Saturday, 30 May 2009

It’s no secret: mantras, slogans and recipes don’t work!

In his May 28 Business Growth Tip , COO Stephen Lynch says that he’s “become a bit jaded” with the many business books he reads. “Gimmicky book titles that promise much but deliver no actionable value, empty platitudes presented as if they were profound and original ideas, the so-called “secrets” of celebrity leaders. . . . . . . ”

I’m with Stephen. To me the popular literature on business, leadership, and management seems to pander to the gullible market for success-magic. It has little effect on actual organisational behaviour; on business execution; on actually doing things differently to get a different result.

The academic literature isn’t helpful either: typically descriptive with narrow causal analysis, it may be fine for increasing understanding (amongst academics at least) but if there was any direct link between understanding and changed behaviour then university Business Schools would rule the business world.

Even the best of the popular Business Management literature seems to bang away monotonously at the KPI mantra –repackaged management-by-objectives (MBO).

Mantras, slogans and recipes don’t work! There is no short list of steps that will actually change your business. That’s because change is opportunistic: the opportunities are in the chaotic, ambiguous reality that surges and flows around and under the apparently orderly surface of conventional business practice. That’s the world of interpersonal communication.

In a recent professional coaching conversation we discovered, once we got beneath the stock answers and platitudes, that the keys to business coaching success are in insight and transformation (discontinuous shifts in perception and behaviour). These phenomena are serendipitous, not the product of hard-grind managerial planning and control systems.

That’s not to dismiss planning and control. It’s to say that if business success lies in change then the key is in whatever enables us to swim gracefully and purposefully in comparative chaos and ambiguity.

And that’s where the management literature, popular or otherwise, doesn’t seem to go. It’s stuck in a simplistic model of science: of laws and formulae, of controlled, deductive, causal reasoning. That’s not sufficient in the dynamic, complex world of interpersonal relationships that are at the heart of business and change. It’s interpersonally that people actually make new sense of chaos and ambiguity.

But how often in “Business” books do you see any mention of interpersonal communication strategy? Seldom, I reckon. There’s plenty of attention to ‘positioned’ communication in sales and marketing, but scant attention to interpersonal communication at home except perhaps in putting policies-and-procedures-in-place.

Here are a few tips: pay attention to the verbatim detail of communication behaviour. Reflect together on the detail of what people said compared to what they thought. Learn to communicate assertively. It’s an art that's not normal in Management. Assertive communication behaviours can be learned but the process is slow and determined and you'll need all the help you can get from your work-mates.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Effective “people-skills” are not the same as “being-nice skills”.

It seems that Verne Harnish, like many, may equate people-skills with being nice. If so, then he's mistaken. Effective people-skills are about effective communication – skills that many managers and subordinates don’t have regardless of whether they are nice or not.

In his Insights newsletter this morning Verne Harnish quotes NY Times columnist David Brooks' article on some recent research on CEO effectiveness that apparently indicates that people skills are overrated and execution/persistence more important.

Verne seems to take that to mean that effective CEO’s are not-nice. For instance he cautions that the data is about “big company CEOs" whereas owners of “smaller firms often have to be nicer to people in order to attract and keep top talent” he says.

Does that mean that people are so keen to work for big firms that they put up with and are unaffected by bad behaviour that they wouldn’t tolerate in a smaller firm? I doubt it.

Effective “people skills” are about effective communication and effective communication isn’t “being nice”. In fact it can be so tough that “nice people” can’t bring themselves to communicate effectively. Instead they skirt around the real issues, manoeuvre and manipulate, expecting others to somehow “get it”.

Being an effective communicator is about being assertive; being not-manipulative; it’s about persistence and execution. Unfortunately most communication in work organisations is way less effective than it could be. The result is dissatisfaction, distress, disengagement.

Learn how to communicate more effectively. Don’t be nice. Be effective: be purposeful; know your audience; persistently interact to establish shared understanding; identify and check all assumptions; listen.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Whiteboarding for outliers

Whiteboarding can be a good way to generate shared understanding between people in a business (if you know what you’re doing).

Business is collaboration; is interpersonal communication. A successful business or business network is comprised of people who have an adaptable shared understanding of who they individually and collectively are; of what they’re endeavouring to achieve together and why; of how they’re endeavouring to achieve it together; and of their progress together.

That shared-understanding exists between them. It’s a dynamic, living thing that they generate through skilful, purposeful interpersonal communication: navigating the complexities and dynamics of individual perception and emotion in interpersonal relationships. Whiteboarding can represent that emerging, changing, developing shared-understanding.

Beware; everyone will assume that the whiteboard is a “power” tool. You will have to deliberately break that classroom spell. Deliberately use the whiteboard as a think-space and to express the emerging shared understanding between the people. To emphasise that, encourage everyone to physically enter the think-space by writing on it; thinking ‘aloud’ on it; sticking post-its on it; drawing on it; expressing their perspective and understanding on it.

Even put the whiteboard on the table between the people.

If that’s too weird for you, substitute paper for whiteboard and for increased visibility use a document projector to throw the image on a wall and/or to pipe it down the web to those unfortunate off-site participants. SmartBoards are also good for projecting, manipulating, transmitting and writing over images of actual documents.

Don’t abstract documents into PowerPoint bullets: highlight and write on the real documents; get your actual fingers in the picture (thrown on the wall by the document projector).

Don’t write minutes of the meeting. Save or photograph the ‘raw’ whiteboards and distribute those. They’ll be meaningful to those who were there and it’s a waste of time trying to communicate what happened to someone who wasn’t.

When you’re working with shared understanding, being there may not be everything, but its way ahead of whatever’s in second place.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Picture your organisation

When you picture your organsiation, is it a heap of job-titled boxes, connected by wires? If so, hit delete and relearn to communicate (unless your organisation is a machine or a computer and the people are cogs or components). If you’re the boss, it starts with you.

That picture says a thousand words and it's all bad. It confirms what “everyone” tacitly knows: despite talk of empowerment, engagement, collaboration and the like, the organisation is a top down framework of authority connecting specific jobs. Its purpose is compliance.

An innovative, adaptable, vital, vibrant, creative and collaborative organisation isn’t boxes and wires. It’s a dynamic network of complex communication relationships between people doing good things well together.

The ever-changing pattern, content and purpose of their interpersonal communication is a product of their roles, personalities, skills and knowledge and the (business) environment. Any similarity to the conventional formal organisational structure is more likely coincidental than intentional.

The following case shows how this works:

A client asked me to help him restructure his organisation. When asked why, he answered that internal communication wasn’t working well.

I suggested that we set aside the ‘structure thing’ and simply take a look at who needed to communicate with whom and which communication relationships seemed to be the problem.

He described what seemed to him to be the problem relationships; we theorised why, bearing in mind the Extended DISC personality profiles of those involved. Then I coached him in telling the individuals how their communication appeared to him, why, what he would like to change and asking them what they thought. Then I coached him to do the same with the interacting pairs of individuals.

The ‘structural’ problem melted away and the work climate improved measurably.

Conventional organisational charts are at least industrial anachronisms and at worst promote unproductive manager/subordinate behaviours.

Got the picture?

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Learning to change; changing to learn

Habit-changing learning happens in the heat of real events, crises even; when the answer can only be achieved by inspired collaboration – the one thing that is not-taught and not-learned by the conventional teaching and learning model that dominates our high schools, colleges, universities board meetings, training sessions, coaching meetings, and management meetings.

In an interview with Jim Collins in Inc Jim argues that we are in the age of entrepreneurship and it can be learned. He points to the proliferation of courses and programmes in Entrepreneurship. Peter Bregman in HBR gives some good basic advice on “How to Counter Resistance to Change”: how to communicate effectively to achieve change.

To me these two articles revolve around the same problem: how to learn to communicate effectively to achieve change.

The problem is that no amount of observational, analytical research and generalisation of entrepreneurship and communication coupled with conventional teaching and learning will produce effective entrepreneurs and communicators. That’s because people in typical education settings learn not-effective communication and not-entrepreneurial behaviours. That’s because the main message is the medium – the way they are taught. Everything about the medium: experts out front armed with whiteboard, PowerPoint and grades in classrooms and, worse still, lecture theatres, is about abstraction, authority, hierarchy, personal expertise and self.

No wonder, despite the inappropriateness of conventional hierarchical bureaucracy to SMEs and MLEs, these models of organisation continue to predominate. It’s because everyone goes to school and everyone is imprinted with this industrial organisational model from the moment they become organisationally conscious until they graduate: with that knowledge refined to absurdity by the university.

This isn’t a crazy rant. I’ve taught in those places. I’ve employed those graduates. I work with SME and LME owners and managers. Listen to Ricardo Semler. He has too.

Every time we stand up front, expert with a whiteboard and PowerPoint, with our clients sitting attentively facing the front, we invoke the ‘magic’ of the classroom: the right-answer oriented, hierarchical, parent/child relationships and concepts of learning and knowledge that produce qualifications at best.

No wonder we typically fail to achieve change.