- Organisation design must become more adaptive, empowering smaller, flatter teams and emphasising hands-on leadership.
- Culture and employee engagement will remain top priorities as the workforce becomes ever more demanding, rewarding organisations with a strong shared sense of purpose and clear, lived values.
- Real-time feedback will move into the mainstream.
- Digital providers will catch up with organisations' increasing move from annual to continuous performance management practices.
- Design thinking for 'total employee experience' will become a focus.
- Leadership development will drive stretching young leaders further while dialling up coaching and other support for them, with an emphasis on growth.
- Managing unconscious bias will become a CEO-level issue.
At the end of last year, Josh Bersin, a leading thinker about the people dimension of business, made eleven predictions to guide people strategy in 2017, and a number of the key points chime with the need to push what I have called the Inner Frontier:
In previous posts, I've mentioned the time and energy wasted in feigning perfection, hiding shortcomings and deflecting blame, and I've touched on the cognitive biases that undermine our best efforts in communication and problem solving. These are examples of issues at what we might call the 'Inner Frontier' - where the mental models of leaders and other staff constitute barriers to improved individual and collective performance.
While organisations have drawn on psychology to better understand consumers, and while they've squeezed all they can externally from suppliers, channels and partners, most have failed to push seriously on this Inner Frontier as they search for competitive advantage. Doing so takes top team commitment and an integrated approach. Although set-piece learning activities play a part, the value comes from making daily work activity the content and work relationships the delivery mechanism of continuous development. The image below summarises an integrated approach.
Over at Better Humans, Buster Benson has provided a cheat sheet for the cognitive biases that permeate our thinking. He tidies up, classifies and synthesises c. 175 separate biases from Wikipedia's list of cognitive biases.
You can read the detail at those links. What strikes me more than the impact or mechanism of any one of these biases, more even than the sheer number of them, is their ubiquity. They evolved as our ancestors navigated their environments, competing and cooperating. Although any one bias may be more prominent in some people's thinking than in others', bias as a feature of our thinking is universal.
And it is not always a bad thing. If it were, it wouldn't be there. These biases are tools, which arose as human brains faced challenges. Benson boils these challenges down to four: too much information, not enough meaning, the need to act fast and the need to prioritise what to remember.
So these biases exist because they were successful in the evolutionary era, and they can often be helpful tools today. What's the problem, then?
These shortcuts are most useful in periods of stability, situations similar to ones we've already experienced, when processes are linear (meaning that extrapolation is relatively reliable). With globalisation of markets, supply chains and conflicts, with the explosion in information & communication technology and social media, in short, with the vastly greater degree and reach of connectivity today than existed 30 years ago, let alone when our cognitive shortcuts evolved on the savannah, stability and linearity have given way to much greater complexity and pace of change. Our shortcuts were built for a very different context than the one we operate in today.
What that means for business is that trusting our instincts (shortcuts, knowledge) can be dangerous. It is now much more important to identify when our 'autopilots' might be flying us into the mountain. We need to see individual and collective biases and take them into account to reach better decisions based on more accurate information and to communicate in ways more likely to be received and understood.
This means giving individuals tools to help them identify their own biases. But the nature of bias is such that, even with the best tools, we can only be SO successful at seeing our own. That means that businesses also need to put practices and processes in place that support and draw out what we might call 'cross-awareness', whereby, for instance, the people around me, who can often see my biases more effectively than I can, can supportively point them out to me in ways that improve my contribution to group endeavour. What might powerful 'cross-awareness' elements be? For a start, rich, frequent 360 degree feedback, a network of managerial & peer coaching relationships and a more rather than less diverse workforce.
The payoff is more effective decision making and greater adaptability - two pretty powerful components of sustainable performance.
I was struck by an observation Robert Kegan made in An Everyone Culture, that in many organisations, staff are actually doing two jobs. One is the job the organisation wants them to do - the one with concrete responsibilities and deliverables. The other is the hard work of pretending that they have all the skills, knowledge and positive character attributes the first job demands and pretending that everything is going well, even when it's not.
Whether or not it adds up to the equivalent of a second job, think of all of the energy that goes into this pretense: amplifying the perception of the 'good' about oneself, hiding the whiff of weakness, diverting attention from what is going wrong, deflecting (or outright directing) blame onto others. What if all of that energy instead went into what actually needs doing?
There's a separate problem, as well. Beyond the time and energy wasted in pretense, there is the collective cost imposed by delays in detecting issues, by poor coordination, by misdiagnosis and by blame games.
Why the pretense behind all of this waste? More in future posts, but essentially our evolutionarily-programmed defence mechanisms are constantly firing in allergy-like reactions in the super-performance-tuned environments of the modern workplace. Organisations need to calm the defence triggers and replace the need to seem perfect with the need to continuously learn and develop. This opens the door to honesty, energy, adaptability and real performance.
Great marketers attract customers, establish relationships with them and maintain their loyalty to the brand.
Do you put the same effort into attracting, connecting with and building loyalty among staff and volunteers? They are, after all, the people you need to serve your customers.
What is your proposition to a prospective colleague? Do you have an 'elevator pitch' for why a talented person with lots of options should join your organisation rather than some other? What's your pitch to a valuable colleague who says she's leaving? What's your 'pitch' to a group of potential volunteers.
What's special about what you are doing, about how you are doing it and about the experience that colleagues will have with you versus with anyone else?
If you don't really know, it's time to put your marketing hat on.
The term 'impatience' has undergone a real transformation in the past ten to twenty years - in the business environment at least. It used to be that the term had a negative connotation, like it does in other realms of life. The perfect image of impatience for me is the stomping two-year-old, unwilling to wait for his demands to be met.
But in business, it has come to be a badge of pride, so much so that it can't even be used anymore as our 'weakness' in interview questions to humblebrag a strength into the discussion - it's too obvious. At some point, we lazily came to equate impatience with a drive for improvement, with high standards.
This leads to much unhelpful, destructive behaviour in our unimaginative and (let's be honest) lazy moments as managers. We can't think of what needs doing, or we don't have the energy to really persevere in the consistent hard work required to meet tough challenges, so we throw a strop, tell our teams that 'this is unacceptable' and put it down to our impatience with poor performance. This, we hope, comes across as a show of strength, a passionate demonstration of commitment.
Were we inside our colleague's minds, we would realise it comes across as just what it is - a weakness that we have failed to overcome. I'm not saying impatience is evil - we're all just human after all. But it's certainly not a strength - let's not kid ourselves or our teams about it.
Instead let's look to replace that impatience with a pair of much more powerful tools - patience and persistence. We need persistence to stick with concerted effort, alongside our teams, to get tough things done. We need patience with ourselves, with our colleagues and with the world, when results don't appear at the snap of our fingers just because we badly want them to, just because the board is breathing down our necks.
Being patient does not imply that we are satisfied with current results - it just shows that we are mature enough to handle it like the leader we want to be rather than like a two-year-old.
Persist in your drive. Persist in your high standards. Persist in your support to your colleagues as they, like you strive for the goal. And be patient along the way.
...the fifth of five business principles we emphasise for organisations who exist for social impact.
Even if you never make a wrong decision. The world will change. If you have good feedback loops in place, and if the information path to you is open and unbiased, then you'll pick this up.
Still, your organisation and its operations need to be nimble, flexible enough to adapt appropriately.
This requires a bias in the design of organisation structures, systems, partnerships and operational processes that gives sufficient weight to nimbleness and flexibility. Otherwise, to use system terminology, too much will be 'hard coded' to adapt.
Design and manage for nimbleness.
If you knew that organisational or operational changes would immediately benefit customers, could you make them? How quickly? At what cost?
...the fourth of five business principles we emphasise for organisations who exist for social impact.
Continuous learning should be woven into every important aspect of your business, starting with the customer experience and the organisational culture.
This means putting in place simple mechanisms for quick feedback and drawing practical conclusions from it.
Learning cycles are driven by 1) the frequency and timing of your feedback, 2) the speed with which you can 'process' it to identify and agree changes and 3) the windows for making operational and other changes. The shorter the learning cycle, the more rapidly you can discover and implement improvements.
How quickly can your feedback move from 'data' to 'decision'? How can you shorten this time while ensuring quality of decision?
...the third of five business principles we emphasise for organisations who exist for social impact.
Decisions need to be based on reality as it is, not as it was or how you wish it were.
We know that this seems obvious, but for instance, leaders may be unaware of the extent or direction of change in customer needs, customer decision criteria, the quality of customer experience. In this case, decisions are based on yesterday's truths.
Similarly, if some decisions have great dependency on major system launches, major fund injections or large partnership agreements, then unbiased and current assessment of these elements is crucial.
How recent is your picture of the customer and organisational truth? Are your sources clear-sighted and unbiased? Will they tell you hard difficult truths?
...the second of five business principles we emphasise for organisations who exist for social impact.
Most organisations get the Customer principle we shared yesterday. Far fewer really embrace the Culture principle. Aside from a dedication to serving customers nothing is more important than building and maintaining an excellent organisational culture.
This culture should be the 'in house' embodiment of the values that support your organisation's aims. Show your staff and volunteers how passionately they should work for your customers by putting that same passion into making your organisation a fantastic place for staff and volunteers.
This should sit squarely with the CEO / business leader and be bright on the radar - not parked with HR.
Are your values lived, or just on the wall? Do you live your brand within your own walls? Are you creating leaders? If staff had another job offer for equal pay, would they stay with you?