Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Little Perspective - Act On What Really Matters

Yesterday a good friend and colleague of mine passed away after a long battle with cancer. He was in his mid 40s and leaves behind his wife and four young children, the eldest of whom is just 13 years old. Andy had successfully created several multi million dollar businesses. At the start of 2010 he quit all the work he was doing and drove his family around Australia for six months. This was before he knew he was sick. 

Andy would often tell me that he believed that life should be lived to the fullest because you never knew what could happen. He also believed that everyone should do their best to develop the talents that they have and that success always included your close relationships.

This July I have already paid for a trip for my entire family of seven to visit with my twin brother and his family who live in the USA. Irrespective of the state of the economy these trips are never cheap. But I want to spend time with my brother and his family; time that honestly can't have a dollar value placed on it. Just like Andy's trip around Australia with his family can't have a dollar value placed on what that was worth to him.

What are you potentially postponing when it comes to creating shared experiences with the people dearest to you in your life. If you would do things differently if you found out that you only had a certain time to live well, guess what, you do only have a certain time to live, you just don't know how long it is. So don't postpone those things that really matter because life might not wait for the 'right time' to come along.

Rest in Peace Andy.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Will Lance Armstrong's Admissions Heighten Consumer Skepticism

Watching the Lance Armstrong interview I couldn't help but think of the classic saying, "If it seems too good to be true it probably is." This also caused me to consider how often 'sayings' seem to be accurate. Maybe it is because sayings arise from collective wisdom over time.

It is this idea of collective wisdom that then caused me to wonder about the ripple effect of Lance's admissions. Will consumers become more skeptical of corporate behaviours?

This morning I noticed this article in The Age Newspaper, Subway, where a foot is a step back.

Matt Corby's 11 inch 'footlong' sub. Photo: Facebook
Perth teenager Matt Corby posted a photo of his 'foot-long' sub on Subway's Facebook page. It clearly indicated that his sub was only 11 inches long.  That's 91.67% of a 12 inch sub. Imagine if you only received 91.67% of most things that you buy. Collective wisdom suggests to me that most people expect a Footlong Sub to be pretty close to 12 inches long. I don't know about you but I've always thought that a foot long sub meant that it was supposed to be 12 inches long. Given they also have a 'Six Inch Sub' this perception is reinforced by other items on their menu.

I quite like Subway and this article isn't about them. Rather, it's about their response and what it represents to consumers. This is what Subway Australia posted on Facebook in response to Matt's photo.

"With regards to the size of the bread and calling it a footlong, 'Subway Footlong' is a registered trademark as a descriptive name for the sub sold in Subway restaurants and not intended to be a measurement of length."

Hopefully Matt's sub is an aberration. But what if it isn't? Personally I'm not going to pull out a measuring tape every time I buy a sub and if I really think about it, 'nearly 12 inches' would be good enough. But 11 inches is not good enough. Skeptically do you think that people will be posting images of 13 inch subs? I don't think so. (Hmmm some skepticism slipping in there...)

Which brings me to my point. The Lance Armstrong admission is going to make consumers more skeptical of what they are being sold and the intentions of organisations. It will also make them more skeptical of the responses that organisations provide, such as the response provided above from Subway. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to work out that if your product is only 91.67% of the size that the market expects, but you are 'getting away' with selling it at the smaller size then your cost savings go straight to your bottom line. People aren't stupid. They can work these things out and social media makes it easy for them to provide this feedback.

The problem that Subway may have is that their Footlong Subs may in fact only be 11 inches long. In other words, over time their system may have been changed so that is what they produce. Despite the name being 'Footlong' they may have created a system that creates a gap between what they are marketing and what they are actually saying. These decisions may have been made a long time ago with the benefits of those changes going to Subway and not their consumers. No doubt many organisations have made similar decisions - but these decision create a Market Communication Gap. What the market perceives they are going to get is different to what it actually gets. Ultimately this creates poor service.

What are your thoughts? Will Lance Armstrong's admissions drive consumer skepticism and what does this mean for organisations?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Passion Matters If You Want Success - Audio
Gary Ryan from Organisations That Matter explains the power of passion and how it impacts your ability to create the success you desire.

This episode is part of the What Really Matters For Professionals Development Podcast.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

If you listen, service excellence follows

The capacity to listen is probably the most important skill that relates to service excellence. Without this capacity staff will not know the expectations of their customers, each other, or the key stakeholders of their communities. Organisations that provide great service are fantastic listeners; to their customers, to their key stakeholders and to each other within the organisation.

William Isaacs (1999) notes that our culture is dominated by sight. Light moves at 186,000 miles per second, yet sound only travels at 1,100 feet per second. In summary, William Isaacs says that in order to listen we must slow down.

How do you and/or your organisation slow down to listen?

Our hearing puts us on the map. It balances us. Our sense of balance is intimately tied to our hearing; both come from the same source within our bodies...Hearing is auditory, of course, relating to sound. The word auditory...most ancient root means “to place perception.” When we listen, we place our perceptions.
(William Isaacs, lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management, consultant and author)

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Principles can solve the centralisation - decentralisation puzzle

Bureaucratic organisations like things to be controlled. Rather, they like things to have the appearance of being controlled. As a result they like to create rules and policies that have a one size fits all look and feel about them.

Governments are bureaucracies. It makes sense given they are funded by tax payer dollars and therefore need to be accountable.

They generally have limited funds and are therefore constantly trying to control how money is spent to ensure that it isn't wasted while also ensuring that every cent is properly accounted according to their rules and policies. This attitude to controlling money tends to spread to all operations of government. All policies and rules tend to be centralised.

In this context governments tend to be highly centralised in the way that they operate.
In reality, such centralisation doesn't work, not on its own anyhow. I have recently been working with a government organisation where the frontline employees have informed me that many of the rules that are applied to their part of the organisation are not applied in practice and that an informal system exists to "get things done", and to work around the rules and policies. They have informed me that the reason they do this is that while the rules and policies might make sense for some parts of the organisation, in reality they don't make sense for their part of the organisation. They believe that the rules and policies are impossible to implement while also being financially responsible, so they have created their own way of working around the rules so that they, once again, can, "...get things done."

What has been interesting about my recent work is that the employees recognise that there are dangers with the informal system, particularly as they relate to people with power who may be the ones deciding what policies get implemented and which ones don't. While they have reported that the informal system works well most of the time, they recognise that sometimes it doesn't 'work' at all.

This highlights that while bureaucracies believe that they have a centralised system, a de-centralised system, the informal system, also exists. Dr. Dave Snowden from Cognitive Edge calls this the realities of a complex adaptive system. The world is not 100% ordered as a bureaucracy would like it to be. The existence of an informal system highlights that the world of a bureaucracy is not as ordered as it assumes.

So how should a bureaucracy manage such a situation? It wants everything to be centralised, has established rules and policies to establish centralisation, but the existence of the informal system means that, in fact, everything is not centralised. Local departments and teams have established their own rules, meaning that there is a strong element of decentralisation in the way the organisation operates. While the decentralised system works most of the time, it is open to misuse which could place the bureaucracy at the mercy of the very risks it is trying to control through its centralised system. What a dilemma!

One way to manage this system is for the bureaucracy to identify which policies and rules aren't, in reality being applied across the entire organisation. There will definitely be a lot of rules and policies that are being properly applied across the entire organisation, so these also need to be identified. In other words, the bureaucracy needs to identify which centralised policies are working at the local level, and which ones aren't.

For the ones that aren't working at the local level the evidence will be that different informal systems will be operating at the local level to fit the needs of each local area. Across the entire organisation there will be a range of informal responses that have been created by the various local departments and/or teams within departments to 'work around' the rules and policies.

There is no use pretending that these informal systems don't exist. So they need to be acknowledged.

The bureaucracy then needs to identify the principles that can provide the guidance for local departments and teams to then devise their own system that 'works' for them. This means that the bureaucracy will have consistency across the entire organisation (provided by the principles) while also having a decentralised response at the local level. Such a system also reduces the risk that the informal system may be abused by local leaders who have the power and authority to do so.

As an example let's look at a typical work from home policy. In an effort to be seen as  flexible workplaces, bureaucracies often create policies that enable staff to work from home. While some departments find it relatively easy to implement such a policy, other departments find it effectively impossible because of the 'hands on' nature of their work. As an example it is pretty difficult for a garbage collector to do their job working from home!

In this example the centralised policy doesn't work. In fact, it causes problems because the employees know that the policy exists but also know that it won't be implemented in their department. So they rightly wonder, "What's the point of the policy if we can't use it?".

What if the bureaucracy was to create a set of principles for workplace flexibility? Some of those principles may include:
  1. A range of flexible workplace options, selected from the approved list of options, must be available at the local level;
  2. Local teams must be involved in the selection of the range of flexible workplace options that 'work' for them and support rather than hinder local workplace performance and financial accountability; and
  3. Employees have the right to discuss flexible workplace options with their supervisors that fit the above criteria.
Such a system provides the best elements from the centralised view of the world, while also embracing the best of the decentralised view of the world. Each department/team would need to be able to show how they are implementing the principles and would need to provide evidence that the principles are, in fact being implemented.

The result. Organisation wide principles that are being implemented across the entire organisation. Yet the exact implementation of these principles would vary across the organisation depending on the needs of the local teams. As such the bureaucracy would have the best of both the centralised and decentralised views of the world.

Gary Ryan provides consulting services to enable organisations to move beyond being good.