As the COO of Hot Spots Movement, a research company specialising in understanding what the future of work will look like, I spend a lot of time thinking about jobs – both at a global level and with regards to my team. Frankly, I’m increasingly thinking that job descriptions are a waste of time. With work becoming far more task and project-based, traditional job descriptions feel too static and only marginally helpful in understanding what an employee contributes and how he or she can develop to bring even more value to the organisation. I’d suggest we arrest the time robber that job descriptions are, in favour of focusing on competencies, tasks and projects.
At Hot Spots Movement, we think that rather than expecting candidates to fit job descriptions, organisations and managers should focus on building roles around employee capabilities and potential. And we actually walk the talk: when we recruit, we look for candidates with capabilities, specific skills and a mindset that roughly address the needs within our team, and we then swiftly move on to continually identifying what they are good at. Defining their role based on those factors rather than a pre-existing job description seems to be a far better approach. Not only are project portfolios easier to change than people and more easily support my preferred approach of building on strengths than remedying weaknesses, it’s also an approach that can unveil unsuspected skills and aptitudes. And in this day and age, it’s important that roles can evolve easily over time to move in line with employee life stages rather than follow a set career route.
One of the core differences between this approach and traditional job-description-driven recruitment and development is the fact that it shifts the focus away from ticking boxes on a list of short-term wants. Instead, it encourages looking for a strong match between personality, purpose and values of the company and the candidate – a firm basis for a long-standing and productive relationship between employer and employee.
This type of fluid approach is often associated with smaller, newer workplaces – but there’s no reason it wouldn’t work in a big organisation. What matters is whether the line manager is able and willing to implement it.
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.
Henrik Ibsen’s play, Master Builder, tells the story of a self-made architect, Halvard Solness, who is increasingly afraid of the young displacing him. As I was watching the piece in the Old Vic Theatre a few weeks ago, one of Halvard’s lines caught my attention: “The young are waiting. In all their power. Knocking on the door.” This made me wonder whether Halvard’s fear is actually real. Will older workers be made redundant by young upstarts? Does the mature workforce need to step out of the young’s way and give them space? And what are the implications – positive and negative – for organisations?
It turned out Halvard was worried about a myth. The reality is that your organisation will see teams in which employees like Halvard and the young will work together. The young were not knocking on Halvard’s door to take his job. Quite the contrary, the young showed up to take jobs his activity created. So how exactly can employing older workers help your organisation grow and create more jobs in the process?
Age diversity provides you with the opportunity to combine skills and characteristics unique to different groups and thus create an effective and efficient organisation:
- The equivalent to Halvard in your organisation has been building their network for more than 40 years. The young know well that they cannot compete with that. Instead, on one hand, their ambition and determination can keep Halvard motivated. On the other hand, Halvard can transfer his network to the young, so your organisation has access to it when he retires.
- Younger workers are often still trying to define their mission and passion, which can translate into higher turnover. Indeed, according to one recent study, Millennials expect to change jobs every three years. Chances are Halvard has worked for you for a while and he has stayed with the organisation through thick and thin. This means he has a deep understanding of the history and culture of your company that cannot be easily emulated by new entrants.
- In the past decades, work became part of Halvard’s daily routine, and all of a sudden he has 8 hours on his hands to kill. Flexible working is a good way of helping people like Halvard transition to retirement. In fact, there has been a 140% increase in over-65s running their own business in the last decade, revealing the many new ways in which organisations can engage with more mature workers. It’s a win-win as the organisation retains Halvard’s critical skills at a reduced cost, and he gets some help with his pension too.
So what can you and your organisation do to avoid a Master Builder-like frustration?
- Help the Halvards in your organisations continually update their skills to stay relevant in a new day and age. Organisations such as GE and HP use reverse mentoring to help different generations learn from one another and to enhance generational cohesion.
- Sense check the signals you are sending to older workers. Do your people processes and practices signal that mature workers are valued? Or do pension arrangements, performance processes and training budgets signal that careers have a hard stop at 65 in your company?
- Break the perceived link between age and stage in your organisation. Retaining older workers will mean people may be managed by someone younger than them. This can create conflict in organisations in which progression and seniority are strongly linked to age and tenure. Creating more flexibility in career ladders is one way to ensure that age and seniority are no longer considered one and the same.
So, what’s the conclusion? Yes, the young are coming and knocking on the door in all their power. Halvard however still has a great deal to offer. As his good friend and counsel, Dr. Herdal, tells him, “You are not laid on the shelf yet, I should hope. Oh no—your position here is probably firmer now than it has ever been.”
Find out more about the challenges and opportunities of longevity by pre-ordering your copy of Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott’s upcoming book, The Hundred-Year Life at www.100yearlife.com or contact David at firstname.lastname@example.org
 As written on the Old Vic Theatre’s website.
 Milligan, B. Older workers create extra jobs for young people – report, BBC – British Broadcasting Corporation 2015
 Meister, J. Job Hopping is the ‘New Normal’ for Millennials, Forbes, 2012
 Trends and Drivers of Workforce Turnover. Mercer Workforce Metrics Survey, 2014
 Altman, Dr. R. A New Vision for Older Workers: Retain, Retrain, Recruit, A Report to Government 2015
 Steimle, J. Reverse Mentoring – Investing in Tomorrow’s Business Strategy, Forbes, 2015
Big data is no longer a novelty for corporate organisations, nor is it the territory of those companies that are particularly pioneering. It frequently makes its way into board meetings and the C-Suite see the value of their organisation using the vast data points that technology now makes available to them. Then why is it only customers, and not employees, feeling the benefit of these advances?
Let’s take a look at how much big data has revolutionised the way that companies market their products and tailor experiences to the individual customer. Amazon has even introduced anticipatory shipping in order to ensure that one of the key differentiators of their service, speed of delivery, remains ahead of their competitors. The company collects a huge volume of data on buyers’ previous purchases, where they hover their mouse and their demography. Complex algorithms allow Amazon to predict what the customer will buy next and they then ship this product to a warehouse or transit van near the customer, ready for their click and buy. The item is subsequently delivered in a matter of minutes or hours rather than the conventional days or weeks, and Amazon maintains its competitive edge.
If organisations have this level of big data on their customers to ensure the company can consistently deliver on their USP, why are they not doing the same for their people? We know that employees are increasingly mobile and retention of the best talent is a huge focus for many organisations. By using big data about their people, organisations can contribute to the employee experience that people want.
At the Hot Spots Movement we have been struck by the benefits of using big data within organisations. When our clients look to bring about a major organisational change, they come to us to run a Jam – a global conversation lasting up to 72-hours. The Jam enables our clients to get the input they need drawing on expertise, experience and creativity from different functions and geographies from across their company. Analysing this thoughtful, extended conversation in the platform allows our clients to have access to the kind of qualitative big data they require. Challenges that have been tackled through this qualitative big data have included work/life balance, brand values and unleashing talent potential.
Our plea to the C-Suite of big corporate organisations? Use the data they have available to them within their companies to help tailor the employee experience and provide an environment they want to stay in.
Australia has been the lucky country in the years following the 2008 global financial slowdown. However, as individuals, we’ve never quite believed that our economy was strong and recent warnings of slowing growth in China, (our largest trading partner) falling iron ore and coal prices, youth unemployment, as well as talk of a housing bubble following surging prices in our principal cities, have served to fuel national anxiety. The reality is, however, that Australia is actually well placed to transition to a new, broader-based economy, less reliant on commodities.
There is emerging consensus that growth needs to be innovation-led. The change envisaged is not incremental but potentially transformational. It will need a combination of discipline and courage, not least from our major companies who must lead the pursuit of new sources of revenue and growth. For HR this is not business-as-usual. Many of the policies, systems, processes and behaviours (our working cultures) which have served us so well at the end of the 20th Century need to be re-designed to fit the more dynamic market conditions of the 21st Century. This is an opportunity to engage all employees in designing their own futures.
One important enabling condition is the need for greater “flexibility” and there is evidence that Australian employers and their people are embracing it with alacrity. Last year Aecom, a global provider of management and technical services, analysed workplace surveys conducted by its clients to understand their employees desire to work away from the office. They found that between 31% and 54% of employees across the Resources, Finance, Retail and Media sectors would appreciate doing so for 1 to 2 days a week. This has important implications for the leasing of space in commercial buildings, for employee health and wellbeing, for workforce participation, for productivity and other areas such as transport infrastructure and the life of our cities.
Telstra, Australia’s largest telecommunications company with more than 35,000 employees, has demonstrated how Government legislation and leadership can work with employers and their people to accelerate the process of change. At the end of 2013 CEO, David Thodey, introduced an initiative known as “All Roles Flex”, becoming the first large corporation in Australia to ensure that everyone had access to flexible ways of working. This followed the introduction of the Federal Government’s Fair Work Act 2009, enshrining in law the right to request flexible working arrangements. It also followed two years of working with around twenty other corporate and Government leaders as Male Champions of Change, a group established by Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, to help accelerate development of women as leaders. “What I really like about this approach is that it disrupts the status quo and encourages open conversations right from the start.” David Thodey wrote in November 2013.
Telstra, along with many Australian companies (for example ANZ, NAB, Westpac, CBA, Suncorp, Lend Lease, Macquarie Bank) has over the last decade embraced the inclusive design of the workplace as yet another opportunity to have that conversation with their people about the future. It has given employees and other stakeholders, most notably customers, a voice in the design of the company’s future. It has reduced the cost of accommodation, created spaces which support collaboration, resulted in healthier, more flexible and environmentally more responsive buildings. This has put power in the hands of the organisation’s people to connect freely with others and to better manage their work and careers. This moment in history, and not just Australia’s, is an opportunity for the HR team to lead from the front, as thought leaders about the future of work, setting the need for change in the wider national and global context.
It must necessarily start with HR undergoing its own transformation, reimagining its role in developing and executing business strategy and reconfiguring its skill base so that its traditional strengths in supporting the management of people is balanced by strengths in leading business and culture transformation. Be prepared for conversations which are disruptive of the status quo but which facilitate innovative solutions to increasingly complex problems.
Speaking at the recent OMN Future of Work meetup on the HMS President in London last month, I noted that, according to the employee engagement company Gallup, only 13% of our employees are engaged. In the ensuing Twitter debate, people were surprised but resigned to the statistic. They recognised that their workplace contributed to this data. Quite simply, our engagement models are broken. We need to rectify this.
Since speaking at the event, I’ve been looking into companies that are trying to remedy the situation – a vital step given that employee engagement figures are getting progressively worse and churn is increasing. I’ve previously examined what motivational performance management looks like, and this week I’m going to take a look at creating sophisticated and meaningful employee value propositions (EVPs). In an effort to reduce churn and increase engagement, some companies are utilising customer-segmentation techniques in their talent management strategies, giving rise to the ‘employee customer’.
This increasingly popular approach to talent management views talent as customers when considering the employee value proposition. No longer are people viewed as small cogs in a machine; in an increasingly competitive talent environment they need to be given the same care and attention that their customers have long enjoyed.
In global corporations, your people are likely to include four generations and a myriad of cultures, languages, concerns and aspirations. Assuming that you can take this as one homogenous group and create a single employee value proposition (EVP) will lead to misalignments between what you are giving your people and what they actually want. So what’s the solution? Segment, segment, segment!
As your colleagues in marketing will tell you, segmentation is identifying and grouping clusters of consumers that share the same or similar preferences and needs. Clearly, from cluster to cluster, these preferences and needs will vary. Though how you choose to segment is fairly subjective, it is crucial that the segments you create are actionable. That is to say segmentation creates meaningful insights with regards to the EVP for each ’employee customer’ segment.
Click here to learn more about technology that enables you to fully understand your ’employee customers’.
I asked Mandisi about the local talent pool in South Africa and his view on the education system: “I feel that the quality of students matriculating now is actually falling below previous generations. We still have a way to go in terms of equipping people with the skills they need to join the workforce ready-to-go,” he said. I asked what Ricoh was doing to solve the skills gap for its new graduates, “We take great care in on-boarding our new hires and have put in place a highly effective one-year programme. The first three months of the scheme are focussed on ensuring our hires have the foundation skills and capabilities they will need in order to unleash their potential here at Ricoh. They spend the remaining nine months in Ricoh offices, getting to know the team, the culture and effective ways of working.” Mandisi was enthusiastic about the ability of companies operating in South Africa to take on and train up local talent to become future leaders with valuable insight and connections in the region.
Finally we spoke about the great diversity in South Africa and the opportunities this presented for collaboration, “There are 11 national languages in South Africa, of which I speak 7,” Mandisi told me, having just taken a phone call in Xhosa (the language recognised for its distinctive use of clicks). “This reflects the great cultural variety in the region, and is just one of the many beautiful aspects of South Africa.” I had to agree. During my two week trip to Johannesburg and Cape Town I experienced the true warmth of this growing economy. What struck me most about South Africa and the many people I met, was the capacity for transformation. This vibrant country has emerged from a very recent and troubled past with an unmistakable desire for progress and a remarkable ability to make change happen. For businesses operating in the region, this capacity is perhaps the most alluring factor. Indeed, in South Africa, anything is possible.