Category Archives: Engagement

When even clunky PowerPoint works!

cancer_cellsAt last week’s always-stimulating Hay Festival I attended a talk by an eminent biochemist entitled ‘Demystifying Cancer’.   It was basically a PowerPoint presentation and what’s more, the speaker broke almost every rule in the ‘how to use PowerPoint’ book. Lots of slides, too much text, Comic Sans font, clunky clip art and basic animation.   Not, perhaps, the recipe for an informative and engaging communication session.   However, it was fantastic – a lesson in how to communicate a complex subject and to make the message stick.   I left the session with a whole new level of understanding of this massively complicated area. I could explain to my daughter how cells mutate, I understood how tumours form and I felt uplifted by the advances in science.   The impact, of course, was because the speaker was so engaging.   His well-rehearsed presentation was stunning in its simplicity and compelling in its delivery. But it wasn’t just about the presenter.   It was a triumph for PowerPoint too.   Yes it was a completely amateurish set of slides, clearly put together by someone experimenting with all the buttons on the PowerPoint task bar, but the content was designed to be simple and in that context, the simple home-made look of the slideware fitted the occasion perfectly.   Arrows moving uncomfortably across the screen seemed to work, flashing garish red text highlighted key points beautifully and the shockingly awful clipart images introduced humorous metaphors at just the right time.   Well done professor.

Earlier that morning I finished reading a book about ‘simplicity’ and how to overcome the “crisis of complexity” that is sweeping across our lives and workplaces.   This is something us communicators can relate to only so well, even though we’re often the ones creating the complexity by communicating too much. Here’s a good quote from the book*:  “From jury instructions to user manuals, we’re witnessing an epidemic of over-explaining. This seems to be based on the fallacy that if you provide people with more information, it will yield greater understanding. In fact, the opposite is true: too much information overwhelms people. It creates fuzziness, not clarity. When inundated with information, people are apt to lose sight of what’s important and stop paying attention.”   Bravo.  The book introduces three principles of simplicity – empathise, clarify and distil.   We comms people can relate to the second and third but I wonder how much credence we really place on empathising with our audience – understanding other’s needs and expectations.   Not enough I think.   My next book, also picked up at Hay, is all about Empathy so I’ll read it and report back my findings!

Funny enough, when I returned from Hay I started on a new project. What’s it all about? Simplification. 

* Simple by Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn

Why disengaged workers take the biscuit

CookiesHere is one of my favourite stories about employee engagement. I can’t remember which book I read it in so apologies for the lack of reference.   Anyway, researchers took two groups of volunteers and placed them in separate rooms to complete a repetitive cognitive task that required concentration (something about pressing a button on a keyboard when they saw a particular set of numbers appear on a screen).   In the first room, the volunteers were greeted warmly and thanked for their participation by the researchers, who then explained the tasks and asked the group if they had any questions.   On the table in front of the volunteers sat a big plate of warm cookies and the group were told they could help themselves after completing the tasks or choosing to stop. The researchers then left the room.   In the other room, the second set of volunteers were given exactly the same task and offered an equally tasty plate of warm cookies to eat at the end.   This time, however, the researchers simply read out a list of instructions and left the room.

What happened next amazed the researchers.   Not only did the first group do much better at the cognitive task but they also stuck at the job significantly longer than the other group before tucking into the cookies.   The people who were welcomed, well briefed and invited to ask questions were more ‘engaged’ with the task – so much so that their productivity was superior and so was their willingness to see the task to the end.   They could resist the lure of the cookies far longer than the second group, who gave up pretty early.

The only difference between the two groups was in the way they were treated by the researchers. The people in the first group were treated as individuals. They were made to feel welcome and asked for their feedback and questions.   They were smiled at and thanked. And this made the difference.   Even that minor level of ‘engagement’ led to the team performing better and being more conscientious about the job they were asked to do.   The other group, with just a clinical one-way briefing, had no ‘reason why’ when it came to the task and, well, they couldn’t be bothered in the end.

This experiment highlights the very thin line between engagement and disengagement but it also shows the benefits of a smile and a kind word.   I often use this story with managers to emphasise that sometimes it’s the little things that matter.   It also offers a low cost way of testing engagement – put some warm cookies in the office on a busy day and see how fast they go!

Vision statements are like Fridays

FridayI’ve just read a book about a bloke who wakes up one morning, realises that everything on the TV and radio is bad news and then wonders where all the optimists are.   Intrigued by the question, he resolves to identify and track down the world’s biggest optimists to find out what makes them tick and why everyone else isn’t like them.   On his journey – via Bill Clinton, Archbishop Tutu, politicians, psychologists, sports stars and a fair bunch of nutters – our hero enters the world of neuroscience, transcendental meditation, high finance and religion.

Most of us, at the end of the day, tend to be optimistic about things we can control.   Most of us believe our children will go on to be successful.  Most of us think we’ll be healthy in our old age.  Most of us believe we can avoid accidents.   And as we prepare for a new year, most of us will genuinely be optimistic about achieving our new year resolutions.   But while we’re optimistic about ourselves, we’re often less so about other people.   People tend to think their own financial situation will improve even if they think the overall economy will not.   People have enormous belief in their own ability to whether storms and avoid loss.   Why is this?   And if it’s true, why do we see overt optimism as a sign of weakness or naivety?

Apparently when you ask people to rank the days in the week in terms of preference, they rate Friday higher than Sunday, even though Friday is a work day and Sunday is not.   Saturday is always tops, but why do people prefer Friday to Sunday?   The answer lies in our unique human ability to imagine.    Friday holds promise.  It offers anticipation for the weekend ahead.    Sunday may be a day of rest but we all know that lying in the back of our minds is the thought of work the next day.   I don’t know about you but I like Christmas Eve more than Christmas Day.  Christmas Eve holds magic and excitement.  And optimism.

In the workplace, optimism flows freely from boardrooms and business cases – we will achieve our vision, we will deliver the change programme, we will meet our objectives, we will deliver sustainable growth etc.   Why are leaders so optimistic?  Especially when history tells us that most change programmes fail and that most visions are never realised.   I’ve seen some ambitious business cases in my time and I can hardly think of a single one that has lived up to expectations.    One of the reasons behind this ‘blind’ optimism is that we focus purely on the things we want to change, and we assume that by changing them we’ll all be better off.   It’s that Friday feeling.

There are two problems with this.   First, while we have a natural optimism bias about things in our control, we have a natural pessimism bias about the things that aren’t.   So the people writing the business case or vision statement may well feel optimistic, but those observing from the side may not share the same excitement.   So when you try to engage the pessimists, you have your work cut out.   Secondly, when we set out on a change programme to ‘make things better’, we assume that by doing so we’ll enjoy the benefits on a quid pro quo basis (fix this blockage and we’ll be xxx amount better off).   The problem though, according to Tali Sharot, author of The Optimism Bias, is that “we underestimate how quickly and easily we adapt to new circumstances and we fail to incorporate such adaptation into our forecasts”.    We may be optimistic about starting a new job because the pay is higher.   So we focus on those things that will change (more money!) and that makes us optimistic.  However, we don’t take into account that we still have bills to pay, we still have problems to deal with, we still have to get up on a cold Tuesday morning, we still have office politics, we still have to load the dishwasher.    We may be optimistic about the weekend on a Friday but we all know that not all weekends live up to expectations.   Vision statements are like Fridays – full of hope, expectation and optimism.   But there’s always a Monday round the corner.

Abridge your strategy … and make it funny

ReducedContinuing the theme of borrowing creative insights from other worlds, on Sunday we went to watch the hilarious Reduced Shakespeare Company’s ‘The complete works of William Shakespeare – abridged’.    The premise of the show, which has been around in various formats since the eighties, is to present abridged versions of all Shakespeare’s plays in just 97 minutes.   And of course to do so an entertaining way.    It was a fantastically funny show, performed by just three very talented actors using comedy, songs, slapstick and audience participation to summarise the plots and main characters of every one of the Bard’s plays.   The previous day I took my daughter on a tour of the CBBC studios in Media City in Salford.   We saw the set and props of Horrible Histories – the hugely successful series designed to teach children about history through comedy sketches … and lots of poo and puke jokes.

I mention these two experiences because they are superb examples of using humour to engage and educate.  Strip out the theatrical context of the Reduced Shakespeare show and you have the concept of communicating a complex and detailed topic in an abridged form in a way that’s engaging.   Strip out the production side of Horrible Histories and you have a sure-fire method of engaging a very discerning audience with a subject matter they wouldn’t otherwise show an interest in.   These are issues we communicators struggle with every day.   So what can we learn from the world of entertainment?    I love the idea of abridging a company strategy or business update and turning it into a ‘performance’, with humour and interaction.    I love the idea of selling it as a serious presentation but with the word ‘abridged’ splashed across the title to draw the audience in.   I love the idea of communicating serious messages through sketches and satire.    In short, I love the idea of turning serious business information into comedy.   Very few organisations are prepared to do this.    The leap of faith is too wide for some to contemplate.

Of course, in global companies, humour is notoriously difficult to get right, but in a local context it can be so powerful.   We all like a good laugh and I so wish more companies would see the funny side of business.   Laughter brings out the best in people and it’s a proven method of getting messages to stick.    A whole generation of children in the UK know about the (Terrible) Tudors, (Vicious) Vikings and (Ruthless) Romans because of Horrible Histories.    I’m off to see a heavy production of Hamlet at the RSC in Stratford on Saturday but I already know the plot thanks to the side-splitting abridged version I saw on Sunday.   The message has stuck.   I’m engaged and I have fond memories of how I was engaged.   Isn’t that what we want from our communications?   Try it out.  Reduce your strategy.  Abridge your operating model.  And have a damn good laugh about it.

PS – If you’ve successfully used humour to communicate a serious message, let me know about it and maybe we could feature your case study here on Creative Communicator.

Why we need festivals at work

festival2I walked past my local pub this morning after dropping the car off for an MOT.   Outside the pub was a board advertising an “icons & innovations beer festival”.   When I got home, some tickets had arrived for next month’s Hay Literature Festival.   I then booked a hotel for a quick few days at the Cheltenham Science Festival and while I was doing that I had an email about this year’s Just So Festival – a wonderful weekend of creativity for children in August.    We really are becoming a nation of festival goers.   And I haven’t even mentioned the hundreds of music and food festivals you could pick and choose from this summer.   Anyone for the East Anglian Guitar Festival?  Or the Cornwall Asparagus Festival?   Or the Settle Storytelling Festival?

So this got me thinking.  Why don’t we have festivals at work?   Why don’t we have the “Company X Festival of Collaboration” or the “ACME Innovation Festival”?    There’s something about the immersive experience of festivals that make them so popular.   Maybe it’s about hanging around with like-minded people.  I imagine everyone at the Cornwall Asparagus Festival has a particular fondness for, or interest in, asparagus.   Even spring vegetables can provide a common bond.   People go to music festivals not just to see their favourite band but to learn about and explore other groups and styles.    One of the highlights of our year as a family is going to Hay – five or six days of intelligent conversation, mind-expanding education and relaxation.    I learn more at the Hay Festival in one week than I do in the other 51.   And the ideas I get are endless.   When I’m at Hay, or Cheltenham, or Just-So, or a music festival, I’m 100% engaged.    So, again, why don’t we have festivals at work?

A festival is different from a one-off event or conference.  A festival provides an over-arching ‘reason why’ for a number of activities to take place.  It connects different events through a common theme and provides an ‘experience’ for attendees and participants.   A festival creates a buzz, a bond and a sense of collaboration.   Isn’t this exactly what we try to do to engage people in the workplace?   Don’t we want to provide an environment for learning, collaboration, interaction, discussion, engagement and innovation?   A work festival doesn’t have to interfere with business.   It doesn’t have to be ‘Glastonbury in Accounts’.   It could be a week-long series of lunchtime knowledge-sharing events, or a fortnight of after-work talks on relevant topics.   It could be a period of competitions, idea jams or innovation sessions.   It could be a festival of learning, with new subjects unveiled every day.   It could be a ‘CommsFest’ with daily features and presentations.    People like festivals.  They like the atmosphere, the belonging, the social interaction and the excitement.   Festivals are perfect for internal comms – imagine the concept of the settle Storytelling Festival brought in-house.   I’m a big believer in being inspired by ‘other worlds’ to bring difference and freshness to our really rather sanitised corporate environment.   That, to me, is creative communication.    I’m glad I took that walk today.  And the car passed its MOT too.  Yay!

It’s fear, not workload, that stops managers communicating

Signature:1aa0edd3f00ecb0adc8aa215f572f8061f81f2bd7ee14d34f53c48d50acdcb69I once worked for a manager who inspired me to believe I could achieve anything.   Then there was the manager who yelled at his staff and threw smartphones at them.    I remember the CEO with the charisma of a movie star and the CFO with the personality of a yoghurt.   I’ve seen them driven like Gandhi and lost like Bambi.    I’ve known managers who light up rooms and others who light up cigarettes.   In my time, I’ve worked for, followed, admired and observed managers of all shapes and sizes.   Some were natural communicators, many were not.  Some drove me to perfection, others drive me to tears.   We all know what that’s like.

Comms people often call out line managers as their biggest challenge.  Why is this?  Why are so many managers so frustratingly poor at engaging with the people they are paid to lead?    Most managers tend to think they are good communicators.   They’ll insist they talk regularly with their staff and that they take comms seriously, but then they’ll throw up excuses about time and conflicting business priorities.  Others think their comms responsibilities extend only to reading out a team briefing, announcing decisions or conducting the occasional team meeting.

I’ll tell you why so many managers don’t communicate.  They’re scared.  It’s fear, not workload, that stops them communicating.

Fear of peer judgement.   Managers are competitive and they don’t like to look weak.   They have a mental picture in their head that managers should look strong, confident and ‘in charge’.   They often become leaders of people by virtue of technical ability or time-served, and they justify their lofty appointments by talking about strategic business issues, sprinkling their language with corporate jargon and generally ‘acting senior’.     That’s what managers do isn’t it – have meetings, make decisions and display tangible evidence of their authority?   What would the other managers say if they put people and engagement above strategy and execution on their list of priorities?

Fear of looking soft.    The macho culture of many organisations mean that managers tend to consider qualities like humility, creativity and active listening as ‘too soft’.    For them, emotional intelligence is just a fancy HR buzzword and not something hard-nosed business decision makers should be taking seriously.    It takes a lot of courage to be an authentic leader – to admit to weakness, to own up to mistakes, to show emotion and ask others to do likewise.   Good communicators listen more than they talk.  They facilitate more than dictate.  They ask people about their lives, how they feel and what brings out the best in them.   They ask questions like “what can I do better” and “how can I help”.   For many managers, that’s too much to ask.

Fear of not knowing answers.  Managers, especially senior leaders, often like to avoid confrontation with ‘real people’ because they are frightened of what they might be asked.   They fear not having credible answers.  They worry about looking vulnerable.   That’s why they dread Q&As and open forums.   They haven’t yet worked out that leadership isn’t about having all the answers, it’s about knowing how to deal with the question and knowing what questions to ask in return.   It’s the same reason that leaders fear creativity.   They think it’s their job to come up with all the ideas.

Fear of getting it wrong.  We ask our managers to understand, translate, convey and ‘own’ corporate messages.  We expect them to role model values and inspire high performance.  But what if they don’t ‘get it’ themselves?  What if they don’t understand any or some of the message they are being asked to pass on with due gusto?   What if they don’t know what the acronyms mean?   You can only get so far with smoke and mirrors.    Many leaders avoid putting themselves in harm’s way by not communicating and not actively engaging with their people because they fear getting found out.

Ok, I know I’m having a bit of a downer of managers here.   I don’t mean to generalise, and I know there are some exceptional leaders and line managers in every organisation, but I do think that when managers fail to discharge their comms responsibilities it’s often a psychological rather than a practical barrier.

Ditch the surveys and start doing stuff

survey2Recognise this scenario?   A leader, or group of leaders, decide they need to do something about this thing called employee engagement.  So they give the job to a bigwig in HR to look after.   The HR person – being an HR person – gathers more HR people together to form a project team.   They bring in an outside consultancy and everyone agrees that what they need is a staff survey.   So they take many months and lots of money to decide what questions the survey should ask.   Then they launch the survey with some nicely branded posters and they use comms people to spread the word that “your opinion counts” and “now’s the chance to have your say”.   Months later the survey results come out and groups of managers go into huddles to try and work out what they mean.   Knowing that they should do something about the results (but not too much because there are more important things to do), the managers create action plans, usually involving going back out to re-survey or “drill down” (even worse … “deep dive”) into the original survey findings.   Focus groups are set up to ask people what they meant in the survey and what should be done next.    By now, probably nine or ten months have passed since the topic was first raised and absolutely diddlysquat has been done to actually improve employee engagement.  And the next annual survey is fast approaching.

I know comms and HR people obsess about measurement, but y’know, sometimes surveys aren’t the answer.   I once had a boss –  a global CEO – who insisted that the best survey tool for employee engagement is your stomach.   “I don’t need expensive surveys to tell me what my gut can tell me for nothing” he once told me.  He was partly right, I think.   You see, if you link employee engagement to a survey you psychologically align the activities with the measurement cycle.   The survey becomes the driver – “if we do this we’ll improve our scores”.   Now you might say that’s OK, because what gets measured gets done, right?   But no, the trouble with this is that surveys rarely tell you anything about employee engagement.   They give you a snapshot of employee satisfaction, and maybe a dipstick guide to the general climate, but employee engagement is much more nuanced than that.   Engagement is a very individual thing.  What engages you may not engage me.  What engaged me last week may not get me going this week.   If a worker is feeling ‘engaged’ they have a sense of fulfilment, emotional connection, creativity, autonomy, meaning and flow in their work.  The key word there is ‘sense’.  It’s not something that can be explained.    No survey is going to do it justice.

People can’t usually explain why they are engaged, or disengaged.   They often don’t even know if they’re engaged or not.  It may take leaving to realise that, actually, they were engaged where they were.   Or they may find true engagement in one role and suddenly realise what they’ve been missing.  No, the key to building engagement is doing stuff, not talking about stuff, or measuring stuff.   Companies with high engagement don’t suddenly unleash half-cocked initiatives two weeks before the annual survey.   They don’t have employee engagement as the last item on the leadership meeting agenda.  They don’t even use the words.  They just make it part of what they do every day, at all levels.    True engagement is when the goals and values of the organisation match the goals and values of the individual.   Look at the most engaged workforce in recent years – the Olympic Games Makers of London 2012.   You didn’t need a survey to tell you how engaged they were.  It was written all over their faces.   We should stop trying to put a numeric value on engagement.  How often do you measure the love you have for your children?  Or the depth to which you support a particular football team?   Employee engagement takes a lot of work to get right and it touches so many areas – environment, culture, purpose, pay, leadership, conditions, innovation, comms, direction, benefits, strategy, personal development, recognition, reputation etc – which is exactly why we need to stop wasting time asking questions and start doing something useful.

A story of how one CEO delivered instant change

Eye of Man in GlassesThe leaked memo from Barclays boss Antony Jenkins telling 140,000 staff to sign up to a new set of values or leave the company has caused quite a debate among communicators.   Some are uncomfortable with the blunt tone, others are more concerned about imposing values onto people and some say “way to go AJ”.   Personally, I don’t have a problem with the frank tone of the message, which states (to the people who don’t feel they can sign up to the values):  “My message to those people is simple: Barclays is not the place for you. The rules have changed. You won’t feel comfortable at Barclays and, to be frank, we won’t feel comfortable with you as colleagues.”   From a language point of view, it’s clear, strong and refreshingly uncorporate.   And given the context of bad behaviour in the bank up to now, a strong message is the only option.   But will it make a difference?

Back in 1998 I worked for a CEO who faced a similar challenge of bringing about cultural change in a global financial services organisation.   He spent the first six months in the job travelling round and taking a good look at what he had inherited.   He didn’t like what he saw.   He knew that dramatic wholesale change would be required to fix what was an ailing organisation lumbering towards the 21st Century.    He also knew that the organisation was full of fiefdoms and parochial cliques, where ‘knowledge is power’ managers would run the rule as they saw it.   The CEO wanted to pursue an agenda of personal responsibility, customer focus, teamwork, knowledge sharing, trust, collaboration, learning, change agility and tech revolution.    Some chance.    So he decided to bring 365 of the company’s top managers together for an event in Barcelona.    They all turned up, expecting the usual away-day jolly, only to find coloured polo shirts in their hotel room and a request to wear them next day for the first session – blue for Europe, yellow for AsiaPac and red for Americas.   They didn’t fancy this, of course – “how naff” they chorused.    But next day they dutifully gathered in their shirts, looking and sounding mightily uncomfortable.    The stage was very corporate – plain lectern with a logo filled background.    Then on came the CEO, in a suit and tie, and proceeded to embark on a fairly dull PowerPoint review of business performance.

Then, 20 minutes in, something happened.   The CEO interrupted his presentation, looked out at the audience and said:  “You know, when I first took on this job I thought we needed to change by evolution.  I was wrong.  I made a mistake.   What we need is a revolution.”    At that point, the lights went down, and the dry ice came up.  The Beatle’s Revolution began to play (very loudly) and the audience started to revolve (they didn’t know at the time, but their seats had been constructed on top of a giant revolving floor).    As the song played, some of the audience reacted with smiles, others began to clap but most just looked puzzled.    Then, as the floor turned 180 degrees, a new stage opened up in front of them, with new branding, moody lighting and no lectern.   On came the CEO … miked-up and dressed in a polo shirt.   His first words were:  “From now on, we’re not the same company.”

Now why did this happen?   Primarily it was to put a very clear stake in the ground that things were about to change.  There had to be a moment in time when the change started – and that time (as I still remember today) was 9.20am on June 6th 1998.  The time of the revolution.    There had to be this one moment to signal that things would be different from now on.    It could only happen with all the top managers in the room.   Now of course, the excitement died down and the CEO and his colleagues proceeded to set out, over the following three days, how the organisation was going to change and what he expected of his leaders.    But he quite rightly knew that would not be enough.  He knew some were “up for it” but it was obvious that many would go back to their constituencies and carry on as before.     So on the final day, at the farewell lunch, he dropped the bombshell.

At the point where he was expected to say “thanks very much, it’s been great, now have a safe journey home”, he actually said this:   “You know, over these last three days I’ve taken the opportunity to meet every single one of you.  I have looked into the whites of your eyes, and I know that some of you are ready to lead this change.  But I also know that some of you will go back to your part of the organisation and carry on exactly the same as you did before.   Well, to those people, let me just say this.  There are lots of good companies out there who would welcome your knowledge and experience.  So why don’t you go and work for those companies?    If you aren’t prepared to change, there’s no place for you here.”   We called this the “whites of your eyes” speech and it had a tangible impact on the room.   Over the following months, some great role modelling leaders emerged with innovative and inspiring ideas for engaging people.    Many other leaders left the organisation.  The change had begun and it captured the imagination.

So back to Barclays.   Antony Jenkins has just given his “whites of your eyes” speech, so let’s
see what happens next.   For me, the mistake Barclays have made is in their new core values.  They’re useless – respect, integrity, service, excellence and stewardship.   What does that mean?   As someone pointed out on a forum, Enron had three of these values!    Values shouldn’t be nouns – they should be verbs.  That way they can be actioned and measured.   Show me an organisation who doesn’t believe in integrity, respect, service yada yada.    Success will now lie in how they embed and role model the values, but I can’t help feeling it’s a missed opportunity.    The first punch was with a knuckle duster, the second was with a custard pie.

Why too much choice gets us nowhere

foxI’ve had my head in some neuroscience books over the holidays.   One of the areas I’m currently interested in is what happens to us when we have choices to make.   I’m sure we all instinctively feel that choice is a good thing – the ability to choose gives us empowerment, helps us to tolerate adversity and makes us feel in control.  We value the ability to make choices in our lives and can only imagine how unbearable it must be to be stuck without options, to have no way out.   Psychologists have proven that we feel better when we have choices in our lives.   We even enjoy a meal more if there is choice on the menu.   Those of us growing up in affluent developed nations take our ability to choose for granted.  And no better is this choice-fest demonstrated than in the way we consume information.    I’m old enough to have grown up with only three channels on the telly (in black and white when I was really young) for part of my childhood.     I remember getting excited by Ceefax when it first came out because I could read the news or get the footy scores on the TV without having to wait until the allotted bulletin.   Now look.   The internet and other technologies have opened up a whole new world of choice at our fingertips, and we internal communicators try to replicate this choice with integrated channels, message frameworks and layered content.   We fall over ourselves to gather feedback and opinions, we ask people to complete surveys and we encourage them to tell us what they prefer so we can meet their needs.  Of course, it feels right to do that, because giving people choice makes them more engaged.

But there is a downside to choice, as Aesop’s famous fable of the fox and the cat demonstrates.   Faced with a pack of snarling hunting dogs about to bear down on them, the two animals need to escape.  For the cat it’s an easy decision to make, and he bolts up a tree.  But the cunning fox, blessed with all his knowledge of the various escape options, becomes paralyzed by indecision and falls prey to the dogs.    With too many choices on offer, he suffered from analysis paralysis.     This ‘paradox of choice’ confronts many of use every day.  How often have you stood in a supermarket aisle trying to choose between the 250 varieties of biscuits on offer?   I heard on the radio the other day that most people don’t bother to change their gas and electricity supplier because there’s ‘too much choice’.    Psychologist Barry Schwartz says that the more choices we are given, the less ‘free’ we become because we procrastinate in trying to make the best decision.   So it seems that, while choice is a positive force for good, too much of it can be detrimental.   Bringing it back into our world, I sometimes believe that we are in danger of ‘over-engaging’ our people.   I know some companies that complete their annual staff survey, publish the results and then go back out to re-survey the same audience to ask what they meant and what should be done next!   Sometimes people just want to be asked once and then they expect action.   We can over-do this choice thing because we’re worried about being accused of not engaging with our people.   But sometimes we need the cat not the fox.

Why hard copy is more than a nice touch

snow gloveA few weekends ago we visited the Hay Winter Festival in lovely Hay on Wye, a couple of days of literary talks, creative workshops for children and a bit of Christmas shopping.   One of the speakers was a doctor recently back from a year in Antarctica.  He had completed a shift as the resident medic at the British research base on the continent and had written a book* about his experiences.   His presentation about the harsh environment, the extreme conditions and his love for the penguins was fascinating, but what made it so much more engaging were the props.   About half way through his talk, he handed out his snow gloves and boots for us to see, touch and pass round.     The feeling of sliding your hand into one of these huge, thick snow gloves designed to withstand temperatures of -50 degrees made it so much more ‘real’.    We could transport our imagination and get a sense for what it must’ve been like to be there in Antarctica.    It was the same with the penguin egg we could see and touch.   Watching someone talk or present is one thing, but ‘taking part’ is so much more engaging.   The simple act of circulating tangible props for the audience to interact with makes it a much richer experience, especially if it’s a talk that requires a use of one’s imagination (which most stories do).

One of the concerns I have about the trends in internal communications is the almost lemming-like rush to move everything into the virtual world.   Let’s stop all the paper publications and do it all online.  Let’s shove everything onto an intranet or portal.  Why bother getting everyone in the same room when we can meet and collaborate online?   There’s no doubt that technology has been a powerful and very welcome force for good for internal communicators, but I do think we need to maintain a balance here.    The cost-saving argument may be reasonably compelling, and the accessibility benefit is hard to beat, but these should never be the only considerations.

We humans are hard-wired to learn, interact and communicate through touch.   Our skin is our body’s largest organ and when its sensory receptors are stimulated it releases a hormone that reduces stress and makes us feel good.   We can all relate to the healing and calming powers of a pat on the back, a reassuring hug or a peck on the cheek.    It’s the same with objects.  A 2008 study at Yale found that people tend to think more warmly of others if they are holding something warm, like a hot mug of tea.   In some organisations nowadays, ‘hard copy’ is considered a toxic phrase, inducing a sharp intake of breath at the prospect of actually printing something (notice how most organisations still print hard copy publications for their external audience but consider it an unnecessary cost for the internal audience).  But that misses the point.  It might be cheaper to put all comms online, but humans crave physical contact – not just with each other but with tangible objects.    Why do some of us prefer books to Kindle?   Why do some prefer Waterstones to Amazon?   Why do some of us get a thrill from holding a 1.5 million year old hand axe in the British Museum’s ‘show and tell’ section?   Some of us are more kinesthetic than others – some of us are predisposed to prefer learning through touch – but we all need and value the sensation of physical contact.   The next time you’re arranging a briefing or presentation on an important topic, think about reaching all your audience’s senses.   Offer props, like models, flash cards or creative reading materials.    Pass round objects that relate to the topic to stimulate the imagination.   Invite people to interact with the subject matter in a physical way, say by using sticky notes for gathering feedback or introducing a prototype.   Touch invites questions and builds engagement.   You might learn something too.   I now know that the fur on the back of a snow glove is for wiping dripping snot from your nose before it freezes.   I wish the good doctor had told us that before we all rubbed it against our faces!

* Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins by Gavin Francis

The future of internal comms – a humble opinion

I was asked on a training course last week what I thought the future of internal communications looks like.    It’s a topic I’ve given a bit of thought to recently, having attended a few seminars and followed some online debates about ‘where our industry is going’.   My opinion on the subject is no more valid than anyone else’s but let me put forward my take on what the next ten years will bring.  Some of these views align with conventional thinking, while others may be more controversial.  Some will no doubt prove to be completely wrong. 

Comms people will need to learn to chill out.    We’ve got to stop trying to manage everything.   You see, the future will be less top-down and more organic.   The digital generation will not tolerate the overly managed comms environment we have today, where comms people fill a disproportionate amount of time trying to co-ordinate the delivery of every last message.  This type of ‘spreadsheet planning’ has only ever worked in the heads of comms people anyway.   Real life doesn’t work like that.  The future will be more open. 

Comms will be more collaborative, connected and networked.    The days of heavily spun corporate messaging and top-down cascades are numbered.   The old ways of communicating are falling on deaf ears.  Cascades have never worked and they will fail even more spectacularly in the future.   Instead, organisations will need to develop a core narrative and tone of voice which defines their purpose and let messages develop organically from this core sense of being.    Those messages – or stories – will be shared by leaders, managers and front-line staff in equal proportion using the collaboration and social networking tools that will replace many (but not all) of our traditional channels.

Comms will be more self-directed and personalised.   This collaborative environment and the advance of technology will lead to personalised rather than corporate communications.   Individuals will be able to choose their message, channel and collaboration preferences, and they will create or co-create many of the messages they need to be engaged.   We will never be able (and we never should try) to control this new self-directed environment and disempower the messenger.  We will all be internal communicators in the future.

A little bit of chaos will be a good thing.   The idea of allowing individuals to personalise their comms environment and co-create the company narrative will terrify the purists, but that’s part of the mindset-shift we’ll have to make.    We have to start letting go, and if that causes a little bit of chaos, then what’s so wrong with that?   Innovation, creativity, engagement and motivation can thrive in chaos.  Often the best communications are disruptive.   We’ll need to get used to a bit of disruption.

Messages will need to reinforce purpose as well as strategy.    Purpose will be more important that vision or strategy.   People will increasingly want to know what they are part of.   They will want more than money, a good team and a decent workplace to feel engaged.   They’ll want to know why they do what they do.  They will seek fulfilment through what Dan Pink calls mastery, autonomy and purpose.   Generation Y will become Generation Why?

Communications will need to be more authentic.   Most corporate messages are too dull to stick and their delivery is too bland to inspire.   In the future, workers will demand something much more engaging, more authentic and more relevant.    They will want to know what the organisation is doing and why, but they will want to have a voice and be heard.   They will see through jargon and insincere behaviours.   Values will become more important.  Language will have to be simpler.  Authenticity will be everything.    This means leaders and managers will need to learn the art of emotional intelligence – the ability to get on with people, listen, empathise, explain, inspire, support, coach and challenge. 

Managers will need to be empowered, not controlled.   We’ll have to come to terms with the fact that middle managers cannot be controlled and used purely as passive instruments of a communication process.   They are far too busy, stressed and uninterested to do what we tell them to do.   We’ll have to learn to back off and let them get on with leading their people in their own way.   Yes, we can help them, support them, coach them and encourage them but ultimately we’ll need to empower them.    They will need to own the story and make it come alive for their people in ways that they know best.

Leaders and communicators will have to master creativity.   Business leaders the world over recognise that creativity will be the single biggest skill for organisations to master to cope with what’s coming down the track.   The penny will need to drop for us communicators too.   We’ll have to be more innovative in how we craft, deliver and embed the corporate narrative.   The ‘same old same old’ will no longer be enough.   We’ll need to get noticed, raise eyebrows and get people involved.

The boundaries between work and non-work will disappear.    In the future, workers will know (and will want to know) much more about their colleagues than the person they see 9-5.   Organisations will want to tap into the skills and expertise their workers have in the ‘real world’.  Leaders will talk about their weekend selves as well as their corporate selves, and people will value them for it.   We will communicate 24/7 and we will expect to access our work anytime, anyplace, from any device.

The IC model will change.   There will be fewer in-house experts, largely because communications responsibility will be more widely embedded in the organisation (an outcome we’ve always wished for surely?) and also because the agile business environment of the future will demand more flexible specialist resources on an ‘as required’ basis.   Organisations will bring in third-party expertise to deliver specific outcomes from networked agency partners and trusted freelance specialists.     Our remit will expand into territory traditional held by HR departments and we will be increasingly influential in the development of engagement drivers such as innovation, creativity, collaboration, recruitment, workplace, wellbeing and leadership.

We will change.   Those internal comms practitioners who remain and thrive in the future will be those who foresee and respond to what’s coming down the line.   They will be the ones who had the courage to stop doing some of the things they’ve always done and acted as a catalyst for change.   They will be the ones who embraced and mastered creativity.  They will be prepared for what technology will offer but they will never lose sight of the fact that communication is essentially human and that humans are essentially social creatures.   Their traditional core skills will be complemented by a greater understanding of human behaviour.  They will be respected, right-brained thinkers, valued for their contribution and rewarded well.   [That last bit was more wishful thinking than anything else but I wanted to end a high!]

How to engage your middle managers

I’m a middle child, the second of three boys.   According to recent research, I should therefore be more successful, ambitious, open to innovation, empathic, well-adjusted, independent, generous, kind, devoted, balanced, confident and hard-working than my two brothers.   Well, I don’t know about that but I’ll take it!   Seriously though, a number of studies in the US and Europe have exposed the myth of us middle-borns being resentful and neglected underachievers.   Our middle status enhances our ability to keep the peace and negotiate.   The attention given to our supposedly responsible first and rebellious last-born siblings apparently gives us an inner drive to succeed, to get noticed, to rise above the pack.     OK, let’s assume all that is true.  Now let’s translate the same logic into the workplace and consider the role of middle managers.    My comms colleagues will immediately recognise this community as being a perennial ‘problem area’.   We worry about middle managers more than anyone else, because we know how important they are.   We ask more of middle managers than any other stakeholder group.   We need them to deliver and translate messages, manage change, improve wellbeing, motivate their people and role model values.   But unlike the senior leaders, who can be ‘picked off’ and coached individually, this middle community (what my old boss used to call the ‘marzipan layer’) is usually too remote and numerous (and busy) for us to nurture and support one-to-one.    What’s more, just like the middle child in the family, the middle manager has to juggle responsibilities and keep the peace, treading a fine line between ‘corporate mouthpiece’ and ‘voice of the people’.   They must support the ‘company line’ and embody its culture, whilst remaining loyal to the people they lead.   Middle managers are usually the unhappiest people in the organisation – stressed, over-worked, under-valued, constantly in fear of the chop and pulled from both ends.   It’s a tough ask, and then we communicators come along and make it even tougher.   I remember growing up wearing my older brother’s hand-me-down clothes, especially as there was (and still is!) only 17 months between us.   The metaphor translates to middle managers who are asked to consume hand-me-down messages created by others and which they are expected to endorse, interpret and pass on.  My industry devotes whole conferences to deciding how best to do that.   Maybe one way is to tap into those middle child characteristics.

In a recent study carried out by Dublin City University*, a number of middle managers in the Irish Health Service were asked to talk about a major organisational change event they had experienced.   About half chose the current top-down initiative (there’s always one isn’t there?) and the others recalled a change they themselves had initiated.    What the researchers found was that the corporate initiative came in for criticism around areas like strategic direction, increase in workload and poor communication.   On the other hand, those who talked about their own initiative were enthusiastic, pragmatic and highlighted the value of communication.    One participant neatly summed up the difference by saying his own approach was “we have an idea, can we talk to you about how it might work?”, whereas the top-down approach was more like “we have an idea and this is how it is going to work.”   Clearly this demonstrates the importance of ownership in times of change, we all prefer to be in control of our own destiny and we’re all nervous about ‘done to’ change.   But the Irish researchers made the important point that middle managers can be catalysts of change when given the opportunity to develop their own initiatives rather than pass on someone else’s.    In this particular study, they found that in most cases, the manager-led change initiatives produced many of the same outcomes that the top-down change was meant to enforce!   So maybe the lesson here is that rather than characterise middle managers as difficult, frustrating and hard to control, perhaps we should allow them to demonstrate those middle child skills of empathy, creativity and empowerment.    Be proud, you fellow mid-borns!

* Conway, E., & Monks, K. (2011). Change from below: the role of middle managers in mediating paradoxical change, Human Resource Management Journal

Visions are not fit for purpose

The UK government is making changes to pension rules to force providers to be more realistic in their forecasts.   In your annual pension statement your provider has to provide a forecast setting out what your annual pension should be if your fund was to grow at a certain limit, say 5%, 7% and 9%.  But the government has said that these growth forecasts are too high and that growth levels of around 2% should be included.   Whatever.   Anyway, it feels to me that pensions are a good analogy for organisational visions.   Like pensions, we visualise this wonderful payback on maturity and use that to seek investment (in our case, in effort and engagement rather than financial contributions).   But like pension forecasts, most visions are vastly over-optimistic.   I’ve never worked for a company that has achieved a vision it set out after.   Besides, who’s motivated to work hard every day and do the best they can because of a pension forecast?    The problem with visions is that they’re too distant.   In today’s manic, unpredictable and continually changing business world, trying to visualise anything much more than one year out is mainly guesswork.   So to avoid the detail, the temptation is to make the vision so bland it becomes meaningless.  That’s why we see visions about ‘being the provider of choice’ or ‘maximising shareholder value’ – pointless, dreary and devoid of inspiration.   And most of us don’t feel secure enough to believe we’ll be around to realise the vision anyway!   In reality, you don’t engage people today by offering then a vision of a distant tomorrow.    You’ll know from previous posts that I’m not a fan of most organisational visions.  I think purpose is more important, and most visions are quite literally not fit for purpose.   Visions (supposedly) articulate where we’re going.   But if you know why you’re doing what you’re doing and it has some meaning to you, the ‘where’ becomes a useful pointer to aim for but not the fundamental driver.   The where can be left to the planners.   People are motivated by today, not tomorrow.  Even if the reward may come tomorrow, the motivation to get there has to happen today.   Asking someone to get all inspired about something that won’t happen for three-to-five years (if indeed it happens at all, which is unlikely) is like asking them to invest in that pension.   Yes they’ll see the logic and give you some investment but it won’t be the reason they’ll get out of bed in the morning.    But if I had something to go to work for that fulfils me NOW, well now you’re talking.   Let’s say I had a job full of purpose, like running a donkey sanctuary.   I could set a vision to have ten sanctuaries across the UK within five years.   But my purpose will be to look after the wellbeing of donkeys and that’s what will drive me and my staff every day.   The five-site plan will be something to aim for but it will never be the ‘reason why’.    So why do we persevere with these dull vision statements?   The answer is that purpose is so much harder to articulate.   It’s easy to paint a picture of a future world where all is sweetness and light, point to it and say “that’s where we want to go”.  But it’s much much harder to put into words why we do what we do.    People give their best when they feel fulfilled, engaged and valued and when their work has meaning to them.   But it’s hard to explain how we feel and it’s hard for us communicators to find the right words to articulate and create that sense of purpose.   Hard but not impossible.

What’s the point of face to face communication?

As comms professionals we’ve always been taught that face to face is always best.  It feels instinctively right and surveys always confirm it to be true – given the choice, employees will always prefer to receive information face to face from their own boss.   As a consultant and trainer, I myself have never strayed from the path when advising clients.  Of course it’s true.  It makes perfect sense.   But what’s the point of face to face communication?  No, really, what’s the point?   Why is seeing a leader on a platform giving a presentation any more effective than being sent the slides by email, or downloading a PDF off the intranet?   Why are people so keen on being in the same room?

The answer is not in the words.  It’s in the eyes.   People want to communicate F2F because they want to see the other person’s eyes … and the face, and the expression, and the posture.   Face to face is a physical medium, and that’s why we like it.    Approach a new born baby (well, give it a week or two!) and watch the way it studies your eyes.  It’s fascinated.  The baby will stare into your eyes searching for meaning.   We never lose that curiosity.   Eye contact is one of the essential ingredients of human relationships.   There’s an old saying that goes “never trust anyone you haven’t looked in the eye”.   Eye contact is vital to building trust, so when our leaders ask us to trust them, they’ll stand a much better chance if they came to actually meet us.   It’s probably why we don’t trust politicians – because the vast majority of us have never looked one in the eye.   Many of us will have people in our LinkedIn network who we’ve only briefly met, say at a conference.   But why do we feel we know them?  Because we’ve looked into their eyes, and they’ve looked into ours.   Face to face communication is not so much about what’s said in the room, it’s more about what happens in the room.  It’s far better to have a leader go round the room meeting everyone and looking into their eyes, than up on  platform reading off a slide.   I heard a lovely quote the other day on a creative leadership webinar that said “leaders should be generous with their eyes”, which I think puts it rather well.

And it’s not just about eyes.  The human face has almost 90 muscles and so it’s an incredibly informative feature.   You hear about people’s face ‘lighting up’ when they’re excited or ‘looking down in the dumps’ when they’re fed up.   Interpreting facial expressions is a party trick of our right brain.  We’re instinctively good at reading expressions and emotions, when words aren’t required (particularly women).   Emotional connection also builds trust and engagement, but how much emotion do we see in the typical workplace?   We teach managers not to show emotion – don’t blink, don’t let them see you sweat, don’t admit to any failings.  We expect leaders to be strong and pokerfaced.    But that’s not conducive to effective face to face communication.  Surely we want communication to be natural, expressive, collaborative, authentic and have some emotional content?   That’s why we choose face to face, right?   But most leaders feel they need to leave their real self at the office door.   In meetings and presentations, we listen to the words but we listen to the eyes and the body more.   And the body never stops communicating.   This culture of emotional impotence has got to change, and it is I hope.   The term ‘emotional intelligence’ – the capacity to understand and relate to people – is gaining some traction in many organisations as leaders realise the increasing need for skills like empathy, creativity and relationship building.    This is what builds trust and engagement.   As comms people, we know we’re right to promote the face to face channel, but we should remind ourselves why.

The six essential skills of the creative manager

I’ve been working on a series of learning modules and workshops for leaders called The Creative Manager designed to encourage managers to be more creative in the way they lead, engage and get the best out of their people.  It’s not easy being a manager, particularly a middle or line manager, in a large organisation nowadays.   We ask them to communicate corporate messages, facilitate discussion, lead their people through change, maintain motivation, drive up engagement, inspire innovation, role model behaviours, improve wellbeing, solve problems, manage performance and many other things.  It’s a big ask, that’s for sure – and in my opinion one which requires a much more dextrous and creative style of leadership capability.   So I’ve been looking at how we can ensure our managers have the modern communication skills to meet these expectations as well as the techniques to exploit the creativity that exists inside them and their people.  In doing so, I’ve talked to leaders, listened to experts, read books, attended talks, followed the latest thinking and generally used my intuition to finally plump for six core capability areas which I think define the Creative Manager – storytelling, novelty, play, empathy, affinity and purpose.   Of course, these are not ‘new’ skills in themselves and many managers already have a natural tendency in one of more of them, but for me they comprise the six areas in which a manager’s creativity can best be harnessed, exploited and shared.  Let me explain:

Storytelling – This is the art of using stories to release creativity, motivate, inspire and share knowledge.  Of course, storytelling has always been a natural part of the human psyche – from cave drawings to Hollywood – and storytelling in business is not a new concept.   But do most managers really understand the power of a good story and do they have the techniques to both tell and encourage stories as an engagement tool?   Stories make people care.  They help people visualise and simulate, they provide context and they inspire people to act.  A lot of storytelling ‘training’ is patronising.  If you’re human, you can tell stories.  But I do think managers could benefit from a few simple techniques to enable them to communicate the company narrative through creative storytelling.

Novelty – This is the term I use to sum up the skill of bringing freshness and perspective into the workplace in order to drive up engagement, productivity and innovation.   Most organisations are logical, analytical, left-brained environments with their standards, guidelines, set processes and repetitive behaviours.   Unfortunately, these environments can stifle creativity and make office life dull and boring.   People sometimes don’t feel they have the ‘permission’ to raise new ideas or they don’t have the right stimulus to innovate or do things differently.  I think managers need the skills, techniques and imagination to inject some new thinking into the way they connect with their people and inspire them to action.   To me, novelty is about looking at things in a different way, injecting some ‘newness’, being curious and inspiring creativity by drawing out and developing the ideas that can lead to innovations and engagement.   It’s not the manager’s job to come up with all the ideas, but it’s very much the manager’s job to facilitate an environment where ideas can surface, grow and flourish.

Play – There’s enough evidence now to prove that happy people make productive people, and that people who are encouraged to laugh and be playful make more creative and engaged workers.   Most business communication is about serious messages delivered in a serious way, so this skill is all about how to inject some playful behaviour into the workplace.  When we talk about play at work, it’s not about bringing a board game into the office or putting a snooker table behind the filing cabinets.  Play in this context is about creative problem solving, collaboration, laughter, knowledge sharing and experimenting.   Managers shouldn’t be afraid of being playful.   Play is a perfectly valid and effective way of learning about the serious business of work.   One day managers will be appointed on their sense of fun.

Empathy – The best communicators make an emotional connection with their audience, but you don’t have to be Gandhi to make an impact.   What’s more important is the ability to empathise with and understand the people you’re communicating with, so you can tailor your delivery and engagement style to match their needs and preferences.   This skill is about listening, understanding and relating to individuals – behaviours that will make every leader more effective.   Empathy is sadly lacking in many organisations today and there’s compelling evidence that the next generation of managers who have grown up in the digital age are going to be particularly poor at empathic relationship building.   We need to get this bit right.

Affinity – Why is it that some messages stick and other’s fail to connect?  What makes a good message and what makes a great communicator?   This is a skill I am calling Affinity – the art of connecting with an audience so that they listen, understand, trust, value and act upon your words.   This doesn’t come easy to many managers but you don’t need to change who you are to make a connection and build affinity.  I believe managers need a creative toolkit to help them to bring messages alive, to liven up their team meetings, to inspire their people to act and to cut through the noise.   A little bit of imagination can go a long way.

Purpose – Ever since the first human beings looked up at the sky we have pondered our place in the universe and our reason for being.   Today the ‘search for meaning’ is stronger than ever and in business the desire to see purpose in what we do is becoming a critical area for leaders and communicators to respond to.   For managers, the challenge is to not just communicate the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of company strategy, but the ‘why’.   If people care, they will act.   So how do you make people care?   I see the ability to build a sense of purpose as a key leadership competency for the future.

As I said, some managers already excel at these skills and many more have the creative drive to keep their people engaged and motivated in other ways.  But all I’ve tried to do here is to put a simple framework around the answer to the question “how can I be a more creative and engaging manager?”.    I say here are six ways you can start.

Forget the leader, it’s the first follower who deserves our praise

I love the concept of the ‘first follower’ – wonderfully illustrated in this You Tube hit – because of its relevance to change communication and creativity, my two favourite work subjects.   As the commentary on the video neatly points out, the real hero of many stories is not the leader at the front but the first person to follow.   It can take more courage to be the first follower than it does to be the ‘nutter’ at the front.   The subsequent appearance of a third, fourth and fifth follower allows others to join without being noticed, eventually leading to a tipping point where it actually becomes not only acceptable, but cool, to join the crowd.   As we see in the video, new joiners are no longer following the bare-shirted ‘crazy’ leader but following the followers.  It’s a nice visual analogy.

For us change communicators it highlights the importance of working hard to reach the tipping point whereby it becomes acceptable among the community to engage with and hopefully embrace the change.    We don’t need to convince every single stakeholder to ‘buy in’.  We just need to convince the first follower and others to do so, knowing that the crowd will follow.    Of course, we want to take everyone along with us and we’ll try our best to engage at an individual level, but the lesson here is that it only takes a few colleagues to take those brave few steps.   Reaching the tipping point on the change curve is our goal, when the organisation shifts from resistance to exploration, but by highlighting quick wins and supporting the first followers, we comms people can help get people on their feet.

First followers are just as important in creative environments.   Someone comes up with an idea that everyone else instinctively thinks is impossible, impractical or just plain crazy.  But what if one person stands up and backs it, and then another?  Where’s the tipping point?   Putting forward ideas and challenging the way things are takes courage, but so too does saying “I agree” or “good idea”.   It’s far easier to be negative than positive, we all know that, so first followers are vital to nurture ideas with potential.   Personally, I think the You Tube video acts a good analogy for the acceptance of creativity at work, or even creativity in internal comms.   Those of us who believe strongly about it are the mad dancers waving our arms around on the sidelines.  But it only takes a few brave first followers and then you watch the crowd run.   I don’t care, as long as we’re all up dancing.

The Change Communications Hierarchy of Needs

In 1943, Abraham Maslow famously introduced us to his ‘hierarchy of needs’ – a psychological pyramid of human motivation starting with basic physiological needs at the bottom (breathing, food water etc) through to safety, belonging, esteem and finally self-actualization a the very top.   The hierarchy has become one of the best known and most referenced psychological theories regarding human motivation and change.   So, inspired by Maslow, I’ve put together my own version of the ‘hierarchy of needs’ in the context of change communications.  In many ways, this is just a different take on the change curve, but here I’ve tried to map out the communication needs of workers facing organisational change.  The key point here is the importance of understanding what people go through during change and why their communications needs reflect their own psychological motivations.   So here we go …

Let’s start at the bottom, with what we should call security.    A natural human reaction to any change, or threat, is made in the gut via the oldest and most primal part of the brain.   Actually, it’s the amygdalas to be precise (see my recent post on this).   The instinctive question is ‘what does this mean to me?’ and almost certainly the psychological response will be to perceive the change as a threat.  The first priority then for our audience is to evaluate the extent to which the change will impact their security – will I still have a job, will I earn less money, will I still be able to support my family, will I lose what I value?    From the comms perspective, any other message is likely to fall on deaf ears, or its value will be muted.    But it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to satisfy these needs immediately – especially if the change has a negative people impact – so our focus will be to establish the basics around why the change is happening, what the future looks like and how we intend to get there so that people can internalise and interpret accordingly.   Support, clarity, dialogue, listening, reassurance, empathy and patience is the name of the game here.  Only when our people have this need satisfied, or at least acknowledged, will they be ready to move on.

The next question is ‘OK, so even if I don’t lose my job, will my role change – will I have to do something different?’.   This will spark a whole range of exploratory questions to ascertain the level of threat and the likely impact of personal change.  The key focus here for the individual is to find out exactly what will be different so he/she can come to a conclusion about what it means to them.   Of course, some people may welcome the opportunity for change because they may not be happy in their current role or may seek change or advancement.   Some people may even want to leave the organisation entirely  (although they will only do so if they can satisfy their need for security, like a big fat redundancy cheque!).   The comms need now moves to picture-painting, answering questions, conversations, timescales.  There will be frustration if needs aren’t met, so expect that and plan for it.

The needs then become more nuanced.   I think identity will come next.   So having satisfied the first two needs around security and role, the next big question will be ‘where do I fit?’.   This means understanding more about what the organisation will look like in the future – what team and department will I be part of?   Status will play a part here too.   Will I come out of this change in a better position, with a clearer sense of purpose, with good colleagues around me?   How will I contribute to the organisation?   Here is when we need to  ramp up the engagement.   People will begin to feel part of the future so they’ll be seeking answers around ‘what it will be like’ and what the wider organisation will look like.   It’s probably only at this stage that they’ll start showing true engagement around the big picture as they contemplate their position within it.

So next will be what I would describe as value.   If I’m satisfied up to this stage, I have reassurance around my security, I have an idea of how my job will change and I know more about where I fit.   So now I’m needing to know more about how I’ll do my job in the future.   What new skills will I need to learn?  Will my skills be valued in the organisation (and in the marketplace)?     To meet needs here we’ll need to provide clarity around things like operating models, capabilities and training.   Engagement will increase here as individuals look to understand what’s expected of them in the new world.

Which takes us onto the penultimate stage of my little pyramid – opportunity.   As our people gradually have their core needs met, they will start to look beyond the ‘here and now’ to what comes next.   They will seek and explore opportunities from the change, so their needs will become more forward-looking and personal.   They may ponder opportunities for advancement, they may seek new challenges and they may have ideas to contribute.  They may also be keen to play a more active role in shaping the future so this is a good time to engage them with opportunities to get involved.  By now, they’ll be through the change curve and exploring what the future holds.

Finally, we come to the top of the tree – fulfilment.   Like Maslow’s final stage of self-actualization, this is about the need to reach ones potential.  In our context, this is achieving that level of engagement that leads to mastery, commitment and the pursuit of excellence.    We all have a need to be the best we can, but we must understand that other needs come first.   As change managers and change communicators, we have to be patient, plan our interventions and work hard to satisfy our audience’s needs.   I’ve always believed that change communication is as much about understanding human behaviour as it is about good communications practice.   I hope this explains why.

QR codes on gravestones… why not?

I read in a magazine yesterday that an enterprising funeral parlour in Dorset is offering to place quick response (QR) codes on headstones which, when scanned on a smartphone, open up an online biography of the deceased.   At first this sounds a little morbid, but then why shouldn’t gravestones go digital?   The password-protected codes enable mourners to see photos, videos, tributes and obituaries from the graveside, although they can also be placed (for £300) on trees, benches or plaques.  There’s something quite heart-warming about that if you ask me.  What a romantic way to preserve someone’s memory.  QR codes have been around since the mid-nineties but only recently have they crossed over (swarmed over more like) from industry to the world of advertising.   The codes are now a familiar sight on print adverts, offering quick and effortless access to websites as a way to coax potential consumers to engage with the product or service.   Clearly QR codes have huge potential for internal comms too and I wonder how many organisations are exploiting this technology.   As we continually strive for new and creative ways to ‘sell’ our wares to ever-demanding audiences, QR codes clearly offer an option to support campaigns, layer messages and exploit curiosity.    It seems a reasonable next step when you consider how smartphones are taking over our lives.   I read in the same magazine* that a third of smartphone users in the UK check their devices for social network and email updates in bed before saying good morning to their partners.  According to the new survey from Three, it seems 26% of 18-24 years olds sleep with their phones.  Oh dear.

* The Week, 15th September 

If your company uses QR codes for internal comms purposes, please let me know.  I’d love to find out more.

So, what’s it like being in the zone?

One of the best books I’ve read in a while is The Element by Sir Ken Robinson.   The sub-title is “How finding your passion changes everything”, which pretty much sums up neatly what it’s about.  Regular readers will know that I’m a big fan of Sir Ken and his views on creativity and education and this book is full of witty, inspiring and insightful stories about people who have found their own ‘element’ – be it in sport, politics, music, arts, business, whatever.    But this isn’t a book review.   I wanted to pull out one passage that really struck a chord with me.    Sir Ken was recalling a time when he watched his brother play in a band in Liverpool many years ago.   After the gig, a young Sir Ken approached the very talented keyboard player, Charles, and said “I’d love to play the piano like that”.   “No you wouldn’t” replied Charles.   “Er, yes I really would” said a surprised Ken, to which Charles responded:  “No you wouldn’t.  You like the idea of being able to play the piano.  If you’d love to play it, you’d be doing it”.    And he’s right.   We all like the idea of being really really good at something, of obtaining mastery in a particular skill, but how many of us are truly prepared to put in the hard work and dedication to reach the heights to which we say we aspire?   In his bestselling book Drive, Daniel Pink describes mastery as one of the key motivating drivers for the 21st Century.   But as Dan says, “only engagement can produce mastery”.    We’re not going to achieve excellence in our personal lives unless we become engaged.   I won’t become a scratch golfer because I can’t get excited about golf but until recently I was prepared to work hard to be as good as I can be at tennis.  Why, because I love the sport and I had role models (Sampras and Federer).  I was engaged.  By the way, I still love tennis but I’ve ‘found my level’ and I’m comfortable with my own level of mastery!    But what about professional mastery?   We all want to be as good as we can possibly be in our jobs, right?   But we have surveys up to our eyeballs telling us that so few people are engaged at work (as little as 2% in some organisations) so where’s all this mastery going to come from?   According to Dan Pink, the magic formula is autonomy, creativity and purpose.   Give people the freedom to take control over their jobs and careers, allow and encourage their creativity and provide them with a sense of meaning.   By doing so, we enter the world of ‘flow’, famously invented by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the state of mind of being ‘in the moment’ – what athletes call ‘the zone’ – when you are so consumed with what you are doing that you fail to notice time passing and you can think of nothing else.   When was the last time you were in flow?   For me, it’s when I’m writing – when I know I’m writing something good – or when I’m running a workshop and you can tell things are happening in the room.    Progressive companies are recognising the business benefits of flow and enabling their employees to seek mastery (mastery is never obtained of course, the struggle for perfection is all part of the attraction) through creative performance management, collaborative technologies and playful environments.    This is where communicators can make a big difference – not only by seeking their own mastery, their own moments of flow, but through telling stories, reinforcing meaning and sharing creative anecdotes.   Let’s interview colleagues and ask them what being ‘in the zone’ means to them, when they are most fulfilled at work, what motivates them and what part of their job they most want to master.   Let’s draw a clearer line of sight between the organisation’s objectives and the actual on-the-ground capability it requires to deliver them.  And then let’s celebrate that capability.  Who are the experts and why are they good at what they do?  Who are the learners and what do they need to get better?   So many business communications are too impersonal.   Let’s get real people talking about their aspirations, their pursuit of excellence, their ‘element’, their passions and motivations.    Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the deep sense of engagement that comes from being in flow as “the oxygen of the soul”.     Now that’s a story I’d like to hear.

What happens when values turn bad

Last year I was running a comms workshop with a client.   At one point we started discussing messages and the importance of aligning comms to key strategic themes, values etc (like you do).   Remembering that this particular organisation had ‘innovation’ as one of its global values I put forward the suggestion that they might like to consider ways to bring this value alive through their comms.    Oh dear, it was like I’d killed a kitten.   All went silent.  Eyes looked down.   Feet shuffled nervously.   “Have I said something wrong?” I ventured.   “You just said a dirty word” someone replied.  “We’re tired of hearing about innovation.  It’s all we’ve had drilled into us for the last year.  We’re all sick of it.”   “But it’s one of your corporate values” I said, digging the hole even deeper.   “Yes, but it’s all talk.   All we hear about is how important innovation is but there’s nothing to back it up.   We just aren’t innovative.”   You see, the value had become meaningless.   Worse, it had become a negative rather than a positive influencer.  In this organisation, ‘innovation’ was now a word to be avoided (banned, even) instead of exploited and celebrated.    It was really sad hearing people be so dismissive and cynical about a word that should (in theory) be a core part of their working ethos.   That’s the point of values, right?   But what this tale reinforces is that values can bite back if you don’t look after them, nurture them and personify them.   Having values that you don’t live by – in a tangible way – is like breaking trade descriptions.    I don’t have a stated set of values in my business, but if I did, innovation would be one of them.  I believe in innovation – I seek it out, I strive to apply it in what I do and I like to celebrate it in others.   I’d like to think that I ‘live the value’ in that sense.   Unfortunately, so many organisations pick values that they think look good on their website and on posters, but which they don’t really understand.   They don’t understand that a ‘value without action’ is like a chocolate teapot.   Pointless.   Innovation is a very popular value, but when you speak to people whose organisation preaches the importance of innovation and ask what  happens on the ground to make it real, they are often stuck for an answer.   It sounds great for a company to say it’s innovative, but does it invest in creative capability?  Does it have the structure and processes to manage innovation?  Does it have a culture that encourages and nurtures ideas?  Does it have the collaborative networks to allow innovation to flourish?  Does it have leaders who understand what innovation is and what it requires?   Does it have good communicators?   Does it even know what it’s innovating for?   If you can’t answer these questions, don’t have it as a value.   My experience last year was a profound and insightful lesson in what happens when you preach one thing and do another.  Or do nothing.   Having values that your people don’t believe in is far worse that not having values at all.    Value statements may be all the rage … but if you don’t make them meaningful, rage is what you’ll get.