How (not) To Formulate Company Policy

Do you recognise this style of management within your own organisation? Is this how you create company policy?

Start with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana.

As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all of the other monkeys with cold water.

After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result -all the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

Now, put away the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted.

Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm!

Likewise, replace a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth,then the fifth. Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, he is attacked. Most of the monkeys that are beating him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the banana. Why not? Because as far as they know that’s the way it’s always been done around here.

And that, my friends, is how company policy begins.

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Learning To Manage Creativity

managing creativityEmbracing Creativity or running a creative thinking session is not unlike running a theatrical performance – it needs both stage management and direction.
Such activities can of course vary widely in scale. You may be working on your own; you may be chatting informally with one or two others; you may be running a classic small-group brainstorming session or even working with large groups. In all cases you must pay attention to the following components.

People – the ‘cast’ of the drama If you have the luxury of choosing people to work with then this may present a dilemma. On the one hand, you want as much diversity as possible, because that is where new insights and connections will come from.

On the other hand, they must work well together, because creative work requires a high level of personal openness and risk taking, and a lot of interaction.

If possible you should:

  • Choose people who have the skills to manage high levels of difference comfortably.
  • Design sessions/meetings so that they are less sensitive to the adverse effects of large interpersonal differences.
  • Facilitate the session in such a way that you ‘manage’ adverse effects as (or before) they emerge.
  • Choose people who can tolerate wide levels of difference
  • Choose people who are compatible temperamentally, but differ widely in their area of expertise

People are less likely to be ‘thrown’ by minor interpersonal clashes if they have a reasonably solid personality, a degree of self-awareness, and a good sense of humour. Avoid big status differences, unless it is very clear that there are excellent, pre-existing, levels of trust between the people involved.

Have fun! Laughter and a light touch can defuse many tensions and manage the expectations of participants so that they know this will be a somewhat ‘special’ event, with unusual people. Remember, it is usually easier for people to feel uninhibited and take risks with a group they will not see again.

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Why Best Practice might be bad for you

best practice is badIf someone knocks at your door and offers you ‘best practice’ you should say no. Best practice is at best a distillation of ‘what has been’ and has worked. It is based in the past and unless the system you are operating in is purely mechanical (e.g. you make nuts and bolts in bulk) then it is not guaranteed to work.

Apart from being fixed on the past, best practice usually consists of ready made methods or processes for you to copy. A consultant or well meaning colleague may thump a large book in front of you and say ‘just follow this and you will be alright’ but the chances are you will not.

Firstly the method or process has been lifted out of one context and dropped into another (probably different) context. The contextual information makes a huge difference. It could contain information on economic factors, industry sector, seasonal factors and many more. Secondly there is one huge factor that can never be identical, people. People are the biggest asset an organisation can have but they also provide the most variables. If you have been given advice like this, please do not blindly follow it, treat it as a reference work.

So what can we do? Sharing is not the problem, you just have to know what to share! Instead of throwing processes and methods at each other we should be sharing experiences (telling stories) and learning from them as well as sharing the tools for the trade (hammers, paint brushes, facilitation techniques, communications tools etc). Find like minded colleagues or business partners, share tools and experiences and use the knowledge gleaned to learn and create pathways into the future. We should be more interested in the journey than the destination.

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Undercover Boss – would you try it?

undercover bossMany readers will have seen either Undercover Boss or Undercover Boss USA where the boss goes undercover, working with frontline staff to see how the business is really performing. I’m sure that these companies are selected for their entertainment value but they do throw up some real issues.

In many cases the businesses are not performing but the bosses seem not to be playing the blame game and realise that in many cases head office is a little out of touch. What they do seem to get though is that if they support their staff then they will get the best out of them and stand a fighting chance of beating the recession.

So, you’re the boss. Do you dare to go undercover and find out what is really happening? How will you react when employees do not worship your photograph or have less than ideal things to say about you, their pay or working conditions? What will you do when you find that front line staff are abused, spat at or are targeted by armed robbers?

You’re not the boss. Is your the sort of business where the boss would come and find out how you are doing? If so then great, if not then how can you attract his attention? If the boss (or bosses) is not interested then I recommend you look for a new and better job right away!

Finally, no bosses should be going undercover anyway. Employees should know who the boss is and how to contact them (about important issues) and be able to equate those at the top with company vision and values. Bosses should also have their finger on the pulse and have a much better idea of the workings of their business and the opinions of frontline staff. Sounds like a call for a cull of middle management – make up your own mind about that!

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Removing blocks to Creativity

As if dealing with emotional and perceptual blocks to creativity isn’t enough, we also need to overcome our cultural conditioning. Cultural blocks are created by attitudes in society and among our peers which have the effect of inhibiting creative thinking. Sometimes these cultural blocks are so much a part of our upbringing that we’re practically blind to them.

Here are some of the most common cultural blocks:

“We must be logical about this”
Why is this so? You might need to specify your desired outcome but not the journey. Once in a awhile you might like to ban logic altogether and see what happens. Remember these three things:

  • Logic can solve problems, but creativity often requires a leap of the imagination
  • Creative ideas often don’t make any sense at first
  • Just because an idea is illogical doesn’t mean its ‘bad’

Role stereotyping
Our inherently conservative culture sees to it that most of us grow up with the idea that creativity is not possible without advanced training, higher education, superior intelligence, etc. This is simply nonsense. Also creativity is often seen as the preserve of a particular function within a business.

“Playing is for kids”
Being creative means being willing and able to play with ideas, materials, and even your most basic ideas about reality. Creative thinking is a form of mental play. Relax your grown-up inhibitions and let your mind out to play more often. Also, many of us already work with prototypes which is simply a slightly restricted form of play.

“Fantasy and daydreams are useless distractions”
Early in life, we’re taught that fantasy and daydreaming are unproductive and even dangerous to our health. Creative thinking requires that you be able to daydream and fantasize without feeling guilty for doing so. Strive to recognize and get past your conditioning. Those daydreams can also be useful as part of a futures programme where we predict the future many years in advance.

“Though shalt try nothing new”
This is the great unspoken commandment that directs many of our thoughts and actions. While change for its own sake is rarely creative, creativity requires openness to challenging the status quo. Ideas such as the wheel and space travel must have been as a result of trying something new. Just think what you could do!

“Creativity is too abstract”
Well yes and no. The techniques that we use to help generate and explore ideas can be a little strange but we can calibrate creative processes so we know how much return we get for a particular amount of time and effort. Those who like to plan and budget have no excuse for not joining in.

“I don’t like to ask questions or criticise”
In many cultures it is not natural to openly question or comment on the ideas of others or examine the status quo. This can prevent progress so you can try and gently nudge people and show that questioning is ok but also we can use techniques with the ‘challenging’ built in or which concentrate on building ideas. There is no excuse not to embrace creative thinking.

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