alacrity in action
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This year at “Spark The Change” London I felt like a veteran. It’s strange as it’s only the second time the conference has been organised. Perhaps it’s the familiar venue (and an excellent one at that) or the familiar faces I remember from last year (even if there were many new faces too) or the general theme of the event that has always been close to my heart.

When the conference was announced I got an email boldly claiming: “So this year […] makes last year look like we were winging it.” A tough job given I still remembered the amazing talk form Dr Paul Thomas, inspiring vision from Tim Harford, and challenging workshop form The SO Team, just to mention the few highlights from last year.

Turns out I really was in for a treat again. From the moment Helen made the first introductions, the first talk by Mark Stevenson (big personal highlight this year for me) to the very few final sounds of the songs we sung together at the last session it was a blast. Yes. We actually sung together. Everyone. And (Nick, can I start a sentence with an “And”?) we sounded rather nice too. Plus I got to write my Bio as a Haiku. Win.

Did I mention Mark Stevenson? I went to his talk on the first day, and to his workshop on the second day and then picked up his book and read it almost on-the-spot. Awash will all the optimism and exciting vision of the future I found this thought from John Seely Brown in the final pages of Mark’s book:

“The real challenge of innovation today is not technological innovation, it’s institutional innovation. We have to start inventing new types of institutions that can stay in step with the information age.”

followed up in his own words:

Hierarchies are on the way out, networks are on the way in. Don’t look to get promoted, look to get distributed – as an individual, as an organisation, as a nation.

Now it all becomes clear, it all begins to take shape. The presentations from W. L. Gore & Associates, Gov.UK, Monmouthshire Children’s Services, Spotify, Propellernet and others were all tangible, specific and encouraging stories of institutions and organisations that are reinventing themselves and the way we do and think about work. They are the real sparks of change that will take us into the 21st century. We need more sparks like this. We need more people understanding the future that’s unfolding in front of our very eyes.

Will you be there next year?

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press-while-talking from flickr by leef_smith under cc-nd-nc-2.0I remember a good few years ago I was participating in some internal training lead by an external management consultant. One of the key messages he tried to pass on was that a majority of problems in organisations are simply due to poor communication.

Sure enough in most organisations I have experienced since, sooner or later, someone would point out insufficient, inadequate or simply misleading communication. Thus improving communication, mainly between management and the staff was repeatedly being professed as the golden solution. Lacking motivation, missing alignment, frustrated employees, and poor results of the annual engagement surveys would all be eradicated if we could only get better at comms. Somehow, this always seems to mean more emails. Hands up if your organisation has a team dedicated to disseminating information via this benevolent medium.

Fortunately some organisations eventually realise what has been filling up their employees’ spam folders. Visual information radiators and company wide stand-up meetings can go some way towards bridging the communication gap. They are by far superior to the corporate email blast.That is if we assume that one of the essential ingredients that people in a company are missing is information.

I suspect that a lot of the time we are not craving more information, we don’t actually want better comms. Does anyone ever say “I know, what I really need is for that weekly email in my inbox to have all the relevant information I need”. Most people would rather not get any emails at all.

What we really want is a dialogue. We want to be listened to, we want empathy, we want understanding. These require something quite different than just “better comms”, they require trust and respect and transparency.

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Corporate Responsibility Hides Behind Ties photo by _Loaf_ on flickrI was considering recently whether a person higher in an organisation’s hierarchy should override a decision taken by their subordinates if they thought it was wrong. I realised an underlying assumption that I ignored in that discussion. The assumption is that decisions, taken higher up the chain of command, are more important because of a higher level of responsibility bestowed on the person taking them.

I don’t have a clear answer is my head yet, so I welcome your input on the few thoughts that follow.

I have always been told that managers and senior managers and directors in organisations earn more money than “regular” employees because they have more responsibility. I suspect this is a fairly common point of view. Those who are paid more have a larger share of the money, more skin in the game so they should also have a larger share of responsibility – they approve decisions and they should be held to account. Sounds like a sensible justification (or should I call this a rationalisation perhaps).

Looking at it in a systemic way: more responsibility means more money and more money means more responsibility… can you see it yet? A reinforcing feedback loop; A small factor perhaps to explain why in some businesses pay of the top staff spiral out of proportion.

Responsibility seems to be something people are not very comfortable with. It is often easier to have someone else to fall back on than to face all the consequences yourself. For some, it provides sufficient justification for not progressing with their “careers” – they don’t want the extra responsibility. For others, who are willing to take the extra burden, it’s the expectation of an additional remuneration. The pigs and chickens story comes to mind too.

Yet for some reason this logic always seemed flawed to me.

I have rarely seen the most senior people in organisations take the most responsibility. The very thing they are allegedly paid to do, they seem to, somehow, escape. Instead, when things go wrong, they look downwards to find someone to lay the blame on. Imagine the CEO of a supermarket issuing a personal apology when you’ve been sold and out-of-date product? No? Me neither.

It would appear more logical for the level of pay to be related to your contribution (success mode) rather than your assumed responsibility (failure mode). Alas, people are not entirely rational; psychological experiments demonstrate we focus more on avoiding losses than increasing gains, even if the loss is only a perceived one.

So far I only know of a handful examples where this common status quo is challenged, where pay is influenced or even decided by the employees, where contribution is more important than responsibility. Semco comes to mind, perhaps Netflix or Fogcreek to some extend and companies turned into partnerships like John Lewis.

What do you think?