This old adage was first coined by Shakespeare some five hundred years ago in his play Hamlet. But I wonder how easy it is to follow this sage advice in a corporate working environment of values, mission statements and branding? How easy is it for us to stay true to our ‘original’* selves in the working world?
We explored this theme in our recent research on the Innovative Organisation. We asked how companies can combine original perspectives to unleash the great ideas that will ensure their future success. I also had the opportunity to hear first hand what it’s like to be an ‘original’ when I interviewed Jat Sahi, a former actor turned innovation guru at Fujitsu and it’s been a running theme of my year so far. While the concept of hiring originals to contribute diverse perspectives will seem logical to many of you, the part we see organisations stumble over is enabling their originals to stay that way.
So I wanted to share with my key takeaways for allowing originality to flourish:
- Don’t subject new talent to homogenising processes. This is something many of us are all guilty of, in overzealous on-boarding programmes that focus more on assimilating people into ‘the way we do things around here’ than on nurturing their originality. To genuinely foster differences of backgrounds, disciplines, culture and generations, organisations must promote inclusion, creating opportunities for people to share what is unique about them and combine their perspectives with others in a collaborative architecture.
- Focus on the why not the how. Jat Sahi spoke with me at length about how we have all become very good at executing work, but not very good at thinking about why we are doing it. It is the ‘why’ that helps us uncover the different motivations, perspectives and ideas within our teams. Thank you Jat!
- Maintain a balance between conformists and mavericks. Miriam Erez and Eitan Naveh of Technion – Israel Institute of Technology tell us that truly innovative teams are comprised of 10 to 20% of conformists. It’s this combination of originals who will challenge, disrupt and innovate and those who are adept at current ways of working that bring about the most successful new ideas.
Looking over the points above, I’m mindful that we don’t even need to look at people from different educational background or technical expertise to contribute originality of thought. With an eye to our upcoming Future of Work Research Consortium Theme Shifting Identities, all of us have elements which make us originals. So what I’d like you to do over the coming week is to dig back before you looked at your colleagues and emulated them, to before you finished your corporate grad scheme and even before your university told you how you should think. Think back to what makes you truly you, and make sure you bring that quality to your discussions with colleagues and the work that you do. Personally, I’ll be looking to enjoy the uncomfortable conversations and actively engage in ambiguous situations – two things I know I can bring to the table.
*Grant and Sandberg, Originals, 2016: define hiring originals as “intentionally hiring someone who would make peers feel uncomfortable; someone whose skills the company does not require and someone without previous experience in solving the type of problem at hand”.
 Miron-Spektor, E., Erez, M., & Naveh, E. (2011). The effect of conformist and attentive-to-detail members on team innovation: Reconciling the innovation Paradox. Academy of Management Journal, 54(4), 740-760
This week NAB released some compelling research on what Australians considered to be the hallmarks of a good job. Three of the top four things were “fulfilling”, “something I’m passionate about” and “meaningful”.
This was based on a survey of more than 2000 Australians aged 16-70 conducted by global research firm Ipsos. It was the third chapter in a broader white paper, Rethink Success, that looks at how Australians define “success”.
The first chapter, released late last year, found that Australians define success not as money or status, by firstly by happiness, then good family relationships, feeling fit and healthy and being a good person.
As a leader, these are my four top tips for creating a workplace where people can be truly successful in this broader sense.
1. Give work a meaning – purpose and vision inspires and provides a common goal to rally around.
Many people think of their job as a part of their identity. Meaningful work (work that has a purpose) is fulfilling – it makes us proud, it makes us happy.
At NAB we have focused the whole organisation around the customer. Whether our people are in customer facing roles or not, we all have a role to play in making it easier for customers to reach their potential.
We have also discovered that our vision – to be Australia and New Zealand’s most respected bank – is the single most significant driver of engagement for our people, according to employee survey data.
And beyond that, the notion of ‘respect’ satisfies that need for our people to know we trust and believe in them; they are good people.
2. Allow people to meaningfully connect with values that align with your vision.
Employees and customers are increasingly choosing to work and do business with companies that align with their values and aspirations. It is important that every single employee understands what a company’s values are.
Two years ago when NAB launched its organisational values, we didn’t want to rely on communication packs, wallet cards or mouse pads with the company values emblazoned on them. We recognised that human beings are wired to remember stories. So we encouraged leaders to bring their own personal experience and meaning, and communicate NAB’s values (Passion for customers; Will to win; Be bold; Respect for people; Do the right thing) through story-telling. This has had a significant influence on the way people understand the values.
Leaders who communicate values through story-telling have a significant influence on the way people think and feel.
3. Contribute to employee wellbeing – be supportive, flexible, fun.
To quote Confucius, ‘Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life’
Creating a flexible working environment allows you to accommodate the diverse needs of people – both customers and employees. It leads to higher productivity, and enables people to live in a way that accommodates their personal lifestyle needs.
In my experience, supporting flexibility in a way that meets both the individual and business needs, demonstrates your trust in your people and strengthens their commitment and willingness to take on challenging work (see how this links back to meaning?).
4. Nurture a growth mindset – so your people are credible, capable and confident to face into the future.
Change in the working landscape is more rapid with digitisation and disruption. Traditional pathways are being paved over with new roads.
Our role as leaders is to believe in people, their ideas and dreams, and show interest in their aspirations. Create a space where people can demonstrate and develop their talents, determine what they want from their career and encourage and support them to achieve it.
Careers are increasingly becoming dynamic and fluid. There is a greater level of empowerment for those who are willing to shift tracks.
But if you don’t know where you’re heading, how will you know what to pack?
Purpose is key. It helps you map a direction, and focuses you on the capabilities you need to get there.
This brings me to my purpose, which is “to help people grow every day, by creating the right culture and connecting them to the learning and development they need to be credible, capable and confident now and in the future”.
What gives your job meaning and what guides you towards your future?
Steve Barrow is Executive General Manager of People, Culture and Capability at NAB.
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.
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.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been learning the art of Improv. For those of you who have never experienced such joy, Improv is a form of completely unscripted theatre or comedy, where a group of fully-grown adults create a story, characters and some kind of plot completely in the moment. As we walk onto the stage we have no idea who our character will be, where the scene is, or what the relationship is that we have with each other And yet, somehow it works. Somehow, we create something that is coherent, makes sense and sometimes – just sometimes – is hilariously funny.
Now, if this were a team in an organisation, we would consider it doomed to fail: No goals, no clarity on team roles, no accountability – no chance. But in this domain it succeeds. It got me thinking about what it is that makes it possible for Improv to… well, just work really, and what that could then teach us about creating successful teams in organisations. It all starts with three simple rules that allow everything else to follow freely:
#1 Listen to offers
The first time I got on stage to do an Improv scene my mind was screaming to me: “Say something. Anything. For the love of God fill the silence!” The result: disaster and a very public way to learn the hidden beauty of staying quiet and listening. And so comes the first rule: listen to what others are offering. The only way that something unscripted can work is if you are truly listening to all the cues your team are sending you about where you are in the scene, who your character is to them, and what the hell’s going on. Likewise, they need to be listening out for every possible piece of information from you so that you can all create something together.
There are many parallels here to what we see happening in teams. I can recall so many meetings in which it’s seemed like we’re all working off a different script. And why? Because that’s exactly what we were doing. We were armed with our own individual scripts about what we wanted to achieve, our foregone conclusions about the matter, ready to force that on others whether consciously or without even realizing that’s what we were doing. Next time you’re in a meeting with your team, try leaving the script behind. Make a conscious effort to focus and hear every ‘offer’ made by the other person. Every sentence, every word.
#2 Accept offers
The most awkward moments in Improv are when one actor makes an ‘offer’ in terms of what’s going on in the scene, for example: “Hey, great to bump into you. We always seem to see each other at this same park” only for their fellow actor to reject that offer and instead pursue their own agenda: “This isn’t a park it’s a school classroom, what were you thinking?” There’s really nowhere good to go from that point. It’s a clear rejection and now you are both completely lost somewhere in a… school parkroom? Or a park school class? Huh? When this happens in Improv it’s painfully visible and the chaos that ensues is immediate.
Once again, having learned this the hard way in performances, I’ve become particularly aware of it in other realms of life and work. How often do we listen to someone’s idea (offer) only to reject it, either subtly by moving the conversation back to our own brilliant idea, or by outright declaring it impossible due to a set of constraints reeled out too quickly to be a true response to what we’ve just heard?
I think the reason we find this so hard is because it requires us to be vulnerable. In a scene, if I accept someone else’s offer in terms of where we are or what our relationship is, then I have to put more thought and energy into responding than if I were to simply shut it down and force my own idea – inevitably one I’m more comfortable with. It’s unknown territory and I can’t guarantee I’ll sail through it. Likewise, exploring someone else’s way of thinking at work means letting go of our reassuringly familiar reality to step into theirs. It’s uncomfortable. As a leader, you may feel you need to add value by having the vision and providing clarity of output. You may feel that if you’re not driving the meeting or the project, then you’re not doing you role as a leader. However, the two are of not mutually exclusive at all.
Next time you feel yourself inclined to say no to an idea – to reject someone’s offer – perhaps take a moment. Acknowledge that it feels a bit uncomfortable and then stick with it. It may be that the discomfort lasts only a few moments and is the path to something you never thought possible.
#3 Make other people look good
Every so often, I’ll be in a scene and see an opportunity to throw in a line so witty it’s sure to have the crowd thinking, ‘God she’s hilarious’. And every time I’ve given into the temptation it’s resulted in a soul-destroying awkward pause. Now, while this is no doubt useful feedback about the quality of my jokes, it’s also a fairly unanimous experience in Improv. Why? Because Improv is about teams, not stand up comics, and any attempt to elevate yourself over and above your fellow Improvisers just destroys whatever it is you were creating together.
And so comes the third rule: make others look good. The logic is pretty simple when you think about it: if everyone does it, then everyone ends up looking good. Lovely. So what happens if we take this approach in our teams? If we all go in agreeing that our role is to make our team members look good rather than being our individual best?
This doesn’t mean that individual performance is completely negated, but that in an environment in which no one superstar (or stand up comic genius) is sufficient to succeed, we all embrace working together. We all help amplify the performance of others and bask in the great feeling that comes with knowing that they will do the same for us. This is how we can unleash additional value, enabling others else to shine and then building on that ‘greatness’.
These rules are pretty simple. But what resonated with me was how incredibly important they are in any successful collaboration – whether it be a friendship, a relationship, a project team or maybe even an Improv group. And that they are mutually reinforcing. Follow one of the rules avidly and you’re sure to find yourself deploying the other two: really listen to the other person in your team and you will find yourself immediately more likely to accept their offer and help them look good.
In increasingly unpredictable and unscripted worlds, perhaps now is the time to truly embrace improvisation.
2016 is a sporty year: I’ve picked up cycling, the Euro 2016 has ended little over a month ago and the world is already focusing on Rio. The Euro 2016 was full of surprises and I am sure the Olympics also has some up its sleeves during the coming weeks. Watching teams and athletes exceeding expectations and paying attention to my body’s signals when cycling made me think about what organisations could learn from sporting endavours. Here are three you may want to think about for your own team:
1. Creating environments in which it is safe to fail
The Euro 2016, just like many other tournaments, was not short of drama. We saw players missing important shots and even penalties. However, coaches sent them back to the pitch again and again on the understanding that failure is part of the game. If players felt that every little mistake would be heavily penalised, then they would be less inclined to take the measured risks necessary to ensure an interesting game and the prospect of success.
So what can team leaders learn from this? Well, we all need tolerance of failure within our teams. We need to create environments in which people feel able to innovate and try out new ways of working even if it does not work out in the end. Employees need to be aware that taking measured risks will not cost their career if and when they encounter challenges (and inevitably failures) along the way. One great example of this is Indian conglomerate Tata’s ‘Dare to Try’ award. This award recognises sincere and audacious attempts to create a major innovation that failed to get the desired results. It is a way of recognising that innovation brings with it the possibility of great successes, but also of opportunities to learn from failure.
The question you may want to think about is how do you, the manager, react when your team makes a mistake? Are people in your team and organisation supported in trying new ways of working?
This is a theme that comes out in many of the Jams we run with organisations. These facilitated, online conversations provide people with the opportunity to discuss their more pressing challenges and it is interesting to see tolerance of failure raised as an important characteristic of any innovative organisations. People need support in testing out new ideas.
2. Analysing performance in excruciating detail
Footballers, basketball players and swimmers constantly analyse their performance: During the match, in the breaks and after the final whistle. Even I note down my time, distance and speed after cycling. This helps us understand the factors that drive individual and team performance, and uncover any areas that need improvement. It also helps us understand individual needs. For example, in football, goalkeepers and strikers have a different diet. Why? A striker runs and sweats more than a goalkeeper, which means strikers need more energy to live up to fans’ expectations. Teams collect huge amounts of data to monitor players’ development and strengths.
What does this teach you about performance? Semi-annual performance reviews will not do the job in a competitive, high-pressure environment. Instead you may want to think about how often you review a completed project or a proposal that you have won or lost? The extent to which you analyse individual performance within the team after a project is completed, or whether you move on to the next project without actually understanding what happened and why?
3. Embracing agility
While sports teams have great icons, it does not mean they are the only players who can score. Take Ronaldo’s injury in the Euro 2016 final against France as an example, but I could also mention Kenya’s Jemima Sumgong’s truly amazing recovery during the London Marathon. She fell over, hit her head, and despite all this, managed to win the gold in the end. Portugal’s recovery was not less remarkable either: Nani took over as captain and Queresma was substituted for Ronaldo. Thanks to their agility, the players were able to change strategy less than half an hour into the game and take home the trophy.
Building an agile team is undoubtedly one of the toughest challenges managers face. In project teams, members may change frequently, or leaders may be called away to other roles or responsibilities and yet the team must continue to perform. This means it’s important to consider what contingency plans are in place if a key person were to be unavailable.
For inspiration from the business world, we can turn to music streaming service, Spotify. Spotify’s teams, or ‘squads’ as they call themselves, are good examples. Dr. Jeff Sutherland, inventor of the Scrum software development process explained that Spotify is able to compete with Google and Amazon in terms of performance by hiring agile coaches, employing seamless coordination and mastering the art of removing redundant steps from the project.
How agile is your team and what can you do to ensure your team performs when circumstances change?
At the Hot Spots Movement we are always looking for inspiration from other industries – sports, Opera, dance – to see what we can learn. Football and other team sports are by no means perfect in terms of managing performance, but perhaps we can take something from the sport’s ability to create a safe-to-fail environment, its commitment to reviewing team performance in detail and its agility.
If you would like to learn more, or have a great example to share, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 1932, philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote an essay titled In Praise of Idleness. He was writing at a time when only the most affluent in society had the opportunity for leisure time while the poor laboured away in dirty, dangerous and dull work. Today, the situation is quite the opposite: for the first time in history, the most skilled, highest earners in society are working the longest hours. But why is it that those who can afford the most leisure are now taking the least?
It turns out we still have much to learn from the old greats such as Russell and Keynes. Both had distinct yet complementary philosophies on the meaning of work that may help us understand why affluent knowledge workers, with above average pay cheques and already high standards of living, are slaving away to the point of burnout.
The first message is that as a society, we have had a vested interest in seeing work as virtuous. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, the virtues of work were extolled by the affluent, upper classes who, according to Russell, preached ‘the dignity of labour [to the poor], while taking care themselves to remain undignified in this respect.’ The dignity of labour ‘kept adults from drink and children from mischief,’ by distracting them with 15-hour work days. This ideology was reinforced by religious beliefs that the poor were far more likely to go to heaven than the rich, thus their gratification was coming, just posthumously. So what does this mean for today? According to Keynes, despite entire populations moving into higher skill, higher paid work, ‘we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy.’ We ascribe status now to those who make valuable contributions to the success of organisations and our ‘busyness’ has become a proxy for that level of contribution. Perhaps then, if we are to resolve the challenge of long working hours, burnout and stress, we need to remind ourselves of the meaning of work, its role in our own lives and in society as a whole. Now that we don’t need work to prevent us all from becoming delinquent on gin and to get into the afterlife, maybe we can reassess how we spend our time?
A second message from the works of the old greats is that how we spend our leisure time is also a point of contention. Both Keynes and Russell stressed the importance of leisure time in pursuing academic and creative interests. According to Russell, the small leisure class in previous centuries ‘cultivated the arts and discovered sciences; it wrote the books, invented the philosophies, and refined social relations […] without the leisure class, man would never have emerged from barbarism.’ Today, we might argue that these activities take place within institutions such as universities, businesses and NGOs. However, Russell warned that when ‘studies are organised […] the man who thinks of some original line of research is likely to be discouraged,’ making it an inadequate substitute for real leisure time.
While our context has changed markedly since the 18th and 19th Centuries, perhaps there is still something to take from this. How can we liberate people to pursue their passions, experiment and innovate under the necessary pre-condition of ‘no required output’? Some companies such as Google and 3G have attempted this with their ‘20% time to play’ rule, allowing employees to spend the equivalent of one day a week following up on an idea they have had on the understanding that it may come to nothing. But maybe, instead of creating rules around when and how much work time people can spend in liberated, free-thinking, we need to accept the fact that people need to be absent, disconnected and unrestricted if we want them to come up with new ideas. In short, we need to acknowledge the value of leisure time and ensure that work does not encroach. Likewise, we need to reserve energy as well as time for the pursuit of leisure or else, according to Russell, ‘pleasures […] become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on [… as a result of our] active energies being fully taken up with work.’
Keynes predicted that we would all be working three-hour days by now. We’ve perhaps ended up closer to Russell’s depiction of ‘a large percentage of the population idle, because we can dispense with their labour by making the others overwork.’ We simultaneously have people working extended hours and persistent unemployment. Could our ineffectiveness at addressing the skills mismatches behind this phenomenon be in part because we can make the skilled overwork? Both Keynes and Russell expected it to take some time to transition into a society that can accept and create value through extended leisure, without blindly pursuing more and more work as an end in itself. But perhaps it’s worth remembering Russell’s departing line: ‘there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.’
Keynes, John Maynard. “Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren”. (1930): n. pag. Print.
Russell, Bertrand. “In Praise Of Idleness”. (1932): n. pag. Print.