Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Returning to Work - A New Perspective

Summer holidays can really help in bringing perspective to your work.  Two or three weeks away from your daily routine gives you a distance from which to view things. In the atmosphere of a summer evening away work takes on a different perspective – you can see it as an important part of your life, but maybe not the most important part - and certainly not the all too consuming pressure that it can become when you’re in the thick of it.

Problems and issues at work loom large when you’re caught up in them everyday – to the extent that they can seem larger or more insurmountable than they actually are.  When you have mental distance from them they take on a truer perspective.   
The fresh feeling you get after the holiday break can recede quickly once you are back at work, but returning from holiday does give you a chance to take a fresh look at unresolved issues, challenges and opportunities - and bring a fresh perspective to them before continuing with business as usual. Imagination and creativity can work better after a break as well.  It may well be that solutions to problems come to light that you just couldn’t think of before the break.

Companies hire consultants to bring objectivity and a fresh outlook, which they can do simply because they’re not involved in the everyday business. Taking a break and coming back into work with fresh perspective gives you the chance to be your own consultant – and at a fraction of the cost! 
Many people get one other important realisation after a break, provided they’ve resisted keeping in continuous touch by mobile or email. They realise that the business went on quite well without them!

If that’s the case for you, take the time to consider whether you delegate enough. How did they cope without you? Who rose to the occasion? What opportunity did your absence give others?
So the message for this month is simple – use the benefit of your recent holiday break to put your work into perspective, to view it with refreshed eyes and to share the burden of your work with the people who filled in for you while you were away.

Look for the lessons - even when you succeed

In my last posting (Why Leaders Don’t Learn from Success) I described how success can lead to failure as individuals and organisations fail to learn as a direct result of their success.

As individuals we hold certain theories, models, principles and beliefs that guide our actions and our decision-making.

Sometimes these theories are quite sophisticated and rooted in science and in other cases they are pretty informal.

Learning is the process of updating our theories. We will typically challenge our assumptions, models and theories when something has gone wrong.

Failure provides a motivation for individuals (and organisations) to learn. This has been true from the time we first tried to walk or ride a bicycle. We fall down, it hurts and we try another approach.

An amazing number of high ranking executives report that early failures in their careers taught them lessons that ultimately led to their success. Without failure to provide the challenge, we need to challenge ourselves.

Here are five ways in which an organisation can learn from success:
  1. Celebrate success but examine it - when a win is achieved, the organisation needs to investigate what led to it with the same rigour and scrutiny it might apply to understanding the causes of failure. This may be an uncomfortable process and it may reveal tha a company’s major success was due to good luk rather than good judgement. 
  2. Institute systematic project reviews – Pixar, which has had 11 hit animated films in a row, conducts rigorous reviews of its production process. It religiously collects data about all aspects of a production and uses this to “stimulate discussion and challenge assumptions”. Staff don’t like doing them and would prefer to celebrate a film’s success, but Ed Catmull, Pixar President, sees the benefit of not becoming complacent. 
  3. Use the right time horizons – In industries such as pharmaceuticals and aerospace, the development and feedback timeframe is long. It is critical to keep the appropriate time frame in mind when reviewing performance rather than focus on recent events. 
  4. Apply the root causes of the success – replicating success is important but that does not mean creating a check list of all the things to do the same way the next time. Break down each process into “something we can directly control” and “something that is affected by external factors” and study those elements under direct control using such tools as Six Sigma. 
  5. If it ain’t broke, experiment – in scientific research and in engineering, designs are subjected to ever more rigorous tests until the thing they are designing actually breaks. Organisational experiments can be conducted to push boundaries, provided the cost and impact are managed. 
The path to effective learning involves simple but counter-intuitive steps: Managers must actively test their theories, even when they seem to be working and rigorously investigate the causes of both good and bad performance.

Ironically, understanding success can better prepare you to avoid failure.

Engaging People in Tough Times

Employees feel engaged and deliver growth when they share a clear agenda and are using all their talents.  Leaders add true value when they communicate clear expectations, outcomes and boundaries to allow others to be successful. 

Right now we are all being asked to do more with less. Many corporate leaders have responded to the tough environment and huge uncertainties by:
  • Cutting people and rewards – but not necessarily expected outputs
  • Pulling decision-making upwards – to give a sense of control
These actions are very understandable but make it a difficult environment in which to keep people engaged and motivated. In the face of this challenge, managers need to step back and get very clear about how they create employee engagement.

The Business Benefits

Key to engagement is getting people to “buy-in” to the purpose of the work and feel connected with the outcome. This is simply stated in research findings from The Corporate Leadership Council in 2007 which showed that “Employees who can see a clear link between how their individual efforts relate to organisational goals … engage with the organisation and perform at their best. Increasing the connection between the employee’s work and the organisation’s strategy drives positive employee engagement and performance by up to 33%.”

When people are engaged and motivated you get:-
  • Success without having to oversee every single detail
  • Cohesion in a team
  • The energy to overcome obstacles
  • Things done faster, to a higher standard
  • A positive, happy team
  • New ideas and better processes
The 5 Key Principles of Positive Engagement

Creating engagement involves using 5 principles:

  1. Start with creating compelling shared goals – involve people in this process directly
  2. Be motivated yourself – your energy is infectious whether positive or negative
  3. Understand what’s in it for them -remember that what motivates you might not work for other people
  4. Gain the support of all your stake-holders – they affect whether staff believe it’s worthwhile or not
  5. Give feedback - being clear about what is expected of someone is essential to stimulate engagement and performance.
Employee engagement is not something you can get a quick fix for but consistently using these 5 principles builds engagement with both the work and with you as the leader. That leads on to better outcomes for everyone.