Five links: the brain; dystopia/utopia; empowerment; cartoon Rumi; creativity and staying true

  1. The brain: Dispensing with the metaphor that the brain is like a computer.
  2. Economics & democracy (video): Yanis Varoufakis on the choice between Matrix style dystopia and Star Trek utopia.
  3. Management: 6 myths about empowering employees.
  4. Poetry: Totally awesome cartoon version of Rumi’s The Guest House.
  5. Creativity: A story about the creative process and the art of staying true.

Five links: Google team success; getting men writing; Medium is off Holacracy; falling behind; impact lifestyle business

  1. Research: What Google found from a study into successful teams
  2. Kickstarter: Beautifully designed journal to get men writing about their thoughts and feelings
  3. Org structure: Holacracy ‘gets in the way of work’ at Medium, so they’re moving off it
  4. Motivation: To anyone who feels like they’re falling behind in life (lovely counterpoint to throwaway motivational messages)
  5. Article by me: Supercharging a lifestyle business with IMPACT.

What the humble Hacky Sack can teach us about being happy at work

Here’s a great little meme you can start today which will make your workplace just that little bit happier. Thanks to Tom Bailey who told me about it over a cuppa the other day.

You know those times when someone makes a mistake and goes overboard with “sorry, sorry, I’m really sorry, arrrgh, my fault, I’m sorry!” Or conversely, when someone points the finger of blame at someone else for a mistake? The next time one of those things happens, simply say the words “Hacky Sack.” This, of course will be met with complete bewilderment the first time they hear it, giving you the opportunity to explain something wonderful about the simple game of Hacky Sack.

In a game of Hacky Sack, failure is part of the process. At some point, the Hacky Sack will dropped. Probably many times in a session. This is just the nature of the game. And if it’s just the nature of the game then there’s no need to go overboard with an apology when it happens, and no need to chastise anyone for screwing up. So in Hacky Sack, the etiquette is to just pick it up and carry on. No apology expected; no blaming allowed.

This sounds a lot like how workplaces should be. At work too, failure is just part of the process. It’s not something we need to go over the top with apologies or blame for. Hell, it’s even something to celebrate at times.

OK, I’m sure there are exceptions like where you’ve broken trust or failed to respect someone and a sorry can go a long way towards repairing a relationship. And perhaps it might not apply quite so well where lives are at stake, but that’s a tiny minority of workplaces. But for 99% of the everyday failures and mistakes that are made at work, make Hacky Sack the rule in your office.

Free event: Using freedom and democracy to build an incredible company

Monday 10 Dec, 7pm – 9pm, NixonMcInnes Offices, Brighton. FREE.

How do famously successful companies like Zappos and Valve Software create such damn amazing places to work that innovate, delight customers and generate big profits? The key to success is abandoning the dominant mindset of fear in business and instead embracing freedom, possibility, and trust. With this mindset, great companies use democratic principles like decentralisation, transparency and dialogue to set their people free to do amazing things, and reap enormous rewards.

Tom Nixon (me!) ambassador for WorldBlu and co-founder of NixonMcInnes – certified as one of the Most Democratic Workplaces in the World every year since 2009 – will reveal how to adopt the right mindset for business success, and explain the 10 principles of organisational democracy, with lots of ideas that you can immediately take back into your company. And as it’s nearly Christmas there will be mince pies.

Thank you to Wired Sussex for supporting this event.

Sign up here:

Tribal Leadership

This is one of those books that you read and then wish you’d read years ago. I thought it was going to be full of examples of quirky management practices, but it’s actually based on a huge 10 year research project into company culture and leadership.

The authors have a very simple five-stage model of company culture which I think is extremely useful. Rather than focussing on a set of behaviours as most culture change folks do, the authors look at the language that individuals use in the company to determine what stage they are at. The goal is to lift individuals, one stage at a time up to stage 4, with ‘peak’ moments of stage 5.

As you read about these five stages, think about where your culture is at the moment. And also note that people tend to think their culture is at least one stage ahead of where it really is. They key thing is to listen to the language people use.

Stage 1. “Life sucks”

This is where life at work is so bad that people can’t even imagine that things could be better or that they could be happy. Think Enron on the verge of collapse, or the disaffected employee who turns up to work with a shotgun. Fortunately it’s pretty rare for individuals or entire cultures to be at this stage.

Stage 2. “My life sucks”

The big difference as people drag themselves out of stage 1 is that there is hope. They can see that life could be better, but often use language around why they are having a tough ride, the barriers in their way or why other people are getting all the breaks. Think The Office or the movie Office Space. Dysfunctional, broken and demoralising with a feeling of “why is this happening to me?”

Stage 3. “I’m great”

This is the most common stage for companies that are performing well. People are positive and achieving results, but if you listen carefully to their language it’s all about them. When they talk about work, it’s mostly “me” and “I”. The subtext to ‘”I’m great” is “…and others aren’t.” It’s all about them hitting their targets; how they are building their own career; and how they are beating the competition inside and outside the company. People protect information, contacts and other assets to keep their ‘edge.’ Stage 3 companies can do well, but they are a long way from optimal. I found this interesting as often we unwittingly design companies to only reach stage 3, for example with very individualised targets, objectives and evaluations – all that matters is that YOU are doing well, and we hope that means the company as a whole will be performing well. We’re encouraged to write resumes that talk about ‘my achievements.’ Also, most personal development books (the famous Getting Things Done springs to mind) are all about YOU: Tips, tricks and hacks to ‘get ahead.’

Stage 4. “We’re great”

This is where the magic starts to happen, as people realise that the job of creating truly outstanding results is beyond any one individual. The language changes from “me” and “I” to “we” and “us.” When people talk about work they talk about the results that the team or company is getting. People actively share contacts and information and a culture of collaboration is established where the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

Stage 5. “Life is great”

At stage 5, something important about the nature of competition changes. It’s when the group is committed to a higher purpose beyond making money, and a set of values which set their standards for ethics and behaviour (what they will and won’t do in order to fulfil their higher purpose.) For example, a pharmaceutical company where people talk about the ‘competition’ or ‘enemy’ being cancer or HIV, rather than a rival firm. In comparison to the real challenge of fulfilling their higher purpose, external competition just seems mundane. This level of peak performance is difficult to sustain, but the best companies are stable at stage 4, and have peak moments where they achieve stage 5. Steve Jobs’ team at Apple when they were working to bring previously unimaginable computing power into the home to enrich people’s lives with the first Macintosh computer is another example.

Moving up through the stages

The book offers tips and ideas to spot what stage individuals are at and how to raise them up through the different stages. A key insight is that you have to move people one stage at a time. If you replaced the boss David Brent from The Office with Steve Jobs and tried to immediately get everyone to world-changing teamwork and performance, it would be too much too soon. People need to be moved one stage at a time. For example, having a colleague who’s at stage 3 provide coaching and help to someone at stage 2 so they can start to get some personal results. And once you have a dominant stage 3 culture, begin to set tasks for individuals that are impossible to achieve alone, so that they start to realise collaboration is the only way to achieve outstanding results. Perhaps many culture change projects fail because they try to move too quickly to the optimal and don’t take people on a journey.

Tribal Leadership and strategy

The book also offers a very simple and powerful model for creating strategy that high performing groups will buy into and actually execute. This is a great example of democratic planning. Everything starts with the higher purpose of the company within the constraints of its values. Yet more evidence that ‘higher order’ clarity in a company is the foundation of success.

In a nutshell, the planning process defines ‘outcomes’ (subtly but importantly different from goals in that it’s about the journey as much as the end result.) The group then looks as what assets they already have to help them achieve the outcomes (technology, relationships, brand etc) and decides if the assets are sufficient. If not, then the strategy is re-framed with new outcomes to create the required assets. Once the assets are sufficient, the group then defines behaviours – things they will actually do – to use the assets in order to achieve the outcomes. Members of the group volunteer to take responsibility for each behaviour enthusiastically because they know that they already have the ingredients for success.

With this approach, you notice how a leader acts as an instigator and facilitator for this process, but it’s the group that actually produces the plan and takes responsibility, without the need for old-fashioned delegation. It’s easy to see why the companies that the authors studied who work in this way tended to produce better plans that the people bought into and actually put into motion.

How the Facebook generation wants to be led

Interesting results from a Forbes roundtable discussing how young professionals want to be led at work. They boiled it down to five principles:

1. Empower us; don’t micromanage our talent

2. Sponsor us; serve as role models

3. Allow us to manage our own brand; don’t define us

4. Trust us; don’t question our intentions

5. Challenge us; don’t marginalize us

I think you could sum it up as just one thing: “Set us free” which is exactly the core concept of democratic business.

This is further evidence that workplaces based on democratic principles are the best placed to attract, retain and get the most out of the smart young people entering the workplace now.

How to be an awesome democratic manager in an old-school company

I usually write about transforming entire businesses into democracies. What if you don’t have the power to do this, but would like to realise the benefits to productivity and happiness in your team that democracy brings? Here are some tips for managers.

Old-school companies are secretive by default and only share information with employees when there’s a clear need. This breeds distrust because people fear the unknown. Democracies do the opposite. As a manager in any organisation you can adopt this principle, even if you can’t be as open as you would like to be. Go out of your way to be as transparent as possible about financial matters, strategy and decisions. Look for instances where information is not being shared, but not made explicitly secret and show employees what’s really going on in the company. Transparency breeds trust and avoids conspiracy theories.

Sharing your problems and opening up decision making is another powerful way to build trust. As a manager you don’t have to have all of the answers and solutions. A strong leader isn’t afraid to say ‘I don’t know’ and by doing this, you invite good ideas and a feeling of involvement from your team, plus decisions made with their input will be supported and faster to execute. Involve your team in the things that you are working on and you might be surprised at how much they can help. This is especially true of decisions that directly affect the people on the team.

Understanding what really motivates people at work is well proven by social science but little known to most businesses. Focus your team on these three principles and they will be happier and more motivated at work:

  1. Autonomy: People are most motivated when they have control over how to do their own work. Work with your team to decide what needs to be achieved, then get out of the way and allow them to figure out how to do it. Be there for them as a facilitator, helper and supporter. Not a supervisor.
  2. Mastery: Don’t get obsessed with objectives for performance. Whilst you will probably need success metrics and have to achieve some concrete goals, these are like a scorecard, not a strategy. Instead focus most of your attention on objectives for learning and improving your team’s skills on a path towards mastery. This is extremely motivating and a far more effective strategy for actually getting the best performance.
  3. Connectedness: People are motivated when they are contributing to a higher purpose, together with others. Discuss with your team how their work is helping to make the world a better place for people, societies or the environment (hopefully there is some higher purpose other than making money, otherwise it’s probably time to find a new job!)

Building an informal recognition programme is another very simple but powerful motivator. Take frequent opportunities to recognise great performance and effort as and when it happens, and in person as much as possible. Be very specific in feedback. Not just a ‘great job’ or ‘thanks’ but say exactly what they did well and why it’s appreciated. It has to be genuine. Lead by example to build a culture of feedback in your team by actively soliciting feedback from the team. Reward after the event, not by dangling carrots.

Encourage your team to create its own rituals like the Church of Fail or Ringing the Bell of Awesomeness. This helps you to build your own culture-within-a-culture based on better, more positive principles.

Lobby for change in the organisation. You can start by suggesting that one or two employees come to the board meeting each month, or if you’re not on the board, suggest that regular employees can come along to other meetings that are usually ‘above their paygrade’ to see what’s going on and provide input. The board or senior team will gain from the ‘reality check’ of having regular employees present, and it breaks down fear of ‘them upstairs.’ Question secrecy, making requests for more transparency and communication.

Whatever happens, and no matter how much corporate crap you’re putting up with, don’t ever allow yourself or team to fall into a spiral of negativity and complaining. Become a tribe of happy rebels, not whingers. Push the boundaries of the prevailing culture as far as you can; do things differently within your domain; and be a catalyst for change.

If you begin to work with democratic principles within your team or department, others will notice how much more productive, motivated and happy your team is. When they ask you what your secret is, this might just kick-start a change to make the whole organisation more democratic.

Good luck, and please post your own experiences, questions and ideas in the comments. I’m sure there are lots of other things you can do to be a great manager in a difficult culture.