Bolt from the blue

Back in the days before Netflix and smartphones, being bored used to be a normal part of the human experience. 

I remember hours spent gazing out of the car window as a child, counting different coloured cars, playing I-spy, making shapes out of clouds.

That doesn’t really happen any more. 

We’ve got so used to constant mental and sensory stimulation that we feel genuinely lost without it.

In fact, a recent study, led by Professor Tim Wilson at the University of Virginia, found that most people would rather give themselves a painful electric shock than sit quietly in an empty room for 15 minutes.

The study put hundreds of undergraduates in a room on their own for 15 minutes with no stimulation, to ‘entertain themselves with their own thoughts.’ Most said they found it hard to focus and at least 50% said they actively disliked the experience.

Some of the students were then put in a room where there was one thing they could do: they could give themselves an electric shock. But it was a sufficiently strong and unpleasant electric shock that all of them had earlier said they would pay to avoid it. 

Despite this, when the alternative was to sit alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes, 67% chose to shock themselves at least once (one very odd chap zapped himself 190 times: he was left out of the final analysis).

‘The untutored mind does not like being left alone with itself’, Professor Wilson concluded in his study. ‘People prefer doing to thinking, even when what they’re doing is so unpleasant that they’d normally pay to avoid it.’

This is a really important point to keep in mind if you want to improve the quality of planning and innovation in your business. 

Thinking is hard work. Most of us don’t instinctively like doing it. And, thanks to the non-stop, always-on stimulus of modern life, most of us don’t really have to: instead, we just keep ourselves busy doing other stuff.

That’s why you’ll always hear people say they have their best ideas when they’re in the shower or out walking. Because they’re doing something worthwhile (which means they’re scratching the itch of ‘being busy’). But they’re also suspending outside stimulus for long enough to engage their mind properly with a problem or idea. Which is when the magic happens.

So your challenge as a business is to help your people recreate that kind of environment during the working day. 

That’s partly about finding a way to shut out the ‘noise’ (meetings, deadlines, presentations, emails) for at least a little while. 

And partly about making it okay for people to use that space to let their minds wander – without having to worry that their colleagues will think they’re just slacking off.

Having ‘a buzzing, stimulating workplace’ is great for your employer brand.

But, if you care about the quality of thinking in that workplace, wouldn’t it be better if people could stop and smell the roses every now and then?

It’s not about you. It’s about them.

I spent the early part of my life in Nigeria, which has a rich tradition of story-telling, especially among the Hausa tribes of Northern Nigeria, who like to share ‘dilemma tales’ around the evening meal.

These are stories where there isn’t a prescribed ending. Instead, the audience is given a set of facts and a series of alternative outcomes, which they discuss to decide what should happen next.

In one story, for instance, a young man is treated badly by his cruel father, so he runs away. He is taken in by the kindly chief of a neighbouring village, who adopts him as his son and treats him well. But then, through a peculiar combination of circumstances, the real father and adoptive father find themselves pitted against one another. The boy is forced to choose which of them may live and which must die. Where should his loyalty lie?

In another story, the protagonist is a blind man, whose wife, mother and mother-in-law are also blind. Walking along the road one day, he stumbles over something and discovers, to his surprise, that it’s a working eye. He pops it in and, sight restored, finds six other eyes in the road. He gives two to his wife, but must then decide how to divide the remaining four eyes between five sockets. 

Should he risk his wife’s scorn by only giving one to her mother? Would it be better to upset his own mother? Or should he nobly keep just one eye for himself – but risk his wife finding him less attractive than potential two-eyed suitors? 

The stories serve a double purpose: as entertainment and as a kind of moral litmus test, a way to debate and establish cultural norms. It’s the same principle that makes Love Island compulsive viewing – and the reason why soap operas incorporate topical issues into their plot-lines. Because it gives people a chance to get involved. 

Stories are always more interesting to us when we feel involved in them. It’s a point eloquently explained in an article written some years ago by Jeremy Bullmore, the warmest and wisest man in advertising, who died this week:

Involvement seems to me to be the most important part of communication. 

If I do everything as the sender, the only thing left for the receiver to do is refute it, because the only contribution you can make is to disagree with me.

All good storytellers entice their receivers into willing and constructive collaboration. It’s a skilful, delicate and difficult thing to do – particularly in advertising where the pressures of committee and cost tend to favour the ‘explicit’, the ‘unambiguous’, the ‘message which just can’t fail to be understood’.

The explicit and the unambiguous shut out the recipient.

That’s every bit as true on the inside of an organisation as it is on the outside. 

Senior leaders often like the idea that they can bend a narrative to suit their chosen facts and then just keep hammering out a message until ‘everybody gets it.’ 

But they’re forgetting the most important rule of communication, which is that, when nobody’s listening, you’re not communicating.

As Jeremy Bullmore always understood, if you want people to be engaged with your story, you have to start by getting them involved.

Ho ho ho

Most of you have probably seen the ‘Santa brand book’ at some point over the last eight years, but it’s still (by a country mile) my favourite piece of festive promotion.

So, in case you haven’t seen it – or just fancy seeing it again – click the link below.

Happy Christmas.

https://www.quietroom.co.uk/santa_brandbook/

Right notes. Wrong order.

It’s around this time of year that your elderly relatives start scanning the TV schedules to see if anyone’s re-running ‘that’ Morecambe and Wise Christmas special from 1971.

The fact the programme will be 51 years old this year only makes it more likely they’ll howl with laughter when it gets to the familiar punchline.

‘You’re playing all the wrong notes!’, cries renowned classical conductor André Previn, as Eric Morecambe’s shambolic pianist sabotages his orchestra’s performance of a Grieg concerto.

‘I’m playing all the right notes,’ Morecambe defends himself. ‘Just not necessarily in the right order.’

That’s how communication often feels inside a business. 

In theory, everyone is aiming in the same direction and talking about the same priorities. But, in reality, there’s often a massive amount of dissonance, as different parts of the business emphasise different messages – or articulate them in very different ways: with clip-art graphics, clunky language, ‘fun’ fonts and a homemade logo.

Clients sometimes look blankly at me when I point this out. They can’t understand why I’m taking it so seriously. I mean, it’s not like customers will ever see this stuff, right? Surely what matters is that people are getting on board with the messages? If the gist is right, where’s the harm if some of the execution is a bit amateur or inconsistent?

And the answer is that there’s no harm at all, if you don’t care that your Grieg concerto sounds like a music-hall comedy.

If the only thing that matters is that you’re playing the right notes. 

And not whether the resulting noise makes any sense to the audience.

People can’t score if they don’t know where the goal is

The American business magazine INC asked executives in 600 companies to estimate how many of their employees would be able to name their company’s top three priorities.

Their average estimate was 64%.

When INC then asked employees in the same companies to name those priorities, only 2% could do it accurately.

It’s a reminder that most businesses are a lot more complex than their leaders realise.

They have too many priorities – and those priorities change frequently and often contradict one another. Which makes it very hard for anyone outside the leadership team to know what they should be focusing on.

Businesses that win are the ones that find a way to simplify the complexity and make it easy for people to know the right thing to do.

This blog is an excerpt from Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)

When efficiency isn’t efficient

I’m always surprised when a healthy business announces mass redundancies.

According to my friends in banking, this is because I’m naïve.

‘The best time to make cuts is when you’re doing well’, they say. ‘It reassures the city that your growth will be sustained, because you’re operating efficiently.’

And, if you judge a business purely in spreadsheet terms, I can see why this would make sense.

The problem is that it doesn’t work like this in real life.

On a spreadsheet, taking 10,000 salaries out of your business is efficient, because it reduces your cost base without reducing your revenue.

Whereas, in real life, taking 10,000 people out of your business means the people who are left feel demotivated, because they know they’re going to have to do more work.

It means all the effort you put into building your ‘employer brand’ will be undermined, because the people who work for you no longer trust you.

And it means the experience your customers have is likely to feel less good, which means they’re less likely to come back, which means your revenue will go down.

In 2008, American academics Charlie Trevor and Anthony Nyberg carried out a massive global study into the effects of downsizing. They found that, on average, a 1% reduction in workforce had the following effects on the employees left behind:

  • 31% increase in people choosing to leave
  • 41% reduction in job satisfaction
  • 36% reduction in commitment

In other words, any cost saving from the downsizing is massively outweighed by the loss of skills, goodwill and productivity that result from it.

The only businesses where it worked were the ones that managed the downsizing in a way that preserved the trust of their employees. By acting fairly, by communicating openly, and by showing them why it was the right thing to do.

In other words, by behaving like human beings.

There’s no function for this on a spreadsheet. But it’s the only way you’ll grow your business sustainably in the long term.

This blog has been adapted from a chapter in Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. He’s also written inside: the 10 communication secrets that will transform your business.

If you’d like a free copy of either book, pop in to The Forge (we might even make you a coffee…)

 

Start with your employees and the rest will follow

Herb Kelleher, who died this month, is widely regarded as one of the greatest CEOs America has ever seen.

Which is odd, because he never set out to run a business at all. He started his working life as a lawyer in New Jersey, before moving to Texas. It was while having dinner one night with a client in San Antonio that the two began discussing an idea for an airline that would help people travel more easily around the vast State.

The business that grew out of this conversation, Southwest Airlines, became the template for every budget airline that followed – as well as a shining example of what you can achieve with a business if you start by thinking about the people who work in it.

Kelleher’s genius was for making things simple and creating a culture where people took themselves lightly, but their jobs seriously.

When recruiting new pilots, he once brought all the prospective candidates together in a hangar on a warm day – and then turned the air conditioning off. An employee came out, apologised for the heat and offered shorts to anyone who wanted them. Some accepted but most, worried about not looking business-like enough, stayed in their shirts, ties and long trousers.

Only the candidates who took the shorts were offered a job. Kelleher wanted people who would be driven by common sense, not protocol – and flexible enough to adapt to unexpected conditions.

Naturally gregarious and charismatic, he once publicly arm-wrestled a rival for the right to use a disputed slogan (he lost, but with such good grace that he was still allowed to use it).

Above all, Kelleher had a gift for inspiring loyalty and dedication from his employees, because they knew with absolute certainty that they were his first priority.

As he once put it:

‘If you treat your employees right, guess what? Your customers come back – and that makes your shareholders happy. Start with your employees and everything else follows from that.’

Matt is the author of tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture, which explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. He’s also written inside: the 10 communication secrets that will transform your business.

If you’d like a free copy of either book, pop in to The Forge (we might even make you a coffee…)

 

The gunpowder test

Sailors in Nelson’s navy were entitled to a daily rum ration as part of their pay.

To make sure the rum hadn’t been watered down too much, the crew would test a sample from the barrel by pouring it over gunpowder. This process was called ‘proving’. If the gunpowder failed to ignite, it meant the rum contained too much water.

So the navy carried out experiments to determine the lowest concentration of alcohol at which the gunpowder would still ignite. They calculated it at four parts alcohol to three parts water (57.15% Alcohol by Volume in today’s language).

From then on, rum containing that percentage of alcohol was deemed to be ‘100 proof’, a measure which became the standard benchmark for alcoholic strength in the UK until 1980.

It’s a handy pub quiz fact. It’s also a fascinating example of the value of trust in employee relations.

Because the officers on board knew they could be confident the rum would ignite, they embraced the idea of the proof test and turned it into a public display. Which meant it stopped being a point of contention and mistrust for the crew – and, instead, became a repeated celebration of their employers’ integrity.

The Royal Navy became known for the morale and discipline of its crews and, as a result, their superior skills in seamanship and gunnery. Which allowed the British to defeat even their more powerful enemies, dominate the world’s oceans and establish the largest empire ever seen. All without spending a single penny more than they were contractually obliged to (because their rum rations were as efficient as they could possibly be).

Next time your finance director asks you why it’s worth investing in engagement, you might want to tell them this story.

Sometimes, you just have to let go

Wikipedia was set up 17 years ago as an experiment in collaborative knowledge-building. It’s now the world’s fifth most visited website – and the first place most people turn for information about anything.

What’s interesting about Wikipedia is that it subverts the previous norm. Instead of being curated by experts, it depends entirely on volunteers to submit and update its content.

Detractors have claimed that this makes Wikipedia unreliable. How can you trust the accuracy of information, they argue, if you don’t know the authority of the source?

They’ve got a point: there have been well-documented examples of howling errors, as well as allegations of entries being manipulated by interested parties (including the CIA and political lobbyists).

On the other hand, Wikipedia includes over 48 million separate detailed entries, written in 293 languages. In almost every case, those entries were written – and moderated – by people with a far greater knowledge of their subject than could ever be possible with traditional reference sources, such as Encyclopedia Britannica or Larousse.

No matter how good your paid researchers might be, it’s simply not economically viable to have enough of them, with diverse enough backgrounds, to be able to know that much about that much.

Wikipedia is a trade-off: you lose a bit of certainty, but you gain a massive increase in depth, variety and richness of content.

It’s the same trade-off most big businesses struggle with every day.

On the one hand, they want to ‘empower’ their employees. They know that, in many cases, those employees have a much more direct connection with customers than the people at the top of the business. They want them to use their initiative to be more agile – and their personality to inject warmth and humanity into their daily work.

They know that, if they can do that, their customers will have a much better experience and their business will be more successful.

But, on the other hand, most businesses are terrified of giving up control. They’re scared that, given too much real autonomy, their employees will make bad decisions that damage their reputation or lose them money.

And they’re right. If you give your employees a genuinely free hand, in some cases they will make bad decisions.

But, if you don’t open yourself up to that possibility, you’ll never be able to harness the incredible creative and human benefits that real empowerment can bring to your business.

Your call.

 

When engagement isn’t engaging

‘When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure’.

That’s Goodhart’s law (named after the economist Charles Goodhart, who first articulated it to explain why private enterprise principles introduced by the Thatcher government hadn’t worked very well).

I thought about it this morning, when I was going through my emails and found one inviting me to ‘The Engaging Employees Conference’ in London.

Of the 32 scheduled speakers, the one that most caught my eye was the HR Director of Wonga, a business that collapsed five weeks ago and is currently being wound down by the administrators.

Since the sub-title of the conference is ‘Optimising Performance’, having a speaker from a failed business is probably inconvenient for the organisers. But it’s also a timely reminder for delegates of what they should really be focused on.

The fetish for measuring employee engagement has been steadily gaining ground since Gallup first pioneered it in the 1990s, with their Q12 Survey. This invited employees to answer (anonymously) twelve different questions about their experience of work. ‘Do you understand what the business is trying to achieve?’; ‘Do you understand what’s expected of you?’; ‘Do you have a best friend at work?’ and so on.

The idea is that, if you keep asking the same questions every six months, the movement in the scores will tell you which bits you’re getting right, which bits you need to focus on and, ultimately, how engaged your employees are.

According to Gallup, businesses with high Q12 scores demonstrate significantly better performance: lower turnover of staff, higher sales growth, greater productivity, better customer satisfaction scores. Which is why nearly every large organisation nowadays carries out some kind of engagement survey.

The problem, as Wonga and others have found, is that improving your engagement score does not necessarily lead to improved performance.

It’s a perfect example of Goodhart’s law in operation.

An engagement survey is useful if it helps you build a true picture of the experience your employees have at work. As soon as you turn it into a target, you’re blurring that picture and encouraging managers to ‘game’ the numbers so that their score always shows improvement, even though the underlying experience may not. It’s the tail wagging the dog.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m 100% in favour of engaging employees.

I just think the best way to do it is by focusing on the things that will improve their experience of working in your organisation.

Not asking them the same questions over and over again – and then fiddling the numbers to tell a story they don’t recognise.

Matt is the author of tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture, which explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. He’s also written inside: the 10 communication secrets that will transform your business.

If you’d like a free copy of either book, pop in to The Forge (we might even make you a coffee…)