Sunday, 26 April 2009

The secret of successful execution

The secret is effective interpersonal communication.

It bugs me that hardly any firms deliberately develop specific interpersonal communication skills and climate. It’s as if the notion of Communication is missing from collective management consciousness (except perhaps as ‘clear communication’).

What ‘got me going again’ was a client who having ‘done’ the soft ‘HR’ stuff: resolving toxic relationships in admin; management agreeing to design jobs and ‘organisational structure’ around their best people rather than expecting the reverse; and management agreeing a recruitment and succession plan and budget, decided that the next step is to focus on; get hard-nosed about; kick butt on KPIs (performance).

There seems to me to be a yawning gap in that sequence: a gap, which pervades management thinking, between the intention and actually achieving high performance. The gap is effective communication; communication that achieves purpose.

Plenty of attention seems to be paid to communicating numbers: accounts, sales, production. Enlightened managers even pay attention to identifying shared values, determining responsibilities and accountabilities (KPIs) and reviewing performance (Verne Harnish). Enlightened salespeople pay attention to building interpersonal communication relationships with current and prospective customers (Neil Rackham).

But typically the actual, specific interpersonal communication behaviours, patterns, attitudes and beliefs inherent in those activities receive little if any deliberate, specific attention. It’s as if there’s a widespread unconscious assumption that effective communication somehow magically happens if you get the right people with the right values, clear about the right responsibilities and accountabilities and they meet with the right frequency and the right task focus.

Well, clearly it typically doesn’t magically happen except perhaps for some people who fortunately are ‘naturally’ effective communicators just like some are naturally effective entrepreneurs. Just as entrepreneurship can be understood and learned (Jim Collins) so too can effective communication (What do they hear?) but where and how can we learn it?

Though Jim assumes that Entrepreneurship is learned in the many university business school courses and programmes, I disagree. At university business schools people typically learn to analyse and describe business, not to do it. The one thing that Business Schools typically don’t have and can’t teach is business sense and that’s at the core of entrepreneurship. It’s similar for communication.

Communication is learned by guided (coached) reflection on actual shared communication experience – on the job, in the role. Not in a ‘learning’ institution. Modern universities disable and discourage effective communication simply by the way they are organised (administrative bureaucracy). It takes a special organisational climate to enable reflective practice: one that’s rare in our X type Management dominated world (Telco allergy).

Get an experienced communication coach to work with you to enable you to learn together to communicate more effectively.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Easter reflection

““And God created the Organisation and gave it dominion over man.”
Genesis 1, 30A, subparagraph VIII.” (Robert Townsend. 1970. Up the Organization)

This Easter I’ve reflected on how our lives are too often distorted, disfigured and diminished by the organisations we inhabit; how some (usually small) organisations grow people instead of distorting, disfiguring and diminishing them.

Over Easter my wife took timeout from our workday organisational routines for two short adventures:

First we retreated to the Opotiki bush block that we’ve owned and congregated on with friends for over 30 years. For us all, including our children who spent every summer there from before birth into to their 20s, the place is a trig point in our individual and collective identities. Gatherings usually include a building project, an adventure and much feasting, talking and laughing. This Easter was no exception. By day, we hand-made and laid 6m3 of concrete together to ford a stream. By night we celebrated with communally prepared food and wine.

The place, the purpose, and the people have produced a successful and enduring collaboration (small on organisation and big on community) of individuals whose multiple diverse talents interact, flourish, revive, and reorient in the verdant quiet of chuckling steams, moss carpeted waterfalls, giant native forest trees, ponga and mamaku tree ferns and nikau palms.

Next we toured the Otago NZ wine growing region where some of our favourite Pinot Noir wines are produced. We visited small vineyards and wineries to get acquainted with the places and people in the wine. In dry rocky historic landscapes we talked wine and history with vineyard owners passionate about their vines and their wines; real people, real emotion, excellent wine: small organisations in big communities. The wine industry in New Zealand is renowned for collaboration.

The spirit of creativity, growth and change in a collaboration (small on Management, big on distributed leadership), is perhaps symbolised by the koru which in Maori art symbolises creation, origin, perpetual movement and the way in which life both changes and stays the same.

Telco allergy

I just wish that I could deal with my telco allergy the same way as I dealt with my bee sting allergy.

I used to keep bees for a hobby but I developed a bee sting allergy. So I gave up bee keeping. I wasn't dependent on bees . . . . .

I’ve been tracking my symptoms and I think that maybe my allergy’s not to telcos per se, but to large scale bureaucracies (LSBs).

It seems that I only get an allergic reaction when I rub up against these organisations and that happens when I initiate change that doesn’t neatly fit their established patterns and habits. I can avoid intimate contact by complying with their bureaucratic systems; accepting whatever they deliver.

When I don’t, the seeming self-sealing, impervious, impersonality of the LSB response “gets under my skin”. I can feel my allergic reaction building, aggravated, rather than soothed by each interaction.

My allergy flared up recently when I decided to switch telcos on a now-or-never offer of faster internet, lower phone charges and a once only rebate. I was a bit twitchy about the now-or-never pressure but it seemed like a good deal and the agreement allowed a week to cancel.

I won’t give you a blow by blow account; enough to say that within five days my ‘new’ telco – a young-minded progressive firm, if their advertisements are to be believed – screwed up twice, victims of their own departmentalisation. Then expected me to be impressed by how fast they reversed the screw-ups!

Defensively they cast me as unreasonable and urged me to forgive, forget and enjoy their wonderful world of fashionable, functional technology. I figured I’d witnessed their LSB spots and cancelled.

Is there something about the telecoms industry that breeds LSBs? Is it possible to be a telco and not behave like an LSB? I suppose the bureaucratic heritage runs deep in the industry. But there are signs that smaller firms emerging in the deregulated ‘unbundled’ NZ telco environment under inspired new leaders are different. . . . .

I’m re-reading Robert Townsend’s “Up the Organisation”: radical experience-forged advice on how to break the bureaucratic spell. Unfortunately, so little has changed in the nearly 40 years since he wrote it that it’s still radical today.

It’s nearer 50 years since Townsend’s inspiration, Douglas McGregor (1960. "The Human Side of Enterprise"), optimistically predicted the end of conventional Management by 1980. But ‘X’ type Management is still the default mode, even in small organisations. Maybe the current economic upheaval is the first real opportunity for transformation since McGregor?

Friday, 3 April 2009

Lexicon? What’s that?

It’s our language that enables us to have and manipulate ideas; determines our capacity to conceptualise, think and change. In these times it is crucial for individuals and organisations to change – to transform even. Yet many are crippled; locked in by the language of Management.

This was once again highlighted for me in a recent discussion around the purpose of business-team coaching. I objected to the apparently widespread unquestioned assumption that business development coaching is to achieve “alignment”. I explained that “In my lexicon, “alignment” has strong associations with “staying in line”, compliance, groupthink: some of the least productive aspects of Managerial behaviour and expectation.”

On reflection that objection was potentially risky behaviour with the MD leading the discussion and several senior managers participating in the conversation: I was apparently questioning an almost unquestionable Managerial prerogative - compliance. On top of that I seemed to imply almost heretically that Management is wrong. As if that wasn’t enough I had the temerity to use strange language: “lexicon”.

“What’s lexicon?" the MD demanded. "A company name?” .

When I later explained that my lexicon is the language that I think with, he joked, “Well I guess lexicon’s not in my lexicon.” But of course, by that stage it was.

Particularly interesting to me was that that discussion was part of a process to reconceptualise; to find new language to express the concept and practice of business development coaching. Language was essential to the change process.

Working against that change was the spirit of Managerial control: arguably achieved in large part through control of language. Managers can require that ideas and argument are communicated in language that they readily understand, as they understand it, so reinforcing convention. Jargon becomes a means of exclusion and of enhancing knowledge-power.

How then can we introduce new language and with it new concepts, new ideas, new possibilities?

Reading is one way, but most popular writers use conventional language because it is readily understood and that’s what sells. Nobody except academics read academic literature.

In my experience, the best way to introduce new language is in context, in conversation. Then the initial difficulties and misunderstandings can be explored: illustrated by real, shared experience.

Unfettered brainstorming is an effective way to break the Managerial spell and let the language flow, unhindered by evaluation and qualification: formal, colloquial, slang, foreign, technical, expert, outrageous, boring, relevant, irrelevant, reverent, irreverent, dangerous, and tame language.

PS My closest colleagues in that organisation have affectionately given me a new nickname: “Prof”. I’m not sure if that’s helpful or not. But it is a mark of affection. That’s good.