For somebody like me for whom time is a gift – not as extra years added to the later part of my life but right now in the form of an 8th day of the week, an extra hour every day – I’m keen to understand why time is so volatile. Why are so many people struggling to make ends meet time-wise at work?
When at Hot Spots Movement we speak to companies around the world, and again lately when we were in Australia, we hear from senior executives how stretched they are, with many requests on their time that are not to do with their ‘day job’. Of course, in a time such as this of increasingly fluid job design and project-based working, the definition of ‘day job’ is not a hard and fast one. Nevertheless, it seems that many of the requests are peripheral to people’s roles. You may ask why this is an issue – after all being useful is profoundly satisfying to most people, and contributing to the ‘greater good’ of the organisation by delivering input over and above your own projects surely is positive? It is, but not at the expense of preserving time to focus, to think, and to ponder longer-term strategic matters. When people are persistently stretched, and their time therefore is too fragmented, their productivity, creativity and wellbeing may suffer. Although a hidden cost for some time, it will eventually catch up with both the individual and the organisation.
So, what is it that is occupying the time of busy executives, and are these tasks really adding value? They seem to fall into two categories: reporting, and collaborative endeavours, such as attending meetings or reviewing others’ work.
Let’s start with reporting. One of the many great columns Lucy Kellaway wrote in The Financial Times was about why young people leave jobs. Her empirical evidence was that they lose the will to live because they were promised meaningful work, however, once on the job, they’re asked to produce reports and spreadsheets that are not being put to use. I’m not convinced this only happens to young people.
Next, collaboration. As the new and indiscriminately applied preferred working style in many organisations, there’s a tendency to over-collaborate and be too consensus-focused (or afraid of taking full accountability). Both lead to more meetings and more requests for input, where in fact one or two viewpoints would suffice. Of course, there’s a certain respect for hierarchy, and there are compliance-driven requests, but we could question more what is on our to-do list, be they legacy tasks or new tasks. And a bit tongue-in-cheek, see what happens if we don’t get around to providing our input. I’m not sure it would always even be noticed?
As companies move to designing work around projects rather than roles, I’m wondering if we should learn from freelance workers who work on discrete and time-defined projects, measured on outcome, and therefore can focus on these? Perhaps a zero-budgeting  based approach to how we spend our time may be helpful – regularly resetting the to-do list to 0. We need to be regularly asking ourselves, ‘what is it that keeps me busy, and is it really adding value?’ On that note, back to my to-do list, where the first point is to critically question the items!
 Where you have to justify what you need to spend, starting from 0 for every period, rather than assuming legacy spend requirements.
I have always been a fan of Big Bands. They create such amazing, diverse sounds, from the beautifully orchestral Glenn Miller Band, to the endlessly energetic music produced by Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band. Music has taught me a whole host of valuable lessons, but it is only since I started working for Hot Spots Movement that I have begun to realise how useful it is to consider the Big Band as a metaphor for the organisation. Here are a few ways that I believe tapping into jazz can help you to improve your performance at work.
There are no mistakes in jazz
It’s an old cliché but experimentation, expression and freedom are what jazz is all about. You shouldn’t be afraid to try new notes and rhythms, because that’s how you push the melody forwards and create something new and exciting. This attitude should hold true in the workplace as well. Recent research has indicated that high performance organisations actively promote risk-taking and have a high tolerance for failure and setbacks.[i] Those who never make mistakes are actually perceived as “too safe” and are seen to be avoiding opportunities to innovate.[ii] Improvise, explore new ideas and do not be afraid to fail; you never know what you might discover.
Solo, Soli, Tutti
It’s written into the music: there are times when you are expected to play alone and to take the lead (solo); times when you play in sync with your section (soli); and there are times when the whole band comes together as one (tutti). Knowing when these moments are and when you should be playing either a leading or a supporting role is vital. Great leaders are also great followers: they know the strengths of their people and are able to defer to the expertise of people in their team. In doing so, they develop leadership qualities in others and create a collaborative, successful team that respects each other’s skills and leverages everyone’s talent. Being able to both lead and follow – and recognise when each is appropriate – demonstrates your commitment to the group and shows that you are thinking about what you produce together rather than what you can produce alone.
Practice makes perfect
Like typical business meetings, rehearsals are necessary to discover how the music (or, indeed, the project) is developing. During rehearsals, players have the opportunity to learn from each other and to see how their individual parts feed into the whole. However, the most sophisticated players also spend time practicing their part alone, away from the group, in order to improve not only their command of the piece but their general playing ability. Similarly, research has shown that, in the workplace, taking time to step back and process your work fuels creativity, as employees are given space to arrange their thoughts and explore the ideas that emerged in collaborative sessions.[iii] Time away from the music room or office to practice your techniques and hone your thinking is vital, as interspersing collaboration and solo time makes for the most well-rounded and competent players and employees.
So, when you next think about your team performance, perhaps ask yourself – do we operate in a safe space which encourages us to experiment and learn? Do we know when to take solos and when to step back and support others? And, finally, are we taking enough time to process our work and explore ways to innovate and improve our performance? If the answer to any of these questions leans towards the negative, tapping into jazz may be a real way to drive your team forwards.
What incites people to deliver their best performance? I have been exploring this question for some years now and I am increasingly of the view that the answer lies in empowering people. People will be most committed and motivated to the organisation when they feel their day-to-day work environment is autonomous. They need to believe they have a sense of control over their work or they may adopt what psychologist Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania termed ‘learned helplessness’, where they basically stop taking initiative.
Building a culture of trust is what will truly make a significant difference. Research indicates that people in high-trust organisations are more productive, have more energy at work, suffer less chronic stress and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies. Simply put, when companies trust people to choose which projects they will work on, they focus on what they care about most and this powers greater performance.
An important caveat to remember here is that autonomy is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can fuel creativity and performance. On the other, autonomy can also lead to ambiguity and chaos. This is because the effects of empowering people are largely impacted by how people perceive their leader’s behaviour. People may perceive greater autonomy as an indication that the leader trusts them and is providing them with opportunities for growth or they may see empowerment as evidence that the leader can’t lead and is trying to avoid making difficult decisions. In the latter example, people may become frustrated about their role, leading to worse performance. It is therefore vital that when trying to empower people, the leader makes sure people are equipped effectively to perform their jobs. To make this happen, an ongoing discussion of the needs, obstacles, what is working and what is not working is of paramount importance to the development and upkeep of an autonomous working environment. Indeed, providing people real autonomy requires hard work of crafting all the incentives, practices and processes that actually empower employees to be autonomous. A good practice illustrating how to approach autonomy is the Swedish company Spotify as they have largely succeeded in maintaining an agile and autonomous mindset without sacrificing accountability.
Please send any ideas or examples you have on building an environment that empowers people. I would love to hear them!
 Monarth, H. (2014). Make your team feel powerful. Harvard Business Review
 Zak, P. (2017). The Neuroscience of trust. Harvard Business Review
 Mankins, M. & Garton, E. (2017). How Spotify balances autonomy and accountability. Harvard Business Review
A fascinating interest of mine is the human consciousness. I could forever learn about how each of our brains, 1 kilogram of hard matter, conjures up an infinite kaleidoscope of thoughts, feelings, memories and emotions, which make us ‘conscious’. This conscious awareness has long been assumed to govern how we make the approximately 35,000 decisions required of us each a day – from what time to get out of bed to what to eat for dinner. However, increasingly, there is evidence to suggest that many of the decisions we make are determined not by our conscious thought, but instead by our unconscious thoughts. This theory is a relatively new one, titled the Unconscious Thought Theory or UTT, (Dijksterhuis and Nordgren, 2006).
We all have an ‘unconscious’. It is where the bulk of our mind’s processing takes place, attributing to our beliefs and behaviours. Our unconscious mind’s main purpose is to prevent mental overload by efficiently informing our decisions based on quick reference to past events and experiences. However, research has begun to suggest that our unconscious may go beyond informing decisions, and actually be making our decisions for us. In one study by Soon et al (2008), it was concluded that our brains make decisions up to ten seconds before we realise it. So much so, that researchers could predict what decisions participants would make before they were even aware of having made a decision.
This can be both positive and negative. As anyone who has come across the literature or training on unconscious bias will know, it can result in us making snap judgments that reflect stereotypes and bias.
However, it seems it can also be positive. For example, whilst theorising UTT, Dijksterhuis and Nordgren found that when participants faced a complex task, the group which had more time to deliberate but were distracted (and therefore not consciously thinking about the task), had better and faster solutions. This is particularly interesting for us at Hot Spots Movement, when we consider how we perceive complex tasks and decisions, particularly at work, and how we might tackle them in the best way.
So, how can we tap into our unconscious to help deliver better and faster decisions?
Firstly, we could all benefit from a good night’s sleep. I’ve found this is the most accessible as our unconscious mind does not rest at night, instead it is busy making sense of the day’s events. It’s a common feeling to wake up from sleep and feel like a brand-new person, with your troubles not seeming as big as they did the night before. A tip for being in touch with your unconscious insights would be to write down your initial solutions to a problem first thing in the morning, before your conscious mind takes hold again.
Another way is through meditation or yoga, which are both fast-becoming forms of ‘fashionable’ exercise but actually benefit you by initiating deep insight, calmness and reflections. They work by allowing you to think beyond your conscious distractions to really consider who you are and the choices you make and if they resonate with your being.
Lastly, you can channel unconscious thoughts by putting yourself in situations where you can repeatedly act spontaneously, for example, during Improv classes – Improv is a form of unscripted theatre, where actors make up the story in the moment. Improv is a great way of channelling your unbiased thoughts and feelings – the idea is that you are in a safe environment and able to give entirely impulsive responses to a friend’s own, impulsive response. These reactions have not had time to be considered or filtered by your conscious so, over time, you can inadvertently learn about your instincts and how to involve your unconscious mind in your decisions. Several of my colleagues here at Hot Spots Movement practice Improv for the very same reason – to be more in touch with their unconscious mind. It has proven very beneficial for many reasons – so much so that here at Hot Spots Movement, we have started incorporating Improv exercises into our workshops with clients to enhance collaboration and trust amongst employees.
So, next time you’re struggling to think of a new approach to a difficult problem, perhaps consider engaging your unconscious mind. Take a moment for meditation, distract yourself with another seemingly unrelated task, or perhaps even sleep on it. It could be that your unconscious mind already knows the answer.
If you’d like to find out more about how you can use Improv to enhance collaboration and trust amongst employees within your organisations then please do get in touch on Melissa@hotspotsmovement.com
Last week my colleague Emma and I gave an interview on the theme of ‘motivating tomorrow’s workforce’. It reminded me that there are several important questions about the relationship between tomorrow’s talent and organisations, which we haven’t yet fully addressed – and that the answers may be simpler than we think.
- Are our organisations ready to embrace an adult-to-adult relationship between organisations and talent?
- How will it change the role of HR professionals?
Are we ready for the adult-to-adult relationship between organisations and talent?
In my view, one of the key elements of this changing relationship is that it’s no longer the sole responsibility of the company to understand what kind of working arrangement will attract talent and enable people to perform at their very best. This is good news, for two reasons. Firstly, because we can expect our talent to be increasingly comfortable bringing their ‘wholes selves’ to work, meaning working arrangements will need to become highly individualised. Secondly, with longer working lives becoming a reality, the strong link between ‘age and stage’ is weakening, making age a much less reliable indicator of expectations and aspirations.
In this new reality of multi-faceted diversity, it would seem unrealistic to expect HR to propose work arrangements that work for every individual. And why should we? I’m of the belief that adults know what’s right for them and are fundamentally keen to do the right thing by the organisations. As we start considering the relationship an adult-to-adult one, there’s no reason they wouldn’t deliver on these expectations.
What does this mean for HR? It means we need to change our organisations’ narratives to make clear that empowerment is a two-way deal. It is a constructive relationship between adults, not one where one party suggests specific rules for how people can work flexibly, which may or may not work, for the people involved, both individually, and as a team of workers. We should invite our people to design their own arrangements for flexible working and expect them to be thoughtful about how this will work for the organisation and for their colleagues (as individuals’ flexible working arrangements can take a toll on their fellow work team members), and likewise their own career journeys (moving between fast track, slow lane, plateau, sideways, etc.).
To build this narrative, and not least to get senior management to live by it, HR must be a credible source of strategic direction, and be proactive. This requires changing deeply engrained views of roles and responsibility. It also requires mutual trust, which needs to be preceded not only by the new narrative, but also by training, guidance and coaching.
My final question to the HR community is how do we train ourselves for this role? I’d suggest we start by ensuring we profoundly understand what the future of work will look like – (and assume that predicting the exact pace of change is near impossible so ‘sooner rather than later’ is a safe assumption regarding the timeline). We need to be a force of proposition and prepare our organisations for this change – it could well be the biggest one so far this millennium!
We hear this phrase echoing around the corridors of Canary Wharf and Downtown Manhattan, but are we really unleashing the potential of all the great people in our organisation? Well, in our experience, we find that companies often recruit talented, high performing individuals, but then fail to empower these individuals to affect change.
So what are the levers that organisations must activate if they are to enable their people to unleash their full potential?
1. Speaking up – We spend a lot of time thinking about this at Hot Spots Movement, as well as working on this capability with clients, and what we’ve found is that speaking up is far more likely and powerful in organisations which create an environment of psychological safety. What do we mean by psychological safety? This is an environment in which people’s views are valued, no matter their seniority or function, where people can challenge the status quo and are free to build on each other’s ideas. In addition to creating psychological safety, we find it’s crucial that organisations act on the insights given. People will only speak up if they feel they are being listened to, and that their views are being acted upon.
2. Collaboration – Here, we are looking at tapping into collective people power. Research shows that innovative and impactful ideas tend to come from cross-enterprise collaboration, rather than one team from a research lab or company department working on an issue in isolation. Additionally, new workplace technologies have allowed organisations to bring people together in a many-to-many communication model, inspiring innovation as well as giving employees greater agency when it comes to decision-making.
3. Innovation and Productivity – Organisations often find themselves tasked with doing more with less, and have to constantly reinvent themselves in the face of disruption. As such, innovation is no longer a department or function, but instead a mentality that must pervade the entire organisation. Interestingly, our experience from running innovation projects with clients indicates an innate desire and capacity to innovate which is latent within many employees. What these employees are lacking, however, is the time to do so, or the incentives to ensure they make time for innovation.
4. Organisational Structure and Values – Research shows that strong values and purpose are effective in unleashing the people power of current employees, as well as becoming an increasingly important role in the attraction of new talent. The challenge that organisations face here is to ensure that the rhetoric matches reality. That is to say, if you have a set of values in your office lobby, you need to ensure that they are being reflected in the processes and practices that underpin the everyday behaviour of your employees, and be sure that employees are rewarded for living those values.
We’re undertaking ongoing research into this topic through the Unleashing People Power Survey. This 10-minute survey allows you to pulse-check how your organisation is performing on each of the above four levers, as well as how this compares to the benchmarking of 60+ multinationals. Perhaps take a moment today to complete it, and send it to your colleagues too – the more responses, the more insightful the data.
If you’re interested in taking the Unleashing People Power Survey or would like to learn more about how to unleash the energy of your people, please contact Harriet Molyneaux email@example.com.
 Wuchty, S., Jones, B. and Uzzi, B. 2007. The Increasing Dominance of Teams in Production of Knowledge, Science 316, no. 5827: 1036–1039
 Nally, D. (2015). Five reasons diversity and inclusion matter to every business and every employee. PwC CEO Insights.