We all need to get comfortable writing new chapters

The more that is written and spoken about the ‘future of work’, and specifically the impact digitisation is having on our lives, the more I think we need to rethink how we manage our careers and personal brands for what will be a much longer time than previous generations.

Recently, Josh Bersin wrote a brilliant piece on the ‘Future of Work’.   Citing research he makes the point that now (not even in the future) the average baby boomer is likely to change careers on average 11.7 times.    To compound this further it’s reported that millennials are changing jobs every two years.   It’s fairly realistic to assume that during our working lives we need to be able to handle and manage more change than ever before.  Individuals, organisations and society need to adapt to this era of constant change where career moves and changes are the norm.

As individuals – people need to take complete ownership of their careers and brands.  You can’t manage your career on autopilot and expect an external agency (like your company) to manage your own career progression.   We need to reflect on what motivates us, what we’re good at and learn new skills to adapt to changing circumstances.  Personal reinvention will be a fundamental skill that needs to be mastered by individuals as we constantly evolve through multiple changes and moves.   We need to be open to change.   We need to have a growth mindset.

Organisations – need to provide more focus on how they support their people during what is a profound period of change and uncertainty. More emphasis needs to be placed on providing people the time, space and opportunities to facilitate changes in skills and experience to grow.  Talent processes can’t be annual affairs, they need to be managed in the moment and balance both external and internal talent pools with a combination of both horizontal and vertical moves.   A learning climate that helps facilitate life-long learning and empowers people to own their careers needs to be fostered as part of an organisation’s DNA.

Society – in a world of numerous career changes our education systems, at every level, need to provide the support and establish the basic foundations to enable people to benefit from this.   You get the sense that the over-used question in schools of “what do you want to be when you grow up?” will need to be kicked into touch. Instead of focusing on linear career progression our educational systems need to instil the values of persistence and resilience to help people manage change.     Education support needs to be provided at every level of society to enable life-long learning.

I think we need to think about how we create different chapters of experience that will reflect a rich tapestry of your working life (which is likely to be much longer than previous generations).   The art will be on finishing one chapter and then moving onto the next one and being adept at constantly evolving your skills and experience.    To support this both organisations and society need to adapt and support people to what will be a combination of an opportunity, risk and uncertainty.

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Everyone knows everything about everybody, so you have to be cleverer in the analysis.

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I love this quote by José Mourinho.    Whilst the context is about football it can equally be applied to the world of people analytics.    Football is awash with data detailing every aspect of what players are doing broken down to minute detail.   In this ‘Moneyball’ era data is king.  But as Mourinho neatly remarks, in order to compete at the highest level you need to invest and build a strong analytical capability to differentiate.    Teams that fail to do this are getting left behind.   Simply collecting data is not enough.  It is what you do on the back of it that is the difference between winning and losing.

I think there are two insights from the quote that can help build and develop analytical capabilities in HR teams.

Value lies in the analysis (and action) not collecting mountains of data

Fuelled by new self-service technologies, organisations are amassing vast reams of data about their people.   However, value is created not in the amount of data you collect but how you interpret, analyse and take action.   You can kid yourself that by collecting mountains of data you’re building an analytical capability.  You’re not.  You’re just aimlessly collecting ‘stuff.’   Unless you do something about it, you may as well not collect the data in the first place (and save your people a lot of hassle).

It’s far more effective to focus your data collection and analysis in targeted areas, driven by business priorities, than to aimlessly collect data on anything and everything.    Instead of producing diluted dashboards on every metric under the sun, it is far more effective to target this against a prioritised set of issues relevant to your business.   Go deep rather than broad.

A strong analytical capability creates differentiation

If analysis is key, then HR needs to grow and build strong analytical capabilities in their teams and make an effort to do this.   We need to hold an honest mirror up to the current capability and where appropriate address the gaps.

We should also as a profession look beyond our own traditional circles to understand best practice. We would do well to learn about how areas as diverse as marketing and sport analyse data and apply these practices to our own domain.   Similarly, to help build analytical capabilities we need to work across the business and use the subject matter experts to help.   How often has an HR professional asked a data scientist in marketing to gain insight and advice with the reports they’re producing?   We need to do more of this.    Equally we need to invest in upskilling team members and acquiring talent to help bridge the gap.    By making a conscious and concerted effort to upskill and grow analytical capabilities we will create more value to the business.

 

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The paradox leaders need to operate in

Against the backdrop of political uncertainty, economic instability and an increasing divided society, there are a multitude of forces affecting us.   Whether it’s from dealing with issues like the uncertainty of Brexit, terrorism, the automation of jobs (to name only a mere few), we need leaders at all levels to effectively lead in a world where “headwinds” are simply the norm.

Despite being published at the turn of the century, Jim Collins’ Good to Great provides insight into how leaders can help navigate through these troubled waters.   In particular it’s the idea of the Stockdale Paradox that many of today’s leaders should take note of.

To quote Collins the “Stockdale Paradox is the ability to retain faith that you will prevail in the end, yet be able to confront the brutal facts of your current reality.”    The concept was inspired by Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was incarcerated in a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp for eight years.   Despite unimaginable treatment he was able to survive by balancing the faith that he would one day be released against the brutal acceptance of his current treatment.

When leaders are tasked with facing some of today’s challenges they should remind themselves of this principle.    Outlined below are some of my reflections from this:

  • Brutally accept your current predicament and don’t operate on pure optimism alone.   What underpins the paradox is the ability to accept your current reality – no matter how terrible this is.  You need a cast iron will that you will prevail but ground this in understanding the facts you face now.    This requires a blend of emotional intelligence and the self-belief to be brave enough to accept your current problems yet have the hope that you will get through those dark nights.
  • Be able to authentically  paint a compelling future that is grounded in the reality of today’s issues.   Leaders have to accept the duality of accepting the current challenge of today yet still being able to paint a genuinely authentic and inspiring future.   It’s a blend of being able to present today’s problems, without applying a ‘spin’ on them and provide a compelling future.   Today’s leaders need to find an authentic yet inspiring voice to be able to do this that can energise their followers.
  • Complexity is fine, the key is never to give up.   Often there is a tendency to try and dilute complexity in favour of overt simplification.   However, some of today’s greatest problems can’t be simplified.   They’re complex so we have to get over this.   What the Stockdale Paradox reinforces is the need to embrace the complexity of balancing hard facts with hope, get comfortable with it but always keep moving and never give up.

Fifteen years on the original publication many of Good to Great’s ideas are still as relevant now as then.     When leaders face those unenviable decisions and are in the mire they could do well to remind themselves of these ideas.

 

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The fruits of marginal gains

“It’s all about marginal gains.   The low hanging fruit disappeared years ago.”

– Iain Dwyer

This quote was a reaction from Team GB’s coach Iain Dwyer in response to the questioning British cycling faced as they dominated the recent Olympics.     The response reflects the endless pursuit that British cycling has experienced throughout the past 15 years to move from serial losers to world beaters.

In recent years Britain has dominated track cycling and they have created a winning blueprint.   Put simply the velodrome in Manchester has become a gold making factory.    One of the characteristics of the success is down to the concept of marginal gains.   In essence implementing a series of tiny improvements which when you aggregate together create a substantial improvement in performance.

Matthew Syed, in his excellent book Black Box Thinking, helps to explain how marginal gains works in practice.    In Syed’s words “marginal gains is not about making small changes and hoping they fly.   Rather, it is about breaking down a big problem into small parts in order to rigorously establish what works and what doesn’t.”

The examples from cycling and Formula One demonstrate that step changes in performance can be made my looking at the individual percentage point improvement.   To Syed’s point, marginal gains is not about simply making small changes for change sake.  Instead you need to apply scientific rigour to understand what impact an improvement makes.   It is about testing small changes in a controlled environment to understand what works and what does not.   It’s about finding the things that make a difference.

There is so much organisations can take from this when looking to tackle the most challenging problems.    It’s about taking a systemic approach to managing and implementing improvements by breaking things down to focus on the individual parts.   As cycling shows adopting a relentless focus on detail and applying a systematic approach can transform performance.

 

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The hunger of a cyclist

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Over the past fortnight it has been inspiring to watch the heroic performances of the Olympians as they push the boundaries of what is both physically and humanly possible.    One of the standout performances for me has been watching Team GB dominate the velodrome and in particular seeing Jason Kenny win his sixth gold medal in a nail biting final of the somewhat eccentric Keirin competition.

In this increasingly celebrity driven world, Kenny cuts an interesting figure.   Unlike his peers he has no sponsorship deals and instead relies on his lottery grants (which does make a major difference) to fund him.     He shows a pure hunger for the sport.   His motivation is simply to ride as fast as he can, therefore removing any distractions that may get in his way.   He appears to have little interest in being a celebrity and instead simply lets his pedals do the talking.  There is a purity to his focus and attention.

It provides a timely lesson to us all around motivation and focus.   Sometimes it is easy to get distracted by external events or factors.   Kenny’s brilliance shows that if you want to be successful then do what you love and focus purely on this.   As the softly spoken Bolton peddler demonstrates the results can be impressive.

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How learning needs to change to make the future work

I’ve been at two events over the past week that has made me reflect on what the future of learning is and the challenges it faces.   The first was a meeting at my daughter’s school and the second was at a FreeFormer’s event that debated the subject of “The Future of Work.”   

How digital is disrupting the core of how we learn

Both events made me question whether we are really building the right learning and education systems to help us adapt to the digital world that pervades everything we do.  Against the backdrop of the world becoming increasingly digitised the impact on work is and will continue to be immense.   Whether it’s through the automation of jobs through robots or the Uberisation of jobs the world of work is changing at great pace.  The psychological contracts in how we think about work are being fundamentally rewritten in real time.    This places great importance of both schools and organisations to create the right learning climate for our children and our current workforce to take advantage of this.  

In this context the question we must answer is whether our educational systems and our approach to lifelong learning is geared up for this?   I think it’s questionable.  Schools still seem obsessed with transactional exam results as every reference to league tables seem to reinforce.   Despite this gloom it was encouraging to hear my daughter’s Headmaster speak about the need to turn the “three R’s ” on its head to focus on resilience, radical innovation and reflectiveness.   An approach like this starts to challenge the core of how we teach our children.    

Organisations in turn need to question both their formal and informal structures to challenge what sort of learning environment they are the creating and reinforcing.   Is it one that allows people to constantly evolve and embrace transitioning roles or does it reinforce the protection of knowledge at the expense of innovation?

With knowledge streaming creativity must win

To successfully do this I think the whole education system needs to be questioned.   Which was a topic of much debate at the Future of Work.   One point really resonated with me which was that both education and learning needs to move from what is today a classically Jesuit model, which simply reinforces that instruction and knowledge is power.  This model changes in a world where knowledge is streamed directly to us.  This places more importance on our ability to be creative and innovative rather than retain static knowledge.   

This shift poses a number of challenges to both organisations and schools.  For example, should schools be really teaching joined up handwriting in a digital world?  How can our children spend more time building and creating things rather than repetitively remembering facts?  How do organisations support and enable frequent career transitions and allow their people to focus on creativity at the expense of protecting knowledge?   What support does an organisation need to provide its people to allow for non-linear career progression and multi-skilled jobs? 

Unquestionably there are opportunities but they can only be realised if society creates the right conditions and environment for us all to embrace this whether you are at school or work.  Everyone has to be long learners.  The constant evolution of digital technology is changing the way we work and there is a need to revolutionise education at every level.   Our ability to embrace the benefits of digitisation wrest on how successfully we do this.

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What organisations can learn from the English Premier League

This year’s English Premier League promises to have one of the most interesting title challenges in its history.   Last weekend the top four placed teams all had to fight it out against each other.  The two new challengers (Leicester and Tottenham) outdid the traditional challengers (Manchester City and Arsenal) by each winning.  It’s a story of the two David’s trying to outwit the dominant Goliath’s.   The traditional status quo of Premier League domination is being challenged by new forces and tactics, beautifully illustrated by both Leicester and Tottenham.

The approach of both teams have similarities, and I think provide lessons that organisations need to reflect on.  Here are a couple of insights that both Leicester and Tottenham have demonstrated:

  • Used challenging times to create a positive force –  recently both teams have been seared in adversity.  Tottenham experienced defeat in last year’s league cup final and Leicester had to overcome the prospect of imminent relegation.    Both teams have used these difficult experiences to act as a motivator and it has galvanised the teams.   In recent weeks it looks like these players have a hunger and appetite that is enabling them to run through virtual brick walls
  • Unorthodox approach to talent identification – in an era of inflation busting transfers it’s refreshing that some of the talent both teams have acquired have cut their teeth in lower leagues and been bought for relatively modest amounts.   It’s a great example of the club using different ways of acquiringew talent
  • Hard work and energy – both teams have embraced a style of play that is relentless in pressing opponents and playing with high energy levels.  To do this the teams are training far more than other teams – they are just working harder and smarter
  • They do the basics really well – at the heart of both clubs has been in recent times to run them really well by managing the financials and basics really well.  Transfer dealings have been done astutely and the clubs are run sustainably

When tackling issues like how to be more effective organisations could do well to remember the examples of these two clubs.    As we approach the denouement of the Premier League season there is little guarantee that either team will win the title.   But the shadow they have set so far this season has been nothing short of inspirational and challenged the Premier League orthodoxy.  Long may it contiue and business should take note.

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Inspiring leadership: nature or nurture?

As a team we recently conducted an exercise centred around Noel Tichy’s Teachable Point of View.  During the session, using Tichy’s model, we covered a lot of ground.   One of the insightful discussion points focused on the notion of inspirational leadership and whether people can develop this or if it is a talent that is bestowed to the minority.

To a certain extent I think society creates and perpetuates the myth of the inspirational leader.   From Mandela to Churchill, Gandhi to the Dali Lama, history is etched with episodes celebrating the inspirational impact a minority of leaders have had.   This helps reinforce the impression that inspiration is a gift from the few and something the masses can only spectate.    But is this fair?  Can’t we all aspire to be and can be inspirational?  If so how?

Tichy’s model on the Teachable Point of View provided a useful insight into the debate.   The crux of the model is to get people to reflect on ‘crucible’ moments.  These are the transformative moments in your career where outcomes probably didn’t go to plan.  Yet the impact of what the leader has learnt can sow the seeds for future growth, provided they can harness this.   Tichy provides a method to help people share and open up over the difficult moments to help inspire others to learn from this.  These crucible moments are key in allowing people to open up, embrace failure, show humility and be authentic.

As a group we found that working through our own experiences inspired the wider group.  For me it was the ability of people to open up, show passion in something important to them and their authentic tone inspired others.

The conclusion we came to was that provided you have the courage to find your voice, be authentic then anyone can inspire others.   It’s about the ability of anyone to take a risk, expose vulnerability and with an equal measure of passion you can light fires in other people’s hearts.   It was a ringing endorsement of the importance of authentic leadership.

As a leader we have a choice in how we create a following and how our shadow is cast.  If we are willing to share our vulnerabilities we can inspire others.  Whilst this can be a challenge it is within anyone’s gift, as Tichy demonstrates and helps facilitate.

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Learning: from programmes to experience 

When discussing the impact of change there is the often well worn debate between the relative merits of transformational and incremental change.  What’s the most effective way of making the biggest impact?  Is it heavy lifting programmes or smaller iterative changes?  Whilst this polarised debate can be over generalised it is a useful prompt, especially in the context of learning,to think about what brings about the greatest value to organisations.   

Frequently learning practitioners confront this connundrum when they are deciding how best to develop and upskill  their workforce.  When faced with challenges like how to provide front line managers with basic management skills there is an inevitability that you descend into the scalable homogenous, off the shelf management programmes.   In the context of globalisation, tighter budgets and a need to deliver quickly across the workforce you can understand this approach.  But does it deliver the right outcome?

The increasing shift of learning to be more focused around experience than pure curriculum provides an opportunity to influence the debate.  The emphasis needs to be on learning practitioners to provide a more targeted, consultative approach grounded in specific business challenges.   This requires effective partnering with the business to diagnose the opportunity and deliver a solution very quickly (days not months).    This could mean you deliver more contained learning experiences (like interviewing training, managing absence etc.) immediately rather than try and get major long-term programmes off the ground.

The obvious counter to this approach is that you lose scale, breadth and it’s too tailored to be cost effective.  However, we need to challenge this as I don’t think this means that you end up providing bespoke solutions everywhere.  Rather the skill of the learning consultant is to adapt core learning into a local frame of reference which requires a level of sophistication and empathy with their business.   It’s in their gift.

Given how fluid and unpredictable organisations can be this iterative approach provides learning with a simpler, less risky approach to supporting their business and demonstrating return on investment.   It also has the benefit of reducing the investment arm wrestling to determine whether you proceed with a major investment or not.  Smaller changes are far more palatable and can create a sense of progress, energy and momentum.  

Therefore the focus needs to be on how you create small changes against specific challenges.   This requires a level of sophistication to do this but the benefits can be significant and provides both learning and the business a way to keep moving.  The shift in software development from waterfall development to agile offers a compelling template for the learning world to apply.   Deliver small, deliver fast, create a meaningful experience to a specific business challenge and you start to create  a cycle of momentum and energy.  This offers both the learning professionals and the business with simpler way to execute on priorities and make change happen.

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Avoiding those empty spaces in the gym car park

It’s that time of year when we’ve set our annual resolutions and the energy of January starts to evaporate as the grind of February kicks in.   Noting sums this up better than seeing empty spaces appear in gym car parks as people’s get fit resolutions start to wane with the advent of Spring.

With work it’s no different.   The heady moments in Janaury where goals are set after thrashing them out in long sessions can so easily be lost as you progress throughout the year.    The initial energy and focus around plans and ideas can be lost as people crack on in a ‘busy’ world.      The whole notion of an annual goal setting process feels terribly outdated  given how disruptive the world of work is and therefore to an extent largely irrelevant.   It needs to be replaced with something more iterative, adaptable and more engaging.  

Therefore what would constitute a better approach?  The recent shift in viewing performance as an ongoing dialogue throughout the year represents a total shift from the classically outdated annual processes.  Here are some other characteristics I feel that are important.

  • Scorecards with clear accountability – clear metrics and goals associated with each team member where dependencies both internally and externally is like the room 101 of goals.   Yes plan at the start of year but that is just the start.  A clearly articulated and agreed scorecard, which can be adapted throughout the year, offers the ability and means to facilitate high performance
  • Removing the cult of the leader – one of my biggest frustrations with goal setting is the annual cascade of goals, where everyone feels they have to wait for the CEO then every other manager under the sun to set their goals is outdated.  Yes alignment is key but as we move to more federated and distributed organisational models, people need to take personal responsibility and use scorecards to drive alignment through regular inquiry with what is happening  across the organisation 
  • Banging the drum – once set scorecards only work if there are inbuilt robust routines to regularly hold people to account, celebrate success and apply necessary course corrections.    Weekly, monthly and quarterly routines to different stakeholder groups is fundamental.   There needs to be a mix of both formal and informal dialogues around progress.  In short, people and organisations need to live an breath them.  Innovative channels need to be used to capture the attention of organisations 
  • Shouting out – to keep energy its key to recognise progress and what you’ve achieved.   It can’t wait for the annual company awards or ‘rating’.   The ability to share stories of success, promote good news (and areas of focus) is key in keeping them alive

The recent shift in seeing performance as an ongoing iterative dialogue throughout the year replacing a bureaucratic annual process is welcome.  It provides people a chance to understand what they need to do and are doing to make their work meaningful.   Whilst some of these elements require organisations to rethink their approaches there is enough here for all of us to get on and adapt to this.   By doing some simple things as leaders may just avoid those car park spaces from being empty.

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