Keep your skilled staff, and save overheads.


Tug of war team. (Photo by Toffehoff on Flickr.)

We lose 16-35% of skills each year in our organisations. (source: CIPD 2015)

Western businesses are familiar with the concept of survival in a fluid mix of markets, technology and politics. And mostly they observe that they struggle to hold on to skilled people.

But how much more could we accomplish if, like a Tug of War team, everybody had just one key task, and one reporting line for it?

Look closer at your own workplace, and I’m sure you will see that you unwittingly ask your people to meet not just one, but multiple purposes. It is common that reacting to a topical problem, team briefing says one need, such as ‘Answer in 5 rings’ is a ‘Now issue’; production targets demand a different priority; and salami-slicing of head count cuts across them all. And when performance is reported to the Board, we see fierce inter-team rivalry and blame, as department heads vie to stay clear of the ‘lowest-performer’ spot.

This shifting sand makes it tough to stick to the top priorities, let alone to see the value arising from individual or team contributions. So it’s no surprise that staff respond better to whoever shouts loudest, than to the latest annual plan. Hey, which one is ‘The Key Task’?

When all work to a shared purpose, happiness and retention improve markedly (source: CIPD 2009).

Now we can project sustainable improved in retention and motivation of skilled staff, arising from a genuine sense of shared purpose. Track that and we can slash the costs of hiring and motivating staff!

I suggest this experiment for CEOs and Board members:

-1- Read the published corporate objectives, putting yourself in the shoes of the night shift supervisor or a newly-recruited salesman;

-2- Sample the purposes your staff are trying to meet, asking in person what is top of the sheet in their appraisal and team meetings? Relay these to your most senior managers, challenging them to tell you in a month how they would eliminate (-or defend) any items that do not contribute to the objectives, and to explain how the effects can be sustained;

-3- Continue to ask the purpose question, daily. Tell staff to flag up conflicting messages with local managers…and that if that doesn’t work, they can call you direct (-warn your PA);

-4- Ask your HR and Finance managers to report changes in the costs of hiring and motivating staff.

Anyone want to join a tug of war team? 

However did this become normal?

Modern enterprises are mostly shaped around resources: we have become used to shaping them around vertical streams of money, spans of control, and the ‘ideal’ size of departments. And we try to flatten out the organization chart to a fashionable minimum number of layers.

It is useful to reflect that this layout was invented in the 19th century Prussian Army (source: Scholtes), where speed of relaying instructions across the force was all-important. Whilst the army was very successful on the battlefield, without any testing of its suitability this became the template in commerce too. Matrix Management is a popular legacy of this system, even though many authors on management have reinforced the popular truism that ‘No man can serve two masters’.

Research by (Pink), (Scholtes), and (Alderfer) clearly shows us that ‘carrot and stick’ approaches and incentives only partially motivate workers: the stronger motivation is internal, when staff clearly see their part in the success – so clarity and consistency of purpose are key factors.


# Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD)

-(2015) see Figure 19

-(2009) see p 5, 6.

# Daniel Pink                            see

# Peter Scholtes              see

# Clayton Alderfer              see ERG model.

What are Managers for? (one more time)

Despite the ongoing professionalisation of ‘management’ as a distinct line of work, some questions remain too often unanswered.

A key one is ‘What IS the main task for any manager?’

If we wind back the clock to the 1950′s and 60′s we find that a wealth of research was going on to answer this problem, even though American industry and society appeared to still be riding the crest of a wave. Amongst the researchers was William B. Given, who was President of American Brake Shoe Corporation.  Note that Given was not simply a practitioner, but also a graduate of Yale and MIT.

Given’s book Bottom-up Management: People Working Together published in 1949, was well ahead of its time.  Peter Drucker cited Given’s book in his The Practice of Management (1954). And it was following a visit to American Brake Shoe that a business school student championed the refreshingly pointed term ‘Bottom-up Management’ to a wider audience.

According to Given, a good manager had to be a team player; yet like the captain of a sports team -not necessarily the best player-  he had to be a leader; and also to exert a moral influence.  Beyond the formal delegation of authority that was normal in the 40′s, he argued that each manager should deliberately pass elements of his own responsibility for decision-making down the chain, calling it ‘progressive decentralization’.

In both practice and in print Given pressed for personal freedom to be passed on to superintendent staff, ‘-to venture along new and untried paths; freedom to fight back if their ideas or plans are attacked by superirors; freedom to take calculated risks; freedom to fail’ - and according to the brothers Hopper (in their brilliant book ‘The Puritan Gift’ detailing the rise, and decline of Puritan values in North American enterprise) this is the genesis in print of ‘Bottom-up’ which today is a term given (sic) too little credit.

Oh how I wish more of today’s business school teachings took account of this strand of thinking…yet the concept that ‘Managers know what is to be done; and how’ persists in splendid isolation, and so is well beyond its use-by date.  Of course the two are polar, and the truth in any situation will lie in experimentation and establishing a reasonable balance between the two.

Hence my plea to managers, their directors and (long-suffering) staffs, to practice both top-down and bottom-up patterns, according to what works well.  A little open-minded experimentation will quickly prove the worth of the blend, and results will follow.


Rock, Paper.

I remember that as small children we never played ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’ -simply because we’d never heard of it. This was the 1960′s, see, when TV showed grainy pictures in black and white and broadcasts were made only for a short part of the day; probbaly these things combined to slow the impact of US culture on British kids.

Now we didn’t know (or care) that those things were holding us back, and simply played with the toys that came to hand. However we grew up to echoes of parental coaxing “If you ever want to BE something, you have to work harder!”
And naturally we didn’t reconsider that line…we accepted the received wisdom or fatalism of the age,
the ‘shit happens’ school of thought, where you either -A- tried your hardest, and that might (only ‘might’) be enough; or -B- you would fail.

But across the Pond, one rebellious American professor was already famous for asking ‘Wwhy can’t we do things differently?’ and coming up with surprising and effective answers…his name was Russell Ackoff, and years later he wrote of a third way (no, not political rhetoric, but a different worldview of problems). In ‘The Art of Problem Solving’, Ackoff argued for a distinct third approach to problems, not to attempt to merely reduce them and settle for an fair fix; but to Dissolve or wholly remove them.

His third way was a powerfully different approach, every bit as radical as yet-unseen new products like colour TV; Doctor Who with a detailed plot and dialogue; or personal computers would have been to the ignorant, happy urchins of a Cheshire town. Whilst we would have welcomed more and better telly, Ackoff’s legacy has since expanded our take on life; instead of playing ‘Rock, Paper’ we now have three options -and the Scissors wins!

I bet you want your people to innovate…

You want your people to innovate, don’t you? Of course you do; yet is it easy for them?
# I bet your corporate values include something like ‘Our people are our greatest asset’.
# Ever paid a consultant for new ideas? -and do you invest to capitalise on insiders’ suggestions? (yet I’ll wager you have spent more $ on the external, than on those staff ideas…)
# Think back to the last appraisal round: how many ideas were held up as successful? -and what proportion of your staff were offering up ideas?
# And maybe you ask them to ‘Do it Right First Time’? –OK.
# Ever put up a Staff Suggestion Box? -and did you get the response you dreamed of? No…

I want you to see, that there is a strong link between employees’ concerns over have over ‘getting things wrong’ -especially when those things are the ones counted in their performance, pay and bonuses; and the level of real freedom staff have to come up with radical ideas, to develop & trial them.
Even if we count the adoption separately, its common to find that the part of working life where we place most value on ideas is as a slogan, but much less as real support for doing things differently.

OK, how many of us learnt to ride a bicycle on the first attempt? Come on now, you can’t really expect staff to take risks with an important part of their futures unless you actively support them, by making it OK to admit ‘failures’, and to share mistakes; and you’ll need to cover some loss in pay.
But consider the rewards! –once the folk who live every day with problems see that you really do want suggestions, they will flow freely. When workers own and promote their own ideas, (not via the cheesy Suggestion Box) adoption of the early offers will encourage others.
Then the organization begins internal learning (which is cheaper!) -and managers will learn much more of where to study and improve the annoying problems that are holding you all back.
Sustainable innovation begins -

    inside your organization!

Creating buy-in

In talking this week with Debra, one of my new American friends, about leaders creating ‘Followship’ the subject of ‘Employee Engagement’ (EE) came up. Although EE is widely practiced in projects to bridge a void in the contract between staff and leaders, I had not thought much about what it represents.

Referring to a military example of strong employee buy-in, Debra suggested that it is often better to build employee support for a vision without all the funding in place; than to merely accept a funding stream and then change the direction of teams to follow it. I readily agreed with this emphasis on followship, saying “Right -you can’t buy buy-in.”

What I came away with was a thought that whilst Employee Engagement may be just another fad, it fails to answer an underlying problem; no, not the nuts and bolts of creating buy-in, but asking ‘Why don’t our organisations naturally allow staff pride in work, and grow joy and ownership that render EE unnecessary?’

I’m pretty sure that the problem is the way we run organisations, split along functional lines that do not relate to the real work, as top-down hierarchies with multiple purposes that divide staff, and involving staff downstream of decision-making instead of pulling in their expertise up front.

Hotel IT system

This week I asked a hotel Receptionist “Can you help me, please?; I can’t get into my room.” She apologised, saying that they had major problems with the room access system, one of the 30 or so computerised systems that the chain replaces under a global ICT programme. In this case 29 of the 30 had been installed and wrestled into shape; but this one was taking a little longer to patch up.

With little prompting she also explained that corporate policy was to change all these systems on a 4-year cycle. And the more experienced staff who have seen scheduled disaster before can reasonably predict the ensuing chaos. It became clear that local staff were powerless to affect this policy, and dug in each time to minimise the effects on customers and operations.

I can see that a corporation working a highly competitive market needs to attract and retain highly mobile customers, and so will wish to acquire the best customer activity information – so replacing tired software makes sense. However I struggle with three aspects:
firstly how can a global HQ knowingly inflict such damage, albeit temporary, on its revenue-producing operations?;
second that it does not allow its operations staff -who would have more current knowledge? no influence over how the changes are implemented; and
third that in a dynamic market it fixes a 4-yearly schedule -whatever happened to ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?’

Of these three points, the first two appear to reflect assumptions at HQ that do not favour front-line staff, and they certainly offer room for improvement to be gained and to better use the knowledge of staff; however the third has a different character, as this 4-year cycle feels to be arbitrary. This third may present a different scope for better work and as a consequence, reduced costs.

I think I shall write to the chain, and see how many bounces the letter takes before reaching someone who will properly answer. Watch this space, but don’t hold your breath!

Whistleblowing ain’t easy

I’ve been reading an example in today’s ‘USA Today’ newspaper of how difficult it is to go against a damaging culture, in this case alleged serious fraud in US government property arm, the General Services Agency.

Many of us know at an intuitive level when things are very wrong. Elaine Johnson says: “Moral behaviour is hard-wired into the human brain.” -however the rub for the would-be whistle blower is that acting on what we know to be right is tougher when the consequences for one’s employment are severe.

Reports to federal committee hearings say that an executive had fostered a culture of ‘putting people down’ who objected to his spending decisions. Apparently the official’s spending habits extended to taking a nine-day visit to Hawaii to attend a one-hour ribbon cutting. One employee told the Inspector General ‘he squashed someone like a bug’ for speaking out.

However oversight since the inspector’s report of May 2011 suggests the matter is a deeper problem than one person’s bad behaviour, with evidence to federal committees suggesting that lavish spending after the release of the inspector general’s report points to a ‘-culture we are going to get to the bottom of…a culture of fraud’

And once the behaviour has spread widely, being a whistle blower is a whole lot harder again. Dr Deming wrote: ‘Fear invites wrong figures. Bearers of bad news fare badly. To keep his job, anyone may present to his boss only good news.’

Beyond the alleged fraud, such a climate of fear damages the lives of all people it touches. There lie hidden and possibly greater costs than those exorbitant purchases, because they are largely external to the organisation, and not costed to the accounts.