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STRATEGIC HR
Feb 25, 2014

Testing your faith in leadership

Can we directly copy unique, but uniquely effective organizations?
    

By Dave Crisp

Richard Sheridan provides an intriguing, easy-to-read and helpful insight into a form of organizing and management style that is bound to have revolutionary impact at some level.

For those who missed the last post, here again are the key links — to the book - Joy Inc., How We Built a Workplace People Love by Richard Sheridan and his company, Menlo Innovations, and a quick orientation to the book and author via this short video.

Among the things most worth noting in the book are the stinging indictments Sheridan makes in just a few words of the most typical organization environments he’s experienced and is aware of. He puts his finger on failings that we often notice in case after case — fear and what causes it, what it produces in lost results, cover ups, project delays and outright failures at every level from massive to minor. He’s no shy commentator when it comes to identifying and pillorying today’s standard work patterns, for which we can be truly thankful.

What this raises is an obvious question. If he’s right about what’s wrong in the typical organization — patterns that result in failure in many areas including hiring, promotions and other core HR functions as well as in purely work results that lose millions of dollars everywhere we look. And he’s found remedies that demonstrably work — why wouldn't every organization that learns about this quickly change to the new pattern he suggests? This is especially true since he lays out the recipe so clearly and simply an idiot could follow it.

By my reading he doesn’t provide nearly as clear an answer to the puzzle "why not" as one would hope, although I think a close examination of what he says will reveal it’s about as clearly as any of us can state it, just not all in one place. It’s just as important to try to get a grip on why people won’t apply these approaches as to understand what they are and how they work. In fact, understanding how good they are is worthless if you can’t get them implemented.

Obviously habit plays a big role, as does fear — fear of change, of the unknown, of extra work required, of who will say what about the new approaches, about how to explain it all to other people, about what might be hidden traps or unforeseen negatives. It’s human to carve out niches where we feel safe and behavior is familiar and predictable from everyone around us. This has benefits. Studies show the most valuable personality trait of all or any workplace, bar none, is consistency or conscientiousness — doing what you say and doing it dependably so others know what to expect and what they can rely on from you and everyone else.

So here we are — organizations carefully staffed with good workers, for whom the primary deliverable is consistent behavior that we don’t change. Except now change is the order of the day. We need flexibility, adaptability and willingness to try new things... but not so much at the level of our daily routines, just at the level of new strategies, new products, new programs, right? Yes, we’re all familiar with those, but don’t change my work day pattern. Where will the coffee room go? Will I get breaks, lunch, have to work overtime, come in earlier, park in a different spot as a result, report to a different boss or to multiple bosses instead of one, or to no one?

Ouch.

We can take change all right — as long as it doesn’t change our basic approaches too much or threaten our spot in the reputation pecking order we’ve carefully nurtured to carve out our place, get our annual raise (paltry as it may be), bonus, etcetera.

Oh, it will be argued we deal with these things already — and so we do — just not all at once. There is a constant trickle of change, but we can mostly cope with that. When we ourselves choose a major change (such as a new job), well, we expect the upheaval that goes with that and we’ve carefully assessed that in the long term it will be worth the trouble and we’ve resolved to weather it.

Sheridan captures the visible part of the problem well early in his book. He describes his first attempts to implement his new ideas in an existing company (before founding his own from scratch). He first convinces his bosses to let him try it in his division and then, to make it palatable, positions it as a short period of new operations for his people. At the end of the trial period he announces — by one-sided management fiat — that this will be the new way of working from now on. He nearly has a riot despite the fact that, as he points out to them, everyone loved the experiment.

Later examples confirm this is typical of the way most teams and organizations react. You can almost hear the total population of managers who flood into his operation to take a look: “Yes, that’s great for them, but it would never work in our company.”

Of course, that’s a subtle way of saying, “I won’t ever do this, and I know the rest of our people are like me.”

I can even hear a lot of the visitors actually saying: “Well, of course, I’d be fine giving this a try, but no one else would.” They’re likely lying to themselves more than anyone else. Fear? Nothing is so scary as a huge change in how you work.

So in some respects we’re back to the same place as before. It takes an insightful CEO who is willing to try to change herself as well as for her organization to then enforce change on others in order to achieve an environment that allows people more autonomy, input, recognition, and downright freedom to succeed. It’s a difficult paradox that you have to force freedom on people or, more particularly, force a structure and work patterns that provide freedom from fear so people can blossom, exercise their creativity and innovate at a furious pace. Scary.

The burning question will be whether the exact structure and work patterns Sheridan has applied are what we should force on everyone (let’s be blunt). The answer is almost certainly no. So why read the book? Why mull over its messages? The answer is easy — because there is or are better ways of working than what’s common today. Approaches that produce not only happier workers but, significantly, startlingly better results in products, satisfied customers and financially.

We don’t yet have all the answers and — probably never will — but looking at striking examples such as this offers one of the best ways to move all of us in organizations toward what might work better. No system will ever be without problems. Someone or some group will always have to troubleshoot, tinker, improve and help the system over its rough patches (and Sheridan doesn’t try to hide that with his version).

But let us, once and for all, realize we need to get started.

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.balance-and-results.com.
    
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