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Jenni Lloyd

“No one of us is smarter than all of us” – why radical times call for radical business practices

Last week I spoke at the Chief Strategy Officer Summit in London.

I hadn’t attended the event before and was impressed by the calibre of the brands represented by the other speakers, and the meaty topics they were covering. But I wanted to make sure I represented the different, slightly more leftfield world view that  NixonMcInnes stands for. I have to admit that I was so keen to do this that my first draft contained enough ideas to fuel about twenty talks and it took the good counsel of Louise to strip it back to something manageable.

She helped me focus on my deep conviction that our digital, connected world presents us with a set of challenges and opportunities that can only be truly addressed by coming together as communities of purpose, rebuilding our companies to enable the full contribution of everyone. This requires us to recognise and connect with our humanity – and that of the people around us.

Industrialisation and mass production has created an expectation that the people within a business are just another resource.

In that model each worker is an interchangeable unit of production from which we can expect a standardised output. But this fails to recognise the uniqueness of each individual, with all our fleshy, messy, inconsistent, emotional, brilliant differences. And if we can’t see that and embrace it then we fail in our ability to harness it – and get the benefit not just of peoples’ hands but also their hearts and their brains.

On the day of the event, Joachim Kraege, Head of Corporate Strategy Development at German engineering giant Siemens told us about the massive digital transformation programme he is overseeing. Something that really stuck out for me was the emphasis he placed on the cultural aspects of the programme, in particular the need for employees to feel a sense of ownership for the business – to treat it as if it was their own. He explained that many German workers self-build their homes and in doing that demonstrate a great deal of expertise in negotiating contracts and project management. But he remarked that those skills get left at the door when they get to work. So a key part of transforming Siemens’ future is to empower their workers to bring their full selves to work.

Does engagement = productivity?

This story reminded me of the work of Engage 4 Success. In their 2012 report ‘The Evidence‘, they identify that the UK has an employee engagement deficit, with only around one third of UK workers saying they feel engaged with their work – leaving the UK ranked ninth for engagement levels amongst the world’s twelfth largest economies.

Alongside this the UK also has a productivity deficit.

The most recent ONS survey found that output per hour in the UK was 15% below the average for the rest of the G7 industrialised nations in 2011. The report shows there is a firm correlation between employee engagement and high organisational productivity and performance, across all sectors of the economy.

So it pays to remember that we are all just people. And to optimise our organisations for people.

Hold that thought.

Having started with this scene setting the talk was structured to offer some context about the conditions of the new business environment we’re operating in, moving onto some examples of how our clients are responding and finally offered some practical takeaways.

Living in a VUCA world

Around us we see a transformed world, characterised as VUCA –  it is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

VUCA,  an acronym derived from the American Military’s response to the new conditions of warfare post Cold War, is now being adopted by business leaders to describe our chaotic, turbulent, and rapidly changing business environment.

We’ve only got to look at any news outlet to see these conditions writ large –  and look at the high street and financial papers to understand how it’s translating into business.

Denise Caron says it well:

We are moving from a world of problems, which demand speed, analysis, and elimination of uncertainty to solve, to a world of dilemmas, which demand patience, sense-making, and an engagement of uncertainty.

The chaotic “new normal” in business is real. And it isn’t going away.

In the last decade, we’ve seen a revolution in technology.  It’s become intelligent, adaptive and scalable.  Shouldn’t we expect the same from our organisations?

Big companies are dying quicker

Innosight reports that every two weeks a company is replaced on the S&P 500 and that the average company lifespan on the index has fallen from over 60 years to less than 20, a trend which they forecast to continue.

Big firms are learning that they need to network their organizations in order to stay competitive with an onslaught of nimble startups.

Hierarchy fails in the digital age not because it is illegitimate, but because it is slow and the world has become fast.

Greg Satell

The firms that will survive and thrive are those that can adapt the fastest – and focus not on increasing in scale but by deepening and widening their connections.

This requires adaptability and a change in the traditional notion of leadership.

At NixonMcInnes we believe effective change is brought about through participative practices.

That leadership needs to be distributed and flexible to the situation. That the leader’s role needs to change from hero to host – convening the community and creating space for the conversations that matter.

And that change is brought about by people actually doing different things.

In the talk I outlined how three of our clients have addressed their challenges in new ways, by being purposeful, being participative and being more human.

Three provocations

I finished up with three provocations – which I’d ask you to consider:

1. People need to feel that they’re part of something, that their work has meaning.
How clear are you about the why, and not just the what of what you do?

2. “No one of us is smarter than all of us”.
How can you harness collective intelligence and solve problems in smarter, unexpected ways?

3. For a company to change individuals need to change what they do and how they behave.
How can you connect with your peoples’ needs and help them want to change?

Apologies for the length of this post and thank you for reading this far – I know I wouldn’t have! I did have to leave some stuff out though, so if you’d like to know more, get in touch.

I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.

Mark Twain

*update June 2014
A video of this talk is now available on YouTube

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