Key note speaker at #CIPDACE 16, Margaret Heffernan. Apologies for the typos, I am trying to beat Ian Pettigrew to it this year 🙂
Margaret starts by telling us about an experiment between 2 flocks of chickens. An average flock of productive chickens and a flock where one super productive chicken gets added to the group… After some time we discover that the first flock was more successful, whilst in the second flock, all chickens but 3 were dead…
The productivity of the few had been achieved by suppressing the productivity of the rest.
A super chicken does not help. for the last 50 years we have run organisations like the super flock of chickens. We have created spectacular talent contests to identify and promote them. We have discovered that the productivity of the few was achieved by suppressing the productivity of the rest. We have done in our schools and companies and we find exactly the same as William Mure found. Aggression, devastation and waste. Why doesn’t it work? We didn’t start this because we thought it would fail… Darwin didn’t say that success lies with the brutest or the most aggressive. He said the most adaptive succeed. Problems are to complex to be solved by super men, or super chickens… Team work is really important. We do need teams to create something different that we haven’t seen before. How do we do that? We all have experience of working in a team that cannot get things done. And some teams achieve anything. So, what is the difference? Tom Malone at MIT tried to figure this out. The most successful teams were not the ones with the higher IQ. Also not the ones with a few IQ superstars. The teams that were really good shared 3 characteristics: 1) Score more highly on test for empathy. You are thinking about each others. Collective minds and intelligence. 2) The really successful teams tended to get the full participation of every members. No passengers. No dominating voice. 3) The really successful teams had more women in them. It may be that women score more highly on empathy… What really matters is what happens between people. In practice this means that one of the salient characteristics of really successful businesses is helpfulness. Not a sexy word, but it means that have a room of super smart people that share their ‘Know How’.
Helpfulness is fast, efficient, safe… everyone has a higher level of confidence and expertise that wasn’t there before. Fundamental to it is the idea of sharing information because that is what people do when they work genuinely together. ‘Social Physic’ has been recommended by Margaret as a book to read. The author discovers that inside every network there are people that seem to know everybody… The more of them, the more the information flows. It flows fast and accurately. As a test he convinces an organisation to do a 10 minute coffee breaks with a group of colleagues. From that group emerges a productivity increase that can be quantified in 10 million dollars. Helpful and collective intelligence of network organisation increases productivity. The productivity of the whole depends on the productivity of everyone, not just a few.
Margaret looks back at her experience at managing companies. She hired some great people, but the company wasn’t quite working out. In the UK she went to the pub with her colleagues after work, but in Boston it was different. So she encouraged colleagues to stand up on a Friday and introduce themselves. It was awkward initially, but Friday after Friday they started building relationships and things improved.
If you really want to measure the health of the organisation you need to test how fast important information flows. You need to start talking seriously the idea of ‘Social Capital’. Of course people work better together and when they work together they develop trust… Why now does this feel so urgent? It used to be that there was a time that we could safely make 5 year plans on pretty accurate fore-plans and predictions. It did work. It was like running a factory. Globalisation happened. A world that is complication is now complex. You cannot predict how complex systems work. You can’t safely make long term predictions. The safe window for accurate forecasting is 2 years. Shorter than it has ever been. All of those management systems based on predictions, won’t deliver. If you don’t create high levels of trust and a shared consciousness, then you cannot get anything done. That is the nature of complexity. Complexity is not chaos. There are certain behaviours that will get more out of a complex environment than others. What are those? They are fantastic listeners and ask fantastic questions. As a leader, try and sit in a meeting and do not say a word. Listening is really critical. Have the courage, patience and discipline to not interrupt. Giving people opportunity to contribute in other areas and not just their area of expertise. Problems are routinely solved by people working outside of the area of expertise. This is the unused capacity we have in our organisations. How do you get all of this fantastic thinking out of the head of these fantastic colleagues. What are the barriers that are keeping people trapped? What is stopping them achieving their potential? Is we stop the debates, we stop the organisation finding solutions. In an unpredictable, complex world, we are going to make mistakes. Of course we are. Complex environments reveal themselves through experimentation. You need to look at the failure and learn from it. Every decision is just a hypothesis about the future.
Are there any organisations that are doing all of this? Yes, Margaret found one in Seattle… Microsoft. It used to be super-chicken central. Scary track record. They needed to think differently about how they did work. Microsoft in the last 2 years has transformed itself spectacularly. They embraced very wholeheartedly the idea that talent and expertise is not fixed. You want a culture where every single person knows that they are there to learn. They understand that the more mistakes they make, the more they learn. Even the CEO at the beginning made a huge mistake…
Expertise alone is a starting point, not an end point. We want colleagues enthused with a love of learning. We have got to revisit and re-frame the issue of diversity. You need to cherish the difference between people. People not like you have a lot more to teach you. We have to prize curiosity. When we are interviewing people, let’s ask them different types of questions. Who got you here? If people think their success is only up to them, then that’s not great… Hiring managers are more like impresarios.
Massive institutional failures have been caused by knowledge that resided in the organisations, but had not been shared. We have to breakdown the bureaucracy and hierarchy. We are facing challenges that are not going to be solved by super men or super chickens. If we are going to build institutions that other people can trust, in a society that trust is normal, then we need to invest in each other. Our greatest success lies on how you connect with each other. The only way for an organisation to grow is by allowing our people to grow.