required or not perceiving that an action might be considered badly by external stakeholders.

Blaming the individuals who make a mistake does not really help. It can make them into passive-aggressive rule followers or ensure they feel hard done by and leave. Firing them also sends a bad message. It tells other people that mistakes are not tolerated, and stops everyone from feeling safe to take action.

Turning the mishap into a corporate story or parable is useful
Putting the learnings from a mistake into a corporate policy (while making some feel better) generally does nothing much to change behaviour.

The trick is getting the learning into the culture and translating it into practice. One good way of doing this is to create a corporate story or parable that illustrates what happened, the results, the key learnings and the principles to apply to avoid similar mistakes in future.

Then the parable needs to become part of the leadership narrative and is used create awareness of the values and how they should be enacted. It is much easier for people to remember story than a policy.

To get the story out it is necessary for business leaders (formal and informal) to use the story to illustrate how the value applies in real life. Some insights into how this can happen are:

Don’t forget Enron!
They had some of the nicest sounding values you could list and put on a pretty poster. But clearly none of those values were enacted in a meaningful way.

There is nothing that makes corporate values seem more real than people seeing leaders within the company apply them daily as part of doing business.

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It's real people and real communications

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This past week I spoke at the Sydney session of the International Customer Service Professionals (ICSP) on the topic of How can Social Media benefit our business? along with several other well known professionals (@carolskyring, @jasonealey , @CatrionaPollard).

It is always interesting to see how business people – whose real jobs are something completely unrelated to technology and social computing – are grappling with the digital revolution.

There is a dawning realisation by these business people that something different is happening. That old ways of marketing are shifting. That new modes of communication and conversation are evolving. And they are questioning.

The questions are to be expected. What is it? How do I do it? What needs to change in my organisation to make this happen?

Answers to these questions are both deceptively simple and fiendishly complex.

The real challenge lies with the simple fact that now there is no avoiding interaction with real people. It also means that all of the assumptions that we’ve made about our customers for so many decades might just be wrong (or they might be right – who knows?).

The one sure thing with this digital revolution is that our businesses are now marketing to audience of one. And that this audience has the ability to talk back to us in no uncertain terms.

A new challenge for business in the age of digital revolution is dealing with real people and undertaking real communication with them. No more set and forget above and below the line marketing campaigns. Now we might just have to think about it a bit more than we’ve been used to.

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Some thoughts on women, management & work #wmwc

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I’m lucky enough to be attending the Women, Management and Work Conference in  Sydney today. There is a great turnout, with many familiar names and faces from around Australia.

So far there has been an impressive line-up of speakers.  Yet these impressive speakers each talked about the issues around gender pay equity (which does not exist here in Australia yet). They also touched on the changing nature of work and patterns of work – since many of us no longer work in the same field from beginning to end of our careers.

Paid parental leave was also touched upon – Heather Ridout noted how important she sees this issue for business.  I agree, this is one area that is critical to driving productivity growth for Australia.

Mark Lennon also made a plea for people to realise that trade unions are still relevant.  Not sure he made his case strongly enough to maintain relevance?

I look at the landscape for women in the workplace (especially in management) and remain disheartened that we have made so little progress during my working career.  We seem to be having many of the same conversations about equal pay, equal opportunity in the workplace, discrimination, sexual harassment and parental leave as happened twenty years ago.

The strident complaints (or the hidden seething resentment) of men when women are appointed to positions ahead of them remain.  Access to board roles remains distressingly low, although the Australian Institute of Company Directors is working hard on this at the moment.  You can check out Tony Abbott having a bit of a gripe about gender here.

Yet I look at the landscape in Australia and am encouraged to see women in power at various levels.  It is especially encouraging to see women as: Governor General, Prime Minister, Deputy Leader of the Opposition, State Governors, State Premiers, Mayors, local Councillors and other business leaders.  But this is a very rare alignment of the  constellations, rare enough that it is commented upon.

We have not yet reached a stage where having a woman in a position of power and authority is so completely normal that it is not even worth commenting upon.

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Ethics, incompetence, and conspiracy

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The common thread between these items is the importance of communication. And it is the communication by leaders and managers within organisations that signifies to people what standards of thinking and behaviour are acceptable.

This communication takes the form of spoken words, behaviours, gestures and also of absence, silence and looking away. Thus leaders communicate the way that it is acceptable to be within that organisation.

Ethics are hard to define – often they are easier to detect by their absence rather than by their manifestation in the daily life of an organisation.

When I used to work in government we talked about ethical behaviour as doing the right thing even when nobody was watching.

Interestingly, in that government context we discussed (and sometimes vigorously debated) things like probity quite a lot. Perhaps one of the features of an ethical organisation is that an ongoing discourse exists about what ethics means at a practical level for people within that organisation?

Another thing that supports an ethical organisation is a refutation of incompetence. Where incompetence is tolerated, accepted or covered up within an organisation it can override ethical considerations and breed bad outcomes.

At best, toleration of incompetence can lead to dispirited staff and unhappy customers. At worst incompetence can segue into breaches of statutory and regulatory requirements unless leaders and managers take vigorous steps to prevent it.

Incompetence tolerated also breeds passivity. If incompetence is accepted, and people are unable to stop it, then they cease to care. That giving up caring about quality means that the organisation is starting down a slippery slope that can lead to poor delivery initially and, ultimately, to ethical issues.

It is a pretty safe bet that an organisation that tolerates incompetence is not simultaneously facilitating discussions about ethical behaviour or probity. It is not likely to be focused on high quality outcomes for stakeholders such as shareholders, customers or staff.

The next step beyond this is conspiracy. This situation is neatly outlined by Michael Krigsman in his recent article, Dell lawsuit: Pattern of deceit.

As Michael summarised it:

Dell shipped approximately 12 million computers containing faulty components and then tried to hide the problems from buyers.

For Dell this appears to have played out, with staff members actively conspiring to do the wrong thing by customers, as a failure of ethics.

This kind of situation makes me wonder just what communication (taking the form of spoken words, behaviours, gestures and also of absence, silence and looking away) that the Dell leaders and managers were demonstrating to their people?

I wonder too, how many other organisations suffer in similar ways? And, if you are a leader or manager, what signals are you sending to your people about acceptable ways of being in your organisation?

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Leadership – it is hard to define but I know it when I see it

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That heading was inspired by the well known saying regarding pornography by Justice Potter Stewart:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that. [Emphasis added.]”

by Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184 (1964), regarding possible obscenity in The Lovers.

I was reading this case recently and it occurred to me that leadership is a bit like that too.

There are a myriad of management texts and cases that seek to define and categorise leadership. In the end leadership is hard to define at a purely theoretical level. But when I see it in action is blindingly apparent. And as an interesting corollary its absence is also apparent. Two cases illustrate this point:

  1. Christine Nixon in the 2009 Victorian bushfires
  2. Tony Hayward in the BP oil disaster of 2010

In each case the leader demonstrated by words and/or deeds that they were not fully on the job while their people were dealing with a desperate situation. They were not present in various ways to guide, reassure, direct, console or otherwise interact with workers, participants, victims, and other stakeholders in the particular situations in which they found themselves.

I know that these actions or words don’t look like leadership. Perhaps it is easier to describe leadership by what it is not?

Here’s a few of my thoughts:

  • Leadership is not walking away for recreation when your people are working through a crisis
  • Leadership is not complaining because people are angry with you (even though what they’re angry about might not be your direct fault)
  • Leadership is not whining
  • Leadership is not finding excuses
  • Leadership is not running away from problems

So who do I think is a good leader? One person that stands out for me is the Captain of the local Rural Fire Brigade – an unassuming chap whose name I shall not reveal (as he’d be a tad embarrassed). He does the opposite of the things listed above. He’s a steadying influence in a crisis and is there when we need him. Pity someone like him was not on duty with BP for their crisis.

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Company Directors conference 2010 – day 1

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I’m lucky to be attending the Australian Institute of Company Directors 2010 conference DIRECTORSHIP:10 Ahead of the Curve in Christchurch this week.

Sessions today included:

  • Australia and New Zealand – performing in the global arena
  • Is the current system broken?
  • Challenges and opportunities in the global economy
  • March to modernity – Asia tomorrow and the rise of the global south

A recurrent theme is the issue of gender equity and boards. Every panel has women participating. Perhaps a valiant attempt to stave off quotas for Australian boards?

But there are some good initiatives in the area of gender equity. For example, a mentoring program for ‘board ready women’ by Chairmen of ASX200 companies.

David Hale gave a whirlwind tour of the global economy and outlook. This included some gems:

on current trends “we could by 2050 have a world in which there are more Australians than Canadians”

Spain next domino? “the problem in Spain is the economic leader is a total idiot”

“Greece has been an accident waiting to happen for a long time” – apparently poor tax collection is part of the problem

His general outlook was fairly gloomy for most of the world, especially UK, Europe and Japan. With emerging nations plus Australia/New Zealand as only

David’s key message was that governments really need to reduce debt and there is going to be a lot of pain associated with that process.

Avril Henry did some straight talking to the assembled (mostly Boomer) audience about the expectations of the GenX and GenY people their organisations need. She outlined how much the next generations expect technology as part of their life and work expectations.

She outlined issues of network amplification effects of social networks and their impact on business environment and culture. Avril’s points about how the forces of fear and command and control are driving away potential employees really resonated for me.

I really hope the leaders at this conference heed her call for greater focus on ‘soft’ skills in management for Australia’s sustainable economic advantage.

Loved how Avril called:

“generation Y – generation WHY? because they always ask this question”

Some good stuff here! Looking forward to tomorrow.

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Lean times favour innovation

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Companies struggle with how to innovate when their existing business is stable or growing.  There is often a perception that innovation requires a lot of investment. However, it has been my experience that it is much harder to innovate in a successful and prosperous organisation than in a leaner and hungrier one.

The interesting thing to consider is what low cost things can be done to encourage innovation. Because innovation is less about money and resources than it is about mindset.

What kind of environment supports innovation?

I’ve worked in many different kinds of organisation – including large and small private sector enterprises, government, education and not-for-profit – and the one thing that flowed through is that innovation is less about resources than it is about mindset.

Environments where people are micromanaged and failures punished are not conducive to innovation – fear rarely makes people look outward to develop new ideas.

The kind of places I’ve seen innovation flourish have been ones where managers were comfortable to let people put forward ideas. Places where failure was not fatal to one’s career and where giving it a try was part of the culture.

One of the most innovative workplaces I ever worked in was a not-for-profit. We had little money but our Executive Director was a very smart woman who surrounded herself with smart people and let them do their thing. Sure, she set boundaries for us. But we were able to try many different approaches to business and technology under her guidance.

The interesting thing was that under her leadership the other managers reporting her also gave leeway to new and experimental ideas.

The other innovative workplace was a very large global multinational. Innovation was seen as part of our job there and, again the leadership of the company reinforced the message that new ideas were welcome. Funnily enough we did not invest a lot of money into encouraging innovation or into piloting the new ideas – only after they’d been proven was money available.

For me innovation is something that bubbles up within an organisation if management allows it. This does not mean that there should be no parameters around meaningful innovation for that particular company or industry. But in my experience it is management who set the tone for innovation within an organisation. If managers don’t support innovation it will be still-born no matter what innovation programs and other gimmicks are attempted.

A key signal as to how an organisation regards innovation is whether or not they celebrate their innovators. In both the organisations above, successful innovators became part of the corporate storytelling and anecdotes of their ventures became part of the corporate lore.

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7 questions to ask re new technology for your business

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These questions apply for all kinds of technology decisions including hardware, software, or even social media and social networking technologies.

Business people do not want to spend money on unnecessary or unhelpful technology, yet are often ill advised when they make technology acquisitions or expenditure.

I often see businesses, both large and small, acquire unnecessary or inappropriate technology for which they will never achieve the projected return on investment. Or, even worse, the ROI is based on the capital costs alone without factoring in other costs such as staff time.

New technology is often proposed by someone you know – a friend or family member, or a business acquaintance or sales person.

Here are a few questions I always ask about new technology before acting:

1) What is it and what does it do?

With this question you can find out how much the person recommending it actually understands.  If someone can’t explain what the proposed technology is and what it does in plain English be very suspicious.  Seek alternative perspectives if they are unable to answer this question in a way that makes sense. I always say – “if you can’t explain it to someone’s grandmother so she can understand what it is and does then you don’t understand it properly yourself”.

2) How does it work?

Don’t be afraid to openly ask “Can you explain to me how it works?” It is similar to the previous question but digs in more on the functions that it can perform and how it does so. Uncovering assumptions – such as that the proposed technology assumes access to high speed broadband – is critical.  These assumptions generally add unanticipated cost to implementation of the solution.

This question also uncovers information about potential extra costs. For instance, if an application is hosted in the cloud (a.k.a. software-as-a-service or SaaS) then you will need likely need an extremely reliable and robust internet connection.

3) How does it make or save money for me?
This is an important question. Often the person suggesting technology for your business does not correctly understand its profit model.  The revenue model for your business in relation to the new technology needs to be clear, otherwise calculating the payback period is impossible.


4) How long is that payback period?

Strong and confident off-the-cuff answers to this question are invariably wrong. A sensible answer to this question will depend upon a number of variables, some of which are particular to your business, time and place.  I have seen more dodgy payback assertions than I’ve had baked dinners.  It’s worth digging into this question and doing a proper ROI analysis.


5) What are the indirect costs of this technology?

Often the focus is on the capital cost of the technology and little consideration is given to the total cost of ownership during the life of the asset.  Indirect costs include:

External costs: hardware and software maintenance (a good rule of thumb is 20% of original capital cost annually adjusted for CPI), additional support, ongoing minor enhancement requirements

Internal costs: this is usually the cost of time for staff to look after or use the technology; sometimes the technology adds new tasks that must be considered & often these tasks require some level of technical skill; also often overlooked is the possibility that you will need to take on new staff to run the technology


6) How updateable is this technology?

This is a big question. If there are improvements in the technology will you have to buy a new model or can the existing model be upgraded?  Given how fast technology innovation cycles move these days, being able to upgrade or expand the technology is key to having a decent useful life for the asset.


7) Who else uses it & how do they use it?

If nobody else is using the technology yet then there needs to be compelling answers to all of the other questions. Further, if there are no other local users (i.e. in your country) then the support infrastructure might not be there ready to offer effective support. There is nothing worse than the support help phone line being in a timezone that is opposite to your own.

The few times that I have implemented either a beta version or version 1 of a technology in business there was a bad outcome due a variety of problems. Usually this manifested itself in the form of cost and time overruns on the project. Consequently, unless there is an extremely compelling business driver, I tend to avoid betas or version 1 of anything.

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2010 Blog theme – women in …

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I’ve been thinking about having an overarching theme for my blog this year and have finally decided on women in …

that is women who are doing interesting things like
One of the original typing pools, in Kingsway, central London, in 1909

  • finance
  • technology
  • science
  • engineering
  • management
  • innovation
  • start-ups
  • marketing
  • media
  • and whatever other interesting careers pop up

Women have come such a long way in a relatively short time regarding careers and choices. It’s worth sharing stories of successful women and finding out some of their secrets.

First post on this will a profile of a fascinating woman in finance.

If you think that there is an interesting woman others should know about please let me know.

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Startups Trade-offs Balance | Startup BarCamp Sydney

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In late November I spoke at Startup BarCamp in Sydney. The topic was about the kind of personal trade-offs & choices we make when choosing to work in a startup.

These choices are not always immediately obvious when you go into a startup. However, the number of broken relationships and partnerships amongst my acquaintance in the startup community does seem to be higher than in the general population.

It is worth considering how to manage these trade-offs going into the startup, rather than waiting for the inevitable and dealing with the fallout.

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