Scoffing at Spam

spamI received an interesting unsolicited email this morning from Neil. It caught me off-guard whilst downing my first triple espresso of the day.

It was instantly engaging as it didn’t look like commercial grade spam, which usually gets insta-deleted if the spam filter hasn’t already done its job. It looked like a normal email from someone I knew. Everyone knows at least one Neil right?

It started so well. Lots of white space told my brain even before I got past the nice informal greeting that I was going to read this. The first sentence was perfect. I was hooked. There’s no way I wasn’t going to finish this one.

Hi Jon

When it comes to creating powerful internal communications, we make the complicated very simple.

So we will keep this short.

Line three could have been glorious if Neil had avoided the corporate ‘we’ and simply said “So I will keep this short”. It’s not just me; there’s a few of us out there who find the ‘corporate we’ troublesome.  Anyway, I was still fully on-board at that point.

Then bang. Neil hit the iceberg.

tbp! offer a compelling blend of writing and design expertise that delivers unexpected but relevant creative solutions through all media channels.

Does anyone else see the irony of claiming writing and design expertise, as well as the ability to make ‘complicated very simple’ – and then beginning a sentence with tbp! ?

Try writing it. Those 4 simple characters take 10 keystrokes (and two hands!) to bold, italicize, and underline, before going back to the front of the word to replace the capital ‘T’ with a small “t”.

Please don’t think I’m passing judgment on a bunch of fellow communications professionals that I have never met before. I’m sure they have a long rosta of very satisfied clients and are no doubt great writers and designers.

And I’m not mocking Neil, I merely used his name as it is on the email and it works nicely as a short, uncomplicated literary device in the context of this story.

In fact, to reinforce this point I dropped him a line earlier to let him know I’d be writing this post, and he’s a lovely chap. He even had the decency to spot a typo on my LinkedIn profile, where many years ago I’d erroneously and somewhat ironically written !5 instead of 15.

The final irony is that if the offending tbp! had been replaced with a ‘corporate we’, I’d never have got to write this story, and Neil and I would never have connected.  So maybe after all, that was tbp!’s master plan and I fell for it, hook line and sinker…

These Donuts are not sweet enough

donutI have set up Internal Communications functions at my last three companies from a standing start. Three companies that had a notion they needed to improve staff communication. Three companies that had not done this kind of thing before. Three companies that knew they had to do something and trusted me to show them how.

The early days are littered with quick wins and euphoric moments as you witness the impact on people of having an intranet for the first time. They embrace the new world of greater transparency, exposure, and awareness. They make better decisions. They pull in the same direction. They have a greater understanding of what the company expects from them and they have a greater emotional commitment to meeting these expectations.

Internal Communications is one of those endeavours that creates organisational value by stealth. Every day you chip away at the barriers to enriching the work experience of your colleagues. Slowly but surely you begin to adjust expectations and you create new norms – and as time passes some of your esteemed colleagues inevitably start to forget about the barren days of years gone by, when they were grateful for any scraps of information that fell off the top table.

It’s then that you may feel that the ‘quick wins and euphoric moments’ become less frequent; and it’s then that an inverse relationship between effort and reward begins to emerge. It becomes increasingly apparent that the harder you try, the more problems you bring down on yourself.

In every workplace across the globe there will be those who subscribe to the fact that the route to a comfortable and less distracted workplace existence is to do less.

If you hand out free donuts, there will always be someone who complains they don’t have enough sugar. I’ve worked with plenty of people over the years who would say if you didn’t hand them out in the first place, nobody could complain they were not sweet enough.

Don’t let inertia get in the way of your ambition. Forget about “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” – that just points to a complacency and arrogance that will be your downfall. Treat your moaning minnies as an opportunity not a threat, and embrace the challenge of converting them from the dark side – and always consider the possibility that they may be right. Maybe those donuts do need a bit more sugar!

Above all, keep ruffling those feathers and pushing those boundaries – you’ll be surprised how many more winning and euphoric moments are still out there waiting for you to grab them.

Christmas Party Crimes

Office Xmas Party Drunk“2014 has been a spectacular year for the business. That success has not come easily and I really appreciate your hard work and commitment. Because of your individual and collective efforts we now serve more customers than ever before – and they just keep coming!

As you know, next Friday is our annual Christmas party, and I am looking forward to seeing you all there, relaxing, celebrating and enjoying a much deserved night out with your friends and colleagues. Thanks again for your contribution to the company’s continued growth and unrivalled reputation.

Please note that fighting, excessive alcohol consumption, the use of illegal drugs, inappropriate behaviour, sexist or racist remarks or harassment and comments about sexual orientation, disability, age or religion will not be tolerated at this year’s Christmas Party. Disciplinary action may be taken for unacceptable behaviour.”

Phew! Thank goodness for that last bit, I must remember not to fight or take drugs at the party this year. Silly me, there was I thinking that our Christmas Party had an exemption wrapped around it that means the laws of the land and the high standards of behaviour expected of me as an employee didn’t apply…

Ok, this is not real. I made it up. Apart from that final paragraph, which is actually based on recent advice published by the Institute of Internal Communication.

Every year the prospect of Christmas party crimes biting the hand of those tasked with organising them sends us scuttling off to the lawyers in search of sanctuary. Then, shock horror, the lawyers’ stamp their own particular brand of demoralising bumph on a communication that could and should have been positive and uplifting. They mean well and I love them dearly.

My own advice may not be to their liking, but seriously, the risk created by treating your people with a criminal lack of respect far outweighs the possibility that the legalese in your party invitation will actually protect the company if the wheel ever came off.

Employees typically have an employment contract of sorts with an attendant ‘code of conduct’ setting out what comprises potential disciplinary offences. Most cover the spectrum of ‘crimes’, ranging from minor infringements like using obscene language, to the more weighty matters like conviction for a serious criminal offence.

Let’s leave criminal damage, driving whilst under the influence of drink or drugs, violent conduct, and sexual assault to the experts; the local police. Any member of staff who behaves in a manner that leads to arrest and conviction of such an offence deserves what they get, and because they did this at or after a staff party does not necessarily make the employer complicit in that offence. That would be like saying that an employer should be held responsible for an employee who uses some of his wages to buy an Uzi to shoot down his noisy neighbours on his day off.

Absolution for the employer for Christmas party crimes is likely to be determined by their actions in planning and delivering a safe, responsible event, rather than issuing stale words of warning, which will have no effect on changing anyone’s behaviour.

We don’t feel the need to warn responsible adults about their conduct at weekends, or when they’re on holiday, or any other time when they are absent from the workplace. We rightly assume that as members of a civilised society, they understand the law and don’t need to be reminded not to break it.

We are all adults and we all know how to behave. If I fail to live up to my own standards of behaviour, Christmas party or not, I understand and accept the consequences.

Survey Fatigue

I’m not a big fan of annual employee engagement surveys. I dislike the habit and ritual that lies behind them. They are positively dangerous when driven by ‘learners’ and they are massively overpriced and disruptive when driven by ‘experts’.

I worry that they offer the illusion of proactivity and action to the executive team and the spectre of failed promises to everyone else. And by the time the analysis is done and workshops rolled out, it’s all a bit tired and out of date. On top of that they are the ultimate time-suck on busy employees who have got a lot more to worry about than completing a 70 question survey.

pig on scalesAt the risk of exposing myself as a bit of a limp wrister, I think that intuition is a much undervalued tool. I think there is much truth in the old rural cliché, (which admittedly I have slightly bastardised) – ‘you fatten a pig by feeding it, not by weighing it’. Any farmer can tell just by looking at his drove whether or not they are eating enough.

There’s no escaping the fact that some people quite like data. Not everybody feels quite so comfortable with trusting intuition. So naturally I accept there must be some middle ground here.

So how about an approach that provides the same data you can get from an annual survey in ‘real time’ at zero cost?

Many companies use Net Promoter Score (NPS) to provide quick feedback from their customers. Its key selling point is it is quick, easy and most importantly, it respects your customers’ time by only asking them a single, straightforward question – “How likely is it that you would recommend [your company] to a friend or colleague?”

Many companies (including Apple) have adapted this approach and deployed it internally (eNPS). I’ve done it myself and it works. Once a month send one twelfth of the company a two-question survey, making sure that no member of staff is surveyed more than once a year.

  1. “How likely is it that you would recommend [your company] as a place to work to a friend?” (provide a scale of 1 to 10)
  2. “Tell us more if you’d like to” (provide a free text box)

Use the same scoring mechanism used by NPS, which over time allows you to plot your performance. The verbatim feedback provides a rich seam of regular feedback that is fresh and ‘in the moment’.

The most important thing is that you examine and share the monthly feedback with those tasked with improving organisational effectiveness and development and you put it to good use. Regular strategic and tactical interventions are made possible by adopting this kind of agile alternative to the annual behemoth.

Winner winner chicken dinner…

Is happiness the truth?


♫ ♪ Clap along if you feel like… happiness is the truth… ♫ ♪

Don’t assume that an engaged employee is a happy employee. People often confuse employee satisfaction with employee engagement and they really shouldn’t.

Think about it. What emotional states demonstrate that you really care about something or someone? Being happy with everything they do and say is not what I’m thinking. I’m thinking frustration and envy for starters. Let me explain…

The most valuable employee is the one who gets frustrated when change doesn’t occur. She gets frustrated when she sees complacency and waste. And she cares enough to say and do something about it.

At the same time, she feels envious of a rival’s reputation for superior customer service or a world class new product – and she really wants to do something about it. She won’t settle for second best and continually pushes the boundaries to find better ways to do things. She knows that your rivals are stealing your customers because you’re missing a trick and she’s not prepared to sit there and do nothing about it.

The happy chappy she sits next to gets on with his job, smiling his way through the day, doing everything that is asked and expected of him. He’s a valued staffer. He’s been sitting there for years, keeping his head down, enjoying his work, and he never rocks the boat. There’s nothing wrong with that – but will he follow you into the trenches when the going gets really tough?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of happiness and fun. Most employers recognise its value in the workplace and many rightly go out of their way to promote it. The danger comes when that is the primary focus of their employee engagement efforts, because this renders it no more than window dressing. An employer that ignores the more fundamental drivers of engagement in favour of window dressing is in trouble. And you’ll probably find that such an employer also prefers to be surrounded by people who nod a lot and say ‘yes’ all the time. Their silence and compliance is seen as loyalty. I see it as a lack of engagement.

The truth is our most engaged people irritate us now and again. Their passionate pleas for change may be inconvenient. Their madcap suggestions can be distracting. Their anger and frustration when simple things block their progress may embarrass us in front of our colleagues.

Get over it! Provided they are doing it because they care about the business; and they care about inefficiency; and they care about waste; and they care about the company’s future, we all need to encourage them, reward them, and pray to God that they multiply.

Manage well

Think about all the things you do in a day at work. And think about what single act has the most profound effect on your own morale and sense of wellbeing. Is it the free lunch and the cashless vending machine? Is it the beer fridge or the vodka shed on a Friday afternoon? Is it the slide connecting you to your colleagues on the floor below? Is it the opportunity to make a difference? Is it being empowered to make decisions and trusted to do things your way?

patonbackOf course, most of these things are important in varying degrees to all of us, however, thanks to life’s rich tapestry, it turns out that we’re not all the same. All of us are turned on (and off) by different things in different ways and at different times.

That said, the one thing that picks us up more than anything is a heartfelt and deserved pat on the back. Research in 2011 revealed that self-esteem boosts are rated more highly among American university students (aka today’s workforce) than food, remuneration, time spent with friends, drinking alcohol, and even sex.

If you manage people, never forget that real-time recognition has the power to transform a person’s mood, commitment to the cause and level of performance. So before you spend a fortune on formal reward and recognition systems, a shiny new annual appraisal framework,  indoor skyscapes, AstroTurf flooring, helter-skelters, jumbo bean bags and padded cells, just remember that the occasional pat on the back is likely to be the most important thing you can do at work today.

And it won’t cost you a penny.

Next practice not best practice

‘Best Practice’ is one of those buzzwords that gets chucked around corporations with impunity. I get where it’s come from and I get why many like to rely on it – I mean, once you have found a way to do something successfully, why would you not want to replicate that experience over and over again?

Here’s why. The speed of change in human behaviour brought about by the speed of change in technology means that by the time something becomes enshrined as best practice, it is already likely to have been superseded. That’s because for the first time since the written word arrived, we are no longer masters of the message or the medium.

dinosleep2Best practice should no longer be seen as a blueprint for describing the standard way of doing things in an organisation. It’s too safe. It’s too comfortable. And it’s too predictable. I see evidence all over the place, especially in advertising, marketing and PR. If you’re going to cite best practice as your primary justification for doing things in a certain way, you may as well stick a sign above your desk while you’re at it saying “Quiet please, dinosaur sleeping”.

We need to think differently; with agility, fluidity, creativity and a bit more bravery. Best practise has served us well for decades, nay centuries – because we have been able to control the messages and the medium. We are losing this power with every day that passes. Carrier pigeons, telegrams, snail mail, faxes, email – same difference really – all had similar limitations when it came to reach, speed and spread. Social Media has democratised communication like never before and it’s turned us all into authors and broadcasters.

It’s time to forget about best practise. The pace of change is such that predicting ‘next practice’ is what will bring the bacon home.

Hear the boat sing

In rowing, there’s a lot of things that make a boat go faster. Obviously it helps if you have a Redgrave or a Pinsent gripping the oar. However, there’s more to it than supreme athleticism. It is also the cumulative effect of tiny tweaks to the rigging. It’s attention to detail. It’s timing. It’s spotting the weaknesses and early intervention before bad technique becomes a bad habit. And when everything comes together you’ll hear the boat sing.

Most important of all, it’s about achieving and maintaining balance. One miss-timed plant of the oar and you may as well have just dropped an anchor. This usually happens when a member of the crew has a rush of blood to the head and hurries the stroke.

The Internal Communications equivalent of catching a crab is diving in unprepared and through lack of planning, purpose or judgement undo lots of great work through an ill-timed, insensitive, rushed, poorly targeted, or poorly pitched communication which lands so badly that credibility and trust is lost.

I love a good sporting analogy and my favourite sport is rowing, ergo, I love a good rowing analogy.

Sadly I fear that only Latin scholars who row will appreciate what I just did there…

New Year Resolutions

back in the saddleI’m climbing back into the saddle. Over the years I have found great comfort in blogging. Not comfort in the warm and cozy sense, but in the feeling of abundance and strength that comes with thinking stuff through, articulating ones thoughts on the things that matter and testing them against the thoughts of others.

Over recent months writing for myself seemed to morph into a luxury that I could ill afford. Not a day goes by without me wishing this wasn’t so and given the time of year a thought crossed my mind (not a long journey) about making some kind of New Year’s resolution. Adjust my work/life balance to make sure there is always enough wriggle room to feed my blog. Or something along those lines.

Then I remembered I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. They make no sense. Why would you decide to make a change in your life and then assign it to an event that only comes around once every twelve months, and has zero bearing on milestones and priorities in your own life.

Many people think about making a change, they get fired up about it, and instead of getting on with it they allow themselves to wait until January 1st. Sorry I just don’t get it. If it is important enough to be a New Year’s resolution, why wait? Make the change now.

If you are prepared to wait a few days/weeks/months for a new year to begin then I doubt your commitment to making the change. The evidence would appear to confirm this, with only around 8% of New Year’s resolutions actually being achieved.

So – it’s December 19 2013 and I’m back in the saddle.

Give them enough rope

nooseIf you give someone a length of rope, do you have a responsibility to stop them using it to hang themselves? Of course not, that would be ridiculous.

Now apply the same logic to the introduction of social functionality on the company intranet. Is the answer still no? Not so long ago I’d have said exactly that.

After all, if someone wants to be a knob in full view of the company, more fool them. Far better they expose their lack of judgement, poor behaviour or surly attitude out in the open so that it can be ‘managed’. Let’s face it, if they are silly enough to let themselves down in the full gaze of their peers on the intranet, you can bet your bottom dollar they’ll be doing so in far less noticeable places, like down the pub, under the smoking shelter, and on Facebook. Only they will get away with it for much longer.

And then something happened to help me look at things a bit differently. Someone, partly in jest and partly in blissful ignorance posted a comment on an internal news story that made me feel a bit uneasy. The feeling morphed into discomfort when I overheard people around me suddenly turn into haters.

I quickly reached out to the guy and explained that his comment was not going down very well and invited him to post a quick follow-up comment both by way of apology and explanation. He was aghast that his question had been so badly misinterpreted.

Clearly our hapless commentator had meant well. In his mind all he had done was to ask an obvious and seemingly harmless question, and crowned it with a slightly clumsy attempt at humour.

During our conversation it became obvious that several exacerbating factors had combined to create a situation of epic misunderstanding.

  • He worked several hundred miles from the location of the incident.
  • English was not his native language.
  • He had no way of knowing that local emotions preceding the ‘incident’ were running sky high.
  • He had no way of knowing that emotionally, the most senior people in the company were also heavily invested in the story.

I felt sorry for the guy. Taken the wrong way, and certainly not the way he had intended, his comment could potentially turn into a career breaker. I felt sorry for me. I had told people who had never wanted me to open the floodgates of anarchy in the first place that such behaviour on a company intranet was the stuff of fiction.

That’s why these days I believe that as an intranet manager you do have to accept some degree of responsibility to the individual and to yourself if you have provided people with the opportunity to inadvertently hang themselves in public.