How does your culture enable growth and creativity?

Have you ever had someone come into your house without taking their shoes off? This is one of those things in our house that really ruffles my wife’s feathers. We have two small children. That means we have lots of small children who come round to destroy the house (aka play). Light carpets and muddy shoes is not a good mix. Children learn from their surroundings. They do what they’ve been trained to do. I was trained to take my shoes off at the door. So was Helen. In our house, the culture dictates that we take our shoes off and William and Lottie do a pretty good job at remembering. Don’t get me wrong, we are not the shoe police, but eyebrows will be raised if you do not comply.

Recently, I have come across a number of things connected to creativity, culture and change including a Model Thinking Coursera course to try out MOOCs (I’ve found it to be very good if you’re interested in online learning). The shoes on or off example was one that came up as a way of describing differences between groups. It interested me because it is something so simple and I hadn’t considered it as something ‘cultural’. It made me think about the things that define culture, and how might examine creative, innovative and agile business cultures.

To start off with, it is worth trying to give a definition of culture.  Here are a few definitions that I’ve come across:

Trilling (1955):  When we look at a people in the degree of abstraction which the idea of culture implies, we cannot but be touched and impressed by what we see, we cannot help but be awed by something mysterious at work, some creative power which seems to transcend any particular act or habit or quality that may be observed. To make a coherent life, to confront the terrors of the outer and the inner world, to establish the ritual and art, the pieties and duties which make possible the life of the group and the individual – these are culture, and to contemplate these various enterprises which constitute a culture is inevitably moving.

Boaz (1911): [Culture is a] totality of mental and physical reactions and activities that characterize behavioral responses to environment, others, and to himself.

Tylor (1871): [Culture is a] complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, customs.

LiveScience states that culture is the characteristics of a particular group of people, defined by everything from language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts.

Basically, it seems to boil down to what we believe, what we do, how we do them and all the other manifestations the describe what and why we are who we are.  It is also useful for me to use the differences between groups, the similarities between people and the things that are interesting or unique within a group to help describe a culture.

When you consider that simple things like taking your shoes off at the door might be something that describes a culture in terms of how values are lived then you can quickly see how many cultural variants might exist.  If you just consider 20 questions similar to shoes on or off you get over a million different permutations. Unfortunately, life isn’t as simple as 20 questions with yes/no answers and tend to contain many shades of grey and conditions. It is much more complex.

As I was writing this blog I saw this tweet by Bob Marshall (@flowchainsensei): “Folks who believe they can slot Agile right in to their existing worldview will see nothing but pain and dashed hopes.” This fits with my experience well. People who really practice Agile have a very different view of the world than the cultures you find in most traditional and large companies. They value different things and have completely different perspectives as to how an organisation should be run. Beware! Here be dragons and those waters need to be navigated with a clear goal in mind.

The good news is that culture can change. Just look at what’s happening around you since the web came of age. Looks at how open and transparent things have become and how the speed of innovation and communication have changed.

I was reading this and this and this whilst I was thinking about this post because I am interested in what thoughts are out there about the conditions required for creativity and innovation to thrive. Many of the companies I work with tell me they are seeking to be more creative and innovative, and yet it really isn’t clear as to how that will work. They don’t seem to change any of the conditions that are really required to encourage and enable it happen. Instead, they try to change process and management control. This just reinforces the culture that probably already exists.

The words that come up when I talk to people about the conditions that creative cultures have include curiosity, challenge, openness, trusting, safe, diverse and freedom. What comes across is that people are free to try things out, explore what they want to explore, challenge orthodoxy and collaborate. This doesn’t mean that everyone should be hugging and agree on everything. It also doesn’t mean that people are always actively dissenting and disrupting the goal of the organisation. In fact, they value and require debate, challenge and feedback because it strengthens ideas and creative output. The only other thing that comes out is that this is best done in a high trust environment where people are respectful. A key element of the most creative cultures is a clear vision and purpose that people can work out how they best contribute to. Interestingly, there are real similarities between the values described here and those that are promoted throughout communities on the web. Culture is changing outside your organisation, but is it being allowed inside?

This all sounds very obvious, but there are many places that don’t live these values. Instead, there is higher emphasis on things like productivity, efficiency and deadlines (which all happen to quash creativity).

Why is any of this important?

Well, there are two reasons. The first is that your culture is directly linked to your success (or potential demise).  For instance, trust has been correlated to increase in value creation in many studies, Dincer and Uslaner (2009).  A 10% increase in trust improves GDP by 0.5%.  Wow.  That’s worth figuring out and investing in.

“Virtually every commercial transaction has within itself an element of trust, certainly any transaction conducted over a period of time. It can be plausibly argued that much of the economic backward- ness in the world can be explained by the lack of mutual confidence.”  Arrow, Kenneth, “Gifts and Exchanges,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, I (1972), 343–362. 

Many of the words I mentioned above are related to how trust manifests itself in society. Higher trusting cultures have lower transaction costs. They can do business “on a handshake”. Entrepreneurs and artists are free to invest their energies into creating value rather than wasting their time and effort in protecting resources and ideas. They are open to collaborate and improve upon each other’s work. In low trust cultures the time is spent on defending, not growing. But, this isn’t just about the wider culture of a country. It is also applied to a companies and their ecosystems.

The second reason why this is important is in considering how culture takes hold and might be changed.  People tend to have two strategies when considering their own behaviours and actions within different environments. They either look for coordination with people around them or consistency within themselves. Ideally, they look for both for greatest impact and it isn’t always clear when and how people decide. People tend to coordinate when it leads to a better outcome for themselves. Where people have deeply held values and beliefs they need to exist in groups that value and believe the same things otherwise they will become restless. However, there are other values and beliefs that people won’t hold on to quite so much and will be happy to coordinate with people around them and in doing so may violate their own values to some small way. If there are too many of these things though, it will lead to the same result as the important values and people will leave. The interesting thing here is that differences also create innovation to occur as it generates different perspectives and heuristics within a group. So, you want some core shared values, but not ALL shared. Time needs to be invested in examining and exploring how the behaviours of different groups and teams in your organisation represent the values.

Your culture needs deliberate work. And a set of values that people can buy in to.

The world is changing. The web is helping shape a new set of values that fit better with those that foster openness and creativity. We need our education policies and workplaces to encourage the same things. This will enable growth.

I’d love to get your perspectives on how you see the need for change. Culture is certainly not something that is easy to change or easy to define what you really want. I’d welcome a chance to discuss these ideas further with you and I’d be happy for you to come round to the house. Don’t forget: take your shoes off at the door. You have been warned.


Predicting the future?

Have you ever wondered what education might look like in 50 years?  Could this affect your business?  Do you know what future skills your business might need?  The internet is changing many things, not least education.  How about the political landscape?  Would a collapse of democracy affect you?  Would a supreme leader of Earth change the way you did business?  How would you react if international air travel was banned?  What technology trends out there will change the way consumers interact with your product?  Do you think your products will make any sense in 15 years time?  The world’s population was 2.8 billion in 1954. It is currently 7 billion. In 50 years it has more than doubled. What will happen in the next 50 years?  I wonder what the next world wide web is and how it might support 14 billion connected people?  Is this an opportunity of an increased marketplace, or does this create a problem?  This post from jobsworth really resonated with some things that I’ve been thinking about recently during my travels and client engagements.

One criticism that enterprises sometimes throw at agile methods is that it isn’t strong at dealing with future needs rather preferring to focus on the immediate needs of the here and now. It is true, most agile approaches do look to break big things down into smaller incremental chunks that can be used to build up a working model of reality by focusing on empirical feedback and working solutions, and focusing on the most valuable items that we know about today.  After all, people only really know what they want when they see it and when it feels urgent and real.  But, this doesn’t mean we should neglect the future or not even plan for it.  Some things take a long time to put in place and there is no point waiting until it is upon us to deal with it.  It will be too late.  We know education and capability improvement programmes take a long time to bed down.  We know things that materially change society don’t happen overnight. We also know that some big problems require big solutions.  But not always.

Agility is not about doing Agile.  It is about being able to respond to market conditions and forces.  As the famous Wayne Gretzky quote says you need to skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.   If this is the case we need to be scanning the horizons, taking risks and learning fast.  In sporting terms this would be known as ‘reading the game’.  The best way to respond is to change and opportunity is by being prepared, learning our industries, examining other industries and learning about different walks of life and having time to consider what might become.  Oh, and it would be useful to have working practices that allow you to respond and react to changing conditions and priorities.

“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” – Wayne Gretzky

Enterprises today are successful based on what they have done in the past and present, and are full of people who have made great careers based on those conditions.  It is hard to challenge the things that made you what you are.  But many business models are being challenged.  Customers are changing.  Technology is changing.  Society is changing.

These enterprises might have people who see potential shifts that open up future challenges and opportunity, but how does the ‘elephant dance’ as a whole? The Scenario Planning process devised in Shell was a way to improve the overall management of one of the biggest companies in the world to better react to future possibilities.  Scenario planning was their way of working through extreme scenarios that are unlikely to ever be 100% true, but have core elements of truth and possibilities that can help managers create better responses to changing and uncertain conditions.  When people are open and conscious of potential changes, they are more likely to react and spot ways to solve future problems.

In his book, Joseph Jaworski explains the key elements of the process:

Instead of relying on forecasts (which are invariably wrong) the Shell Group does its planning for the future through the use of decision scenarios. Scenario planning [...] is not about making plans, but is the process whereby management teams change their mental models of the business environment and the world.  In the Shell Group, scenario planning is a trigger to institutional learning.  A manager’s inner model never mirrors reality, he explained – it’s always a construct.  The scenario process is aimed at these perceptions inside the mind of a decision maker.  By presenting other ways of seeing the world, decision scenarios give managers something very precious:  the ability to re-perceive reality, leading to strategic insights beyond the mind’s reach.

Scenario planners [...] included experts in economics, sociopolitics, energy, the environment, and technology.  They conduct ongoing conversations with fifty or so top managers in the Shell Group and with a network of remarkable, leading-edge thinkers from around the world in many disciplines: politics, science, education, business, economics, technology, religion, and the arts.  Every three years or so, they synthesize this information into two or more scenarios – stories about how the business might evolve over the coming years and decades.

This process is also highlighted in solving tough problems and was a key enabler to unsticking some of the really hard problems that South Africa once faced.  I wonder what some of our famous brands and traditional businesses that we all know and love today will look like in 50 years time.  It will be interesting to see how software and technology will be dealt with in the future enterprise as more core processes and experiences are enshrined in technology interactions.  I wonder if business leaders and technology leaders will be one and the same thing.  I wonder what capabilities people will need as standard to operate in the business place of the future.  I think an institutional, systemic process that encourages organisational learning that encourages real examination of future trends and marketplace dynamics, plus an approach to delivery that embraces change is a powerful combination to consider.  I wonder who will embrace such approaches and do this well.


From a customer’s perspective

In most organisations IT is a central function. It started off as the experts who ran large mainframes with huge tapes. Weird science to many of the day. Even, Tom Watson of IBM predicted there would probably only be need for 5 of these things in the world. How wrong he was.  IT then became the place that looked after all the computers on our desks. Growing to the hundreds and thousands.  It grew to a department looking after e-mail, and a PC and handheld device for every employee.  We’re now talking hundreds of thousands of devices within a major enterprise. Then IT started looking after the company website, and the infrastructure that manages all of our enterprise applications. All the while they were probably dealing with the telephone systems too. Basically, anything Technology related. Along the way it also picked up other disciplines: software engineers and solution designers and enterprise architects and service managers and user experience experts and project managers and testers. All this seems an eclectic mix of responsibilities, and it seems odd to lump all of these under one umbrella called the IT function.  I wonder why we did.  Was it because it was still weird science for the masses.  It was only the technically minded folks who really got it, and it wasn’t really what the business was about.  Unfortunately, for most companies now, IT is the business.  Our products are IT based.  Our service is IT based.  Our processes are enshrined in what IT can do, and our people are only as good as our IT systems allows us to be.  Our customers are tech savvy and they engage with us in new ways. No longer can an IT  service manager really be separate from ‘the business’. If IT doesn’t work our business does not work.  A software engineer who develops the core user experience, operational experience, process experience is the front-line of the brand and the customer experience.  We need a new approach for IT.

Lean IT is a set of concepts that has been gaining much traction over the last decade.  It has started to look at how we can bring in some of the lean manufacturing concepts into the IT world. It started by looking back at the toyota production system, and what made them produce great products that conquered the US car market.  But, today people are scrutinising the Toyota Product Development System in more detail because they realise that innovation and creativity is not so much about removing waste and variation out of repeatable manufacturing processes, but developing compelling products and services that require pushing boundaries, exploring solutions and working with customers more closely.  It is inherently about more agile ways of working.  It is about Lean Software Development and Lean Product Development.  It is about a philosophy of collaboration, learning and creating feedback and empowering people to deliver what is right and in the right way.  It represents the world of strategy promoted by Henry Mintzberg or Gary Hamel with their focus on learning, innovation and creative strategy in shaping and creating new markets.  This is not so much about doing what we’ve always done more efficiently.  It is about creating customer experiences and products that are loved and sought after.

The Lean IT movement looks how you might enable and sustain a lean transformation that enables you to be more customer focused, and how the culture of the organisation needs to develop to embrace collaboration, and working across boundaries to deliver an outstanding service for customers.  This is in direct contrast to how most businesses set themselves up.  Functional silos are normal.  There is a belief that economies come from scale by bringing together functional expertise.  This is not untrue for some things.  It comes at a cost though, so shouldn’t be considered a general rule of thumb in environments where innovation and creativity are being sought, and where speed is essential.  The cost is that these functions and departments are focused on their bit and not the end-to-end flow of value from a customer standpoint.

Bringing new products and services to market is a value stream known as Concept-to-market.  This includes creative input from all functions across a business.  Doing it fast will require us to focus on the value stream goal and not the functional goals.  The same can be said for another key value stream that exists in most organisations, Order-to-Cash.  Sales and Delivery need to work in tandem. The IT supporting these functions needs to work.

There are some elements of the central IT function that can and should remain central, but much doesn’t or shouldn’t have to be.  How might you decide?  Put simply, does pulling people into a silo slow down delivery in the eyes of the market in a way that might hamper our competitiveness?  If yes, you should consider focusing on the value stream.  If no, you might consider developing it as a function.  If it isn’t on the critical path then it might be better value to consider economies of scale.

I prefer to consider things from the customers’ perspective first.  After all, there is no value stream without them.  We can’t make something more cost effective without first satisfying our customers to the extent that they are prepared to pay for the product or service.  We actually cannot remove waste from a value stream without their being value first.  So, what does the customer think about our organisation design and the place IT has in it? Not a lot, but they might feel the consequences of our choices.  What do they think about the service they receive? Do they care how we set ourselves up?  The person I use as my benchmark on this thinking is my wife, Helen.  She always has great suggestions on how service can improve from the companies she deals with.  She couldn’t care less about the organisational structure and decisions going on behind the corporate walls on how we manage ourselves and set goals.  Her suggestions always make me smile as I then start thinking about how the organisation will be set up and why her suggestion will be a nightmare to implement because there will be no direct line of sight between the backlog of work for the specific system or process that will need to be changed and the customer experience being felt by the paying customer.  There will be many layers between the person who wants something (Helen) and the person who can do something about it (a software developer or some other creative engineer who knows how things work).

The ‘Order-to-Cash‘ lifecycle is a great place for organisations to start when examining their focus.  It exists for most (if not all) profit making enterprises on earth. It might look different in different industries and organisations, but at the highest abstraction everyone has one. Think Amazon and buying a book. Think ordering broadband. Think getting a new credit card (maybe the cash is going in the opposite direction for this one). All of these will have many different computer systems supporting the process. That could be the telephones, the e-mail, a website, the Customer Relationship Management system, the Billing Engine, the Workflow Engine, the Service Management systems, the Inventory Control systems. All of them will have a part to play in any fulfillment journey. For some forward thinking companies this might also include an interaction on facebook. Another one through twitter. These all play a part on the experience of interacting with the company. Each interaction gives us an opportunity to delight or disappoint. From a customer’s perspective, if one of these elements is not functioning then it isn’t working. It doesn’t matter if our CRM system has a 99% Service Level Guarantee from supplier X if the billing engine can’t allow us to complete an order. The customer doesn’t care about our CRM or our billing engine. If the Website is down, the service is down. It doesn’t matter if we cannot complete an order because of an out-of-memory error within our workflow engine that passes jobs and tasks around our enterprise. The customer just doesn’t care.

If every system has a target of 99% uptime and there are 10 systems in a customer journey then the actual uptime ‘target’ is now less than 90%.  1 in 10 times a customer might come along and something not be right.  That is a big deal.  Imagine now 20 systems.  We have sub-optimised the whole system from the customer perspective, but we’ve probably made sensible organisational design decisions and the targets we’ve given our staff are probably okay, right?  Wrong.

This becomes worse when we consider how my wife’s improvement idea might make its way into the future service.  This is the intersection between the Order-to-Cash processes and the Concept-to-Market process.  If each system has a queue of work that they are crunching through in some arbitrary order, or if a critical transformation project is hogging all of the delivery capacity of our business, then it might take years for any idea to filter through our Concept-to-Market process to be implemented.  We might be slowly losing our customers because we are focusing on our own internal transformations.  Our functional decomposition seemed a good idea to group people together into logical departments of like-minded people who all have the same goals of CRM or Billing, but they do make our ability to respond to the people who make us money (customers) in a really terrible way.

The concepts behind Lean IT teaches us to think differently.  We need to focus on the Value for our customers.  We need to focus on the Flow of our improvements and new features of their service, and how we interact with our customers to find out how we are doing.  And we need to focus on the quality that they receive from our service.  Every IT interaction is a Moment of Truth.

I know we need to consider our IT strategy in terms of how we might share data across different products and services, and how we might re-use capabilities in order to help us launch future products more quickly, but this does not necessarily mean we need to bring everyone together into functional silos.  The customer experience is what attracts our paying customers.  It is what will keep our paying customers.  It is also, if we don’t get it right, the reason why people will leave.

We need to get the tension right between the customer experience and the architectural purity of our systems and organisational design.

Our first goal is to look through the eyes of the people that create value, and then figure out the grouping, management and scaling problems that all enterprises have.  We need to encourage customer perspective in every job.


The Power of Environment

I read an article by Seth Godin the other day.  In it he said that the average worker is going straight to the bottom.  The workplace has changed so much over recent time, that workers should not be content with taking orders and everyone should make themselves unique and different so people seek out their specific set of skills.  If  he is correct then this will be a challenge to every company that says ‘our people are our greatest asset’.  I don’t think it is as black and white as the article suggests, but I do think that business environment has changed in terms of expectations and speed, and the average worker needs to figure out how they contribute more effectively.  However, I also believe that some of that responsibility lies with the enterprise, and their need to change their environment to help employees.

In my previous post I wrote about the fact that talent isn’t as innate as we think, and that the only way to ‘world-class’ and becoming an expert is based on practice.  Purposeful practice.  And, lots of it (approximately 10 years of hard, deliberate practice).  In reading around the topic it became clear that many of the stories describing the path to success seemed to be centre around a couple of things.  A person who was to become the future star with a desire and motivation to succeed that was often developed as a result of an early influence in their life.  And an environment that was constructed by circumstances often including the input of a third party who played a key role to the main protagonist.  Matthew Syed put it well when he said, ‘Child prodigies do not have unusual genes; they have unusual upbringings’.

The environments within these stories turned out to be unique and extreme in some way that helps the future star become the person they become.  An environment so powerful that the future star develops a dedication, the skills, the support and the opportunities to rise to the very top of their chosen pursuit.

There are lessons in these stories to help us shape our own environments to develop the talent of our people.  We may not be starting with susceptible kids who at the age of 3 decide that they want to be the future star of formula one or the next mozart, but there are people who, with the right conditions, can strive to be the best. We always have an opportunity to improve and excel regardless of when and where we start.  As leaders it is important to recognise the environment that we really find ourselves in.  Max De Pree in his book Leadership Jazz said ‘People must be able to pursue their potential’.  It all comes down to environment and opportunity.

Exacting Standards

Albert Einstein said, ‘I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn’.

What I find most interesting about the stories of talent and determination I’ve examined is that one or more of the elements of any of the backgrounds has been completely uncompromising.  The fathers of sporting prodigies such as Venus and Serena Williams, or Tiger Woods, or Lewis Hamilton created circumstance of every situation for helping their children develop mentally and physically.  These environments were based around extreme and exacting standards.  There was little compromise.  They helped focus on their weaknesses to develop, but also helped them shape an utter belief that they were meant to be part of the elite.  They relied on the idea that practice makes perfect, and nothing but perfection was acceptable.  Does this sound like your workplace?

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit. ~ Aristotle

Standards such as these are often encountered in the business world too.   Two examples spring to mind:  IBM and Apple.

For IBM they needed to transform themselves from the mainframe supplier of hardware to a services based company that used the expertise to shape solutions.  They created an environment based on values and principles that were upheld from Lou Gerstner’s vision.  The change required a move away from the aggressive sales approach of product and a move towards a more service-based culture developing and delivering solutions, and relationships.  Dee Hock’s quote describes the problem for most of us in the enterprise space well:

The problem is never how to get new, innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get old ones out. ~ Dee Hock

Underneath all the sophisticated processes, Lou Gerstner concluded, there is always the company’s sense of values and identity.  This is where he decided to focus.  In his book, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?, he said, “It took me to age fifty-five to figure that out. I always viewed culture as one of those things you talked about, like marketing and advertising. It was one of the tools that a manager had at his or her disposal when you think about an enterprise.”  He added, “The thing I have learned at IBM is that culture is everything”.

They spent years resetting the standards and upholding the expectations required.  I think this is a key enabler for performance.  It is rare to see it upheld.  It is more likely to be talked about and dismissed like Gerstner refers to.

The other example (and there are many more) is Apple.  Since his death, Steve Jobs has had many things written about him.  Not least has been about his approach to leadership and management.  He had a pursuit for perfection.  It is written that his ego drove him in a way that ensured that everything about the product created by Apple was exact.  He worked tirelessly to be the best and he held the whole of the company to his very high standards.  Nothing was ever good enough and he constantly challenged to improve.  It will be interesting to see if the environment continues.

Enabling Fast Feedback – To stretch, fail and learn

The complexities and dynamics of how a single person’s performance can be linked with the entire performance of an enterprise is too great. There needs to be another way of getting more direct feedback on performance, and what can be done to improve.

As business leaders or managers, providing fast feedback is critical for the growth of team members.  This is what the environments of the elite did for them.  Often we can go weeks, months or, in some extreme cases, years without giving real feedback on the work our people do and how they are performing it.  We are often very critical of the results delivered by people, but not the practice that generated the result.  This needs remedying, and we also need to create environments outside of the day-to-day job to develop skills.

Now, I’m not of the opinion that you only learn from failure.  Learning from success is also useful, and good for the self-esteem.  But, what I am a fan of is that you learn more from the situations where you have been stretched and tested.  Max De Pree said ‘We need to learn to think in terms of discovery.  Once a discovery is made, we need to make the right connections and to give relevance in our current environment’.  This means we need to develop a learning culture.

Julia Cameron once said that ‘Making a piece of art requires a myriad tiny steps’.  Many little lessons need to put together to develop a masterpiece or an outstanding performance.  This is all the work that is done behind the scene that often goes unnoticed.  People need an environment where they can make mistakes, gain feedback and improve.  This needs to happen regularly.  In sport, this is the training ground.

In business, we don’t have training grounds.  We are always on.  We don’t get the time and luxury of professional athletes.  We are less tolerant of  failure in business like sports fans are in the big games.  Even Michael Jordan regales stories of missing some really important points in crucial games on his way to becoming one of the greatest.  Maybe this is something we need to improve upon.

Developing the business training grounds is necessary.  We need to develop communities of practice that enable us to learn and improve in a safe but challenging environment.  Maybe in teams and projects outside of the normal spotlight.  The problem is that many enterprises have developed a fixed mindset culture.  One where a commitment made (however realistic or not) is one that must be met at all cost or at least expectations managed appropriately. And there is no room to learn or improve when you are on one of these projects.  The fear of failure permeates everything and most people do things within their own comfort zone so that they are not to blame or culpable within a project that is destined to hit the rocks.  This means that the project will never get the best and most courageous ideas or the most effort invested in it.  In a sense, they are set up to fail because of mindset.

Making the Time

If the numbers are to be believed and it takes 10,000 hours to develop a world-class expertise in sports, arts, business or any other discipline, what does it mean in terms of supporting the development of our people?  Remember the Dee Hock quote?  The skills that have already been developed in our existing workforce may no longer all be relevant.  Some will be, but the business environment has changed.  The business environment will continue to change.  Traditional companies are already struggling.  Kodak anyone?

We know teachers are already teaching students skills that will help them deal with jobs and technology that don’t exist yet.  We need to be doing the same in business.  This means unlearning some stuff that we’ve always known to be right (or at least we thought we did!).  We need to prepare people for uncertainty.  We need to encourage and support people to experiment and improve for the good of our companies. We need to create a culture of critical thinkers.  This requires a change in our environment.

People will need time and space to improve.  It might not require 10,000 hours for everyone in an organisation, but it will take committed time nonetheless.  It means that we need the right influences in our organisation that represents a set of exacting standards that helps us develop.  But it also requires a strategy for developing a new set of skills, and releasing the latent potential within the organisation.

The world of business is moving super fast, and the practice that is required to remain world class is increasing.  We might not think the kids coming out of college are quite ready to run our businesses, but they are more savvy with technology than most of our workforces.  They might not understand the politics of our organisations or the nuances of managing a message, but they certainly know how to connect with people around the world and are more ‘agile’ than most middle-aged business folks.  They know how to communicate in 140 characters or less.  Their environment is one of ubiquitous technology, speed and communication.  This is what Godin was referring to, I believe.  They are already many hours ahead of us on their way to 10,000.

Our environments need to cultivate learning and skills acquisition that help all levels of an organisation improve.  Not just the graduates, or apprentices.  Not just the people in the talent pools.  Nor just the workers.  This includes leaders and followers alike.  It includes the young and the old.  We are all products of our environments.  So, our results depend on our ability to create the best environments for today.


Writers write

An obvious statement. One that I sometimes find easy to forget though. I have been talking about writing for some time. I’ve always wanted to write well. I am an avid reader. I’ve read many fantastic books: Fiction, non-fiction, biographies, comedies, tragedies. The list goes on and on. I must have read thousands of books. Because I read such exceptional work and see the amazing end product, I feel I should be able to produce something as compelling. The truth is that I don’t write well enough and it doesn’t come easily to me. In reality with my current situation I am never going to produce a written masterpiece. My talent is not great enough.

However, one of the books I’ve been reading recently is Bounce by Matthew Syed. This is a well written book covering the idea that talent is a myth and the people we believe to be born with god-given gifts are really the product of their environment and the amount of hard work and dedication they have invested in their chosen discipline. We see the tip of the iceberg. Matthew’s premise comes from many studies, but also from his own, personal story. He became the British number-one table tennis player at the age of 24 and has reflected on what shaped him to be the best in the country. I’ve come across many stories like this before. Gladwell’s Outliers covers a number of situations where notable individuals in recent history were shaped by a unique set of circumstances and an opportunity which others didn’t capitalise on. Some of these came from the largest names within the computer industry who grew up in the Silicon Valley area at the time when the first opportunities to mess around with technology appeared. The opportunity and temerity to play helped shape their futures.

From the field of sport, Jonny Wilkinson and David Beckham are two notable sportsmen that I’ve read about that have stories (Jonny’s story) that border on the obsessive. They had a desire to perfect a particular skill which helped them to become part of the elite within their chosen fields. It wasn’t just the desire though. The conditions were right.

I have a similar story (not exactly mine, but one I was part of) that parallels much of the thesis in the book. When I was 7 my parents moved across my hometown, Stevenage. It wasn’t too far, but far enough away for me to have to find a new group of friends. I lived on a green at the front of my house. A patch of grass that was about 20 square meters with about 10 trees and various stumps that made excellent football goals. Around the green were 8 houses. In those 8 houses there were 6 boys of similar ages. Martin, Ashley, Jason, Ross, me and Andrew. I was the oldest and Ashley was the youngest. He was born the year I moved into the house. He was also the younger brother of Martin. Around the area (not directly around the green, but within 100 yards) were around another 10 lads who were mostly older than me. The one things that we all liked playing was football. As I grew up I played a lot of football with different groups. Sometimes with the older guys, but often with the lads around the green. We played all the time. When Ashley just started walking he joined us ‘out the front’ (as we called it) and he loved it. He loved trying to emulate his older brother (and his Dad, Luther, who was also pretty nifty with a football at his feet). Ashley was always first out and last in. He ran tirelessly and he always worked hard and had a great temperament. He couldn’t compare to most of us when we were 12 years old – he was still only 5, so we’ll let him off – but you could see he was shaping out to be very good. Because we played constantly and we actually played at a high standard (Martin and I both played at a pretty high standard as teenagers – actually, Martin still plays at a high standard) the younger boys became really good for their ages and they all went on to play together for many years. It was a great training ground. In fact, out of the 6 people around the green, 4 ended up playing professionally. Two of them found very good professions in the English Premiership. Jason played for Norwich City for a while. Ashley now plays for Manchester United and is a regular in the England first eleven. The environment helped shape two-thirds of that small population to get paid in a game that they loved. The 10,000 hours invested (I prefer Seth’s view on this, but in the case of well-established vocations 10,000 hours seems about right) never really felt like work. This story feels more than a coincidence.

Hard work, practice, an environment of challenge and a support network that encouraged and nurtured has helped shape an elite sportsman. When you read the life stories of many of the most successful people in the world they have similar characteristics in their narrative. Often, very unusual upbringings.

The formative years for people really do shape them, but I believe hard work, environment and opportunity could play as big a part in later life as they do at the beginning. We are just more attuned to helping youngsters because we believe they require nurturing and a supporting environment. The challenge is: what comes first? The opportunity or the hard work?

In various roles I’ve had I’ve been asked by my team members to promote them into positions of leadership. For me, it feels odd when someone comes up to me and asks for me to tell her team-mates that she is now in charge and they should listen to her. People who know me, and have worked with me, know that I am not someone who would generally take the requester up on their offer. I have done, but it has been under specific conditions. My view is that leaders lead. They don’t need me to tell others that they’re the leader. Project managers manage projects. It should be obvious, and everyone will know. A head-of-sales will sell and run sales. It is who they are. I wouldn’t need to explain. If someone needs to ask for help in setting other people’s expectations (and they’re not new to the position) then I tend to think that my interfering in a process that should be one of self-organisation is wrong. People tend to do the job they are most capable of.

But, I have helped people take up the position they desired. It has only ever been on the back of a serious amount of dedication and application of practice to be able to do the role. That is, the person has shown and demonstrated the hard work required before any opportunity arose. The aptitude and attitude are inextricably linked. Without the attitude the aptitude will never be gained if, like me, you believe in Matthew Syed’s thesis.

If you desire to lead a team then you need to do it. You need to practice it. You need to find and create opportunities to develop your skills. Most people tend to do what they can do. If you aspire to greater things then you need to do things you can’t do. This is what rounds us out and develops our skills. The difference between who you are and who you want to be is what you do.

We see less practicing in adulthood because everyone expects us to already be the finished article, and it is scary to show weakness to our peers. We tend to develop the skills to hide what we’re not very good at. We must resist this temptation and encourage ourselves and people around us to continue to practice and develop even if this means lesser performance whilst learning. Without this, we will stick in our comfort zones and continue to develop the defence mechanisms that maintains the status quo.

As for me, these stories give me hope with my writing. It means that my lack of innate talent shouldn’t hold me back. It is all reliant on my ability to practice which is more down to my priorities, my motivation and my work ethic. So, as it says at the bottom of this wordpress page (when editing) I should just write.


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