In February I was lucky enough to attend an event called Unconventional Strategies, one of a series of events organised by Benchmark for Business a specialist in bringing leading management thinking to organisations in the form of learning events and conferences. As things go, and as some of you may know, I’m not a huge fan of traditional conferences. In this case, my reservations were in overdrive due to the fact that there were only 2 speakers – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. “Hmmm…” was my initial reaction. For someone who has the attention span of a goldfish, the two speakers – Tim Harford, The Undercover Economist and Freek Vermeulen, Professor of Strategy at London Business School had the odds stacked against them from the start.
However, I was, it has to be said, completely surprised. Both Tim and Freek are accomplished speakers and having never heard of either it was a refreshing change from the usual crop of speaker circuit guru’s. Their output on the day was excellent but far too much for me to do it justice here so I will instead point you to a rather excellent summary of their presentations prepared by my friends at www.changeboard.com.
A core theme was around our unfortunate habit as human beings, expecially in business and management, to accept conventional wisdom. Even when the evidence clearly shows that said wisdom might not deserve such unquestionable faith, we still stick to it – sometimes to our extreme cost. In his presentation Tim referred to “the god complex” A situation where “business leaders have an overwhelmingly infallible belief that they’re right and have all the answers, when they never do.”
Challenging accepted wisdom can be very difficult, even when there is evidence to prove otherwise. It takes a brave person to stand tall amongst the dissenters – especially when they are respected figures, business or community leaders. Many will still refuse to believe, no matter what. “Poppycock!” “It will never fly!” “No good shall come of this I tell you!”
In recent months, I sense an increasing amount of this accepted wisdom in an organisational context. The world of the organisation is still flat, despite a changing backdrop. Gary Hamel’s excellent article in the December issue of Harvard Business Review entitled First lets fire all the managers, swiftly followed by their again excellent feature on happiness as a business model the following month both caught my eye. Your average CEO must have thought April fool had come early when the January edition hit their desk. But it gave me hope that there was life beyond the company that shall not be named, that there was indeed a growing number of businesses that, in principle, are taking a more democratic and human approach to running their business; embedding trust at the core and treating employees like adults; removing unnecessary bureaucracy and allowing employees to manage their own time and commitment; breaking down hierarchies or doing away with them altogether. In short, putting the emphasis back on people as the competitive edge.
But despite the growing number of organisations adopting this approach, and the incredible results – yes, financial returns – they are reaping, I see very little curiosity or open-mindedness amongst the commercial and HR leadership. Instead I hear all the excuses – they are a start up, they are in a different country, they don’t make things, it’s a unique culture the list goes on. But not once have I heard a credible answer to the question – why can’t we replicate this here?
Go on, try asking the question yourself. The first answer you get will probably be one of the ones I just listed above. Then ask simply “why?” And keep asking “why?” I guarantee you will not get one concrete, show stopping answer. What you will hear are longer and longer pauses between answers. You might even find you are accused of being naive, idealist, how you don’t understand the bigger picture of business, the reality of commercial operations. A wide-eyed dreamer who should know better. I know, because I’ve been there.
Please often mistake my focus on the possibilities for a lack of understanding of how difficult or complex the change journey can be which is a mistake – I completely understand. But as an individual I have a choice – be led by my limiting beliefs or strive out, challenge convention and open my mind to experimentation. Interestingly many of the examples cited by Tim and Freek, where conventional wisdom was turned on it’s head, came from highly structured, old and inflexible organisations. Unfortunately it usually took a crisis and someone brave enough to take the initiative against the prevailing resistance, sometimes risking everything and without asking.
It’s not about walls, assets, race or location. It’s not about finance, sector or some magic combination of altitude and proximity to magma. These companies sometimes have wildly different cultures, but they have a common theme running through them – built around trust, respect, authenticity, openness and honesty. And no, I’m not referring to google or facebook. Just because a company shines in the internet or social space, has funky offices and the CEO is still being weaned off breast milk doesn’t mean they fit the bill. They don’t. The key ingredient is more fundamental, more human.
The positive psychology movement is growing not shrinking. The number of organisations adopting these principles is small, but there are more of them now than five years ago, not less. The revenues they are making are rising – exponentially compared to their competitors in many cases – not falling. The people inside these organisations are happier, their “engagement” levels are increasing, not decreasing – at a time when global engagement levels at large are plummeting.
I have spent huge chunk of my 23 year career soaking up corporate dogma – metaphorically standing on the edge of the ocean, looking out to sea and thinking “is this as good as it gets?”. My gut tells me that it is not. That the organisational world doesn’t have to be flat. My choice is either to turn my back and let conventional wisdom limit my possibilities or focus on the “what if?”.
I’ve made my choice. Have you?