Most of the workshops I’ve run in the last three years have included at least a partial focus on innovation and the need to do things differently in an ever-changing world. I’ve spoken to many organisations that struggle to unleash the innovative capability they know they have in their workforce, and struggle even more to understand why. The answer in most instances is fear of failure.
In high performance cultures, failure is not an option. And yet, when we embark on the process of innovation, failure is pretty much a guaranteed stop along the way to success. Just think of all the great inventors of our time – James Dyson, Patricia Bath, Hedy Lamar – all of them failed many times before they succeeded.
It begs the question, would their great inventions have been realised if they were working in your organisation? Or would they have been thwarted at the early stages because they challenged conventional ways of working, or because failure is to be avoided at all costs?
So, how do we make peace with failure in organisations?
Well, here’s where the techniques of Improv really come in.
When you’re about to go on stage without a script, you MUST be ready for failure because it’s inevitable. At some point, one of you will call another actor by the wrong character name or accidentally contradict a ‘truth’ that has been created in another scene. What I’ve learned most in this context is that it’s not the failure itself that is important, but the reaction we have to it. Whether it’s to call it out as part of the humour, “I must say, I find it quite passive aggressive that you continually refer to me by the wrong name,” or to weave it into the story somewhere further down the line. In doing so, we turn the failure into a success, just not the one we had originally conceived of. This is what my Improv colleagues Steve Roe and Max Dickins refer to as pivoting failure into success. And to prove that this truly does work in the business world, they cite many examples including that of Instagram which was originally created as a way of mapping the world through photographs, but failed in its original vision and soon became used in the way we know it now, to share photos and create connections between people.
If we want our teams and organisations to be innovative, then we have to get better at creating cultures in which people are liberated from their fear of failure. How do we do this? First, by sense checking the processes and practices that influence people’s behaviour: does our performance management approach allow for failure as a learning point, or is all failure career-limiting? Second, we must practice the behaviours that enable us throw ourselves into a new idea, that give us the confidence to try something new with our team and that make us feel comfortable in the unknown. These are the behaviours that we’re helping people practice through Improv: stepping into the unscripted world, trusting yourself, and running towards failure as an opportunity for a success you hadn’t yet conceived of.
Last week I was speaking at an event for an energy company in the Nordics.
The night before the event we were having dinner together and I noticed people avidly checking their phones for the latest score in a sports match of seemingly national significance. When I asked what sport it was I was surprised to learn that it was a chess match. How could a potentially slow-paced game attract so much attention in real-time I pondered?
Now contrast this with another sports event, when FIFA took football (soccer) to the USA. They were asked to shift the pace of the match from two 45-minute halves with a break (standard football timings), to more of a basketball format, with 20-minute sessions and three breaks. The US television channels claimed that an American audience shouldn’t/couldn’t/wouldn’t watch 45 minutes straight without a breather.
While these are just anecdotes rather than careful analyses of each of the countries or cultures in question, they do hint at something we should perhaps pay more attention to in our lives: pace.
This is something I’ve examined in myself in recent years, when I’ve thought about what I’m good at and why I struggle with other endeavors. One example is when I first started speaking at events. My biggest challenge was to talk at a slower pace so that I could be clearly understood, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t do it.
I eventually realized that the speed at which I spoke was innately tied up with the speed at which I approached just about everything in life, perhaps under the impression that that made me more productive. This meant that in order to speak more slowly, I had to practice just ‘being’ at a slower pace. I made myself walk slower, breathe slower, eat slower…. and only by doing all of those other things was I finally able to master presenting at a coherent speed.
It turned out that what I really needed to do was step outside of my comfortable pace of being, and learn to operate in another rhythm. It was a realization that for me, made the difference between excelling at something that was critical for my role, or continually falling short.
Now, pace isn’t something we talk much about at work, but perhaps it should be. We all have a natural pace that makes us great at certain things, but holds us back in other respects.
Maybe take a moment today to consider your natural pace – are you a chess match or a basketball game? And then practice ‘playing the other sport.’ What does it feel like when you simply walk a little faster or slower? What would you be better at if you sped up or slowed down at work? It may be that getting comfortable with a different pace, a different rhythm is the key to helping you master something you’ve been grappling with for years.
 Surely a turn of phrase that gives away how little I know about sports, let alone writing about them
 I appreciate the advertising community may have had something to do with this narrative
For all the hullaballoo about diversity, what do we know about it and is it needed? Let’s start by exploring some facts about the case for diversity:
In the UK, the Women and Work Commission found that better use of women’s skills in work could be worth between £15 – 23bn for the economy each year.
The spending power of people over 65 i.e. the grey pound is set to hit the £100bn mark.
Recent surveys in the USA show that 70% of all consumer spending is made by women.
It is expected that ethnic minority spending power will soon top £300bn.
Despite clear evidence that diversity is especially crucial in today’s global marketplace, businesses are still very slow and sometimes reluctant to embrace this change. This is because diversity as a concept sounds simple in theory, however in practice it is rather difficult. The first challenge is the heavily entrenched and archaic recruitment processes/graduate schemes in most organisations. For example, a recent article in The Guardian reports that the UK’s top professions are terribly skewed towards privately educated people compared to the general profile of the UK population.
Furthermore, when we generally speak about the positive impact of diversity we assume that everyone gets on or will get on. This is simply not true as workplaces today are riddled with biases. Bias in today’s workplace is largely implicit, making it ambiguous and often very difficult to prove. One of the common misconceptions about biases is that only the so-called ‘majority’ population holds them. In fact, members of any group are capable of holding stereotypes about particular categories of people. Unconscious behavior is not just individual; it influences organisational culture as well. Unconscious organisational patterns exert an enormous influence over organisational decisions, choices and behaviours. These deep-seated company characteristics are often the reason that despite our best conscious efforts, the ‘organisational unconscious’ perpetuates the status quo and keeps old patterns and norms firmly rooted.
Finally, most organisations tend to think of diversity in terms of the ‘visible differences’ between people, such as gender, age and race. Diversity is about these differences, but this narrow focus ultimately falls short of what it really means. For diversity to deliver on its promise, organisations should harness a more powerful and nuanced kind of diversity: diversity of thought. This broader view is encapsulated by the idea that different perspectives and heuristics are the real point of difference, rather than our visible differences.
In spite of these dreary facts, there are glimmers of hope as some companies are beginning to realise the potential for diversity and what it means for creativity, productivity and innovation. For example, companies like Gen Mills, HP Inc. and Verizon have demanded their Ad Agencies to shed the “mad men like reputation” and recruit a more diverse workforce. In fact, back in August, Gen Mills insisted on its Ad Agency’s’ creative departments to be staffed with 50% women and 20% blacks. Similarly, John Lewis recently promoted Paula Nickolds to the role of MD – the first female MD in its 152 year history.
It is time to make diversity a top priority and the businesses that fail to see the importance of this, according to Sahar Andrade, ’might find themselves unable to attract and retain the kinds of customers, employees, and business partners that constitute our changing world in 5 to 10 years’.
A close friend invited me to this year’s MozFest. If you’ve never heard of it, don’t worry, you haven’t been living under a rock. It is Mozilla’s annual 3-day event that seeks to drive innovation on the web. It is also a networking opportunity for the hugely diverse and incredibly creative tech community. Mozilla’s vision is that “learning should be hands-on, immersive, and done collectively”. And no doubt, the event itself reflected this vision with a vast array of talks, games, demonstrations, creative group work, and spaces for innovative ideas. One of the main inspirations I took away was about digital badges.
Up until two weeks ago, I didn’t even know what digital badges were. But the more I look into the topic, the more I find that they are actually becoming quite established in the learning landscape. In fact, IBM recently launched its Open Badge Program to attract talent and keep people engaged. At MozFest, a whole floor was dedicated to Mozilla’s Open Badges project, which was launched already in 2012.
In case you don’t know, digital badges are a type of certification for a skill, accomplishment or capability, much like the badges handed out in the military or the Scouts. Universities, online course providers, companies, museums – any learning provider really – can issue badges, which recipients can add to their profiles like LinkedIn and showcase their skills and capabilities to their peers and potential employers. As there are no limits to content or the submission process (at one museum, you can get a badge for cockroach handling), digital badges aim to disrupt traditional approaches by facilitating informal learning, providing alternative learning pathways, and supporting lifelong learning.
Within organisations, badges are already being used to support performance management, drive collaboration and innovation among employees and enhance employee engagement. Unisys, for example, developed an internal platform that provides each employee with a profile where they can display their badges, allowing them to establish a company presence, connect to other employees with similar skills and search for those with specific subject expertise. IBM is also using badges to provide credentials to external talent, for specific learning journeys, and thereby creating a global pool of talent that it can draw upon. Within IBM, employees who felt recognised for learning achievements (e.g. through badges) were three times more engaged than those who didn’t.
In MozFest’s session on Architecture for Learning Pathways, experts discussed next steps for the badge project. How can badges lead to specific jobs, careers, and help people achieve certain goals? How do different badges relate to each other with regard to the types of achievements they represent? How can they be grouped together to create different learning pathways? Do learning pathways always have to be linear? How can high achievers be differentiated from low achievers?
While these questions are certainly relevant for the education sector, they are also relevant for the corporate world. Training and development is already a major factor in the war for talent while new technologies are transforming the landscape of required skills. In this respect, companies must rethink the value of qualifications, alternative career pathways, and continuous learning. Can badges be used to address some of these challenges, for example, to facilitate lateral career moves? This is something high on our research agenda at the Future of Work. Over the next four months we will be analysing the future of employability and learning to find out more about the big disruptors in this area.
Image: Badges from the Royal Observatory Greenwich, UK Antibiotic Guardian, Amazon and Siemens
I’m sitting in our open-plan offices in Somerset House. If you are not familiar with the building, Somerset House is a neoclassical palace with an imposing façade overlooking the river Thames, and a grand courtyard with a majestic fountain. The sun is out, the sky is blue, and the mild autumn breeze is playing with the Union Jack flag.
Somerset House is the ideal creative and inspiring environment for writing a blog. However, 20 men are busy building the ice rink just below our office window and we work in an open-plan office. The rattling, beeping, drilling, shouting, phone ringing, and that annoying sound Outlook makes when I get an email… I can’t hear myself think, so how am I going to write this blog on creativity? If you are also struggling with creativity, here is one tip from the Hot Spots team that I tested.
With hard deadlines coming up, a project to deliver, and almost everyone on the phone around me, I’m stressed. Struggling with this blog seems like a waste of time. I remembered from our Innovative Organisation Masterclass that letting the mind wander is a good way of coming up with creative ideas. Sounds like exactly what I need.
So I’m sitting in the shell chair in our empty meeting room. I only brought a pen and paper. My phone is in the other room because work will find me if it really wants to. I’ve spent 20 minutes alone, in silence with my thoughts, not focusing on my immediate environment. I even took some notes and wrote the blog outline, and now I have something to work with. But what has just happened?
This is called “internal recovery” and refers to the break we are recommended to take every 90-minutes. These recovery sessions become particularly important when working with technology as it makes our brains overly active. The positive impact of these recovery sessions was also confirmed by Professor K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Florida State University. They observed athletes, chess players and musicians, and found that best performers typically practice in uninterrupted, 90-minute cycles.
It seems that the 20-minute technological detox had a positive impact on my productivity. I came up with a blog topic and my brain was fresh enough to write this blog despite the industrial noises, email notifications, and ongoing calls around me. It was definitely worth trying this one tip, and I am considering making this part of my work routine. So today when you feel like work is just not happening, find a calm spot and let your mind wander.
If you’d like to find out what else the Research Team is thinking about here at Hot Spots Movement or just want to have a chat about our work, get in touch.
We live in an increasingly globalised and interconnected world. The workforce is becoming more contingent, so it is inevitable that at some point in your career you will have to manage a virtual team. This is something we have become increasingly adept at, here at Hot Spots Movement, through our Jams. These are facilitated online conversations, for multinational organisations, providing them with insights to take on business challenges.
During these Jams, we work with a virtual team of facilitators. As the team is scattered around the planet we rarely get the opportunity to meet everyone in person. However, our facilitators play a major role in the success of our Jams. So how do we make sure everyone performs at their best in our team? Here are three recommendations based on our experience.
Prepare your team before the project
Our facilitators’ primary role is to create an engaging environment in which people are confident to express their views, share their ideas and collaborate with their colleagues from around the world. When a Jam goes live, we receive hundreds of comments in a couple of hours and our facilitators need to analyse and follow up on the content of each comment. This requires maximum focus and minimum distraction, otherwise the golden nuggets of insights might be missed.
To prepare facilitators for this role, we provide them with all the relevant information at least four weeks in advance. We also deliver that information in a number of formats – including briefing documents and calls – to accommodate different learning preferences.
So, tip number one is to start the preparation early and let your team stay focused. Even though it is inevitable that new information will pop up and you need to communicate this to your team, they will need to take in less.
Identify the best means of communication for your purpose
If you have friends in another country, you know that frequent communication is key to keep in touch with them. It’s the same with work: we need to ensure that we have enough touch points with our virtual teams to ensure coordination and to minimise isolation.
When there is a break between Jams, we send around an email or set up a quick call to find out what facilitators are up to – we take a personal interest in who they are outside of their role on the Jam. We also ensure that they are in the loop with what we are working on and when they can expect the next Jam. During these breaks emails and calls work well, but during Jams they are slow, and can be distracting. For real-time coordination on project work we use a designated chat room. This chat room is both our office and kitchen during the Jam: there is space for instructions as well as casual chats. After all, chats in the kitchen are a good way of getting to know your team members.
When setting up your virtual team, identify the most effective means of communication for each point in the project or team lifecycle. Bear in mind that you will need a different communication channel depending on the nature of the task – chat rooms are ideal for real-time collaboration, while static means such as emails are a great way of checking in during quieter times. Not only will this keep your team together between projects, but it will also enable bonding.
Analyse the project and the process
Our facilitators appreciate the opportunity to give real-time, open and honest feedback to us about what’s working and what could be better. We love this. It signals that they are invested in the project and feel part of the team.
One of the key moments when we hear this feedback is during the night shifts when Jams are running. These tend to be slightly quieter sessions and the online chat room gives us a great opportunity to chat to our facilitators. We talk about how they feel about the atmosphere of the Jam and which topics participants prefer. We also exchange tricks and tips on how we could improve the briefing process and how to improve task-based work. Similarly, our facilitators feel comfortable reaching out to discuss how we feel about their performance. Whether they want to do this in the group chat or in private, it’s up to them. We do this real-time when the experience is still fresh.
When your team is together, that is your best opportunity to dissect the project and find out what works, what needs improvement, and what you need to drop.
It’s interesting to see that the three points above also apply to teams that share the same physical location. The difference is that the virtual world amplifies flaws in the processes of preparation, communication and evaluation.
So what are the three things you need to think about as a manager? First, are you preparing your team well in advance of the project? Do you take a moment to identify the most effective and efficient means of communication for a given task or message? And, do you take the time to exchange constructive feedback throughout the project, as well as reflecting at the end?
If you would like to find out more about managing teams in general, please have a look at my previous blog here. If you’re wondering how you could benefit from employee voice within your team or organisation, take a look at our Employee Voice white paper.
By Sarah Elsing, researcher, Hot Spots Movement
Employee Voice is often linked to employee engagement. While employee surveys are used to assess employees’ levels of engagement, Employee Voice can be understood not only as a way of assessing people’s engagement levels but also as one way of enabling this engagement. It also reaches far beyond the realm of employee engagement. A two-way conversation with employees can help boost staff morale and productivity but it can also be useful in the problem-solving process, create innovation, and help an organisation’s leadership renegotiate the deal with its changing workforce.
Despite these wide-ranging uses and benefits, Employee Voice mechanisms are still most often applied in a reactive manner. Only when staff morale or productivity are already low do organisations start engaging their employees in a conversation. When this is the case, they often focus on understanding what is causing the problem rather than allowing employees to voice their ideas on how to improve the situation. As a large, diverse group of problem-solvers and innovators, employees remain largely untapped. At Hot Spots Movement, we therefore find that the best Employee Voice tools allow their participants to move from a reactive, negative and reflective state of mind to a more proactive, constructive and future-oriented conversation.
If you would like to find out more about Employee Voice and how it can work for you, simply leave your details on our contact form using the keyword ‘Employee Voice’. Our white paper on Employee Voice draws on the latest insights from our client-based research and provides best practice tips on how to make it work particularly in an era of digitalisation.