Over the course of our lifetime our brains developed shortcuts based on our experiences. It’s efficient that way. Things that are every day or common for us, we almost don’t see anymore. They’ve become givens and routine. When it comes to training ourselves to be more innovative, it requires concerted effort to break our patterns and to see things in a whole new light. It doesn’t matter what you focus on. The important thing is that you practice this skill, even on the most inane tasks of your day…brushing your teeth, watching TV, surfing the web, etc. Ask yourself, “What would this be like if I were doing this for the very first time?” Tom Kelley in the oldie-but-goodie video above calls this “thinking like a traveller”. What’s the point? This mind stretching (with practice) will transfer well to more important activities or decisions. It will build your ability to see things from another perspective and to challenge the status quo. It seems awkward and even hard at first, but all of us are capable of practicing this. We’ve all experienced things for the first time before.
Short on time or seeking another perspective? Ask someone else for an opinion. Better yet, if you are at work, leverage your new hires. I often hear clients lament about the “ramp up” time it takes to get new hires to fully contribute. Guess what, they can contribute right away with a pair of fresh eyes. Ask them to give their first impressions and compare things to their previous experiences. Didn’t you hire them because they are smart and come with all that previous experience? Then use it.
Thanks for reading. Sorry to keep it short, but I’m working on some great client projects and writing deadlines. Writing this blog forces me out of my other busy-ness to remind myself to practice or think about other things.
Recently, I had a planning conversation with a client about the timing of “culture work.” I define “culture work” as any of the strategies and activities related to the culture, environment, and its people in an organization—all the components that make up the work experience. The president of the organization wondered, “When is the best time to do this work?” He wanted my opinion on it. It was a really great question to ask. My immediate answer was that it’s never a bad time. However, I think the question was more along the lines of, “When is the ideal time to do the work?” A few conversations later, the client was talking about a time a few years back when things were “bad”. I asked, “Could that have been a good time to do the work?” They answered, “Yes, I suppose so.” It reinforced their decision to partner with me and that the timing could be worked out. I love it when things sync up like that.
Let’s be real. Many companies struggle with this question, and oftentimes don’t come around to investing in this space until things get really bad. Indeed, as an independent management consultant I have had many-a-meeting where the leader values the work but the “when” gets pushed off in favor of other business priorities, like being “too busy.”
Culture work can be very complex and is by no means easy. The beauty of it is that because it’s a “journey and not a destination,” there are lots of on-ramps from which to begin the work. While I understand why leaders need to consider “when”, I am more concerned with whether they do it in the first place. My passion for this work makes me believe that every organization can benefit from doing culture work. To make it simple, let’s consider different “times” to start investing in your culture:
1. At the beginning. For those of you fortunate enough to be in start-up mode, there is something special about building a culture from the ground up. It is important to have this conversation and to strategize early. Before you know it, business will take off and culture gets away from you through several rounds of rapid growth. Then you end up with a culture that may not match your business strategy. Where the CEO used to touch every person, they no longer have that luxury and sub-cultures begin to form with or without their knowledge. I spoke with a start-up CEO about this very topic. His answer was that he valued the culture and the “feel” of his fast-growing business. He did this through “not defining” culture for his people. My response was that his approach was, in fact, a message in and of itself. I don’t think he liked that very much.
For those of you in established businesses or organizations, the “beginning” may be the start of a transformation effort. Given that there is actually something to change from, culture and your people are especially critical to consider up front. One executive I worked with put the kibosh on the people strategies we started for a major (and I mean major) transformation. He said we needed to wait one year into it. How does that even make sense? It’s kind of like, “Let’s see if and when we have any problems and then double back, cause I know how it’s going to be in exactly 12 months from today.” Save yourselves some heartache and start at the beginning.
2. Before a big change. Knowing your starting point intimately and thoroughly helps you understand your opportunities between the present and your future. That work gives insights on how to manage through the complexities of the change. You increase your chances of success if you are at least somewhat prepared. You can’t plan for everything, but you can plan to build the agility and self-awareness your organization needs to deal with surprises. I typically suggest a culture review called “A Closer Look” at the start of significant work. Its purpose is to engage people early and often. Designers call this “user research”. Based on the individual organization, a set of information-gathering methodologies is carefully curated to engage people and their leaders early on. Insights and criteria are built upon this body of work, and becomes the basis for a framework they can use to co-create that future.
3. During a big change. Change requires people’s active and aligned involvement to make it successful. A key practice during massive change is to engage, engage, engage. Let me be clear, employee engagement is not change management. They are different activities, but they certainly work in tandem to support each other. If you don’t purposefully manage the environments in which your culture resides, you may be sending messages that could in fact jeopardize your transformation. Remember, people are experiencing the change. Is it a positive or negative experience? Could it be better? How do you get the organization future-focused instead of entrenched in the past? How your organization deals with people especially during a period of stressful change makes a huge difference.
4. After a big change. After all that turmoil, culture work is the best way to establish the direction for the future. Managing the new world and how people experience it ensures a consistent message. It also provides stability people might seek after the craziness. It reinforces the new social contract between employee and employer on how things are going to be (for now). It gets people off all that worrying and sets the conditions whereby people can work happily. Culture work could happen after any type of big change, but consider the example of a big merger. Do you want people from the legacy organizations duking it out to see which culture wins, or do you want to create the new culture through which everyone can work together?
IMHO, any culture work can be good as long as it is purposeful, meaningful, and based on a set of values and principles with an aligned business strategy. Pick your idiom: “a watched pot never boils”, “you can improve what you measure”, etc. What it means is that culture work (i.e. managing that environment and designing that employee experience) keeps things progressing in the right direction and prevents a major blow up. Those that know me have heard me say that most business problems boil down to cultural issues—think recalls or whistleblower lawsuits.
Now back to that original question. When is the best time to do culture work? The motivation behind that question might be any number of possibilities, but consider:
Curiosity—Not knowing and simply asking the question is something I really appreciate, especially when it is in the spirit of seeking to understand. I hope that what I’ve written above gives you at least one opinion to consider.
Money—At the end of the day it (understandably) might come down to deciding where and when to invest dollars, especially if those resources are scarce. I would recommend you put your money into strategy planning up front. Bringing someone in like me will help sort through the thinking and articulation of those thoughts. We then develop it into something tangible that serves as an anchor for the work ahead. The follow through (and its accountabilities) is up the organization to see that it happens, though outside consultation could also help keep you honest.
Fear—Also understandable, this culture stuff can be scary. Consider what is a big part of that work…engagement with your people. So when you ask when, think about whether that also means you are asking when to engage (and I mean really engage) with your people in unprecedented ways. Most will want to start engagement ASAP. If you aren’t sure how “ready” the organization is, perhaps A Closer Look can help you find out.
Answer: The time is now. Contact me. Or someone else that you can trust and will deliver. The outside perspective might offer you an objective view and/or experience level not available from within. Just make sure you do the work because it’s worth it.
This last week I lost 2 working days on the phone dealing with a health care claim. 2 working days! You know how much I could’ve gotten done otherwise? I could’ve been in a better mood too. Here’s what happened: I received a claim notice that was clearly incorrect. On the first day, I waited for hours on the phone. Finally a representative picked up only to throw me back into the queue with no explanation. I had an appointment, so I used the online form off the website to contact them. They promised a response to the question within 1 business day. The next day, they called me when I was in the bathroom—I had no idea they were calling or when. The number they left…you guessed it, another queue. After waiting for over an hour, I finally got fed up and posted my complaint about their poor customer service on their Facebook page for all my friends to see. They promised to call back. Finally I got through after waiting on the phone again before they informed me that my doctor is not on the network (even though they are in network.) They told me there was nothing I could do. The doctor’s billing office (outsourced and took another several hours to connect) said they “just found out” and apparently there was a mix-up in paperwork, but they were in fact, in network. So who’s holding a bill I shouldn’t have? Me.
I’ve decided to make something out of this bad experience into something productive, a blog post! And so here we are.
I’m sure everyone has had experiences like this before, but we shouldn’t accept it. This is just poor business practice. It isn’t just healthcare--it could be anything involving organizations or people: customer service, intra-team dynamics, cross-functional processes, employee services, human resources, etc. Across industries, here are some hallmarks of a bad experience:
Practices that are sure-fire ways to piss anyone off. Some examples include making people wait for inordinate amounts of time, eschewing all accountability, and expecting others to fix it.
Be unresponsive for a long time. While you’re at it, time your response perfectly so you catch other people at their highest point of frustration. Enjoy the fireworks.
Make it hopeless. Give the impression that things will never change, the status quo must be accepted, and you will be of no help.
In contrast, here are some ideas that could fix a bad experience:
Design for them, not you. Develop some empathy (using design methodologies) for the recipients of your experience. Intimately understand what it’s like for them to go through the experience and how to make it ideal. Then design with them in mind. Especially if there are customers involved, it’s about designing for them and not you. This will not disadvantage your business at the end of the day, I promise.
Resource appropriately. Yeah, yeah, everyone’s busy. So it’s not a valid excuse. If you are running a business, you resource it appropriately so your customers don’t have to suffer the slack. “We’re experiencing high call volumes” doesn’t suffice. If you’ve got a peak period, get temporary resources if you have to. Don’t know where to source talent? Look to your customers as potential employees and you will get loyalty for life. My healthcare company has almost 3 million members with over 10 Billion in revenue and only 5,000 employees to support it. Balance some of those numbers out. If you are in a team setting, facilitate the conversation about resourcing with an eye toward resolving it.
Respond. Let me repeat, respond. Even if you don’t have an answer or you’re not sure, let people on the other end know you acknowledge them. I’ve heard about this infamous “Bay Area flakiness” where I live and I don’t accept it. Do what you say and say what you do. It’s a matter of respect.
Remediate to Rebuild Trust. If you have been a serial offender before, there is hope for you. Right the wrongs you can and rebuild trust by delivering extraordinary experiences from now on. Memories will fade and everyone loves a good turnaround story.
All it takes is one company, one team, or one person to execute these very straightforward solutions and ZOOM! Everyone else will be left behind to scramble. Imagine if a healthcare company decided to do things differently—I’d be the first to change providers.
Don’t get me wrong--the business of life is complicated, and I’m not ignoring that fact or oversimplifying here. I’m dumbfounded at how companies/individuals are so nonsensical about practices that can be easily changed and/or improved. I recall John Boudreau’s sage advice on what he calls optimization, finding the opportunities that have the most impact with the least amount of investment. I’d prioritize that. I hope you do too.
Image Credit: Globoforce.com
It’s bad enough that we have to deal with the occasional “social obligation” from our friends and family. You know what I mean—attending a school play or buying girl scout cookies you won’t eat, or helping out with some activity you’d never do on your own. These obligations are defined by the feeling that you would rather be doing something else. We do these things because we love these people and are therefore willing to (briefly) put their needs above our own, resentment-free.
On top of that, the boss decides they want to boost morale—throw a party for themselves after work, invite everyone to their favorite charity’s event for a “team building”, declare a “Hawaiian Shirt Day”, etc. Sure these things sound fun to some people, but what if you just want to go home to see your family after work, support your own charities, or wear what you want because Hawaiian prints look hideous on you? Participating in these social obligations at work is forced fun--and that my friends, is no fun at all. Do you really love your employer that much?
Here’s the thing—most organizations do morale boosters as a form of recognition. It is a way of saying, “job well done,” or “we care about you”. In return, the company hopes to improve the climate and motivate its employees. It’s efficient because it’s given to everyone at the same time in one action. What’s often forgotten is that these things are also a form of communication. As with all communication, there is sometimes a difference between intended impact and reaction. The misalignment happens when not enough thought is put into the communication. Combine that with the “one size fits all” approach and you risk missing your mark.
I am not intending to promote ungratefulness in employees. Most people can sense good intent (misguided as it can sometimes be), so they gamely participate in forced fun out of kindness and/or obligation. Note to Management: In some respects, they are demonstrating loyalty by doing this. However, recognition (and all that goes with it) can be a very powerful management tool and culture builder. This is less about what’s wrong with recognition, and more about how to leverage it, DOWE style. (Check out the rest of the website to learn about the Design of Work Experience).
Here are some tips:
1. Understand Recognition as a Concept. Who’s it for? What is it? Where is it appropriate? Why is recognition important and how do we use it? Recognition doesn’t have to be related to money, nor need to be formal. It does need to be delivered with positive impact. It’s not a check box activity, or something you put together half-heartedly. Like any poorly designed product or service, the customers (in this case the employees) won’t buy it. If you “get” recognition, you’ll know how to use it. Books like research-based The Carrot Principle and Globoforce’s blog provide a great overview and give an opportunity to reflect on your own organization’s recognition practices.
2. Base your design on your context. Whether recognition in your organization is a complex formal program, a simple set of criteria or behaviors, or a collective of morale boosters, you should ensure alignment with the culture and behavior you are trying to create or reinforce. Use the appropriate vehicles to ensure your intended message hits home. Make it a tool accessible to all (not just those at the very top), so everyone can participate in both giving and receiving recognition. Doing so will ensure that it sticks. Remember that you are designing how your employees experience recognition at your workplace, so it is critical to design your program and actions around that perspective. As with all employee experiences, it should be purposeful and meaningful. (Need help with this?) You should be able to answer these questions: What are the unmeet needs of the individuals and the business when it comes to recognition, and how will we satisfy them? How do you customize a consistent message according individual preferences?
A client told me a story of how a former employer totally screwed up recognition for her hard work. She took on an interim leadership role (on top of her day job) for an extended period of time. Not that she was expecting anything, but no simple “thank you” ever came from it, especially from those she helped as an interim. It was the new leader who came at the behest of others to give her a small cash reward. She was offended. That “thank you” was not tied to a message around why she was receiving it, and it came from the wrong person as a “let’s-get-this-over-with” exchange. Needless to say, she is no longer with that company. Clearly the leadership at her organization did not take the time to consider the individual who was receiving the reward. The result? The complete opposite effect. They might have done better doing nothing at all instead of offending her. So please, take a moment to ensure an exceptional experience for any recognition, small or large, individual or group.
3. Connect it with motivation, communication, and culture. Recognition as an untethered activity becomes a blip on the screen. However, integrating the way an organization chooses to motivate, reward, and communicate reinforces key messages and actions critical to building the company’s unique culture and healthy environment. In fact, while you are at it, a good practice would be to integrate all your people strategies and activities to ensure they are consistent and reinforce one another. If you are planning a morale booster activity or event, do people know why? How does it tie back to what makes the company great?
One of the best recognition programs I experienced was integrated with the budgeting process, the “leader behaviors”, the performance management program, and a slew of other programs and strategies the company set up to drive the business. Every year a percentage of the budget was set aside for recognition, thus reinforcing its intent, purpose, and value/importance. Criteria was established to ensure consistency. Rewards were given in the form of points, not money. Those points were kept in a system that allowed the employee to purchase experiences or products of their choice. Not only did this suit the individual employee’s preferences, but it also made the reward memorable. Even now, almost 10 years later, I remember what work I accomplished to receive my points, and what those points purchased: Our first grill for our first home with a backyard, our first GPS after moving to a new state, and my husband’s first professional camera. Other pluses of the program: You didn’t need a budget ($$) to recognize someone. Recognition could be given by anyone in the company to anyone else as long as they were able to meet the criteria and communicate why. It was tracked along with all the other recognitions earned by the employee so managers could see their great work. Most importantly, the recognition program at that company drove its business agenda and culture change.
What about those morale boosters? In that company setting, they were up to the individual teams and units to organize on their own with the company’s support. Self-management of work fun by well-deserving employees ensures positive impact and promotes empowerment. So go ahead, give recognition the attention it deserves. Forced fun might actually be fun one day.
Resources: octanner.com, globoforce.com, baudville.com
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