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in technology means that by the time something becomes enshrined as best practice, it is already likely to have been superseded.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.

The consumerisation of IT

A long long time ago, I was a young detective constable working for the Metropolitan Police. We used mechanical typewriters in those days and we had a typing pool where you would send up handwritten victim statements, which a week later would return for checking and approval. Any mistakes or corrections would be marked up and returned to the typing pool and a few days later the final version would re-appear ready for inclusion in the case papers.

I wasn’t in a position to change such an inefficient process. But I knew there was a better way, so I just did it. I bought myself a portable electronic typewriter with built-in word processor and I taught myself to touch type. I used to take it with me when I was taking statements from witnesses or victims and I’d write down their accounts and print them off there and then and get them to sign them. It was faster and more legible than writing them by hand. And I’d return to the station with a case ready statement.

A few years later I purchased a Rabbit phone. Mobile phone technology had a long way to go in those days. Mobiles were too expensive and too big and the Met Police were not ready to provide them to staff. So I bought a Rabbit, stuck the base unit on my desk and hey presto had the first hands free phone in the Met (probably). It worked a treat. I could move around the office and speak to people on the phone at the same time. And occasionally I’d take it out with me because I knew where all of the local Rabbit transmitters were so I could make calls while out and about if I needed to.

Hardly revolutionary stuff by today’s standards but actually back then it was far from normal behaviour. I took a fair bit of stick for both investments from colleagues who couldn’t quite get why I’d spend my own hard earned money on buying equipment to use at work. In those days the norm was to accept the equipment and technology supplied by your employer and you just got on with it.

Things have changed.

A recent survey indicates that 95% of employees these days have at least one self-purchased device they use for work. I suspect the iPhone is largely responsible for this change in sentiment. These days it is completely normal to see colleagues carrying their own iPhones, iPads, and HTCs around the office and they think nothing of using them for work purposes if they can.

Despite this willingness to buy and train themselves on their own consumer technologies, according to the same survey around 70% of IT departments persist with traditional models of purchasing standardised technologies, which are often seen as a bit of a compromise by the end users.

At the same time, the explosion of social media channels is changing the way we all communicate. Let’s face it – do you know anyone who does not use at least one or more of the following on a daily basis – Facebook, IM, Linkedin, Twitter, Blackberry Messenger, or YouTube?

I read a lovely quote in CIO Magazine the other day that sums it up for me:

“Imagine how a 2011 college grad reacts when she arrives at her new desk and turns on her PC to discover that it’s running a locked-down version of an operating system that was first released when she was 12.”

Be under no illusion. The consumerisation of IT together with the democratisation of communication is changing the face of the modern workplace.

As Internal Communicators we need to keep right on top of this if we are to add value to our organisations.

Baby steps not big leaps

Baby stepsI spend a fair bit of time studying behaviour change. After all, as an Internal Communications specialist that’s what it’s all about. When you are in broadcast mode the whole point of communicating is to create or contribute to some effect on behaviour.

We don’t just talk because we like the sound of our own voice. We talk to make people feel better. We talk to make people understand things. We talk to influence people and we talk to prompt people into action. We talk because we want people to tell us what they think. 

There should always be an objective when we talk. So to be a good Internal Communicator we need to fully understand the effect our broadcast communications have on those they are aimed at.

I often come across tips, lists and guidance on good practice in behaviour (and/or culture) change and always find myself agreeing with some of it and disagreeing with some of it. Everyone has their own views based on their own learnings and experience.

Rarely have I bumped into such sound advice as this. It’s only 10 slides but each one is a gem. My thanks go to Stanford University’s beautifully monikered Persuasive Tech Lab for sharing!

I chose to name this piece Baby steps not big leaps as this rule in particular represents for me the most important of all of the 10 commandments of successful change.  Thou shalt seek small incremental successes.

It’s why I named this blog Riding the Ripple and not Surfing the Tsunami

Unclear proliferation

We live in a connected world. Buyers have found new ways to buy. Sellers have found new ways to sell. Motorists have found new ways to insure. Students have found new ways to study. Writers have found new ways to publish. Recruiters have found new ways to recruit. Gamblers have found new ways to gamble. Musicians have found new ways to be heard. Families and friends have found new ways to share.

In under a second Google can find more stuff than a pre-internet research assistant could have hoped to have found in a lifetime. In a matter of minutes companies can be rocked to the core by the whiff scandal spreading across the globe faster than the speed of light through multiple virtual channels that are virtually impossible to control.

Yep. We live in a connected world all right.

Many companies are jumping on the social media express, leveraging new and exciting communication technologies and behaviours to find new ways of connecting with their customers and staff. So given the ease, speed and reach of communication technology these days, it’s little wonder we all understand our company’s strategy right?

Wrong. On the contrary, while the world around us has never been more open, transparent and accessible, life in a typical organisation has never been more opaque and trust has never been in such scarce supply.

Why is that? Could it be because many organisations still hang on to the mechanical, bureaucratic, command and control models of organisation that have been with us since the days of the carrier pigeon? Is it because they still cascade carefully crafted, legally sanitised state of the nation speeches through multiple layers of distracted or disengaged management? And because they strip out any semblance of personality from CEO communications to make sure they don’t put a foot wrong, nor waste a single precious word? Somebody told me the other day that their company still sends memorandums around in the internal post! For sure – this could be part of the problem.

Too many organisations continue to inflict somewhat outmoded values and behaviours on an increasingly sophisticated young workforce; a workforce which is already shunning email because it’s too damn slow. Banning Facebook? What’s all that about? You may as well ban prayer in the mosque or swimming at the pool.

I am a very enthusiastic champion of social media. Getting active on Twitter has expanded my professional horizons immeasurably and demonstrated the power of networking on and offline. So when Yammer popped up inside the organisation I was one of the very early adopters because I got it. I didn’t need convincing. I tweet, therefore I yam.

And Yammer has been a very positive experience for my company. It has got our people sharing ideas, intelligence, information and (dare I say it) banter, across the company irrespective of traditional organisational boundaries, allegiances and geographies. It provides us with a means to improve knowledge management, collaboration and innovation in ways I had not thought possible just a few short years ago.

However, it has also given us another channel to contend with. Another application which needs to be opened up every morning, and another source of potentially distracting real-time alerts set to interrupt us as we go about our work.

As you can imagine this causes me some conflict as I have been beating the social media drum hard and fast for quite some time in and out of work; while at the same time witnessing my own increasing failure to keep track of an ever growing number of external and internal sources I rely on for professional and industry news, views and ideas.

I managed a wry smile when I read the following tongue-in-cheek plea for a ‘ceasefire’ recently on one of my favourite community forums:

“Most working days start with logging in to desktop, Yammer, Intranet, IM, Jabber, Jira, Confluence, Conference Calls, Outlook, OCS and getting a coffee. By then it’s almost time for lunch.”

Beware folks, there’s many a true word spoken in jest. As Internal Communicators we absolutely need to embrace these new channels, but we cannot let them multiply at will with no checks or balances. There is a clear and present danger that important information and meaning gets lost in all the noise. Rather than bringing more clarity, the proliferation of communication channels could well be making things less clear. There needs to be some form of unclear deterrent if we are to avoid meltdown.

When it comes to Internal Communications you need to have a single source of truth. One place that staff enjoy visiting and trust; which is a well-managed, easy to find and full of good quality up-to-date, fresh content. I still believe that place is an intranet; albeit the 2.0 versions built on blogging software that encourages instant feedback and interaction as well as opt in/opt out and ‘alert me’ functionality.

Sure, drive footfall through a multi-channel approach, including word of mouth, email, noticeboards, video on demand, and the pervasive SM channels including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn that to varying degrees most staff are using already. But do just that – drive footfall. Don’t repeat the same messages time and time again across every different channel. It’s called spam and your audience will switch off sharpish if you do it.

Social Media in particular should not be used by corporate communicators for pumping out corporate messages. These channels are designed for discussion not presentation; relationship building not hectoring and lecturing.

Everywhere I look I see people predicting the demise of the machine bureaucracy and the rise of the ‘networked’ or ‘connected’ organisation. Centralisation will be swept aside by decentralisation; formal hierarchy will bow down to informal networks; executive planning will succumb to collective learning; leadership will be usurped by the ‘wisdom of crowds’ and instead of working for departments, we will all band together in tribes. Their message is clear – organisations that fail to embrace these new paradigms are dinosaurs heading for extinction.

Poppycockasaurus. It’s all a matter of balance. Machine Bureaucracies that loosen up a little and open their minds to the new possibilities and opportunities offered by embracing the ‘networked’ or ‘connected’ revolution will live long and prosper. But only if they hang on tightly to some of their rigour and discipline at the same time.

And thrusting new business upstarts will find that all that flashes, blinks and swarms is not necessarily the route to salvation and sustainability. There will always be a place for strong leadership and high level company strategy will never successfully be determined by an all-staff vote.

Maybe, just maybe I could be persuaded to turn up for work in a loin cloth.

The Communications Revolution according to Stockholm

On 15th June 2010, the World Public Relations Forum gathered in Stockholm. PR practitioners, researchers and educators from every continent and over 20 countries ratified the Stockholm Accords, a new manifesto re-affirming the importance of PR and Communication Management in organisational success.

I must confess when I first read the Stockholm Accords it came across as a bit of a last gasp from an industry in its death throes. An industry which recognises it has to adapt or die in the face of a social media and networked organisation tidal wave which threatens to sweep aside the old order.

Let me remind you. Like it or not, it isn’t about mass communications anymore – it’s about masses of communicators.

The authors of the Stockholm Accords spelled it out quite clearly. Their objective was to launch a “global public relations program for the public relations profession” in a “conscious and planned effort to argue the value of public relations”. Oh dear thought I – more PR spin.

Then I read a magnificent blog post by my friend Mike Klein, which triggered a few dormant neurones into life and I saw that I had been missing something really quite exciting.

It’s not about the huffing a puffing of PR practitioners desperately trying to justify their existence. It’s about the very real convergence of two previously distinct endeavours. It’s about external and internal communications coming together. It’s about cross functional “strategic communication” emerging as an indispensable driver, definer and guardian of corporate strategy and reputation.

On page 12 of the Accords, one of its architects Toni Muzi Falconi acknowledges that even the most empowered public relations director cannot realistically hope to directly monitor more than ten percent of the communicative behaviour of her organisation. It has probably always been thus – however the difference today is that the communicative behaviour of the organisation can spread across the globe, into every digital nook and cranny within seconds. The old order still sees this as a threat not an opportunity. It is both of course.

On the same page comes the welcome recognition that much of the value created by the organisation comes from fuzzy (not linear) and immaterial networks that normally disrupt the distinction between internal and external audiences. I say welcome, because if you don’t recognise a problem it is very hard to fix it, and I fear that too many communications professionals continue to bury their heads in the sand over this one.

Furthermore, I absolutely love the assertion, actually, let’s call it recognition, that the most important element of communication management is understanding how an organisation’s reputation depends largely on the actions of employees. My definition of action includes words and behaviour; I trust theirs does too.

Some of the language used in the Accords worries me a bit. The authors talk of coordination and oversight to ensure consistency of content, actions and behaviours. This smacks a bit of the old corporate communications paradigm.

Sadly, the authors chose to call it coordination of internal and external communications, not convergence.

I may just have a bash at getting that amended…

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!

Delivering Happiness

Next week sees the much anticipated publication of Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness. I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a couple of advance copies a few weeks ago on the understanding that I would review the book on Riding the Ripple and give the other copy away to one of my readers. 

It’s a bit like being gifted tickets to Super Bowl on the understanding that I turn up for the game. Why would I not want to write about one of the people on planet earth that I most admire? 

As books go, I’ve read better. But as a real life example of how a very different kind of corporate culture can become the driver of unprecedented commercial success, it really doesn’t get better than this. 

Tony Hsieh is no literary genius; he is just a straight forward, straight talking chap who possesses bucket loads of intellect, emotional intelligence, drive and humility. 

Oh and he happens to be CEO of one of the last decade’s biggest internet sensations, Zappos.

On the face of it, Delivering Happiness is an archetypal story of rags to riches – and as a self confessed Sunday Times ‘How I made it’ addict for donkey’s years, I’ve read hundreds like it.

But actually I haven’t. I have never read anything quite like this before, because Tony Hsieh is a one-off. 

  • How many people do you know who would turn their back on trousering $8m in order to chase a passion?
  • How many CEOs do you know who’s core beliefs on human interaction are heavily influenced by the very tribal behaviour experienced in rave culture?
  • How many companies do you know that prefer to create interesting stories through delivering amazing customer experience instead of paying for PR?
  • How many companies do you know that rely on word of mouth and spend the money that other companies would spend on advertising on customer service?
  • How many companies do you know that communicate with their customers and staff at the same time, over the same channels? 

I will be examining these and other themes in the book over the next few weeks. For now I hope I have whetted your appetite for Delivering Happiness sufficiently that you’d like to take a shot at winning yourself a free copy. 

All you have to do is RT any tweet you see from me mentioning  Delivering Happiness and then DM me and tell me how many posts on Riding the Ripple mention Zappos, and how Tony Hsieh pronounces his surname – is it Shay, Sigh or Shy?

Alternatively you can just buy it on Amazon!

Some is not a number and soon is not a time

I’m reading a brilliant book on change management called Switch by Chip and Dan Heath. I’m only 50 pages in but already I know these guys are the voice of reason and I’m going to enjoy the rest of the book. And it was dirt cheap on Amazon!

To set the scene they talk a lot about the tension between emotion and logic, referring to a cute analogy of an elephant and its rider, where the heavyweight mammal represents emotion and its rider, who holds the reigns and provides direction, represents reason and logic. Provided the rider has clarity over where to guide the elephant and provided there is something in it for the elephant, the rider should be able to keep the elephant heading in the desired direction. Any disconnect between the rider and the elephant is likely to result in the elephant choosing for itself where to go and what to do. After all, it is far bigger and far more powerful than the rider.

We have all experienced this conflict between emotion and reason. Every time we oversleep, over eat, skip the gym or bark at an inconsiderate driver we are letting our emotional side win over the rational.

It is very easy for the elephant to give in to temptation. It’s not great at short term sacrifice for long term gain and change often fails because the rider cannot keep the elephant on the path long enough to reach the destination. The elephant’s hunger for instant gratification is the opposite of the rider’s strength, which is the ability to think long-term. And the elephant’s strength, which is the enormous energy it can generate through its capacity for love and loyalty can be the opposite of the rider’s weakness. In search of logic and rationale the rider can over analyse and over complicate things and end up driving the elephant around in circles.

Out of this analogy comes a three part framework which the authors believe can guide any situation where you need to change behaviour.

  1. Direct the rider – provide clear direction, because what looks like resistance is often simply a lack of clarity – and remember that “some is not a number and soon is not a time”.
  2. Motivate the elephant – the rider can only get his way through force for so long.
  3. Shape the path – what looks like a people problem is often a situational one and small seemingly insignificant situational changes (“bright spots”) are often the key to unlocking successful change.

I love the stuff about identifying the bright spots and leveraging them. That’s just what Jerry Sternin did in Vietnam to tackle child malnutrition and links in seamlessly with the concept of positive deviance, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

And it was a special treat to see my old chum Richard Pascale get a mention on page 41 😉

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.