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!

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.

I’m holding out for a hero

heroI was in a coffee shop the other day and before leaving I took our cups back to the counter to save the staff having to walk over and clear the table.  The bloke behind the counter called me a “legend”.    Well I dunno about that, but it did get me thinking.   We need more heroes.   Recognition schemes, best practice awards, employees of the month and all those corporate  initiatives are just not inspiring enough.  Come on, let’s make some real heroes.  I don’t mean coffee shop legends who don’t deserve it, I mean those people in our organisations who really are the stars.  The thinkers, the doers, the motivators, the cheery souls, the ideas people, the innovators, the devotees, the unsung heroes who drive company culture and make the organisation what it is.

I’ve been reading Will Durant’s Heroes of History, in which the great American writer salutes those who, in his view, have made the greatest impact on man’s rise to greatness – from Confucius to Shakespeare, via ancient Greece and Rome.   I have never read Durant before, but blimey he’s a good writer.   Look at this passage from the introduction to his ‘top ten heroes’ …

“I see men standing on the edge of knowledge, and holding the light a little farther ahead.  Men carving marble into forms ennobling men.  Men moulding peoples into better instruments of greatness.  Men making a language out of music, and music out of language.  Men dreaming of finer lives, and living them.  To contemplate such men, to insinuate ourselves through study into some modest discipleship to them.  To watch them at their work and warm ourselves at the fire that consumes them.   Too soon we extinguish the flame of our hope and our reverence.  Let us change the icons and light the candles again.” 

It’s thrilling stuff from a writer devoted to celebrating the human spirit and championing greatness.    And in some ways, its “greatness” that we should be talking about in our world – not good practice.    If I walked into an organisation for the first time – or I was thinking of joining one – I’d want to know who the heroes are and why, not what best practice looks like or how the recognition scheme works.   You’ll find out much more by asking “so, who are your heroes and why?”.   We comms people have the means to “light the candles” of greatness within our own office walls.   So let’s not be shy of using a bit of hyperbole.  Let’s find and shine the light – let’s “warm ourselves at the fire” –  of those ordinary heroes who do what they do every day at work … and who make us all feel just that little bit better about ourselves.

PS – My hero growing up was Phil Collins.  I even bought a drum kit because of him.  How cool am I? (don’t answer that)

Could you pass the 60-second challenge?

60seconds[1]This weekend at Manchester Museum, researchers from the University of Manchester gave one-minute microlectures to the public on the subject of biomedical research.   The ‘Manchester Minute Microlectures’ event challenged the researchers to explain aspects of their work in just 60 seconds, followed by tea, cake and questions.   It was a real eye-opening event (part of a day of family activities at the museum on the subject of the human body) and a great way to gain insight into an area of science most of us wouldn’t normally be exposed to.    The challenge for the speakers of course was to crystallize their message and ‘sell’ their research to an audience of people from eight to eighty years old with no knowledge of the subject whatsoever….. in just one minute.

The microlecture format is growing in popularity in education.  Of course, in comms we have the rather tired but effective ‘elevator pitch’ concept in which we encourage teams and functions to memorise and sell their vision/project in about 40 seconds …. the scenario being that you bump into the CEO in an elevator and he asks you what you’re working on.  You’ve got until the doors open to make your impact.    Microlectures offer greater variety.   They can be in video, podcast, presentation or ‘stand-up’ format, from one minute to (roughly) five or six.   As refreshers or ‘quick dip’ exposures they can be really effective.   For the ‘seller’ or presenter, it forces the selection of not the ‘important’ messages or the ‘really important’ messages, but the ‘most important’ messages.     And it encourages creativity.   If you’ve got one minute to make an impact, wouldn’t you look to do something different?   Microlectures can be fun too, by pitching competing or diverse topics together in a Dragon’s Den environment, or inviting the audience to vote on the talk that made the most impact.

In Manchester at the weekend, some lectures succeeded, other’s didn’t.    The speakers who did well were (surprise, surprise) the ones who told stories.   In their best-seller Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath recall an experiment in which they asked Stanford students to give a one-minute presentation on crime patterns in the United States.   They were all given the same source material but half the group was asked to deliver a one-minute persuasive speech to convince their peers that nonviolent crime is a serious problem in the country.   The other half were told to take the contrary position – that it wasn’t particularly serious.    After each speech, the presenters were rated on their delivery and persuasive ability.    Not surprisingly, the eloquent, polished and charismatic speakers rated highly.   At the end, the experiment appeared to be over and the facilitator moved on to something else.  Then, ten minutes later, he stopped abruptly and asked the students to pull out a piece of paper and write down, for each speaker they heard, every idea or message they remember.    Guess what?  The students could barely remember anything!   They only heard eight one-minute speeches and it was only ten minutes ago, but they could hardly remember a single message from each talk …. EXCEPT for those who told stories.   On average, 63 per cent remembered the stories, while only five per cent remembered the statistics.   They also found that the polished speakers did no better when it came to remembering the messages.   It was the story, not the delivery, that made the difference.

So why not consider the microlecture format when you’re thinking of ways to share knowledge, explain a project, debunk some jargon, impart some learning or build a community.   It’s good for the speaker, good for the audience and great for the organisation.   Just remember the stories.

Five animals that will unleash your creativity

HawkA few days ago I ran a short workshop for the Institute of Internal Communications in Leeds called ‘unleash your creativity in two hours.’   It turned out to be a really enjoyable session, with a great group of people and some fabulous ideas.  In the opening few minutes of my workshop I asserted that everyone has it in them to be creative at work – creativity is not the exclusive domain of those of us who ‘create’ a tangible output like a piece of writing or design.   The accounts clerk tapping numbers into a PC all day is just as creative if he/she comes up with an idea to alter a business process to improve efficiency.  We then talked a little about how the human brain works – with its 86 billion cells and one quadrillion nerve connections – and how it both enables and stifles creativity.    These connections are the key to creativity.   A newborn baby’s brain will form a million new connections every second.   Every experience, memory, activity, thought and movement creates connections which are stored in the ‘database’ for future reference.    For the most part, these connections keep us alive and make us who we are, but they can also make us (or our brain) lazy.   The brain loves a short cut and likes to jump to conclusions.   Daniel Kahneman explains all this in his bestseller ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’.   If it’s faced with a new stimulus, it looks into the database, pulls out a pre-programmed response and offers it up, almost without ‘thinking’.   It’s why we do what we’ve always done.    So the challenge – if you want new ideas – is to create new connections and deliberately break the patterns of existing thinking and behaviour.

In the workshop, I suggest a five-step process to having great ideas – each one characterised by an animal.

We start with the hawk – which is all about focusing on the problem or challenge you’re trying to solve.   It may sound tempting to ask people if they have any ideas on any subject, but you won’t get much back because the frame was too wide.   Narrow it down and define the challenge clearly before looking for ideas.   They call it ‘squeezing the problem’.   Einstein once said “If I had 20 days to solve a problem, I would take 19 days to define it.”   Ooh, you curly haired Germanic genius.

What you do next depends on how much of a kitten you are.   Now that we’ve focused on the problem, we need to start finding ideas – and that means being curious.   Here’s where we seek new connections, new stimuli, new perspectives, new angles.   Creative people always try to look at things in different ways.  They step outside their own world into other industries, places, experiences and styles.   They seek learning and freshness.   In the workshop, we tried out a technique called ‘other worlds’ to see what we, as communicators, can ‘borrow’ from other industries.  It’s an enlightening exercise and you’ll be amazed at how many influences you can find…. if you look.

Taking things further, we then look at team creativity by becoming puppies and being playful.   Play stimulates creativity.  It creates a safe environment in which people can take risks and try out new things.   We looked at a technique called ‘conceptual blending’ in which we take two random objects and force them together to create a new idea.   A toothbrush and a fishing rod, a boat and a tent, a spider and a bottle etc.    It’s a fun group exercise which forces new connections and lateral thinking.   The trick then is to ‘conceptually blend’ a random object with your work challenge.  For instance, blending a cake with a challenge to get a complex message across may make you think of the way cake recipes are communicated and whether you can use the concept of recipe cards, or the way individual ingredients come together to form a big picture (or a big cake in this case!).

Step four is the owl.  Up to now, the whole creative process should be an entirely open and positive one, with all participants suspending their judgement.  There’s no room for negativity in the ideation phase.   But at some point we have to start applying a bit of discipline.  It’s a business after all, and we do have budgets, pressures, logistical barriers, resource issues and practical limitations.   So now that we have all these ideas, we need to start sifting them.   Being an owl is about being wise – filtering what you have, nurturing (or greenhousing) the ideas, applying some business rationale.    Only now do we start to apply some judgement, so we need criteria and process and all those left-brained qualities we’ve ignored up to now. Shark

Finally, it’ll all be for nothing unless we actually make it happen.   A good idea that doesn’t get implemented is just a good idea.  So here we introduce the shark.  Here’s where you need a whole new set of behaviours –  determination, risk-taking, collaboration, COMMUNICATION, negotiation, boldness.  The great innovators of our time had these qualities in spades.  They didn’t take no for an answer and they weren’t deterred by adversity.  They were sharks.

The next part of my workshop was meant to go on to talk about how we communicators can apply these five-animal-techniques to our role – becoming creative communicators.   But I ran out of time.   If anyone’s interested, I’m doing a full-day creativity workshop for the IoIC on 13th June in London – details here.   Or contact me if you’d like an ideas workshop for your team.

Seven ways to get your line managers communicating

Businessman Wearing CapeI feel I may have been a bit harsh when I had a pop at managers in my last post.   I do stand by what I wrote – about managers being afraid to communicate and all that – but I feel I should at least balance up the criticism with something a little more constructive.   It just so happens that I’m designing a new training course for the Institute of Internal Communications about how we comms people can get the most from our line managers, so this may be an appropriate time to float some practical suggestions.   Here, then, are seven ways in which we can support our line managers to become informed, engaged, capable, inspired and inspiring communicators. 

See managers as human beings rather than a component of an operating model.     Line managers may have a job that gives them responsibility for managing people but they are individuals too.  They have the same pressures, frustrations, dreams, motivation and fears as the rest of us and research tells us that they are often the unhappiest people in the organisation – not close enough to the top to make decisions and reap the rewards, and not close enough to the bottom to deliver to customers and ‘make a difference’.   They are the squeezed middle – over-worked, under-valued and very often, lonely.   So we need to do our best to treat them with respect and understand where they’re coming from.   That means getting to know them and showing some empathy.

Trust them.   It can be tempting for us as communications professionals to over-support managers.   What I mean is that we often have very honourable intentions to make it easy for them – to package up the message, write it all down for them and then tell them where to stand and what to say (and how to say it).    We do this (i) because we want to be helpful, (ii) because it makes us look good and (iii) because we don’t trust them.   But the future of internal comms is not about controlling everything and we need to learn to trust a little more.   Make friends with the managers, help them believe in themselves, make them realise what power they have to inspire … and watch them surprise you.

Clear messages = clear delivery.   Of course, we need line managers to be well informed for obvious reasons, but they don’t need to know everything.   Perhaps the most valuable thing we can do for our managers is to run a tight ship when it comes to knowing what is important.    Senior leaders suffer from the curse of knowledge and they are too removed from the frontline to know what will stick, so we need to step in and manage the message with clarity and rigour.   Our job is to help create a compelling narrative that runs like a golden thread through the organisation – simple messages, well told.    If the messages line manages receive are clear, the messages they translate and connect with will be too.   So concentrate as much on the message flow between senior and middle managers as you do on the message flow direct to all staff.

Light the flames.    It’s right to step back and empower managers but we should power them too, with the skills, techniques and tools that will make them great.   I wouldn’t use the word ‘training’ – not to a manager’s face – because  they tend not to like the ‘t’ word, but I would concentrate my efforts on equipping them with the practical skills to make them better communicators.    Communication is an art, not a science, and like all artists we all have our own distinct style.    We should never try to turn our line managers into ‘best practice clones’ but we should encourage them to be themselves and offer them some hints, tips and guidance to weave into their own personal way of communicating.   This can be as subtle as a ‘tip of the week’ on the intranet or as deliberate as giving them a skills booklet (like this one on my website!) or offer them a workshop.    But concentrate on proper engagement skills, like listening, making the message stick, storytelling, creativity, building a sense of purpose and engaging through change ….. not just ‘how to deliver a presentation’.

Use peer pressure.   Gauging the right level of support, and knowing how and when to intervene, is hard to get right.    Provide too much support and the managers come to define themselves as a tool of the comms function, but if we don’t support them enough we risk creating a landscape littered with patches of good and bad practice, with little consistency.   This is where a bit of peer pressure can work wonders.   I always favour setting up a dedicated channel for line managers to enable them to check the ‘messages of the moment’, find out what’s going on and to have a nose at what others are doing.    Managers soon take notice when they see their peer group doing stuff that they’re not, so this is a good way of surfacing good practice and facilitating a forum for managers to share ideas and experiences.  Which leads us to …

Community action.    Building a community among line managers can help with knowledge sharing, consistent application and capability uplift.   The more you can get managers together – virtually or physically, the more they will generate ideas and a sense of purpose.    The peer pressure will kick-in and they’ll more willingly take on the responsibilities for comms and engagement.   If they start talking about it amongst themselves you know you’re onto something.  And it only takes a light (but important) touch from you.   Start by finding some role models and champions who already do it well.

Conversations not cascades.    Everyone knows that the Team Brief cascade system of communication doesn’t work.    Using line managers to deliver a functional outcome like passing on a message is not a good use of their leadership skills and does nothing for employee engagement.  And as we know, they won’t do it at the right time anyway, if at all.     The only way managers can truly engage is through conversation – a good old fashioned, eye-to-eye chat.    It’s in those conversations – and the questions asked – that true engagement happens – how are you feeling, is there anything you don’t understand, how can I help, what do you most enjoy doing, what could we do better, are you clear about what’s expected of you, have you any good ideas, what do you want to do next?   Those sorts of questions.   That doesn’t take training, it just takes encouragement, a bit of support, some self-belief and probably a dose of culture change.  Which is a whole different story!

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.

Buildings communicate too

buildings1I’ve always been a big fan of using buildings to communicate.   As we all know, words make up only a small fraction of what we communicate, the rest comes from body language, facial expressions, behaviours etc.   But buildings also communicate and we shouldn’t ignore the impact they can have on getting a message across.   I’ve seen this work really well … and really badly.   I remember ages ago visiting the UK HQ of Microsoft and I was struck by how well they used the building to communicate.  They had touch-screen information points in communal areas, huge hanging banners, posters created by staff on the walls, games rooms, innovation spaces, funky meeting rooms … all neatly and subtly adorned with the corporate message.    I got a feel for the company just waiting in reception.  On the other hand, I also remember a time when I visited the old Marks & Spencer HQ in London.   Now, we all have a perception of M&S as clean, high quality, light and modern.  But this old building was stuffy, dirty and noisy.   I sat in reception and all I could smell was cigarette smoke (it was next door to the smoking room) and there was a misspelt hand-written scrap of paper on the wall saying “All visitors must report to recepton”  (their spelling, not mine!).   The walls were grey and there was nothing to read or look at.   As a visitor, the building was giving me a completely different message to the one I had as a customer.

The reason I raise this is because I’ve been reading about what the office of the future will look like.   According to a recent feature on the BBC News website, we’ll soon have intelligent buildings with sensors built into the walls so that when you walk into the office, your workspace starts preparing itself for your arrival.  The environment is automatically adjusted for your taste – heat, light, ambience etc and your office will transform itself into an “expressive medium” just for you.   Digital walls will show the latest news and information, tailored for your needs and responsive to your touch.    You’ll even have edible walls.  Yes you read that right … edible walls, so even your lunch will be waiting for you when you go to work!   Seriously though, we communicators should really think carefully about buildings as a channel – from the naming of meeting rooms to the placement of interactive screens, from pictures on the walls to banners on the ceiling.

A really creative example of using a building to communicate is the work being done by the excellent John Clifford, senior internal communicator at Pitney Bowes in Hatfield.    Following the relocation of 450 staff to a new business park, John is using the history of the site to bring the office to life and build engagement.    Picking up on the fact that the business park is a redevelopment of the old De Havilland aircraft factory, John is using the ‘spirit of innovation and adventure’ theme to inspire and buildings2motivate colleagues.   Meetings rooms have been named after classic fighter aircraft, photos and information adorn the walls and there’s even some Hollywood glamour with links to Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine.   John hopes to run presentations and set up an exhibition area in the building as part of the company’s culture forum – all part of evoking the history and atmosphere of the building to reinforce modern day business messages and values.   That’s creative communication in action.

If you use your building to communicate, why not tell us about it by posting a reply above?

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.

The biggest communication barrier might just be the one you’re sitting on

ChairA recent post on HBR warning about the unhealthy consequences of ‘sitting’ (in other words, the amount of time we spend on our backsides!) in the workplace and the healing and creative advantages of walking has got me thinking about how much good communication is lost by chair-based apathy.   The post, from businesswoman Nilofer Merchant points out that we spend an alarming 9.3 hours a day on a chair as opposed to 7.7 hours in bed.   That’s a lot of sitting.   Certainly, when I think back to my early working days (in an insurance office) I would spend much of my day walking up and down stairs and across the office floor to actually speak to people (oh, how retro).    Now I work from home and I sit down for most of my day.  No wonder I have back trouble (although since the new year I have taken to walking at least three miles every day, which I’m loving).   Nilofer’s HBR post neatly sets out (as if we didn’t know) the impact on our health of ‘too much sitting’ (a “lethal activity” according to one doctor), so why aren’t organisations doing more to stop their workers from spending so much time on their derrière?   And is there a role for us communicators here?

We could start by encouraging stand-up and walking meetings.   As Ms Merchant discovered when she started holding ‘hiking meetings’, the quality of interaction and outcome actually improves when you meet on the move.    Your concentration improves, mobiles are removed and creativity goes through the roof (well, it would if there was a roof!).   There’s plenty of evidence about the creative benefits of walking too, as I have mentioned before.    The great outdoors removes the physical barriers of the workplace and exposes us to natural stimuli, which feeds our brain with ideas, inspirations and perspectives.   Team walking, or just generally meeting standing up, is more sociable too.   It gives us the opportunity to interact with the whole team, collectively or individually, rather than just the ones who are sitting up our end of the table.    Walking allows for natural periods of silence, during which we can reflect and think – all very healthy in a creative context.    In a typical sit-down business meeting, we don’t tolerate silence.   We expect someone to be talking the whole time.   Not everyone wants to be dragged out on a five mile hike up a hill (I do) but it could just be a stroll around the block or a walk in park.

I once worked in Berkeley Square in London and we would sometimes use the square for impromptu team meetings.   It was the most creative time of my working life.    We communicators should team up with the people who look after health and wellbeing in our organisations and do more to encourage comms on the move – walk ‘n’ talk.   We should be pushing, and role modelling, new and creative ways to interact.   For most organisations, encouraging people to undertake the serious business of work in anything other than a corporate environment is too big a leap of faith for them to take, which in many ways underlines the way companies suffocate creativity.    Most managers would be worried about peer judgement if they were seen to be taking their team out for a picnic meeting or a creative hike.  That, of course, is not a reason to not do it.    Maybe we can start by running a few campaigns to encourage innovative interactions?   Putting all our comms online may have its benefits, but the health and wellbeing of the receiver is not one of them.

Even cavemen used social media

campfireIf the whole of human history was compressed into a single 24 hour day, the ‘old media’ we know and love, like books, TV, telephone and radio, would appear at about two minutes to midnight.   The internet and ‘new media’ would’ve flashed before us in the final seconds.    Even writing and language would only show up around mid-afternoon.   Communication, however, would be the old man of the day –  grey haired and not running for buses like the old days but still very much alive.    Collaboration too, whilst a popular corporate buzzword in 2013, is a concept as old as time.   When our ancestors gathered around campfires in the Serengeti all those millions of years ago, they pioneered the art of what we now call social networking.  As well as tools and resources, they exchanged ideas, myths, stories, fears and jokes.  They ‘friended’ other tribes, traded with them and formed alliances.   They engaged in common endeavours and innovated rapidly.    Life hasn’t really changed all that much has it?

In the final chapter of his excellent book The Self Illusion, scientist Bruce Hood looks at the impact of the internet on our sense of ‘self’.  He highlights examples of lonely, overweight and socially inept individuals living on benefits in bedsits who transform themselves into perfect, healthy, exotic body builders in the online virtual world, Second Life to escape their mundane lives.    This ability to project a different ‘self’ over the internet is both fascinating and of course dangerous.   Dr Hood asks other questions about the impact of the web – and social networking in particular – on our identity.   Is the amount of information at our fingertips on the internet, and our ability to make instant contact with almost anyone on the planet, compromising who we are?    The rather unphilosophical conclusion is no, not really.  If anything, social media is just returning us to where we began – the collaborative campfire.   You see, the point is that the communication tools we have come to rely on in the last few centuries have largely been one-way – books, phones, TV etc.   The Self Illusion quotes TED producer June Cohen in saying that the internet is returning us to a period of human development when communication was truly interactive, decentralised and collaborative, only this time there are no physical boundaries on the number of people who can fit round the campfire.

The human brain also has a point to make.   Although in theory we can become friends with half the world’s population if we were so inclined, the figures suggest that we stop at around 130 (the average number of friends a user will have on Facebook).   A recent survey of the tweets of more than 1.7 million Twitter users found that, as the number of followers increases, the capacity to interact with others start to decline.   It’s called the ‘economy of attention’.   We just can’t have meaningful interactions with millions of people.  We don’t have the time.  Again, the average number of followers one person can realistically interact with is around 130.   The brain has its way of saying enough is enough.   Write down the number of people you know at work and outside work who you genuinely interact with on a regular basis and I bet you won’t have many more than 130, if you even reach three figures.   I have 260+ connections on LinkedIn but I can’t claim to ‘know’ all but a fraction of them in a meaningful way.    I’m not on Facebook, a crime I have already confessed to.

So when all is said and done.   When all the ‘likes’ are added up, the fact remains that we are still essentially human.   Our craving for interaction and collaboration hasn’t diminished for millions of years.   And to be honest, it hasn’t really increased either.   The opportunity and ability has, that’s for sure, but when it comes down to it, we still prefer to feel the warmth of the campfire on our toes.


Who’s to blame for corporate jargon?

golden-bullJust before Christmas, the Plain English Campaign announced the 2012 winners of its annual ‘Golden Bull Awards’ for bringing plain English into disrepute.    And this year’s winners happen to be my own local NHS Trust!   The Cheshire, Warrington and Wirral NHS Commissioning Support Service wins top prize for this classic piece of jargon-fuelled nothingness:

A unique factor of the NHS Cheshire Warrington and Wirral Commissioning support organisation is its systematised methodology for project and programme management of small, medium, large service re-design and implementation…Building in equality and risk impact assessments the options are taken through a process to arrive at the content for an output based specification and benefits foreseen as a result of the implementation.  The service is inclusive of full engagement with Clinical Commissioning Groups who direct at decision-making points how they wish the proposal to be deployed (re-commission, de-commission or changes to current services/providers), and lastly an implementation team who see the service redesign through to evaluation and benefits realisation.

You can see the other mesmerising award winners here, but be warned, don’t read them all in one go if you are prone to migraines.   The sad thing is, of course, that these great examples of corporate fudge and wizardry are not uncommon.  They can be found in pretty much every organisation.   So who really is to blame?   Is it managers with over-inflated egos?  Is it training?  Is it cultural?  Is it a reflection of poor academic standards before people enter the workplace?   Is it a peer pressure that makes leaders in particular feel the need to appear intelligent and business-savvy?   Is it a lack of confidence?  Is it a reluctance to use emotion and authenticity at work?  Is it a deliberate act of confusion?  Is it comms people … are we to blame for the way this has got so out of hand?   jargon1

I’ve never met a comms person who hasn’t complained about the negative impact of jargon, and almost everyone on the ‘frontline’ tells us they want their comms to be plain and simple … so why haven’t we been successful in stamping it out?   Is the battle now too big for us?   Do we not have the influence?   Or is it the lack of will … do we not consider writing to be important anymore?   I saw a blog entry from a comms practitioner today who said (in the context of looking ahead to 2013) that ‘writing is dead’ and it’s pictures and infographics that matter now.   Are these people serious?  If we give up on writing, prose and realness in our comms, we’ll fall into an even deeper abyss.  The infographics will just become ‘jargon in pictures’.  We may like the look of our pretty graphics but our audience will just shake their heads and wonder where it all went wrong.   I’m all for good use of imagery and graphics, but not at the expense of the written word.  No way.  I think good corporate writing is more important than ever!

Maybe, like the Plain English Campaign, we should recognise the skill involved in being able to write 200 words without any discernible point whatsoever.   A few months ago I listened to a very senior executive speak for a whole hour and not say anything.   At the end of the PowerPoint-filled 60 minute presentation, we all turned to each other and said “what did she say?”.   Now that’s talent!   I don’t think corporate communicators can shoulder all the blame for what’s happening but I do think we have to take some responsibility for it.   Are we really doing enough to stamp this out, or do we just relegate it to the ‘too difficult’ pile and pretend to be outraged by it?

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.

Ten new year resolutions for communicators

2013Human beings are hardwired for optimism, and never is our tendency to look on the bright side more in evidence than when we’re approaching the start of a new year.    For most of us, our success rate in living up to new year resolutions is pretty shocking, but every year we adamantly insist that the next 12 months will be different.  It’s in our nature.   So here, with a heaped tablespoon of positivity, I present ten new year resolutions for internal communicators everywhere …

1. Unleash your creativity.   Make 2013 the year you open the dam and let your creative juices flow.   Soon, creativity will be high up on the list of required skills for communicators, so make a start now.  Learn how to have great ideas, understand where creativity happens, know how to encourage others to be creative, open your eyes to fresh perspectives, change the way you look at the world.    You’ll be amazed at what you’ll find.

2. Find your Reason Why.    Purpose is the new money.   It’s what people search for, at work and at play.   Most organisations struggle to explain why they do what they do, which is why they resort to bland and uninspiring vision statements.   So start with your own team.  Talk about why you’re here.   What’s the point of you?    What’s the point of your whole organisation?   Remember, most companies give their people something to work on, inspirational companies give their people something to work towards.

3. Be more playful.   Workplaces are so serious, but they don’t need to be.   Make 2013 the year you introduce some play and fun into what you do.   Try breaking the mould and doing something a little different, something with a sense of spirit and playfulness.    If you want to get your message noticed, you’ll need to break a few patterns of behaviour.

4. Chill Baby Chill.   I don’t mean to come over all Austin Powers here but we really do need to relax and step back from trying to control everything.   The future of internal comms will be much less top-down and managed.  It’ll be personalised, networked, self-directed and collaborative, so we need to change the way we approach our role in the mix.    We’ll need to learn to trust more.   And we’ll need to stop doing some things.

5. Learn something new.   Set yourself a goal to learn something new about our craft.   In my experience, we communicators tend to plough a fairly narrow field of established best practice and we can be slow to embrace new ways of working and thinking.    As the world around us changes, we need to adapt to survive and prosper, so take this time to build your knowledge.  Learn about creativity, change psychology, social media, authentic leadership etc.   Or add some business acumen to your armoury.   Go visit that part of your organisation you know least about.

6. Look again at print.   Printed communication material is coming back into fashion, and not before time.   Of course it needs to be part of a channel mix, including online, but go on, dust off those old label templates and give your printer a call.    You’ll make his day.

7. Review the way you ‘use’ your middle managers.    Line managers may be your biggest frustration but have you considered that maybe they’re just a bit misunderstood?   They may be an important part of your ‘process’ but they are also human beings (most of them) and they can’t be controlled like a piece of machinery.   Cascades never work, so stop trying.   Back off, support them from a  distance and encourage them to express themselves. 

8. De-clutter your message cupboard.    New year is the time for a detox, for clearing out the old and unwanted ‘stuff’ that clutters up our lives.    It’s the same with our comms, so take some time in January to take a look at what you’re communicating.   Be prepared to dump some of the unclear and unnecessary.   Take a deep breath, review your top line messages for 2013 and get rid of any message that is either ‘not important’, ‘important’ or ‘really important’… leaving only the ones that are ‘most important’.

9.  Fall back in love with language.    Let’s make 2013 the year we made a concerted effort to break free of corporate jargon.   It has to stop.   Let’s get some authenticity into corporate communication.   Let’s use language that lifts hearts and boosts spirits.  Let’s show some emotion for God’s sake.   Read Dickens or Shakespeare to remind yourself how powerful the written word can be.    It won’t be easy to break this terrible affliction, but let’s not be afraid to try.

10. Don’t be unoriginal.   If you’re putting your 2013 plan together in January, take a moment to stop and think before you re-hash last year’s template.   Do you really want to do more of the same?  Maybe so, but just take time to think about the impact of each activity.   Was it worth it?   Will it be worth it again, or do we need to try something new?   Much of our industry is templated, structured and managed.   It can make us lazy.   Be original in 2013. Be creative.  Be bold.

Have a Merry Christmas and a Creative New Year.


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

Am I weird to not use Facebook?

I don’t have a Facebook account and I’ve never used Twitter.   Does that make me unemployable and socially inept?  A bit weird even?   And as a communications professional, am I wrong to not embrace the social networking tools that will increasingly dominate the internal corporate communications environment?   Should I be worried?   Apparently, employers are increasingly using Facebook to check on the ‘back story’ of job applicants … to see what they are ‘really like’.  In the US, some employers have made staff hand over their passwords or ‘friend’ their bosses so they can be snooped on.   Some commentators are even suggesting that people without Facebook accounts are loners and potentially dangerous, based on the apparent fact that a number of recent serial killers, including the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, didn’t use Facebook.   Oh, how lovely.    In my defence, I am a big user of LinkedIn for professional networking purposes, and as you can see, I do blog … so I’m not a complete Luddite (actually the English Luddite movement of the 19th century is misunderstood.  The Luddites weren’t anti-machinery for the sake of it, they were protesting against the exploitation of workers and the lowering of standards caused by the introduction of textile machinery).    It’s just that Facebook has never been an attraction to me*.    I really value friendship and so maybe there’s a part of me that worries that having lots of virtual ‘friends’ will devalue the currency of my ‘proper’ friends.   I dunno, I’m no psychiatrist.   So is there something wrong with me?   A recent study in Australia examined the personalities of people with and without Facebook accounts.   People with an account were found to be more extraverted and narcissistic, whereas those without an account were found to be more conscientious and shyer.   They found that those without an account experienced more social loneliness, but those with an account experienced more family loneliness.   I can see the logic there actually.   So what are we to deduce from this?   If you use Facebook, chances are you’re more outgoing and sociable – probably quite confident and maybe even a little egotistical.   For some employers, that’s a good set of characteristics.   On the other hand, if you don’t use Facebook, you may be more hard working and more focused on the job – equally attractive qualities.    So should us non-users be stigmatised or celebrated?   Personally I don’t care, but as social networking increases its profile in the workplace, I do think we need to remind ourselves that organisations, like communities, are made up of many different personality types.   The integration and mix of channels will be just as important in the future as it’s been in the past.

* Mind you, if I did use Facebook I’ll be telling my ‘friends’ that I went to see the brilliant movie Argo yesterday and I’d be urging them to go see it.   I’d try to resist telling them what I had for dinner, how cool I must be for having so many friends and sharing my views on the election of police commissioners zzzzzzzzzzzzz.   

Change and the whining dog

Picture a hot, balmy afternoon in a small town in the middle of nowhere.  Picture a run-down house alone on the edge of a cornfield with a wooden porch and clapperboard windows.   Imagine an old, lazy dog laying out on the porch trying to escape the sun.   Imagine the dog shuffling uncomfortably and whining constantly.   Along comes another dog.   It sidles up against the whining dog and says “hey, what’s the problem?  Why are you whining so?”.   The whining dog replies “because there’s a rusty nail from the floorboard sticking into my side and it hurts”.    “Then why don’t you move?” says the second dog.   “Because it doesn’t hurt enough,” comes the reply.

I tell this story on my change workshops as a metaphor for organizational change.   You see, organisations are full of whining dogs.   There is often a fair degree of pain, discomfort and frustration with the way things are now – enough for us to build a compelling change message – but is the pain bad enough to encourage people to engage with the prospect of embracing change?   Offices and workplaces are full of people who complain about ‘the way things are’ but who then resist change – people who know there must be a better way, but who baulk at the prospect of making it happen.   The same point is made by the famous Gleicher Formula, which states that D X V X F > R, where ‘D’ is the dissatisfaction with the way things are now, ‘V’ is the vision of the future, ‘F’ is the clarity around the first steps to achieving that vision and ‘R’ is the resistance to the change.   In a nutshell, the formula says that the combined ‘score’ of D, V and F has to be greater than the score for R, otherwise change will not occur.   In comms language, it means that we have to have positive engagement around why we’re changing, where we heading and how we’re gonna get there … and then hope that all that outweighs the forces of resistance, such as fatigue, disengagement, lack of investment, flagging leadership commitment, active disruption and general apathy.   I often use the Gleicher Formula in presentations about change to make me look intelligent, but the whining dog story works just as well.   They both essentially emphasize the fundamentals of change communication – we have to reach a tipping point at which our people decide that the effort required to change is ‘worth it’ – that the uncertainty and stress of undertaking change is outweighed by the good that will come from it.  To do that, we have to move along the three lanes of the highway – ‘why’, ‘where’ and ‘how’ – at the same time.   Failure to have a convincing message behind each of these will reduce the score on the left side of the formula and risk the failure of the change.

I heard a third analogy the other day which I also think sums this challenge up rather well:   “Even hell is a hard place to leave if you know your way around.”