Category Archives: Purpose

Cultures are the sum of all the stories

uluru3I’ve just returned from two weeks touring round Australia with my eleven year old daughter.   On our travels we visited Uluru, or Ayers Rock, and learnt all about the culture of the Anangu people, the traditional inhabitants of the area.    The Anangu are said to have the world’s oldest living culture, dating back more than 20,000 years, and one of the reasons for its continuity is the strength of its stories.   In this culture, knowledge is not written down but passed on through songs, rituals, stories and art.   We saw cave paintings on Uluru depicting a great battle between a python woman and a poisonous snake man, as well as tales of other colourful characters such as a kingfisher woman and an evil devil dingo!    These sacred stories are stunning in their simplicity and yet profound in their meaning.   They are passed from generation to generation with great conviction and passion, supported by the physical ‘evidence’ of rock folds, shaped boulders and glacial markings.   You can’t help but believe in them.

At the end of the day, that’s what culture is – the sum of all the stories.  In business, an organisational culture is defined by its stories, tales and myths, and cultures can span generations if the stories are strong enough.   It also explains why culture is so hard to change.   You can’t un-tell the stories once they’ve been told.   You can’t un-behave.    All you can do is to create the conditions for more stories to be told and – to an extent – you can be deliberate about changing some drivers of culture, like artefacts, behaviours, processes and environment.     As we communicators know, sometimes we can deliberately craft new stories, or narratives as we often call them.   We can introduce new rituals and create the modern day equivalent of wall art, but the lesson from the Anangu is that is has to have meaning.   That, I think, is where many organisations fail in their attempts at culture change – the change has no meaning to the ‘tribe’ sitting round the campfire.    Too often, we try to change culture by producing values posters and inspirational mouse mats, but these are simply artefacts.  It’s like having the cave painting without the story.   Culture change happens at a very deep, emotional level – below the surface – where the beliefs, mindsets and motivations lie.   And it doesn’t change overnight, or by Christmas.  It takes years of effort, heaps of role modelling and a shed-load of comms to make it happen.    I once heard culture described as “an active living phenomenon through which people jointly create and recreate the worlds in which they live”.    The key word there is ‘jointly’.    Cultures can change, of course, but bringing about that change requires a joint effort way beyond the tangible artefacts of open plan offices and innovation spaces.    It requires new stories, new rituals and new behaviours.    And it requires time.    That’s as true for an ancient civilization like the Anangu as it is for a bank.

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.

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.

Ten ways to find purpose in your work

I have written a number of times about how we as communicators and leaders should help people to find purpose in their work.   Purpose – or doing a job that means something – is dramatically climbing up the chart of what motivates people at work (much higher than money).    We need to take it seriously.   But what does ‘finding purpose’ really mean in practice and how can we be creative in helping people make sense of what they do at work?    Well, here are ten simple and practical ways to help you and your team find that reason to get out of bed each working day …

1. Play ‘whose purpose is it anyway’ – get your team to individually write down what they think your team’s purpose is.   Then come together to discuss and find the common ground.   Set some rules, like 10 words max and no jargon, and ask people to write what they really feel, not what they think the correct answer is.   The discussion itself will be enlightening and will bring your team together.

2. On a similar vein, ask everyone to answer the question “why am I doing this” or “how is what I do relevant”.   Or ask them to write down five words that describe what their job means to them.    Then go round and ask each other why.   Some will say ‘money’, others will write ‘fulfilment’ or ‘friendship’.    It’ll tell you a bit about why they do what they do.

3. Communicate to your team using words that lift their spirits and rouse their hearts.   Line managers, leaders and communicators take note.   Giving people meaning requires an emotional connection.   You need to reach inside them and make them feel something.    You can’t do that with PowerPoint.   To instil a sense of purpose in others you must show a sense of purpose in yourself.   Remember, Martin Luther King turned up in Washington on August 28th 1963 with a dream, not a Gantt chart. 

4. Talk openly about failures and things that don’t work out.   Sometimes we find meaning in loss, in chaos, in failure.   Sometimes we need things to go wrong to show us how to put them right.    Sometimes we need the humility to admit to making mistakes.   By talking openly about failure we can renew our sense of purpose, come together and resolve to put it right.

5. Offer praise regularly, and explain why.   Praise isn’t solely in the gift of the manager.   Let people know when you think they’ve done a good job or helped you do yours.   People get just as motivated by little pats on the back as they do for winning ‘employee of the month’.   Praise, with a reason why, adds meaning to work.  It lets people know that what they do matters.

6. Volunteer.  If you can do something together as a team in the community it can really add a new dimension to the way you work back in the office.   The feeling of coming together to achieve a common goal outside of work can have a powerful knock-on effect in terms of team dynamics, personal relationships and building a sense of purpose in the day job.

7. Be an organisational tourist.   Visit other areas of your organisation, or invite them to visit you, to better understand the part they play in the big picture and to put what you do into some context.   Context can provide meaning, and meaning will give you purpose.    Take steps to find out what happens to the work you do.     If you work in comms, go and find out how you are making a difference.  If you work in accounts, learn how your work helps keep the business running.

8. Pause and reflect.   Every now and again, take the team away from the office and take some time to stop, pause and reflect on what it is you do.   Stay high level, don’t get bogged down in detail or problems, and just take a step back.   Look at what you do, how you work, the service you provide, the reputation you have, the reason you all come to work.    Involve everyone and make an event of it.

9. Become a superhero.   Or whatever you want.   Everyone wants a job title that sounds cool to their friends, so play a game with your team to reinvent your titles.   Ask everyone to look at what it is they do (and why) and ask them to create a cool business card that sums up the role they play in the organisation.    Encourage them (and yourself) to go way over the top with descriptive adjectives and hyperbole.   Imagine your role stripped down to the basics and in a completely different fantasy world.   How would you describe it then?   It’s a great and fun way to look at the job you do.   If you work in accounts, maybe you’d feel better about having “numerical alchemist” or “bullion balancer” on your door?

10.  Be human.  Ever since we first looked up at the stars and contemplated our place in the grand scheme of things we human beings have searched for meaning.   Finding purpose in our work doesn’t have to be quite such a philosophical challenge, but it does require us to stay true to our basic human characteristics – asking questions, finding answers, seeking simplicity, collaborating with others, providing emotional support, connecting the dots, telling stories, offering praise, being creative.    Humanise the work environment and you’ll humanise the work.

Bring on the Meaning Makers!

OK, one last Olympic-related posting, then I’ll move on.   What most struck me about spending some time at the Games last week was the enthusiasm of the volunteers, or Games Makers as they were called.   These purple-shirted members of the public were from all walks of life, giving up their time for two weeks to be part of something special, something they could tell their grandchildren.   Some were assigned to queue control, some were posted around London to provide help and information, and some were given duties at events.    At the volleyball, for instance, they even had volunteers whose job it was to wipe the sweat off the courts between points!   So it got me thinking about how far people will go, and how enjoyable it is for them and others, when they are truly engaged.   Engagement is about having an emotional connection to a cause, a theme, an idea, a purpose.    The Olympic volunteers had this engagement in spades but it can be replicated in any organisation if the sense of purpose and level of involvement is strong enough.   Games Makers reminds me of the term Meaning Makers, referred to by Dan Pink in his book A Whole New Mind about the rise of the right-brained worker.    Meaning Makers are people in the organisation who ‘get it’ and have the skills to make sense of the world to those around them.   And it is a skill.   Meaning Makers don’t read out briefings and deliver PowerPoints.   They interpret and convey messages in a way that connects because they are truly engaged with the subject matter themselves.  They communicate with passion, clarity and credibility.    One of the problems we have in internal communications is that we allocate communication responsibilities based on job title and status rather than on ability and character.   Of course, some communications need to be delivered by leaders, but many don’t.    Meaning Makers can be those subject experts who just have a flair about the way they communicate, like those scientists who can explain the laws of physics and astronomy to schoolchildren.    I’d love to see organisations identify and appoint Meaning Makers who can take on some communication and education responsibilities in addition to their ‘day job’, like the London Games Makers.    Let’s have people with a passion for communication and an ability to engage others be recognised as official Meaning Makers on a particular topic, so that anyone in the organisation can go to them to learn and gain clarity on whatever topic they specialise in.   For instance, who is the Finance Meaning Maker who can explain transactional finance and SAP in a way that engages and makes sense?    Who is the Operating Model Meaning Maker that can bring structure and processes to life?    I’m not saying Meaning Makers should all wear coloured shirts but I would like to see them recognised formally – maybe they have a sign over their desk or a badge so people know who they are and that they are there to help colleagues make sense of the world.    London Games Makers were selected not on their occupation or role in society but purely on their enthusiasm, personality and their ability to connect with people.    So should Meaning Makers.   Creative internal communication is not about doing it all yourself, it’s about using the talents and skills of those colleagues with great communication skills in the organisation.   So bring on the Meaning Makers!

Forget vision, it’s purpose that counts

Hands up if your organisation has a vision.   Mmmm, that’s most of you.   But why do we have visions, and do they work?   Most of them aren’t inspiring.  Many are too long, full of jargon and instantly forgettable.   Ask people in most organisations what their company vision is and they either won’t know or they’ll repeat it with an embarrassed giggle and a frown, as if it’s been drummed into them against their will.  Which it probably has.    Personally, I think visions are overrated.   In fact, I’d go as far as saying that most visions don’t work.    Yes, they set a direction and articulate a view of the ‘desired state’ – nothing wrong with that – but they don’t motivate.   People get motivated by purpose and meaning, by feeling they are part of something.   They get engaged by having an emotional attachment to the organisation – a sense of fulfillment, pride and togetherness.     In his popular book on leadership, Start With Why, author Simon Sinek asserts that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”.    Is it enough to put forward a set of messages about where the organisation is headed and what it aspires to, if the receiver of the message doesn’t know why?    What’s more, research has shown that people don’t get motivated by a promise of what might be in the future.  They get motivated by what’s happening now.   It’s called the theory of ‘delayed gratification.’   Offer someone £100 now or £110 in a week from now and most people will take the £100 now.  Offer them £100 now or £500 in a week and they’ll be interested, but will probably not trust you to deliver.   This is what we do with visions – set out a grand description of how great we hope things will be in the future, but how often do we deliver?   And are we that motivated by the prospect of what 2015 might look like when real life tells us we might not even be here?   How many workers are genuinely going to get inspired by a vision to “deliver shareholder value” or to “leverage benefits across the value chain”?   Would that get you out of bed?   No, it’s purpose that counts.    Workers nowadays want to know what they are part of and why they do what they do.   They want to feel that what they do makes a difference.    Ever since we first looked up at the stars, we human beings have looked for meaning in our lives.   It’s what Viktor Frankl wrote about in his groundbreaking book Man’s search for meaning … a book written on scraps of stolen paper during his time in Auschwitz and which describes how, even in the darkest places, we can still find significance in our lives.    But do most of us really have true significance in our working lives?   Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-vision.   I understand and support the need to set a direction, articulate a future and give people some idea of what their organisation is aiming for.  I get the point of values, as long as they reflect the values of the people who work in the organisation and they are involved in their creation.   But vision and values aren’t enough.   They explain the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ but they don’t say ‘why’.   And it’s ‘why’ that matters.

Right Brain Rising!

A Whole New Mind by Dan Pink

This book has been out a while but I have to give it a plug.   It provides a fascinating and highly convincing argument as to why the successful workers of the future will be those who can master the creative right side of the brain.  Pointing to how abundance, Asia and automation is ‘changing the game’ for analytical left-brain knowledge workers (sorry doctors, accountants, lawyers, IT workers .. you’ve had your day!), Dan describes how the winners of the future will be the designers, storytellers, carers, big-picture thinkers and meaning-makers.   It underlines how corporate communications …. and actually leadership in general …. is essentially a right-brain activity.   Dan outlines the six fundamentally human abilities that are essential for professional success and personal fulfillment and reveals how to master them.  From a laughter club in Bombay, to an inner-city high school devoted to design, to a lesson on how to detect an insincere smile.   A must-read for anyone in comms, and in facts anyone who owns a brain.   It’s the reason why, when looking for new schools for my daughter, the first place I wanted to see was the art department.   That’s where the future is.  More on Amazon