Trust is still a must

On the rant I mentioned yesterday. Maybe rant is a little strong. Letting of steam may be a bit fairer. Anyway, the post came across as an impassioned plea for more trust and transparency in the work place.

The guy was clearly frustrated, and he broke a few basic rules of social media netiquette by ‘SHOUTING’ a bit at unnamed individuals who in his eyes seem to get a kick out of  ‘being in the know’.

I was with him 100% in sentiment, but feared that his manner had the potential to undermine a very important debate, as well as create a negative perception among people that didn’t know him and thereby damaging his own personal equity.

I also feared that the naysayers could use the post to take a swipe at my beloved Yammer.

So I called him up for a chat. And guess what – I was beaten to it. A call from up on high had already been made to his boss, along the lines of “have you seen what this guy has written – how can he be trusted with sensitive information after writing something like that?”

Exactly as I feared. His rant had diverted attention away from the real issue and drawn attention to himself in a way that he had not intended or desired. Many people would have been put off by such a reaction and it would have been easy and forgivable to say “sod that, I’m not playing on Yammer again, it’s far too dangerous”.

Fortunately he didn’t. After a few hours of reflection he returned and apologised for his earlier rant, explaining how his passion for the company and his desire to see it be the best it can be lay behind his emotional plea.

He then went on to list the following reasons why he believes transparency in the workplace is a good thing:

  • It helps employees understand why
  • It allows for consistent messaging across the organization
  • It leads to faster, more efficient execution
  • It heals we/they divisiveness
  • It keeps good people from leaving
  • It facilitates the best possible solutions

That’s better! That’s what I call a proper contribution to a very important debate.

And it’s made even more compelling by the fact that it’s not from a text book on employee engagement or from the mouth of an organisational effectiveness guru.

It’s straight from the heart of a very engaged employee.

Trust is a must

Our Yammer network is growing by the day and as time passes my excitement about its potential for increasing the speed and quality of collaboration, knowledge sharing and innovation across the company rises.

So naturally I get very protective when something happens that potentially undermines our continued use of my new favourite application. One of the issues I know causes some discomfort among senior executives everywhere is the issue of trust and confidentiality. So one thing you don’t really want to see on Yammer is open discussion about commercially sensitive information that needs to be kept in a closed loop.

After many thousands of conversations and contributions on our network since it was brought to life last year I have yet to see anyone cross this boundary.

Actually this comes as no surprise to me. I have long believed that when you trust people to behave appropriately they do. Secrets fuel gossip, speculation & rumour, which quickly spreads around as people who feel excluded and unworthy probe and speculate. This can be very disruptive in any work place – and sooner or later they become open secrets in any event.

And because people have no stake in them (and they only have half the story) they are far more likely to say or ask something inappropriate in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In my experience the more stuff you try to hide, the greater the risk you run of it leaking out. On the other hand, if you treat people as adults and trust them with information, they will repay your trust and respect the need to exercise discretion and moderation when talking to the outside world.

Of course there are some things that need to be kept secret. But I think that too many companies have a tendency to overplay the secrecy card – and this can have a seriously detrimental effect on organisational culture and effectiveness.

One of the guys at work had a bit of a rant on Yammer a few days ago on this very subject.

More on this tomorrow. Trust me, it’s a good story…

Celebrate good times

I love celebrations. Last week we celebrated the company’s 10th birthday with cake, champagne and jelly beans at all of our offices in the UK and abroad. It was a real joy to see happy smiling faces everywhere as we celebrated a decade of incredible achievement. On 9 June 2000, Betfair ran its first market on the Oaks at Epsom, where £3,462 was traded between 36 customers, watched over by just a handful of staff. Ten years later the company employs over 2,000 people spread across 30 locations around the world, and deals with more daily transactions than every European stock exchange put together.

And for the next month we are celebrating the most amazing festival in the sporting calendar. We are at our core a sports betting company, so the World Cup is a big thing for us, and we have been preparing for it for years. It’s only fitting therefore that we have a bit of fun and pay homage to the 32 teams battling it out in South Africa.

While the media are banging on about the cost to employers of World Cup distraction as staff absenteeism and lack of attention rises incrementally in line with England’s success on the pitch, and companies ban access to footy websites and make the flying of the Cross of St George a disciplinary offence, we have been encouraged to fly the flag – and more.

Our offices have become a sea of colour, creativity and noise to reflect the energy, excitement and diversity of the World Cup. Our staff in London have self organised themselves into 34 teams and given their bits of the office a bit of a makeover. There are 34 teams because two non-qualifiers that narrowly missed out on a trip to South Africa, Ireland and Egypt wanted to get involved.

My team is representing the Cameroon. Which is great, because the Cameroon have a rich heritage when it comes to World Cup celebrations!

Don’t be fooled into thinking we are all just on one great big World Cup jolly. Au contraire, this is going to be a very busy month for everyone as we mobilise to meet the demands of dramatically increased customer activity.

However, I work for a company that recognises the importance of celebration as well as the value of having a bit of fun while your nosed is pressed firmly against the grindstone.

Don’t just sit there feeling hard done by – check out our current vacancies and get involved!

What motivates you?

I bumped into this very clever video the other day. Actually, one of our engineers posted the link on Yammer – but that’s another story…

It’s a 10 minute presentation by Dan Pink, author of the much acclaimed Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, which contains some really interesting insights drawing on four decades of scientific research on human motivation.

Most experts agree that money is never at the top of the list of factors which motivate people. Dan Pink agrees with this with one notable exception; higher pay equals better performance provided the job being performed involves only mechanical/repetitive tasks. Where work calls for anything beyond this, such as rudimentary cognitive skills, creativity and decision making, larger rewards can actually lead to poorer performance.

Personally I think there is a very simple sociological issue exposed here which does not get discussed. People who perform jobs that are very mechanical and repetitive tend to be less well paid.

Poorly paid people will respond to financial incentives. It’s blindingly simple. They need the money. People who routinely need to exercise their cognitive skills, creativity and make big decisions are by default paid much higher salaries. When you are paid a lot, financial incentives are far less compelling. They don’t need the money quite so much.

He does not exclude money completely as a work place motivator. If you don’t pay enough, people won’t be motivated. Pink’s fundamental premise is that provided you pay enough, and thereby take the issue of money off the table, then autonomy, mastery and purpose become the three main forces for motivation and engagement. I guess this is not inconsistent with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which most psychologists and sociologists seem to swear by.

The content of the video is very interesting in its own right, but what makes it a truly great find is the very clever and ever so engaging use of animation as an alternative to death by PowerPoint. I think they call it scribing, and a British company called Cognitive Media appear to be pioneering this stuff.

Honestly, it really works. Judging by the number of ‘likes’ and positive comments on the Yammer thread, people really enjoyed the experience. I found the technique quite riveting. Give it a bash; it is 10 minutes well invested if, like me, you are turned on by interesting new ways to communicate.

I was delighted to see Atlassian get a mention as well. Atlassian are right up there with Netflix and Zappos when it comes to promoting the importance of a strong company culture as a differentiator and source of genuine commercial advantage. In this context, Atlassian are held up as an example of the importance of autonomy at work.

Once a quarter, engineers at Atlassian are given 24 hours to work on whatever they want, with whoever they want, however they want. The only ask is at the end of the 24 hours they show the rest of the company what they have been up to. According to Dan Pink, that one day of “pure undiluted autonomy” has led to a whole array of fixes to existing software and a whole array of ideas for new products that otherwise would never have emerged. Instead of paying an innovation bonus, they take the view that “you probably want to do something interesting, let me just get out of your way.”

Google famously do the same with their 20% time and Yahoo call them Hack Days. I like!

Freedom and Responsibility at Netflix

Up until last September I’d never heard of Netflix. Then I stumbled across these slides which set out the key aspects of their corporate culture. Every now and again I return for a quick refresher to see how my own appreciation of the slides has changed.

It hasn’t. I love so much of what Netflix stands for. Especially the value they place on communication as a valued colleague behaviour (slide 11).

I recommend spending 15 minutes reading the whole slide deck. And stick with it – I almost stopped reading at slide 6 where they made a crude reference to Enron’s core values. If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard Enron’s core values used to highlight the danger of having a lovely sounding value statement that has no grounding in reality blah blah blah.

Persevere and you will be rewarded. Here are some of my personal highlights:

  • Some companies tolerate brilliant jerks – for us the cost to teamwork is too high
    (slide 34)
  • Good processes help talented people get more done – bad processes try to prevent recoverable mistakes
    (slide 61)
  • Netflix vacation policy and tracking – “there is no policy or tracking”
    (slide 68)
  • There is no clothing policy at Netflix, “but no one has come to work naked recently”
    (slide 68)
  • Netflix’s expenses policy – “Act in Netflix’s best interests”
    (slide 71)
  • No bonus, no stock options, no philanthropic matching – instead pay big salary and give staff the freedom to spend it as they think best
    (slide 106)

If it all sounds a little fanciful take a look at their 5 year graph. Looks to me like they’ve been riding out the global recession pretty well!

Harvest and amplify the positive outliers

I’ve was reading up on positive deviance (PD) over the weekend. Whilst the terminology is new to me the sentiment is certainly not and it was really quite exciting to discover someone with far more experience in the field thinking along the same lines as me.

Before continuing though just a word on what I mean by change. Organisational change is situational. It happens when something starts or stops: it could be structural, economic, technological or demographic. I think what most of us mean by organisational change is really transition – the psychological process that accompanies change and invariably extends over a period of time.

Things can and do change quickly, people do not. This is important as change management for me is really all about transition management. It’s about addressing the complex and very challenging people issues rather than the more straightforward situational ones.

With figures almost mirroring the failure rate of mergers & acquisitions, it’s generally accepted that organisational change initiatives fail more often than not. Poor communication is often blamed in both instances, so my own profession can take a bit of a shoeing at such times.

Maybe that is why what Jerry Sternin has to say on the subject resonates with me. His experiences led him to conclude that “the traditional model for social and organizational change doesn’t work, it never has. You can’t bring permanent solutions in from outside”. I know I’m not alone in expressing the following sentiment: all too often change consultants ride into town, offer their wisdom, collect their fees, and then head off into the sunset to refine their models, do a bit more research and write another book. Meanwhile the company reverts to form.

Jerry and Monique Sternin set the PD ball rolling after their work with Save the Children in Vietnam in the 1990’s where they used it to great effect to tackle child malnutrition. The Sternins’ approach was based on the belief that in every community there are individuals whose exceptional behaviours or practices enable them to get better results than their peers using exactly the same resources.

The real challenge is to find a way to ‘infect’ the rest of the community with their behaviours and practices. The Sternins found that such infection took place where new behaviours were encouraged rather than knowledge taught: “Once you find deviant behaviours, don’t tell people about them. It’s not a transfer of knowledge. It’s not about importing best practices from somewhere else. It’s about changing behaviour. You design an intervention that requires and enables people to access and to act on these new premises. You enable people to practice a new behaviour, not to sit in a class learning about it.”

In Vietnam, the Sternins proved that PD worked, and their groundbreaking work has since served as a model for rehabilitating tens of thousands of children in 20 countries, and PD is now being applied around the world to change behaviour in a variety of other social and organisational situations, such as the spread of AIDs in the Third World and ethnic conflicts in Africa.

Here is a list of the steps set out in a Fast Company interview with Jerry Sternin that I have been reading.

  1. Don’t presume that you have the answer – start by listening, not talking.
  2. Don’t assume you need to go cross functional – the aim is not to produce a lively conversation among diverse individuals. Everyone in the group that you want to help change must identify with the others in the group and face the same challenges and rely on the same set of resources to come up with answers. If the group feels that you’re going outside to where things are culturally different, then it becomes another way to impose best practice, and you’re not using PD.
  3. Let them do it themselves – let the group discover, on their own, a better way to do things. Raise questions, but let the group come up with the answers on its own.
  4. Identify conventional wisdom – before you can recognise how the positive deviants stray from conventional wisdom, you first have to understand clearly what the accepted behaviour is.
  5. Identify and analyze the deviants – single out what exactly makes them successful.
  6. Let the deviants adopt deviations on their own – enable people to practice new behaviours, not to sit in class learning about them.
  7. Track results and publicise them – publish the results, show how they were achieved and let other groups develop their own curiosity about them. Celebrate success when you achieve it.  Chip away at conventional wisdom and demonstrate what can be achieved through PD.
  8. Repeat steps 1 to 7 – make the process cyclical. Deviation from the norm can quickly become the norm, at which point the chances are that PDs have discovered new deviations from the new norm.

I really like the sound of this approach.

I’m not going to rush out and start evangelising as I have yet to read any compelling evidence about its success in a hardcore business setting. I suspect every company has positive deviants lurking around somewhere. It could be the sales team that consistently outsells the rest despite making fewer calls. It could be the Finance team that consistently has the lowest churn rate in the company and the highest engagement scores in the annual staff survey. It could be the Help Desk team that always receives the highest number of customer commendations despite being the most under-staffed.

I like the look of PD as it does not make assumptions. This has to be a good thing as change management can be very formulaic and in my book there can never be a one size fits all solution to successful organisational change. Just because a particular approach worked in company A, it does not follow that the same intervention will work in company B.

And instead of focusing on solutions PD seeks to identify underlying successful behaviours already inside an organisation and leverage them.

That sounds pretty powerful to me.

Dilbert and hypocrisy

I noticed this on page 42 of the recent Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For 2010 supplement.

It made me chuckle as it reminded me of an incident some time ago when I was asked to create a communications plan for a project that had no apparent project plan.

But now that I’ve shared this with you I’m feeling a bit grubby. I’m feeling guiltier than a blackcurrant knocking back a glass of Ribena – and I’m feeling the need to issue a bit of a disclaimer.

The thing is, I’ve never been a huge Dilbert fan as I think it’s all so depressingly negative. Don’t get me wrong, it can be very funny – if you think about it, lots of humour is depressingly negative.

Dilbert is a passenger. He stands there seemingly powerless to do anything positive or fix anything. All he does is mock the bleeding obvious. I reckon Dilbert fans identify with his frustrations and think that sharing a regular comic strip with their colleagues, apart from being funny, is their contribution to making things better. Actually what they are really doing is copying Dilbert’s impotence and inaction.

I’d wager that the spirit of Dilbert thrives most in organisations where people feel undervalued, ignored and doing meaningless work. If I were conducting cultural due diligence on a company, I’d just walk around the offices and count how many Dilbert strips are hanging off the walls.

That’s why I feel a bit grubby. But I can live with myself as I have at least gone to the effort of explaining my apparent hypocrisy.  And I did subsequently make a positive contribution to the production of the project plan I required on which to hang my comms plan, without taking the piss out of the project manager.