Language, concealment and #Birkman

29 11 2010

Been taking a slow but very thought-provoking wander through Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary (London, 2009), a book largely about the profound differences between the left and right sides of our brains – and what those differences mean for everything from the structure of ourselves to the structure of society. Here is just one snippet:

…language … is the perfect medium for concealing, rather than revealing, meaning.         (2009:106)

This comes in a section arguing that language is not a pre-requisite either of communication (think of all the non-verbal ways both we and animals communicate) nor (perhaps more surprising) of complex thought. (We may choose to think in words about the process of thought, but actual thought is often pictorial, visceral, etc.)

So language lends itself to concealing meaning as much as to revealing it. Why would we want to conceal meaning?

“To deceive, in order to gain unfair advantage”, is one obvious answer. There are others, which help explain why language does get used in precisely this way so much of the time, without any necessarily nefarious intent.

“I am very conscious of your self-esteem and your feelings, so even though there is a pretty black and white issue in which you are at fault, I need to find a way of breaking this to you in a way that preserves your dignity.”

“My expectation of myself is that I should be a team-player, so that even though the demand you have just made of me is totally unreasonable and is definitely not meeting my need for being valued, I will say ‘sure, no problem’ even though, in my heart of hearts, I mean quite the opposite.”

“Although I believe it is very important to take account of how people are feeling, I have a strong need to come up with objective solutions to emotional problems; so although I am saying ‘there, there’ and ‘you poor thing’ I am actually going to really flip out in a moment if we can’t move on from how you feel to what practical steps we can take.”

And those are just three of my own quirks, all described in terms a Birkman user may well recognise (high Esteem Need, low /high Advantage and high/high reversed Empathy). None of those are attempts to deceive for unreasonable advantage; but they are precisely the uses of language to conceal that all of us are surrounded by – and contribute to – every day.

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The Cybernetic Organisation

15 11 2010

Still with Kevin Kelly and Out of Control, I have been reflecting on Norbert Weiner, author of the 1948 book Cybernetics. Weiner provided a simple but profound insight that changed the face of engineering for ever.

One specific problem Weiner addressed was that of producing uniform sheet steel when doing so was notoriously difficult. Rolling mill operators had to contend with at least half a dozen factors, any one of which could affect the thickness of the finished coil of steel: temperature, quality of the raw steel, contamination of the rollers, pressure and so on. What made it harder was that these factors tended to be interconnected: for example, a change to the setting that regulated the pressure of the rollers would tend to raise or lower the temperature of the steel as well.

Weiner’s brilliant insight was that if you placed a sensor (to measure thickness of the steel very accurately) immediately after the final roller, and allowed the data from that sensor to control just the final factor in the chain of causality (in this case the pressure of the rollers), then whatever the other factors were doing, the steel would come out at the right thickness. The adjustements to the pressure setting were automatically taking account of the sum of all the other factors (since they all played a part in the final thickness). Brilliant and counter -intuitive. It changed how tightly connected systems are controlled ever since.

As Kelly points out, this insight had actually already surfaced in the field of economics a quarter century earlier (suggesting that centrally controlled command economies such as Lenin’s Russia would never be as efficient as an economy in which price was allowed to control all other economic decisons).

Has the Cybernetic insight reached your Organisation yet? I don’t mean in the way you roll steel necessarily; fewer and fewer of us are engaged in steel rolling. (And I speak as one who did a project once in a Chinese Steel Mill with 440,000 employees! Those were the days…)

What I mean is that in running your organisation (whether business or government department or not-for-profit), you are probably juggling all kinds of factors and – let’s be honest – experiencing the law of unintended consequences more often than you care to admit. You make a brilliant change to factor x, suddenly factors y and z are killing you. What to do? Smile and wave and carry on?

Here is a thought experiment to follow on from last week’s one: what is the output sensor for the product or service you deliver to your customers or clients? Probably the experience of those customers or clients. (How you capture, accurately, that experience is a whole other discussion).

What if you coupled that sensor to the last factor in the “production line” – what would that be? Probably the people who deliver your product or service to your customers – whether they are consultants or coffee baristas. What would happen if you allowed customer feedback to determine how your customer service was set? That might mean moderating the type of person delivering that service, and how they behave, scripts they use, the manner in which they deploy or deliver the product or service and so on.

We aren’t rolling steel here, so it may be a bit more involved than customer service mitigating the effects of bits of slag on the steel coil. Customer service people might actually need to inform how your product or service is designed and built. What the customer wants might need to flow right back up through the organisation. It would also be important that you didn’t chunk that information off into projects which would proceed outside the real-time feedback web, because those would then tend to act as increased input errors rather than real-time error correction. In such a Cybernetic Organisation, what Customers are telling us about our Customer Service today would need to be the most important thing anyone in the organisation could hear – because it would determine what we do today. Too crazy for you?





Benchmarking Talent is not Dolly the Sheep

25 10 2010

I talk (tweet/blog/rant/bore) a fair amount about the value of benchmarking star performance in specific roles and then using the resulting profile in recruitment. I don’t recommend this for all recruitment, only where there is a significant number of people who all perform identical roles. Often this means customer facing roles such as customer service, account manager, etc, but it can also apply to backroom admin or technical jobs. If you have a statistically significant sample for us to work from, we should be able to tell if there are characteristics which discriminate consistently between your star performers and the merely averagely good; if there are, you can use those in recruitment.

It occurred to me the other day that this might sound as though I believe in human cloning, or at least that my ideal call centre would comprise entirely of balding thirty-year old men called Clarence and who all wear black-rimmed glasses and keep their pencil behind their right ear. Nothing could be further from the truth.

My experience of workgroups with unusually high numbers of high-performing people is that they look to the casual observer – and even to the workgroup members themselves – as very diverse. Ask them and they will say, “oh yes, Sue is our extrovert and Fred is the quiet one and Bill goes wave-boarding and Nancy is studying astrophysics in her spare time.” Even if we ask them, what do you think you all have in common, they may be unable to answer – simply because whatever the “magic ingredient” is, it is so much part of their whole world view that they have no idea it isn’t shared by everybody on the planet. Could be obsessive attention to detail, could be absolute determination to leave every customer feeling that their most pressing problem has been solved – whatever.  So in my experience, a truly star workgroup has usually been a very diverse group of people with just one or two very specific characteristics in common – not a flock of Dolly the Sheeps. For example, take the accounting firm where two thirds of the accounting partners and staff were most highly motivated not by a love of working with numbers but by a love of making a difference for other people. How proactive do you think they were in coming up with ideas to improve their clients’ businesses? (Answer: very). Or the local council call centre with very high scores on empathy for others and practical action. Do you think they were happy to send people off down a bureacratic rabbit hole? (Answer: no).

And all this is why we use the Birkman Method, rather than any other tool. Firstly, it allows direct comparison between individuals (which, you may be surprised to know, most profiling tools are not designed or calibrated for); and secondly it provides the most finegrained data we know of, with a wealth of individual and independent scales. This isn’t “are you one of these or one of those”; rather it allows us to ask intelligently of individuals, what makes you unique; and of clusters of individuals (e.g. star performers) what do you diverse people have in common that your colleagues don’t have?

So benchmarking, done right is powerful stuff. And no hint of “Hello Dolly!”





25 yards of Team Building, please: changing how organisations buy assessments

18 10 2010

Talking to a friend and colleague from the US last week, he commented on the way large organisations buy assessments. Actually, the give away was the term “assessment buyers”… like “media buyer” or “office-supplies buyer”. Essentially the mindset seems to be almost along the lines of, “senior management expects us to use assessments, we buy x assessments per y personnel, check the box on the quarterly return, job done.”

Someone somewhere in the organisation is trying to accomplish something worthwhile with those assessments – better recruitment, better management of talent, building a team sorting out a workplace problem, whatever. They get to use whatever the assessment buyer buys (or specifies) for them. Fair enough, as far as it goes; that is how things work in a large organisation.

But here is the huge lost opportunity: a) why on earth is the assessment buyer treating the assessment of the company’s most valuable asset as it they were buying pencils and ignoring b) the opportunity to build over time a valuable map of the organisation’s talent and strengths? What do I mean?

Piecemeal assessment means that even if a great tool has been deployed to solve an important problem, that is the end of the story. A one-off purchase for a one-time return. Next time some or all of those people are involved in a situation where assessment needs to be used, either the same tool will be deployed again, or a new one; but either way, there will have been little if any value carried forward from the previous episode (except, usually, some increase in the employee cynicism triggered whenever there is a lack of joined up thinking: “here we go again”).

The positive alternative is to seek out and deploy a tool or suite of complementary tools which can be used across all situations (recruitment, appraisal, promotion, career development, coaching etc), and to keep coming back to the data collected already, both in the sense of “deploying once and using often per employee”; and in terms of watching trends over time, planning change programmes, post M&A integration, strategy, whatever. You won’t have a picture of your whole organisation the first time you deploy your selected tool or suite of tools for a 15-person team-building event; but you might be surprised how quickly you start seeing a map of your whole organisation come together, with key cultural or behavioural themes emerging. To senior management (remember them? we mentioned them in the first paragraph) that kind of data is solid gold. The mid-level manager achieves their immediate goal – but the whole organisation benefits as well.

Can you do this with every tool that is out there? Sadly not. Here is a short checklist of assessment properties you need to be looking for:

  • Stability of data over time for the individual (if the same person completing the assessment next week will come out significantly differently to how they did last week, forget it). 3-5 years plus should be a minimum if you intend to use this to build a picture of the organisation .
  • The tool needs to allow for accurate comparison between individuals. This may seem obvious, but very many of the well-known tools don’t do this.
  • Ideally, use a tool primarily designed for, and proven through, use in organisations. A tool developed for a PhD thesis, using a group of undergrad students as the survey sample, may not tell you something useful in an organisation setting.
  • Choose empirically-based assessments (i.e. based on research that establishes a relationship between actual behaviours and how people show up in the assessment) over theory-driven assessments (i.e. tools that categorise people according to a theoretical model) – unless you are prepared to stake your success on the particular theoretical construct involved.
  • Look for a report establishing reliability and validity for the instrument and check that it compares well to alternatives. And always ask yourself if you are seeing a great tool – or just great marketing.




I try not to quote Dilbert too often, but…

24 09 2010

Dilbert.com





The CEO, the Goldfish and the water

20 09 2010

When I was first doing a lot of work around international management and cross-cultural working, a phrase that often cropped up was “your own culture is like water to a Goldfish – you can’t see it until you are out of it”.

Something similar affects CEOs and other organisational leaders with respect to their own perspectives. Leaders at this level, especially entrepreneurial ones, often express things in quite visceral ways: “I don’t know what is wrong with what you are saying – I just know it is wrong”. Many times this “instinctive” response may be “right on the money”; other times it can be problematic or even dangerous. For example…

One reason organisations crash and burn just at the point where long-term success and dominance seems a certainty is that too many senior hiring decisions come down to the CEO’s instinct, rather than objective data; and the problem with that is that CEOs who don’t fully understand their own perspectives – the  invisible bowl of water in which they swim – too often hire people who reflect exactly the same set of perspectives. What was once the magic ingredient of success becomes the deadly potion of disaster. Perhaps surprisingly, the CEO’s unique mix of gifting and perspective may only fully function for the good of the organisation when it IS unique, and she or he is surrounded by people with different and complementary perspectives.

How to build such a team is a valid and non-trivial question. But the first step is for the CEO to actually see and understand the “water” around them – the perspectives through which they view the world. That shouldn’t lead to them discounting their perspective on things – far from it – but it will allow them to frame what they are seeing correctly. And it doesn’t have to be complex.

For example, “I think such and such, but then I am always projecting us 10 years into the future; you are much more operational in your perpective than I am, so tell me again why you think this will cause us problems in Q3 this year.” Or “I think this opportunity is too good to pass up, but you are our systems thinker, so help me understand why this might affect other things we have committed to doing.”

But how do you see the water when you are a Goldfish? You just need a perspective that analyses the water and then puts it in context for you. OS4Talent can do that for CEOs – without anyone needing to get wet!