Welcome to our June business briefing.

It takes 7 minutes to read. We hope you enjoy it.

Feeling responsible?

We came across this warning sign on a bowl of nibbles at a recent event.

Warning Some Products Contain Nuts

It provides a rather good metaphor to think about the related but different concepts of accountability and responsibility.

Search around and you’ll find a variety of definitions for the two terms. The one we like best draws the distinction as follows:

  • Making someone accountable involves formally requiring a person to do something (or make sure something happens) either in a job description, a hierarchical relationship, a contractual obligation or some other explicitly defined. It’s a duty that is shared openly with the outside world, it’s getting someone to put their hand up for everyone to see – “this is where the buck stops”.
  • Responsibility, on the other hand, is best thought of as how we each feel about a goal or task. Going beyond the formality of accountability, how motivated are we to get that thing done – to finish that report, please that client, deliver that IT system on time and budget, increase the achievement of that year group, improve the safety of the oil rig or hospital ward? In the words of Dean Shareski “accountability infers rules, responsibility infers caring”.

Where people really care personally about something, they’ll be much more likely to bring their own and other resources to bear in successfully doing it. In the best cases, they’ll even take on responsibility when they’re not themselves accountable; or follow through until a task is done to a high quality when others are not watching or chasing!

Allocating accountability to someone can (and often is) quite easy. Getting someone to care about whether something gets done is usually much harder.

If you’re a leader, you should worry less about making people accountable and more about how to help them feel responsible. There are three powerful tools to help with this: the model of organisation you use, the values you share and the stories you tell. And the most immediately powerful of these is the stories you tell.

Get your stories straight

The powerful role of storytelling in a business setting is pretty widely appreciated these days. If you haven’t read it already, you should get hold of Stephen Denning’s ‘The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling’. In this, he sets out 8 challenges which leaders can tackle by being able to share their own ‘narrative’ with staff as if telling that story to each and every one of them individually:

  1. Build trust in ‘you’ as a leader
  2. Build trust in the organisation
  3. Motivate others to ignite action and implement new ideas
  4. Share and instil shared values
  5. Get people to work together and do things collaboratively
  6. Share knowledge and understanding
  7. Tame the grapevine and neutralise gossip and rumour
  8. Create a vision and lead people into the future.

Marshall Ganz, the celebrated expert in organising and leading large-scale movements of workers, communities and political groups, stresses the importance of leaders having 3 stories to tell:

  • The story of self – what has brought me to where I am today, what is important to me now, how do I see things, what are my personal goals, what is my call to leadership, what are the resources I can draw on?
  • The story of us – why are we part of this organisation, what is our common history, which values do we share, in what way do we differ from others?
  • A story of now – which are our most urgent challenges, what is at risk, what could we gain together, what should we aim to achieve, which choices should we make?

We have seen many examples how effective this sort of storytelling can be. In one medium-sized company, the chairman told every new employee a story created in the aftermath of several critical projects coming close to disaster because of a lack of knowledge sharing and peer review. This then led to a business that was 20 years ahead of its time in terms of getting out of silo working and making the whole more than the sum of the parts. In a much larger international organisation, a key director helped the Board create a shared story of the future that helped radically reshape the direction they took in a way that was much more inclusive and much more urgent that results from more traditional planning methods.

One story that you could try and practice regularly with all staff, especially new joiners, is what we call the ‘story so far’. It’s so easy to forget the road you’ve travelled - as a team, a business or a group:

  • Where did it all start?
  • What have been the critical events that have shaped things (over 2, 5, 20 years)?
  • What has worked to your favour (growing market, strong economy, finding new ideas, doing getting things well)?
  • What has been hard (shrinking market, weak economy, stuck in old habits, things not done well)?
  • When did you join the story?
  • When did other key people become part of it?
  • What have been the surprises?
  • What have been the lessons?
  • Over time, what has discouraged and what has encouraged?

Try weaving the ideas from this together into a story for yourself. It might be enlightening as you piece the bits together! It will definitely help those who don’t know it to understand better the place they work in and why things are the way they are. And once you have it, what are the other stories you could tell – of self, us and now?

[PS to take your storytelling to another level, read E M Foster on ‘Aspects of the Novel’]

Achieving more in less time – it is possible!

Through our training webinars we help build the skills and capabilities of groups ranging in size from 10-100 people. One of the most popular of these is on ‘personal productivity’. This explores what it means to be productive and how you can increase your impact by making the best use of the time available. Before taking part in the webinar, participants are invited to complete an online survey, which includes asking them to rate themselves. The results of this rolling survey show that most people think their productivity is, at best, a bit middling.

Leaving aside those who are naturally modest in their scoring, the feedback from the webinars is that many people struggle to be as productive as they would like or feel they ought to be.

What are the most commonly cited big challenges?

  • Being uncertain of what to work on next given the volume and range of things to do
  • Handling the constant interruptions via email, phone, etc
  • Trying to make progress with several things at the same time
  • Responding to the priorities set by other people
  • Spending time on tasks that seem unproductive
  • Moving on from one thing to another without finishing the first
  • Procastination – not getting started!

And the downsides of all this? Two stand out for us. First is that you spend longer at work (or working) in order to catch up on both the important and trivial things you have to do. This has serious implications for the balance you strike between work and the other important things in your life. Second, is that you go around with a persistent sense of not having achieved what you had hoped to. That’s not fun.

A recent Harvard Business Review article stressed the importance of achieving. Indeed, making progress with the important things is what the research says is most strongly associated with what people call ‘a good day’ at work. Not making progress, not achieving what you set out to do, is correspondingly the thing that is most frequently linked to what happens on ‘a bad day’. (This need for a sense of achievement links strongly to the ideas around responsibility discussed earlier.)

What can we do about this? Well, there are many ideas you can start to put into practice which will help you be (and feel) more productive. Here are three for a start:

  • Set your focus – you need to find and keep to a few priorities, important things that need to be done. Don’t let these be set only by others. What do you think is critical? Negotiate where necessary. Talk through with others so that there is a shared view on the most important things you should be working on. It’s fine to revisit these in the light of events, but if they are important in the first place, there should be a very good reason for not keeping them at the top of your list.
  • Get into a flow – set aside enough time to work properly on each of your priorities. This has to be sufficient to get into a ‘flow’ (see the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) where you are totally engaged with the thing you’re working on. It needs immersion in the topic and separation from any distractions. It’s in these moments that the best work gets done in most productive ways.
  • Master your diary – you can’t create the space to get into the flow if others (via your diary) are controlling what you do with all your time. The most powerful thing you can do here is to find at least three half-days a week when you can concentrate on one of your most important priorities. Ideally, turn two of those half-days into a whole day and work on nothing but that issue. It will also help you protect that ‘priorities time’ if you have some contingency in your diary. Try putting ‘keep free’ in for half-a-day towards the end of every week and don’t fill it until the day itself – you can choose then to use it for things that have come up at short notice, or catch up on things that have slipped or, better still, you can spend even more time on the most important stuff. If you say “I can’t manage my diary like that”, then others are setting the entire agenda of what gets done – and that’s likely to lead to the disappointment of not achieving what you value.
  • Master your inbox – finding space to get important work done also needs you to master your inbox. We recommend having your email switched off during ‘flow time’. To help colleagues and clients, you should set an out of office message (eg “I will next see my email at 5pm today”). Before that, and to help manage the anxiety of not being available to email all the time, we find David Allen’s two-minute rule transformative: ie deal quickly with all those emails that can be processed effectively in under 2 minutes and for the remainder, use some form of system to capture and prioritise the rest for action later.

To help you reflect on your own productivity, learn how this compares with others and get more ‘top tips’ on tools and techniques you can use (on mastering your inbox for example), please try out our personal productivity assessment.

And if you’re interested in the range of personal development sessions we offer, either through 45-minute ‘lunch and learn’ webinars or 3-hour online ‘webshops’, you can see some of the topics here.

Want more good ideas?

Here are some of our recent blogs available from the idenk Blog. You can subscribe for this here. You can now also opt to receive these via Twitter.

Helping your customers choose

This website from a hospital was pointed out to us by a client this week. It gives patients as much information as possible to guide their decision about whether, where and when to go to emergency health services in Lincolnshire.

We like this.

What can you do to help your customers make the most informed choices about your products and services?

Quiet carriages – surprise!

A bit of a surprise this morning – the loud ringing of a mobile phone and a long conversation on an early train journey.

The arrival of quieter journeys (and restaurants) has crept up on us – despite our increased connectivity with dongles, BB, iPhones

Texting and social media are now the order of the day – even for many oldies

Tell them how you’re doing (before they ask)

I was getting a car tyre valve looked at.

I noticed a load of review cards in date order on the wall – listing satisfaction out of 5 (and why) for a random set of customers.

The surprise?

They had put up the low scores too – the ones at 2/5 complaining of glitches and the ones at 4/5 complaining of cost. Interestingly, none were complaining of the technical quality of the engineering.

The lesson?

In an era of web based reviewing and polling, maybe it is worth getting there first and being open – it impressed me.

Meditation as an organisational intervention?

Being still is getting to be quite popular (in literature and magazine articles) it seems.

Recently, a client group chose to pick up an offer from a funky venue in London for a 30 minute meditation session. It was very popular with this rational and scientific bunch – so much so, they have experimented with a minute of silence at the start of their team meeting.

The CSR buckets – using your head, heart and hands

Broadly, there are 3 corporate social responsibility ‘buckets’ that companies tend to invest their social concern into:

  1. Climate
  2. Bio-diversity
  3. Human health and well-being (that includes the position of women, education/literacy, food security, infrastructure and fair trade as well as health, housing and education).

These buckets can be summarised as addressing carbon, flora/fauna or people.

And overall there are three sorts of ways companies can contribute to these areas:

  1. Gifts to particular charities and projects, often close to the personal interest of certain company leaders
  2. Founding social enterprises, often in partnership with others
  3. Integrating their concerns into all decisions – trying to influence the DNA of the organisation.

So, we have a sort of 3×3 grid.

Where is your heart (which of the 3 buckets motivates you the most)?

What do you want your practical actions (hands) to be?

The challenge is to use your head to make that ’what and where’ a success!

More recent ideas:

Assumptions about HR
Still the 2 global cities?
You don’t know everything Horatio!

Best wishes

Phil and Ross
June 2011

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