Starving innovation

Starving innovation

I have recently been cleaning up the bookmarked articles I have stored on my computer – not something for the faint hearted! Among misfiled references, peculiar categories and bewildering placements – why, for instance, do I have the link for a black and white Mexican wrestling movie alongside the link to a website on Japanese art – I found an article from the Harvard Business Review called ‘Why Your Employees Don’t Innovate’ by David Stuart and Jordan Rodgers. I reread it and understood why I had kept it*.

Stuart and Rodgers were reporting back from a survey on innovation they had done of nearly 3,500 companies across the world. They found that although innovation was talked up by, well, nearly everyone – manager and non-manager alike – in these organisations it wasn’t actually being done as such:

“While nearly nine in ten non-managers strongly believe they ought to be involved in innovation, far fewer (roughly six in ten) say they actually are.”

Why? Turns out that managers aren’t actually backing up their visionary words by resourcing people properly:

“But how many CEOs really mean what they say? Do they truly believe that innovative work can be left to the non-management ranks – and do they give individual contributors the time and resources they need to do so?”

I have witnessed this myself. Without naming names, I could describe team meetings I have seen where management have been grandly exhorting their teams to innovate –  to be daring – but not taking into account that these same teams simply do not have the time, means or corporate culture within which to experiment or play. I have heard more than one manager in more than one place use the phrase “It is better to seek permission than to ask forgiveness.” I reckon this is a great phrase, actually. But in the instances I am thinking about it wasn’t; it was being flung in the faces of (overly) hard working people who had the reduction of risk written into their position description, work plans and KPIs, and comprehensively embedded in the narrowly focused procedures they were expected to follow.

“What we found is that although a majority of employees say innovation is everybody’s responsibility, not everyone actually gets the resources needed to innovate.”

George_Cruikshank_Oliver_Twist
‘Please Sir, I want some more.’ by George Cruikshank

When you speechify about innovation to people who have no time or energy to do so, and when you follow up your audacious words by prosecuting a micromanaged work process, then not only will you not get innovation but you will actually teach your team that it is a fantasy thing; something the boss craps on about but which never actually gets done.

“The problem? Most employees believe that management does not inspire them to do great work — or give them the opportunity to do so. Fewer than half of those in the lower ranks who have the chance to think through an idea believe they have access to the necessary means to execute it: money, staff, and support.”

My project management work in the arts industry was about deploying the resources of money, staff and support so that people could deliver projects of quality on time and within budget. And hopefully without setting the theatre or any of the performers on fire.

None of the projects I worked on ever had much money or large pools of resources, human or otherwise, but they were all creative and often innovative as well. So I know that innovation does not have to take a lot of money or other resources to pull off, rather it needs highly strategic deployment of these things. And, overall, it needs a carefully nurtured culture: one which creates room for play or experiments and the inevitable mistakes and mess that arise. What my work in the arts – a whole industry based on making products of the imagination tangible – taught me is this: if you want to realise that creative vision in your head then you have to follow thought with action and align the use of whatever resources you have with the expression of that vision.

*I kept the Mexican wrestling movie and the Japanese art too.

Recommended Read: Articles on Toxic Leaders

Recommended Read: Articles on Toxic Leaders

How Toxic Leaders Destroy People as Well as Organisations by Theo Veldsman is a sobering but excellent read that precisely and damningly describes and condemns the effects that toxic leaders have on their employees and organisations.

An interesting piece of trivia in this article is that

“The word ‘toxic’ comes from the Greek ‘toxikon’ which means ‘arrow poison’. In a literal sense, the term in its original form thus means to kill (poison) in a targeted way (arrow).”

Which means that ‘toxic’ is indeed the perfect word to describe leaders who use abuse their power in order to increase it:

“Toxic organisations and leaders therefore are those who deliberately destroy the fabric of the institution.”

Read this article if you are after an emphatic description of how toxic leadership works and what its effects are. If you yourself have been exposed to toxic leadership, and too many of us have been, then best read this when your blood pressure is nicely under control.

If Veldsman’s article induces a bout of teeth grinding and white knuckle fury then read Simon Terry’s The Life-crushing Magic of Hierarchy, which is pretty much about the same thing as Veldsman’s piece except that it’s very funny and will make you laugh. A mock advice column, it absolutely skewers the nasty behaviours and thoughts of toxic leaders:

“Humans are inherently messy creatures. We accumulate history and the entanglements of human relationships and emotions. As a manager this human mess can interfere with the joy of the unrelenting execution of your will. A cluttered organisation shows no respect to a manager’s inherent expertise and power.

My life as a manager was transformed when I discovered the life-crushing magic of hierarchy. Your life and organisation can be neat and orderly, if you follow these simple organisational principles.”

Do you think, though, that if a toxic leader were to read this they would recognise themselves? And if they did, would they care?

A Gentle Harness

A Gentle Harness

“In this context, mindfulness is an ideal tool to induce compliance, with its focus on the individual management of our responses to forces we’re being told are well beyond our control.”

So says Zoe Krupka in her beautifully written and thought provoking article ‘How Corporates Co-Opted the Art of Mindfulness to Make Us Bear the Unbearable’.

Krupka is a teacher of meditation and a PhD candidate with the Faculty of Health Science at LaTrobe University. In this article on The Conversation website she takes aim at the dark side of the current fad for mindfulness in corporate settings. She rails against the use of mindfulness techniques as a way of stifling manifestations of stress rather than addressing them.

“While there can be little doubt that the practice of mindfulness can lead to significant health benefits, its current prominence in corporate culture is nested within a social, cultural and political context where stress is now seen as a failure of the individual to adapt to the productivity demands of the corporation. In other words, if you’re stressed out, you’re not working hard enough on your personal focus strategy. You’re letting the team down.”

And it’s worse for women, apparently:

“The current translations of ancient mindful practices are also highly gendered. In a culture where women are much more likely to be encouraged to apply acceptance, silence, stillness and the relinquishing of resistance to their problems, the trap of mindfulness can be set to stun for those who may be much more in need of speaking up, resisting and taking space in the workplace.”

Les Muselieres pour femmes et autres supplices book by Jean Finot
Image from ‘Les Muselieres Pour Femmes et Autre Supplices’ by Jean Finot

In a time and place where plenty of us are coming to understand the need for diversity of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation etc. in our workplace communities anything that leads to people being held back from “taking space in the workplace” can’t be good.

I’m particularly interested in what makes workplace cultures more humane; not only is this obviously a kinder way of living but it also leads to better staff retention, more productivity and more creativity. Part of the creative process often involves what some call creative fiction; discussion of divergent opinions within a team can lead to breakthroughs. But this can be a little stressful – not necessarily bad but still adrenaline inducing. In my own head I call this kind of stress ‘positive stress’ – not comfortable and not sustainable over long periods but certainly productive in the right time and place and, among the right people, exciting and even fun.

Negative stress is the kind of thing that can be caused and / or exacerbated by bad work conditions and / or poor culture. It is important that the causes of such stress be highlighted and dealt with. Prolonged exposure to this kind of stress can be damaging, physically and emotionally.

Krupka’s concern with the way mindfulness techniques are being embedded in corporate culture is that they are being used to stifle expressions of stress:

“It’ll fix not so much what ails you, but what is ailing those who depend on you… mindfulness has been rebranded as a kind of gentle harness to help us heel to the corporate leg.”

Managers who tidy away any manifestations of stress that threaten to subvert the status quo – either the discontent of those feeling negative stress or the outpourings from those in the grip of positive stress – are selling their organisation short by squelching personality, cauterising tolerance for difference, allowing problems to fester and bad conditions to become entrenched.

As Krupka states in her closing paragraph “Mindfulness is a way of living, not a substitute for taking action.”

Managers need to take action that results in psycho-social space being opened up for honest conversation, rather than imposing a regime that demands silent compliance.

Creative Melbourne: Creative Community

Creative Melbourne: Creative Community

“Just be quiet, listen, be present and you might learn something.”

So wrote management consultant and author Paul Culmsee in his blogRediscovering my Creativity at the Creative Melbourne Conference.

So: how do you build community when you are gathering together a group of strangers from diverse backgrounds?

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The Creative Melbourne conference took place 13-15 February earlier this year. The aforementioned Paul was one of the conference’s inaugural presenters and so was I. This was a real honour – as Paul describes in his blog, the conference director, Arthur Shelley, assembled an amazing group of presenters. Despite having very different presentation styles and covering a broad range of topics there wasn’t a dull one amongst them – rare, in my experience of conferences. Speakers and attendees alike constituted an amazingly diverse group of people with backgrounds in education, academia, visual and performing arts, learning and development, management consultancy, government… you get the picture.

Arthur’s purpose was to create and connect creative people so that we could all enjoy the sharing of inspiration, ideas and knowledge that inevitably flowed. While there were some fascinating ideas to ponder and some great new techniques I saw modeled, as I write this in May the loveliest thing about attending this conference, my warmest memory of it, was the very genuine feeling of community that quickly, but emphatically, emerged among those who attended.

There was plenty of bonhomie in the conference room, no doubt about that, and, despite disparities in background or professional discipline, common areas of interest were identified. But that realisation that you are immersed in a little community of people who are operating out of firm intentions of displaying good will and exploring new experiences came to me during one of the more challenging aspects of attending the conference, namely: presenting.

In his blog Paul admits to feeling nervous about the impact his presentation would have on the tone of the conference; quite unnecessarily, as it turns out, as he is a superb presenter who is able to frame his provocations in a way that are engaging rather than alienating. I too found presenting more challenging than I usually do for reasons that are too tedious to go into here but… in the final analysis that didn’t seem to matter. The folks attending my session participated with gusto and provided some lovely feedback afterwards.

Creativity is nurtured by or in certain conditions. Building a community of open minded and mutually supportive people is one way of creating favourable conditions; Creative Melbourne actively modeled this and I am grateful to have been included.

Perhaps homogeneity of profession or background isn’t so necessary when it comes to building communities, and in building creative communities diversity is, I think, much more helpful. Perhaps the commonality we need to establish is more in the area of shared values: good will, open mindedness, curiosity, playfulness. These are the things that can bond a creative community.

Paul Culmsee in collaboration with Kailash Awati has written a terrific book about ambiguity called ‘The Heretic’s Guide to Management: The Art of Harnessing Ambiguity’. You can find out more about it here.

Arthur Shelley plans to bring Creative Melbourne back to Melbourne again. If you would like to attend then keep track of his website.

Presentation: When There Are No Words

Presentation: When There Are No Words

tdsig-carnival-meme

Earlier this year I participated in a web carnival organised by the Teacher Development Special Interest Group (or TDSIG).

The focus of this web carnival was to look at how teachers and trainers cope when things go wrong during a class or workshop, and what can be learn’t. I think this is a beaut theme. Failure can be awful to live through, but reflecting on failure can be alchemical: cringe inducing moments – even disasters – that, in the absence of reflection, could be damaging can instead be transformed into insights or moments of realisation.

The three sessions featured in the webinar can be found on this website; have a listen if you’re a teacher or trainer.

My presentation – which talks about dealing with triggered unhappy memories – can be found here.

Previous blogs I wrote on my particular topic can be found here and here. TDSIG were also kind enough to include one of my old blogs – To Hearken, To Listen – in their latest newsletter.

For all those facilitators, trainers, teachers, consultants out there I’m curious: what is the worst thing that happened to you in a group session, how did you cope, what did you learn? Leave comments below.

tdsigcarnival-official-meme

 

The Business Plan as a Living Document

The Business Plan as a Living Document

Last year was a peculiarly disruptive year, one that had to be slogged through. The day to day business of surviving (don’t ask!) took every last minute of everyday. One consequence of this was that I didn’t have time to blog.

The last ghastly crisis has receded (really… don’t ask!) and life seems to be stabilising somewhat (cross your fingers that this is, in fact, true). So, hopefully, I can get back to blogging again. Not that I gave up writing or developing material altogether: I found time, every now and again, to work on the book I am writing so that, even though I am behind my own writing schedule, it is definitely still a live project.

Before the wheels fell off my life I had also committed to giving talks at some conferences. Although it was hard I honoured these commitments: I didn’t want to let the conference organisers down and I really enjoy giving presentations (although I would prefer not to be swaying with fatigue when I do).

So the next few blogs will be sharing some stuff from these conferences. I hope you enjoy them.

Collins & Co. Not for Profit Conference

I was honoured to be invited to present in the annual Collins & Co. Not for Profit Conference held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in March 2016. I was asked to present on business planning, something I have helped NFP organisations with. My presentation has been embedded below but can also be found on the Collins & Co. website. It is worth having a gander at this as it contains the presentations from all the other speakers as well.

Blame Aversion Versus Risk Aversion

Blame Aversion Versus Risk Aversion

For anyone who follows Australian politics and / or social justice issues January 2017 has been a torrid month. This was the month that discontent and anger at the Centrelink ‘Robo-debt’ disaster, already widespread in the community and simmering during the closing months of 2016, came to a boil and erupted out of the social media forums where it had started festering and finally caught the attention of the broader community via mainstream media.

The focus of the anger was a scandal surrounding the government’s use of data matching to identify and chase debts from welfare recipients who, according to the data matching exercise, had been overpaid. The problem was that the data matching was being driven by a very poorly designed algorithm and inadequate processes and communications protocols with the result that many of our society’s most vulnerable people were being pressured to pay money they didn’t actually owe. The distress this caused thousands of people was absolutely awful and, even worse, absolutely unnecessary. All kinds of experts and boffins decried the exercise: the economics editor of The Age, Peter Martin, was gloriously scathing in his columns labelling it a “shakedown” and “inhuman” (Comment, The Age, 4 Jan. 2017). The Australian Lawyers for Human Rights criticised the legal process behind the scheme, saying it was “wrong at so many legal levels that it’s hard to know where to begin”.

Welfare and community legal organisations, when they could drag themselves away from their phone lines crammed with calls from frightened Centrelink clients, roundly condemned it.

One expert opinion that surfaced during an interview in The Guardian was that of Paul Shetler, the former head of the government’s digital transformation office.

“The man handpicked by Malcolm Turnbull to head the government’s digital transformation has said the error rate in Centrelink’s data-matching process is so unfathomably high that it would send a commercial enterprise out of business.”

Shetler was highly critical of the IT aspects of the scheme, unsurprisingly, and if you would like to see what he has to say about that you can read them here.

It’s an interesting interview overall, but what really caught my eye was what Shetler had to say about culture:

“Paul Shetler, the former digital transformation office head, criticised the government’s response to its latest IT crisis, telling Guardian Australia it was symptomatic of a culture of blame aversion within the bureaucracy.”

Part of the speculation that arose on twitter (where I have been following #notmydebt) was how such a poorly conceived, designed and implemented project ever managed to get off the drawing board, squirm its way through the internal project management processes and foist itself onto benighted welfare recipients. Many people were wondering how this whole thing made it past testing and risk assessment processes.

“’It is literally blame aversion, it is not risk aversion,’ Shetler said. ‘They’re trying to avoid the blame, and they’re trying to cast it wide.’

‘The justifications that have been given I think are just another example of the culture of ‘good news’, reporting only good news up through the bureaucracy.’”

For me that scans: if your workplace culture is not one where people feel entitled to ask questions, express doubt, highlight risk, take chances, and discuss the possibility of failure then your organisation is at grave risk of being forced to experience these lines of questioning and speculation in the public arena and after something has actually gone wrong. Perhaps gravely wrong. And perhaps with damage done to other people on your conscience.

Shooting the Messenger:

In the interview Shetler says:

“I’m sure that the bureaucracy was being told at every single level that everything was OK.

“That’s how it works in the bureaucracy. Bad news is not welcomed, and when bad news comes, they try to shift the blame.”

No one likes to be clobbered for sticking their necks out at work.

But do you want the project managers, product managers, and managers in your organisation to figure they have an ethical duty to highlight potential risk? Furthermore, good honest discussion of risks can be an opportunity to develop countering strategies that make processes more robust, perhaps even more innovative.

But to end up having those robust and innovative discussions you need the right culture.

centrelink-monster-johnshakespeare
Image by John Shakespeare aka @johnshakespeare. Thanks for letting me use this John!