I’m starting a series of short videos to explore how permaculture principles can help an organisation create a sustainable culture change.
In this first video, I introduce the concept.
I’m starting a series of short videos to explore how permaculture principles can help an organisation create a sustainable culture change.
In this first video, I introduce the concept.
Taking lessons from permaculture may be the best way to create a sustainable culture change
As Kermit the Frog memorably put it, “it’s not easy being green” as anyone will know who’s unwrapped and binned or attempted to recycle the plastic from their weekly grocery shop. With images of plastic-bound sea life in our heads we might be feeling a creeping sense of despair… So why apply green principles to the equally vexed question of how to change your organisation’s culture?
The short answer is that it makes a lot of sense to do so – particularly if you want the change to be beneficial and long-lasting. Here’s how…
I’ve lost count of the number of organisations I’ve sat in where there’s an expressed wish that “if we could only change the culture” then the desired change would happen or be a lot easier to make happen. This is a common misconception: that culture is a “thing” that can be changed, like a process or an IT system. It’s not: it’s a consequence of people and systemic issues such as reward mechanisms, recruitment and so on. Affecting culture requires an understanding of these various factors and their interplay but very often leaders prefer a dramatic intervention such as replacing the top team or laying off staff to achieve what are inevitably short-term benefits.
Something more sophisticated is required and rather than come up with my own patented fool-proof culture change method (lubricated with several litres of snake-oil) I’d like to propose the application of some existing principles that will make you think more deeply about the impact of the change you are effecting.
These principles come from a sustainability approach called permaculture. In summary, permaculture – the name derives from “permanent agriculture” and “permanent culture” – is an approach to living that has less of a detrimental approach to the planet. In a discussion with some friends about the topic recently I was struck by how relevant these were to organisational change.
Permaculture is based on 12 design principles. There are plenty of good summaries around which are worth looking at. Here’s my take on how they might apply in a commercial organisation
It’s so tempting – particularly if you’re a consultant or a leader operating on a tight timescale – to come up with solutions quickly and implement them as rapidly as possible. Taking time to engage and understand an organisation is critical if you want to identify the points of resistance and, more importantly, the areas of support that will be important in making the proposed change stick.
In pure agricultural terms this is another way of saying “make hay while the sun shines” – an old saw but often overlooked when implementing change. What are the best times to introduce a change (clue: probably not when you’re doing annual appraisals)? Where are the areas of organisation with more energy and support for the change you want to introduce (hint: start with these first).
The reason we do agriculture is that we need our efforts to yield something. Sustainable culture change in an organisation is the same: we need to understand the benefits of what we are doing, whether hard financial measures or softer attitude surveys. Having a good benefits management discipline really helps here.
In the permaculture context, self-regulation means putting in the appropriate feedback loops so that a system can continue to function well. In an organisational context, this fits well with continuous improvement approaches such as Kaizen, or the application of systems theory. Understanding what feedback mechanisms – formal and informal – regulate an organisation’s behaviour and then altering them gradually is key to sustainable change.
The Shock of the New was an acclaimed TV series on modern art but I think the title could often be applied to approach used to create a shift in an organisation’s culture, whether it’s “new” concepts (like customer-centricity – mea culpa) or new customers, people, technology or processes. Introducing something new consumes resource (it’s more expensive to acquire new customers than to keep existing ones) whereas it’s better to reduce unnecessary consumption where possible: what existing value is locked up in current customers and people and how can you unlock it?
Permaculture emphasises valuing and making use of all available resources. Leaving aside my concerns about how much packaging goes to waste, businesses are incredibly wasteful of the talent that’s locked up in their people and the goodwill of their customers. Take a “zero waste” mindset to your business see how it changes your perception of how to create value.
This is one of the more obscure permaculture principles but it’s intended to force thinking about the big picture in environmental terms. Effective change management definitely takes this approach – at least in theory – by stepping back and observing how processes work (or not) end-to-end and asking the question “who do they serve?” (clue: if the answer is “the customer” that’s a good thing).
My gardening knowledge is limited but I do know that if you plant marigolds amongst your tomatoes the chance of them being attacked by harmful root-rotting nematodes is reduced. Permaculture emphasises putting things in places where supportive relationships develop. How often do we do the opposite in organisations and intentionally create barriers and internal competition?
As someone who cut their consulting teeth in the heyday of business reengineering – the father of which, Michael Hammer, was fond of saying “if it ain’t broke, break it” and where “big change, fast” was the guiding mantra – the idea of being small and slow is anathema to me. However, it’s worth considering how much attrition was caused in those swashbuckling reengineering projects and whether the changes were sustained in the long term.
In agriculture, diversity increases resilience to disease and with the commendable advent of diversity programmes across many organisations, we might think we’re ticking this box. I don’t think we’re there yet: bringing different points of view and thinking styles together constructively to solve business problems is valuing diversity not just ticking a compliance box.
Once again, my knowledge of sustainable agriculture leads me to take at face value the permaculture claim that the interface between things is where the most interesting events take place but in businesses that’s definitely true, with the interface with customers the most productive area for change and innovation. The problem is that this marginal area is often not valued by organisations, leading to cultures that don’t place the customer at the centre of what they do.
Finally, the most powerful principle of the twelve. Change managers like me might think that we are driving change (other powerful adjectives are available) but it’s more helpful to think of how we respond to change. The author William Bridges, in his book Managing Transitions, recognises this: change is a sudden thing and it’s how we manage the transition to the new state that results that’s important. Taking a creative and constructive view of change events helps that transition.
Some of the principles may seem like the blindingly obvious, some a little obscure, but they strike me a setting a challenge for all of us engaged in organisational change: how do we carry it out in a way that increases the chances of sustained benefits? Using the principles to ask questions of and challenge our preconceptions about how change is managed will, I believe, result in change that benefits all of us.
As Kermit says, it’s not easy being green…
Acknowledgements: 1) the author would like to thank his friend Linda Murgatroyd for introducing him to the concept of permaculture 2) the author also recognises that Kermit the Frog was singing about his skin colour not the environment.
The UK’s Brexit debate is about democracy as much as its relationship with Europe. It’s an important debate for workplaces too
If you were trying to get around central London last Saturday, you’d most likely have found 700,000 people getting in your way blocking the route from Park Lane to Parliament Square. The issue that caused this unprecedented turnout was Brexit – an inescapable one if you live in the UK and turn on the news or open a newspaper – and specifically the desire for a second referendum to approve or reject any deal negotiated with the European Union.
Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
Winston Churchill, 1947
The debate on Brexit has split the country, and it feels that, as much we are debating whether we should be part of the EU or not, we are also debating what democracy means, with specific questions such as:
and, more importantly…
Winston Churchill famously said that “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” but I feel that in the workplace most bosses only heard the first part of that sentence.
There’s an immense gain to be had from having a workforce that turns up to work feeling that what they do makes a difference and that translates directly into happier customers.
So why is it that most companies are run like tinpot dictatorships?
According to Gallup’s 2017 global workplace survey, “85% of employees are not engaged or actively disengaged at work” with an estimated impact or $7 trillion in lost productivity. So, the business impact should be clear even if we don’t consider customer satisfaction, which would add even more benefits on top of the productivity gains.
But if the economic argument is so blindingly obvious we’re clearly not buying it.
Somewhere in our genetic make-up we’re hardwired to be selfish: sharing what you have achieved by hard work, guile or luck with people outside your family/tribal boundaries doesn’t come naturally to us. Business leaders and founders who have built something successful have an innate reluctance to share the fruits of their labours out of fear that others might spoil what they have created.
It takes a maverick to achieve something that goes against the grain. Enter Ricardo Semler, the archetypal maverick leader whose Brazilian engineering group Semco is one of the relatively few companies to be organised on principles of active worker participation and self-determination. With its flat hierarchy, self-determination, and peer-set salaries it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s no denying it works: Semco is still in business and has evolved in the 25 years since Semler’s account of his approach “Maverick” was published – its evolution potentially attributable to its flexible, bottom-up approach.
Increased worker participation doesn’t automatically mean businesses should turn into workers’ cooperatives, but it wouldn’t do too much harm to adopt some of the principles to improve engagement. The John Lewis Partnership is hardly a bastion of socialism, but because the workforce consists of partners, everyone has a share in the success of the business. And it’s no coincidence that John Lewis has high levels of customer satisfaction and advocacy.
If you want to get your people more engaged, there are three things you need in place to increase the level of participation:
I can’t overstate the importance of a compelling purpose – your organisation’s why – to unite the organisation and give people a framework in which operate.
This sounds like a big task but as a leader you can start to shift people’s perception of what being a leader means. If the history of the organisation means that a top-down, objective-driven style is prevalent, you’ll need to actively demonstrate and model a more participative approach and encourage those leaders elsewhere in the organisation who do the same.
We’ve outlined the Framework of Champions elsewhere on The Next Ten Years – once you introduce that you’re instantly raising the level of participation
Dissenting workers (or members of the public) don’t tend to take to the streets until all other avenues have been exhausted. It’s blindingly obvious that social media now provides a platform for all and sundry to vent their opinions and whilst the manner in which people express those opinions may leave much to be desired, it doesn’t negate the importance of those views.
The challenge for leaders is to detect the conversations: I’m aware of many groups on Facebook for example where disgruntled private groups can express opinions about “the management”. Discovering these might require a degree of detective work – also known as talking to your employees – but, just as companies need to take seriously the feedback from customers on social media, the issues raised by employees are also important. Relying on the annual employee survey just won’t cut it in this day and age.
When people protest about something, it means they care deeply about it, so those who complain about their company aren’t just whingeing, they’re usually doing it because they have a view on something the company is or isn’t doing – and that view is important.
Keeping your ear to the ground and encouraging – polite – debate is as healthy for workplaces as it is for countries.
And other aspects of performance can be affected as well
According to recent reports the cardiac surgery unit at my local hospital has a mortality rate almost twice the national average and the main reason given is a “toxic atmosphere” and bickering between two rival camps of surgeons. Since I’m an outpatient at the cardiology unit in the same hospital this is a source of both personal and professional concern for me. On a personal level it’s slightly worrying since I am expecting to have a minor cardiac procedure there later this year, and on a professional level it’s another demonstration of how people who behave like jerks can mitigate the best endeavours of an otherwise doubtless highly competent team.
It’s uppermost in my mind at the moment, not only because of my supraventricular tachycardia but also because I have just finished reading Robert Sutton’s excellent book “The No-Asshole Rule: Building a Civilised Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t”. In what amounts to a manifesto for removing jerks (my preferred term, although Sutton devotes a substantial intro to his rationale for using “asshole” – he’s American obviously) from workplaces.
The most convincing argument for me is the concept of TCA (Total Cost of Assholes) which shows that it’s not just the ‘soft’ cultural issues that are impacted, there’s a direct cost impact as well. When you count up the reduced productivity of the people affected by bad behaviour and the time spent appeasing, counselling or disciplining the perpetrators, together with the management overhead, legal costs, settlement fees etc. you find that it’s just not worth recruiting the brilliant salesperson, surgeon or CEO in the first place.
But, I hear you ask, don’t we have to tolerate a bit of jerkiness or assholery from leaders just to get things done? This is a tricky question and one which Sutton tackles head-on: you occasionally need to be direct or even downright rude to make things happen – he refers to this as being a “temporary asshole” – but maintains that being a full-time jerk or “certified asshole” is, in the long term, counter-productive and injurious to business performance.
Sadly, our popular myths and stories often feature heroes and heroines with significant personality defects who nonetheless solve the crime or carry out life-saving surgery as a result of their controversial insights. In the latter case, we’ve often discussed in NextTen whether we’d prefer the fictional Dr House as the surgeon you’d want to diagnose your mystery illness rather than someone more “touchy-feely”…
But back to St George’s – and real life – the newspaper reports of the “dark atmosphere” in the cardiac surgery unit are frustratingly light on detail and, as always, there may be other reasons for the high mortality rate: as a teaching hospital St George’s often has the more complex cases to deal with. But what struck me was that out of a team of 39 people there was a view that the environment was toxic, but nothing appeared to have been done about it.
It appears that management are now taking action but ensuring a healthy workplace – in all senses of the word – requires that those on the receiving end of sustained jerk behaviour are able to raise their concerns and have them dealt with rapidly and constructively.
It’s not exaggerating too much to say that, in this case, it could be a matter of life or death.
Leading with compassion makes you a better leader
How many times have you said “I couldn’t care less what they think” in relation to a work or personal matter?
It feels good doesn’t it? You can stand alone, proud of your own position and invincible point of view?
Unfortunately, it’s also the most corrosive attitude you can take in the modern workplace.
Here’s why: I call it the Guaranteed Formula for Failure (GaFF, if you prefer).
We’ve spent years reinventing the way that organisations are structured: streamlined and automated to deliver better, faster and/or cheaper than the competition. We’ve got smarter and smarter people working in these organisations: we hire the best we can get and get them to perform to help make us even better, faster or cheaper. Those who don’t perform don’t rise to the top and may be encouraged, gently or otherwise, to work elsewhere. A bit of constructive stress keeps everyone on their toes and striving to be better and what they do, every day.
A guaranteed formula for success, right?
The formula I outline above is an idealised one if your workforce consists of machines and, since that day’s a long way off, organisations need to realise that they are made up of human beings who, whatever you may like to think, turn up each day with their own set of quirks, grievances, stresses and strains. Managing that diversity constructively is the hallmark of truly effective leadership. And that requires one quality that’s not often talked about: compassion.
These thoughts came to mind after a highly stimulating “Knowledge Café”, organised by knowledge management expert David Gurteen. David’s been running these for last 16 years after realising that at the typical PowerPoint-slide-and-speaker-based conference, the most interesting parts were the conversations that occurred in the coffee breaks – often between strangers. He designed the cafés to stimulate active and engaging conversation amongst attendees.
At a recent event, Mark Coles, from the NHS London Leadership Academy introduced the topic of “Paying Attention to Attentiveness” – essentially how we can care more for each other in the business environment, or perhaps whether that was asking too much in an increasingly pressured workplace.
Through Mark Coles’ introductory talk and the ensuing discussion groups taking the topic as a start point, I found a few themes starting to emerge:
The above list might suggest that businesses need to turn themselves into massive therapy groups but that’s a massive misconception: therapy has its place but only for those who genuinely need it. However, what the discussions in the Knowledge Café recognised is that the effective leaders created space to manage the conflicting opinions, stresses and strains that are an inevitable by-product of any workplace.
Some structures and techniques were suggested that people had found to work: I was particularly struck by one software team leader who used an “escalation unicorn” as a means for her team members to raise issues. The unicorn (a toy one, obviously) was held by the member dealing with a critical issue that threatened the team’s progress, as a means of signalling that they were working on it. The team leader had created an environment where working on the hard stuff – and having hold of the unicorn – was seen as a motivator: dealing with difficult issues was therefore positively encouraged.
Another technique that was cited was originated by KM doyen Dave Snowden and is known as “ritual dissent”. This involves teams or groups offering criticism or support to members while the recipient’s back is turned. This both depersonalises and legitimises constructive criticism and is particularly effective in validating new ideas.
I’m not advocating either of these as magic bullet solutions to the challenge of managing diverse groups of individuals, but it is important leaders create “psychological safety” to allow dissent. As I pointed out in relation to the recent – indeed ongoing – debacle with TSB’s IT systems, it’s those dissenting voices that may point out the truth of the situation.
Compassion is a word that crops up mostly in relation to situations outside of the workplace: it’s what we feel when something awful happens to someone – whether that’s someone we know, or someone affected by a disaster on the other side of the world. It stirs us to action, helping us to do something, even if that’s donating to a relief effort or lending an ear to a friend who’s going through a hard time.
There’s no reason why such a basic human quality should be excluded from the workplace. In fact, it makes workplaces much more effective: it means that leaders and managers, far from losing their focus on the hard performance criteria their teams have to deliver, recognise that these are not simple diktats that have to be obeyed, but negotiated to allow each team member to deliver according to their skills and development needs.
It’s a quality that underpins NextTen’s approach to customer success, using the F.A.S.T. principles originated by Gordon Tredgold. As customer experience makes the evolution from “nice-to-have” to business essential, there will be many tough conversations to be had.
Those firms that hold them in a compassionate and caring environment will be the ones that achieve real success.
We’ve all done it – when our company fails to reach the high standards of performance that we’d like, we find ourselves thinking “couldn’t we be more like X?”, where X is anyone from Amazon to Zappos.
In other words, the oft-cited exemplars of operational excellence, customer-centricity or employee engagement.
But we need role models such as these to motivate and inspire us, right?
Actually, wrong, or at least wrong if you don’t know why you need role models or how to use them.
I use an approach that I like to call “Pick-n-Mix”. In much the same way that, as a kid, I’d raid the candy counter in my local Woolworths to create a varied bag of sweets that would keep me quiet for the afternoon, this approach allows you to find the right mix of role models to keep you innovating and challenging the status quo.
The biggest problem with many role models and case studies is that they tend to focus on what the whole organisation does. This is not surprising. Since we are usually talking about successful companies, people will want to understand every bit of what makes them successful.
The real problem is that the more we understand about another company, the less likely it is that our own company measures up. Why? It’s obvious if you think about it. We are different organisations.
The role-model company will have probably taken many years to hone its organisation, processes and technology to achieve its high-performing status. Trying to copy and adopt all these changes, even if we could know what they are, would be an impossible task. Why would we want to want to try that anyhow? The chances are the vision, strategies, customers, structures and processes are all different. A model that works brilliantly for their specific situation is not going to be a one size fits all – and work in every other scenario. In fact, its success in fact may be only true for a very specific situation.
The Pick-n-Mix approach has two aspects:
Let’s illustrate the first point, using the independent craft beer company BrewDog as an example. It has reported stellar growth rates over the last few years. In terms of role-modelling, their company culture is an excellent example of “supercompany” practice.
According to their website, Martin Dickie and James Watt formed the company with one mission: “to make other people as passionate about great craft beer as we are. And that is still our biggest mission today.” This passion gets communicated consistently to every part of the business. They are really explicit about building a culture with “a killer workforce where no one is carried; every person plays an integral part in the business. Everyone acts as business owners. Everyone performs at an exceptional level. We have a high-performance culture… and the people that are truly right for our business are consistently uncompromising and relentless in their efforts.”
You can’t copy this culture lock, stock and beer-barrel – even though you may totally support the underlying sentiment. What you can learn from is those aspects of it that would help if your own culture needs a bit of a boost. For example, ownership and involvement is vital for most organisations but engagement is traditionally still woefully low.
Brewdog are explicit about this right from the start of the interview process as part of its differentiating DNA. If you don’t think you’d like it, you won’t apply to work there, and they don’t want you to.
Too many organisations treat their culture like a mystical religion to be gradually revealed to the novice entrant during their onboarding. Try the BrewDog approach, but make it your own. What would business ownership mean in your organisation? Is this about taking more responsibility for your own actions or does that mean wider and deeper collaboration for the good of company, people and customers? What does uncompromising and unrelenting in efforts really mean? Is there a de-stabilisation risk if you do it as they infer?
This is what we mean by taking an idea and then making it your own.
Having dismissed the idea of a single aspirational role-model as rather unrealistic there is one sense in which it can be useful to compare your organisation with another and that’s as a useful jolt of creativity. Thinking “what would Amazon/Zappo’s do” in a particular situation is a helpful approach as it forces you to take an external perspective on the problem in hand.
Developing this leads to further powerful questions such as “what outcomes do my customers want from my company and how might <role-model company> deliver them?”
Codifying what supercompanies do is what The Next Ten Years is all about. We are committed to seeking out actionable insights from the case studies and examples cited on this website. The Pick-n-Mix approach means that there’s no single magic ingredient from our candy stall but instead gives you an opportunity to work out a “mix” that works for you.
The role of social media as a machine for allowing groups of people to be in a state of perpetual outrage is a trend which shows no signs of abating. Love it or loathe it, what should you do about it? Is responding to organised online campaigning a reasonable reaction to the Voice of the Customer or are you just caving into cyber-bullying?
Paperchase said it was responding to feedback from hundreds of its customers who complained about their promotion or endorsement of the newspaper, owing to its coverage of the LGBT community and other minority groups. This was orchestrated by the Stop Funding Hate campaign which aims to persuade advertisers to shun papers that carry articles ‘demonising foreigners and minorities’.
There’s a debate to be had about the legitimacy of this approach. On the one hand it could be argued that much of the material produced by the Mail and other publications of a similar persuasion does help to foster a climate of ignorance and prejudice. On the other, there’s an argument about freedom of speech and where lines need to be drawn between different viewpoints and those that are classified as ‘hate speech’ – a meaningless and pejorative term that, in my opinion, muddies the waters even further.
However, if you’re in the business of getting customers to buy your products, organised online campaigning is something you should be concerned about, irrespective of whether it’s wrong or right. And getting it right means a customer-centric approach that requires two simultaneous balancing acts.
First up, you need to determine whether the campaign is significant or not. According to an article in Drum, 14% of the company’s customers are likely to read the Daily Mail they are more likely to read broadsheet newspapers than the public average (27% against 15%, source YouGov). According to Amelia Brophy, head of data products at YouGov, “it’s unlikely that Paperchase’s customers would have left the brand in any case as our brand tracking data indicates that it is a company with solid consumer perception.”
If that’s the case, you could accuse Paperchase of over-reacting to the Voice of the Customer rather than taking a cool look at the data.
But that neglects a more amorphous but equally important consideration…
Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of this particular issue, it’s given Paperchase an opportunity to state something about its principles. I’d like to have been a fly on the wall when the company took the decision to cancel its promotion: debates on what a company stands for are not that frequent, usually because those values and beliefs are woven into the fabric of everything it does, so they have a depth that discussions on, say, sales figures don’t.
In this case, Paperchase concluded that, effectively, they didn’t want to be associated with the values promulgated by the Daily Mail and I applaud them for taking a stand on this and making their views clear – even though commercially it could be wrong-headed.
There isn’t an absolute right or wrong in these situations, although the opinionated keyboard warriors at all points on the political spectrum would have you believe otherwise. Ultimately it’s a test of what you as a business stand for, and if enough of your customers salute you for it and continue to do business with you, it’s the ‘right’ one.
I was struck a few years back when I read Herb Kelleher’s excellent account of the growth of SouthWest Airlines that he held the view that customers come second whilst employees come first. Aha! I thought, contrarian thinking from the head of a company renowned for delivering a great customer experience, that’s great! And since I have come across similar statements from Richard Branson and many others I have tended to repeat this as a piece of received wisdom. Time then to unpack the issue and ask: in a company that wants to provide a great customer experience do customers come first or second?
I was in a meeting with one of my clients recently where we were reviewing a document that dealt with how to get the voice of the customer more embedded into their project methodology. Following a battle with Microsoft Word’s spell-checker the document referred to a project mythology. Laughs all round but this got me thinking: methodologies are all well and good but it’s an organisation’s mythology that can make all the difference between successful innovation and unsuccessful stagnation.
Why so? Well, let’s look at myths and what they mean.