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A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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Beyond ROWE – VOWE?

The term ROWE – meaning Results Only Working Environment – seems to be pretty popular at the moment.

The idea, in case you haven’t come across, it is that employees are paid for results rather than the number of hours worked.

NixonMcInnes, a local company I work with, following in the footsteps of Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia, implemented the idea of what they call “flexible working” many years ago.

Chouinard’s autobiography was entitled “Let My People Go Surfing” – that title should help you understand the philosophy.

Presenteeism: out, out, out.

What I like about ROWE is that it has been linked to employee engagement – employees who work this way seem to want to stay longer and they enjoy their work more.

And if you measure productivity – numbers of orders processed, for example, or even hours paid for by a client (billable hours) – rather than hours in the office you’ll see better results.

But I wonder if there is something better? I am sure the ROWE experts are on top of this, but this is it in my own words:

The number one principle of ROWE is that “people at all levels stop doing any activity that is a waste of their time, the customer’s time, or the company’s money.”

But my question is: how do people know?

How do they know whether what they are doing is a waste of their time, the customer’s time or the company’s time?

In many large organisations when you join you inherit a whole load of ways of doing things (processes). These are based on an even bigger load of assumptions – visible and invisible – about what is important. Many of these assumptions were made in a time where things were different – they come from the past.

So it seems to me it is perfectly possibly that people in a results only work environment will continue to produce results – that is, be more ‘productive’ – but maybe they’ll be producing the wrong results? Results that don’t actually help the company fulfil its ‘Mission’. Results that don’t actually help anyone.

So here’s a simple alternative: VOWE – the value only work environment. The idea is to do only activities that add value to customers, colleagues, or other stakeholders.

This, of course, requires a clear understanding of what value is. That may seem difficult and off-putting.

But I think most people know what value is. They know what they value.

I value peace and quiet. I value the smile on my child’s face, showing me he is happy. I value a clean floor. I value a beautiful object. Or a bit of software that actually works and makes my life easy.

HR and OD people (and some CEOs) sometimes talk about ‘values’ as if they were something special, something that only the enlightened can hold on to.

But to me a ‘value’ is just what I value. I value honesty and openness. Those are my values.

So actually understanding value is easy for each of us – we know what we value. We know it when we see it, when we touch it, when we feel it.

We need to understand that others value things too – and that what you value may be different from what I value. Value is a perception – ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’.

So in a Value Only Work Environment people understand this. And they dedicate their time not just to producing ‘results’ – but to making sure that everything they do gives value to others. Or to themselves.

Apparently when ROWE was introduced into Best Buy some resisters thought it was a wacky new age idea.

So in case anyone thinks VOWE is the same let me cut to the chase: how might you measure success in a business run on VOWE principles?

Simple: you measure profit. But you do need a new definition of profit.

Profit, by my own personal definition, is a measure of the value that your company gives to other people.

Give lots of value to people; and let them reward you with money (yes, money), loyalty and friendship.

Create a culture where employees gain lots of value and let them reward you with loyalty, ideas, and friendship.

I am perhaps being just a little provocative above. But I’d love to know what others think – and in particular, other ideas on what value really is, what profit really is, and whether it is better to work in a ROW, or a VOW environment?

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Relationships – how much do they really matter?

After reading the ‘Get Started’ page of this site I was struck by how much the point “providing a safe place for human development and growth” resonated with me.

It’s probably not surprising as I’ve spent the best part of my career in learning and development but what drew me in was the term ‘a safe place’ and I thought it would be interesting to explore this a little further.

I would argue that feeling safe is a fundamental condition for optimal learning and development as it allows individuals and teams to explore their potential and try different approaches without fear of reprisal.

One of the key roles for great mentors, coaches and teachers is to create a feeling of safety that allows others to step outside of their comfort zones and try something new in order to develop and grow.

Sometimes, I worry about the trend to continually justify and measure improvement at both the individual and organisational level as this measurement in itself can result in the safety net disappearing.

For example, I remember a French teacher from school who was a stern character and ruled her pupils through fear. At the beginning of each lesson she would pick on a student to stand up in front of the class and test them on the vocabulary homework she had set the week before. This fear of being publicly humiliated in front of your peers meant that most of the time we did our homework well and when it came to exam time she got her results with nearly all the class passing.

A good result you may think. But unfortunately I have spoken to my classmates over the years and she has left a dread for French in all of us and I don’t know of one of us that went on to study the subject at A level.

So, all in all, not much of a legacy for a teacher.

This memory, for me, reinforces the idea that building safe, trusting relationships is probably the most important part of encouraging development and leaving a great legacy for the future.

Claire is a learning and development professional and runs Hove-based Learning Consultancy Partnership.


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It’s no good being conscious in your business if some topics are un-discussable…

Being conscious in business, or life in general, involves taking risks, and it is surprising how common it is for us to shy away from those conversations that, whilst hairy, may be exactly what is needed.

I spent last weekend in Phoenix, Arizona (niiiiice), where I met up with 25 other practitioners who take a complexity-based approach to organisational change and development. All of us are certified Human Systems Dynamics Practitioners, which a) lets us use extra letters after our names, and b) gives us more long words to bamboozle and confuse clients with if we don’t watch it. The purpose of the conference was to help the group develop more tightly coupled relationships in order to grow our practice, and foster collaborative working. Overall it was a success, and I walked away having both learned stuff (good), met some top people (excellent), and added a number of things to my ‘to do’ list (not so good).


One moment stands out for me as being the point at which the conversation shifted from being useful to generative. Or to put it another way, when we shifted from being polite to each other and got down to what mattered…

Playing with similarity & difference

At the heart of all relationships is a dance between sameness and difference: the more similar we are, the better the ‘fit’ and the greater likelihood we want to  work or play together; the greater the number of differences, chances are we move apart and/or end up in conflict. So far so obvious. What is less obvious, yet typical of what happens in many relationships, particularly in organisations, is what is left unsaid, unspoken, unnamed and ultimately becomes un-discussable. I have touched on this theme before (Intent(ion): the missing link?…, Is Gordon Brown’s ‘bullying’ behaviour a symptom, not the problem?, Collaboration: 10 tips for success, with a relational bias), and the un-discussable is not something that is easy to bring up. To suggest to anyone, particularly in a group context, that there may be something that they are avoiding talking about can evoke fear, anger, shame or simply plain discomfort. It requires, as a minimum, courage and curiosity on the part of the person raising the question, and a level of trust that can hold the impact of that intervention and any resulting. The rewards are huge if you can go there, and here’s why.

About an hour into the conference, we were invited to go into small groups to explore how we were same and different, and what this might mean for the relationships in the room and the weekend as a whole. My group of three contained some meaty differences, which we explored, and it led to one person noticing that she wasn’t sure how safe it was to share aspects of her self and her values that marked her out, in her view, as different to the majority. Whether this was true or not is not the point.  The discovery and potential rich learning lay in the (shared) realization that the group felt somehow un-safe and that some topics felt taboo.

Pick a door, any door…

This moment was a beautiful decision point for us. Many groups/organisations face these without realizing it, and, I believe, more often than not opt for safety. I can understand why, but we didn’t. Back in the big group, our feedback was framed around a central question:

“What is un-discussable in this group?”


Heart in mouth, I illustrated this by sharing how I felt (feared) my (Brighton, UK, liberal) values might mark me out as different from my US hosts, and how our relationship would change the more I revealed those differences.

Nothing is un-discussable, the only thing that changes is consequences…

From that initial risk-taking, something amazing happened. Person after person revealed questions/thoughts that they hold been holding back. In our case – and it will not be the same for every group or context – the territory we ended up exploring was primarily the questions and issues people felt unsure about raising in the context of the work we were there to do. There was some talk about how we were different individually, but as a group our focus was on the work. The trust in the room, and relational awareness of the people involved, was such that we held our differences lightly, and respected them. This particular exchange set the tone for the weekend, and got us quicker to where we wanted to go than would have been possible otherwise, in my opinion and it is important to say that.

Do I believe there were places we didn’t go, questions that were not raised? Yes, I suspect there were, if for no other reason than I get curious when a group of people spend so much time together without getting into any decent arguments! And that may say more about me than the group.

So the question for you is …

What are you not discussing in your organisation, team, group, board? How are your similarities and differences driving the conversation, and what is stopping you from saying what is really on your mind and gets in the way of work? For me, a relational approach leavened with models and methods from complexity works wonders. What works for you?


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Business for personal growth?

I said in my last post that business was a powerful means to develop and grow people. I have been mulling this a lot lately, and have been wondering what it would mean if that was the entire purpose of business?

I can certainly see my own experience in that way. Working in business has brought me more challenges than pretty much anything else in my life. Firstly, the challenge of making a living. Secondly, learning to interact with all sorts of different types of people. Thirdly, doing all sorts of things I never would have imagined myself capable of.

Maybe that shows what a sheltered life I have led; but it truly has been challenging. Even balancing the demands of work with the rest of my life has stretched me physically, mentally and emotionally.

And yet at the same time it’s been a very safe place to learn. Scary at times, yes, but ultimately there has been little threat to life and limb.

Along the way I have also come to very much admire the people who run small and medium-sized businesses. It seems to me that they take more real risks than those in big business. In a well-salaried, very senior position in a large corporation, yes, you can learn a lot. And yes, you can lose your job. But you are unlikely to lose your house, or your personal reputation. You’re just too well cushioned by salary, savings and a network that protects its own.

Small business owners by contrast sometimes do lose everything, including their reputations with friends and family, and have to start again. There are few golden parachutes in the small business world.

But back to the purpose of business. I know what I am suggesting is not for everybody. Some people do simply want to make money out of business. Others want to do something really, really worthwhile. But for others, including myself, I think the goal is actually personal development and growth.

That may seem rather selfish. But I guess life ultimately belongs to each and every one of us. And we each have a choice to make, between what psychologists call hedonic and eudonic goals.

With the former we choose to make pleasure and joy our aim; and we avoid pain.

I understand the latter to be more about achieving a sense of fulfilment: a life well led, with real purpose and meaning, good relationships, good self-esteem and feelings of competence and self-control.

If this is your life goal, then why not make small business your training ground?

It will stretch you. You will need to learn new skills. You’ll need to become a specialist and a generalist – good enough at all things to be able to tell if you are wasting your own time and money.

You’ll need to be an expert in human relations. Money won’t always pave your way. So you’ll need to develop and rely on much more human strengths: passion, persistence, and the ability to persevere when others would give up.

You’ll need to learn new ways to lead – to help others discover their purpose and turn it into reality – often without recourse to coercive power.

And most of all it will force you to be really honest, to really be yourself; it’s hard to survive and thrive in small business if you adopt and hide behind a role. When things get tough you simply have to reveal yourself if you want to gain and build trust. Only honesty and trust will get you through the difficult times, and help you create something truly sustainable.

From this honesty and self-inspection you’ll also gain self-knowledge and self-esteem, and ultimately a sense of self-control and personal power.

Surely that’s worth shooting for?


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Why some people are more equal than others

I have recently been reading a great little book: The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

The title explains a lot of it. People living in more equal societies (they don’t say “equal”) do better on a number of important measures. And this is not just for poor people, which I guess is what a lot of us would imagine. It’s apparently true in general, including for the wealthier people amongst us.

We’re talking about rich countries here – ranging from the least equal: the US, the UK, Portugal and Singapore to the most equal, such as Japan, the Scandinavian countries, Belgium, Austria, Germany and so on.

The measures, and a big part of the book is the statistics and other evidence to support the case, include those on physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, violence, teenage-births, and child well-being.

I guess these are all things, all of us, including the wealthy, would like to improve.

You can read more and join the campaign for change at the Equality Trust website. But something else that really interested was the link to climate change.

The authors suggest that in order to make climate change policies stick, it’s probably also essential that we increase levels of equality in our societies.

The logic of this is that inequality leads to envy and envy drives consumption. It’s a scary thought that even if heavier carbon taxes are introduced and we deploy ever more efficient energy technology, envy amongst individuals may still drive increasing consumption.

Keeping up with the Joneses could still make us go and buy that new car, or go for that ever flashier holiday, whatever the environmental cost.

But what could I do personally to help reduce inequality?

Well, one simple idea is to give your money away. Philosopher Peter Singer’s suggestion on a percentage that we all give away to the developing world seems very reasonable. It’s a sliding scale – the wealthier your are – the more you give.

This has a benefit to the developing world, and, if you are one of the wealthier ones in the country you live in, will also help to reduce the inequality gap.

And secondly, promoting employee ownership seems a very good idea. This clearly helps with inequality, reducing the differential between highly paid “top team” employees and those on the front-line. And in my view, will also help with company performance as more people take more responsibility for the results they generate.


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Getting better all the time

Someone asked me last week what good management is. We were talking about people management. And  the exact question was “how will we know when we are good managers?”.

Perhaps rather glibly I said that I thought that good was a label and it was perhaps better to consider ourselves all in the process of learning to be better managers. I said that in my opinion management was very hard, and that while it was possible to get better, it was unlikely that anyone would get truly “good” at it, given the uniqueness, and the unique difficulties, of individuals and of human kind in general.

Reflecting on the question again later, I came up with three simple ways that I think I would use to measure good people management, in the context of a sustainable business, that is, one that is trying to last.

The first is retaining our self-respect as managers. “Managing people”, in my view, is a label for a particular type of relationship between two or more people. Relationships can be very hard if boundaries are not clear. Sometimes managers can be bullied, or at the very least rattled, by the results of the emotional turbulence or needs that the other person in the relationship has.

This is not good, for the manager, for the business, or for the person being “managed”. If the relationship becomes badly skewed, probably all parties will lose out.

Secondly, helping the business achieve its goals. I always try to remember that a business is not a therapy room. It may seem naive but, for me, a business is simply a group of people who have thrown their lot in together to achieve a common set of goals. Finding a compromise between using the business to help an individual to develop and grow personally, while focussing also on the good of the greater number seems to me to be essential. If sometimes the individual’s needs have to be sacrificed for the greater good, well, for me, that’s the right way to go.

Thirdly, retaining our imagination. Or at least enough imagination to believe that there is a better way, and that we just have to find it.

For me, a huge part of people management is about helping individuals in the company to learn, and to grow. Businesses are people. They are one and the same thing.

I love work and I love business. Mainly because it is grist to my personal development mill. It gives me something to work on, to worry over, to chew on. (I’d probably go quietly mad if left completely to my own devices.) And if I fail to truly engage with the relationships I have, perhaps by distancing myself emotionally from the people I work with, or by  falling back on management techniques I have used again and again, it’s just another way of quitting, of giving up on my own and the other person’s development (assuming they want it).

Having faith in people is essential to good management. Faith that working together we will find a way through. This is essential if we are to build businesses that are truly sustainable. For me, growing that faith, despite the inevitable setbacks and let downs that come from working with other people, is therefore perhaps the best success measure of all.