Phil's Blog

Looking at things through the lenses of moderation, noble purpose and more

An example of shattered expectations in an NPO

Noble Purpose, OrganisationsNo Comments

Bob, is a well-qualified clinician in his thirties. He has wanted to help development work overseas since a teenager.

He has been waiting for THE job. In an organisation doing the most important work. Somewhere that would be a joy to work for.

And then he got it.

In one of world’s leading development charities.

But Bob became deeply unhappy with what he considered the personal empire building amongst some of his colleagues plus some of the narrow rules and systems that seemed designed to control the many motivated middle level staff.

So he left. Disillusioned. Almost burnout. Definitely dispirited and pretty cynical.

There are at least two interpretations to this sad tale.

First, Bob doesn’t like fitting in – as a ‘true believer’ he sees himself as highly motivated and wanting the space to determine his own priorities. Others in the organisation, especially those more senior or long toothed, know the value of management systems in these difficult roles as a way of holding to account young, self-centred idealists.

Second maybe Bob was just overwhelmed by the self-interest of others, just as he said. Frued is reported to have said in the cliché: “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”.

Knowing him (and the organisation), I think the it is probably latter. Others might say former.

NPO, TLA and s=fx

Noble Purpose, TeamsNo Comments



Two TLA  so far in this series. And this is only the second post.

So here is another, sort-of, three letter acronym – and I think the most important.

s = fx

Actually this is a bit of a formula.

It should probably be: s= f(x)

That is, satisfaction is a function of expectation.

I believe that when looked at in a variety of ways (be it a theory, framework or assessment), noble purpose organisations perform much like any other institution or outfit. Neither better or worse. Leadership, team and individual performance is on a spectrum from the stellar to the spectacularly disappointing. Much like other places. From heart-warming and hopeful to a real headache and source of ‘heart sink’ feelings.

I have run many assessments with groups from NPO. The pattern of results is similar to those from other sectors and places: for example, in one assessment based on Lencioni’s work there is often an avoidance of conflict and accountability. I have found familiar findings with the idenk wheel assessment I have been using since 2006: the scores with this regularly show meetings are far from productive, whilst poor performance and behaviours are not tackled.

So if NPOs are similar to other types of workplace, what is the problem?

This is where the ‘x’ comes in. s=f(x). Satisfaction is a function of expectation. If we go to a see a film or eat in a restaurant others have raved about, our threshold for disappointment gets lower – we are more easily frustrated and more easily dismayed.

When people enrol with a NPO they expect something better, much better. In joining a charity or part of the public services youngsters fresh into the workforce, or mid-career staff looking for a change, or volunteers looking to be helpful, all expect one thing: that is the organisation is deserving of their commitment; ways of working are worthy of the purpose; there is agreement about what needs to be done and how it should be achieved.

When these features are not there to any greater degree (and possibly co-exist in equal measure with politics, jobsworth-ishness, personal ambition etc), then hearts get broken. Ideals are shattered. Stress increases. Cynicisms spreads. Burnout brews.

The NPO Paradox (see the previous blog) is encountered.

So, what can we do about it?

I argue a first step is to acknowledge this problem: that we are expecting so much of our peers and places of work. Only then is it possible to do something about it. And that something might lead to expectations being surpassed, in quite dazzling ways.

NPO? Here we go…On the way, to the Triple A?

Improvement, Noble PurposeNo Comments

Today I start a series of blogs on Noble Purpose Organisations.

The world of worthy work can be perplexing. They can be hard teams to lead, not easy places to work in. And yet…they can provide a way to achieve some of the most beneficial gains for humanity and the planet.

In my pamphlet from earlier this year I define the range of organisations (from small charities to the fairtrade arms of major multi-nationals) and describe how “the common feature in many Noble Purpose Organisations (NPOs) is what I call the ‘Noble Purpose Paradox’. In a nutshell, it is a pattern that not only bewilders and frustrates long serving managers but also comes as a shock to new recruits:
“Why is it that the more compelling the mission, the more tricky it can be to get the best collaborative behaviours and the necessary focused action? And how can some places that are trying to achieve the most crucial and needed changes to the world we live in can be so riven with petty politics and driven by individuals sometimes ruthlessly pursing their own agendas?”

Do you recognise that? In this case, this series is for you. If this doesn’t echo your experience, please do challenge me!

I don’t want to come over too negative or bleak: my aim for this series is to be an encouragement. I will raise some challenging issues – but mainly as questions for further research and reflection. Overall, I want to provide ideas for action. Ideas to inspire…

So, getting going – his is my version of the Triple A rating.

A quick test…do you think your team or organisation
1) Has clearly Aligned staff?
2) With an embodiment of the Attitudes that you are promoting more widely (eg care, learning)?
3) And an Awareness and acceptance that not everyone has to see things the same way?

I am going to guess that 1 and 2 are hard.

However, for me the key place to start is at 3: exploring how people see things differently. Asking what others see – not advocating a point of view. My recent business briefing provides some pointers.

Once that sort of curiosity is in place it is possible to pursue a balance that is at the heart of positive working experiences and outcomes in NPO. I believe truly excellent results come when staff have the autonomy to follow their passion and use their initiative – whilst working within the systems of accountability to guide that energy. That balance brings us back to the leadership work needed to ensure aligned action (1) and appropriate attitudes (2).

[To be continued!]

Lessons for the NHS…from Vincent Van Gogh

Improvement, OrganisationsNo Comments

A friend recently went to visit the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. She was hugely impressed by the work – and one thing in particular stood out. From the tour, she learnt how derivative Vincent Van Gogh’s work was, in some ways. His oeuvre wasn’t totally unique. He used and combined what he learnt over a short period of time in Paris.

He copied others, for example
- Delacroix in his use of a colour wheel for bold, almost clashing, contrasts.
- Romanticism for its use of texture
- Impressionism and pointillism for pixilation in composition

He added this to his use of a wooden perspective frame to help him get a sense of aspect that alluded him naturally, like the early masters.

He used others’ ideas and strengths – and yet he combined them into something unique and powerful.

He wasn’t afraid to ‘steal with pride’.

The English NHS has been in the news this week. As I have written before the desire to copy other people’s good ideas is at the heart of improvement. Those to learn from might be on the next shift or the next ward or the adjacent profession or the younger recruit or the older team member. Or maybe from far away: this piece  outlines some of the many things that could be creatively pursued in a ‘pick and mix’ – learn from elsewhere – fashion.

Perspective management self assessment

Improvement, Personal productivityNo Comments

Further to the recent blog series on ‘perspective management’, please see my simple 4 question self-assessment here:

So, are you…?

Innnovation…in the kitchen: on the importantance (or not) of rules

ImprovementNo Comments

My nephew is now in his late 20s. Ten years ago, for his 18th birthday, we went to the top restaurant in Cambridge. After the meal we had a tour behind the scenes. Like Heston, there were lots of gadgets and interesting ways to cook: water baths, foam makers…

My nephew went on to work in a top Cambridge college kitchen, then went to university in his mid-twenties and now is a successful estate agent in London.

Like him I have been on a journey – though mine is still a culinary one.

It started out with Keith Floyd. I read an interview with him years ago where he outlined his principles for great cooking: buy the best ingredients you can find, cook them as simply as you can and serve with the nicest wine you can afford. Those rules have served me well for many years.

However, my latest application of those now involves the freezer! This is not the more usual trick of storing small bits of wine or even crumbled cheese – ready to use in dishes. You read about those a lot.

My discovery? Cooking from Frozen. Very little on line.  Am I the only one?

This is not about ready meals into the microwave for a minute longer than they would get starting at fridge temperature. Rather, this approach begins with home cooked food straight from the freezer to a medium-hot oven…

This might be with a dish you have already prepared:
1) A fruit crumble (with my gluten free topping of butter in chickpea and rice flour, but that is another story)
2) Lentil bake or nut roast
3) Chilli skins – left over chicken or fish skins in chilli sauce
4) Gratins
5) etc

The beauty of this method is twin pleasures of soft and crunchy; tender and browned (see photo series here).

However, this style of cooking really comes into its own if you are a meat eater.

Whilst in our home Beer Can Chicken is the total favourite (have a search on google if you don’t know what that is…), the frozen to oven approach is great for individual cuts: such as rib of beef and other roasts; duck and chicken breasts; rack of lamb and kebabs. By the time the meat in the middle is cooked the outside is nicely coloured and textured.

It works a treat when cooking up a combination of potatoes, onions and (frozen) sausages stirred regularly to spread the juices around.

And in casseroles (from coq au vin to one involving chicken, raw onions, parmesan, pepper and cream) it is brilliant – never again the trade-off between tough chicken or hard vegetables.

[By the way, alongside this you can cook what I call ‘potatoes done two ways’: half roast/half baked…both at the same time. Cut in half, put a bit of fat and salt on the cut side, place on tray, cook – don’t move the potatoes on the tray until they are ready and you serve them carefully to keep the crisp edge intact.]

Now, if this was a regular food web site I would say do use a thermometer when cooking from frozen, which is probably a good idea.  However, on the whole, by sight and touch I can tell if cooked (from a catering trick my nephew taught me…I am happy to share more).

The lesson? Do you enjoy following recipes or applying principles or breaking the rules? In the kitchen, in business, in life?

The Exchange (from an exchange of ideas)

Meetings, TeamsNo Comments

Just after the millennium I was planning a conference with a group of colleagues. In those days I called it ‘producing’ an event if I wanted to sound ‘hip’. Now I might say curating an experience! (Both are probably a bit naff, but let’s leave that for another time).

Anyhow, I expected about 150 people. But we started differently and that created a whole chain of events that led to a conference format unlike any of the others I had become well known for delivering during the 1990s.

What was the first step? The letter (email actually) that went out to invite participants to apply to come was unlike a typical one. Firstly it asked people to come only if they were really enthusiastic and ready to share their interest and create further excitement with others. Places were not limited to a few per organisation, which was normal, with the expectation of director level attendance. So secondly, in those days before social media, those who received the letter were asked to pass it on to others who might be interested, whatever their role. Thirdly, as the ‘price’ of entry those registering were asked to note their offers and requests on a registration form: they had to clearly state what they wanted to get (learn) and give (as ideas to share in the coffee queue or a table top discussion or a poster presentation).

The result? Over 650 applied. Fortunately we had to stop there as we had just bust the capacity for the venue, as usually configured. We didn’t even send one chasing up invite – again the norm for that sector at that time.

So, we then shifted gear to discovering a way to make it work, and came up with a format I still call Exchange. We focused on answering a question: “What if we could redesign the traditional conference: taking out the boring bits and the need for everyone to sit together at the same time?”

The Exchange method involves
a) A blend of more familiar conference formats: Open Space, trade fair and academic conference
b) Ensuring things are creatively captured – with artists, video – so those not there (and no one can attend everything), can get a sense of the whole, the proceedings.
c) Making use of music and media to create the right mood –including humour.
d) Promoting responsibility for finding your way – making good choices about what to go to, and how long to stay…so the meeting is self-organising within a clear framework and set of written briefings.
e) Simplifying catering – going continuous, brown bag…
f) Using overflow spaces if necessary – a barn and a marquee in this instance (sometimes linked by video)
g) And largely designing out plenary sessions (a couple of optional ‘magazine style’ fringe sessions in the round where most came, gathered round, sat on the floor)

I am happy to share the photos and video from this event – still quite moving getting on for 15 years later.

Subsequent innovations over the other Exchange events I helped with over the next 5+ years led to
1) Electronic systems to register, share ideas and pick and mix your own agenda.
2) Café sessions as an option – world, knowledge.
3) TED style punchy presentations (in the days before TED!).
4) Innovation with voting methods.
5) Motivational inputs with speakers, actors, music.
6) Introductory and ‘Masterclass’ level training – plus learning sets, co-consultancy
7) Visits and ‘raids’ to near by places.
8) Use of the emerging technologies and social media to link in colleagues and site remotely.

Whilst these days the technology for this sort of process is getting easier (especially with Twitter etc), all of these improvements arose from engagement with a classic design team. There are other things that more recent ‘exchange’ conversation with design groups are raising: how to add in a simulation or some of the ideas from this resource.

So the key for success?
a) Inviting passion, questions and contribution in those coming.
b) A Design Team to imagine what might be and to challenge assumptions – iterating and developing the ideas as they go
c) A bespoke approach – cherry picking the best and most useful of other tools and methods.

Fundamentally, the overall lesson in the success of this story is the innovation that invented a new format. And at the heart of this innovation was being deeply curious about
1) How could we say yes to all – we did build it and they did come! So, we spent time imagining ways to host all (including an option that involved a trek outside for some – a walk and talk with a task that connected to the overall theme).
2) How to make it a memorable (yet recognisable) meeting by copying and reusing elements from other formats – it was fresh and familiar at the same time. Tried and trusted methods were combined in new ways.

So, the open and respectful exchange of ideas in the design process led to The Exchange.

Responsible…for the conference call?

MeetingsNo Comments

You probably saw this funny illustration of a conference call earlier this year.

What it doesn’t pick up is the even more frustrating system that is sometimes used!

The video assumes the dial in method.

The other is the ‘dialled in’ – where some poor person (often a hapless PA) dials people in to the clever switchboard computer that connects the voices. The downside? The need to keep redialling as those on mobile phones keep losing signal strength or when someone is not available.

The most robust system? The one with higher responsibly. The dial in one.

A useful metaphor for most organisations – decentralising power is likely to increase performance…giving control to the margins, to the team.

…promoting responsibility for customer service, strategy, team performance – rather than centralised action and mandates.

WITOS: The lens (and examples) of perspective

ImprovementNo Comments

This is the fourth blog in my series on perspectives (well actually the fifth if you include this one from a couple of weeks ago).

Are you fascinated by different perspectives?

Do you share my joy in trying to see things differently?

Like me are you keen to try to get less frustrated by a different angle or point of view?

Discipline is important. WITOS is a helpful tool. It helps us see both sides

What Is The Other Side…

Are these following examples useful provocations and lessons? Let’s have a look through the lens of perspective

Whistle-blowers? Trouble-makers protecting their interests or self-sacrificial saints? Discuss?

The Taliban? Our foe or a fiction.

Are you with the pious cyclist? Ringing their bell, assuming right of way, making a woman and cyclist coming the other way retreat and retract. Or the woman on her bike virtuously manoeuvring to the right hand side of a one way street to force an oncoming cyclist coming the other (wrong) way to mound the pavement.

Looking at the excellent, perspective provoking mini exhibition on German WW1 medals at The British Museum, I was reminded of the British Library show’ on propaganda. Both demand a consideration of other points of view.

Like me do you delight in the surprising success of the Cambridge guided bus way despite the complaints? Every time is see a packed vehicle it reminds me how it has questioned my assumptions from 5 years ago.

Do you like to play ‘The Devils Advocate’? In a way WITOS invites that. The play and film The History Boys revolves around the training the lads get to think about unusual perspectives. Have a look online for quotes from the story – some great inspiration there.

Do you see ingredients past their best as a waste or inpsiration for a new dish. Some well overripe tomatoes and a soft rind cheese beyond its best helped make a brilliant potato gratin last weekend.

Is the middle or the top of The Shard the best view? Is higher better – as the sense of perspective from lower down fades…Try the test on the Eiffel Tower – or The Petronas Tower vs. the Traders hotel bar looking onto the view.

WITOS on a plane…reading as many papers from around the world as I can fit into one flight…and getting surprised, for example in The Daily Mail.

Was the latter work of Matisse the mess of an old man or infirmity inspired innovation? what do you think of The Cut Outs? Personally, I like the emphasis on prototyping – and the way it forced the attempting of something new.

And in gardening, are you 100% confident on what is a weed or plant?

And finally…Do you like the original or later version of Both Sides Now, by Joni Mitchell!?

Both Sides Now – WITOS – enjoy the journey.

A passion for perspective?

Personal productivityNo Comments

In the early 1980s after a glittering career in Royal Dutch Shell, Pierre Wack wrote a book that reflected on the scenario planning method that has made that company famous in business schools (and possibly so wealthy too). The book had a catchy title “Scenarios: The gentle art of re-perceiving”. I have written before on scenarios, which in all their forms are still a core part of my team coaching method. However, here I would like to focus on ‘gentle re-perceiving’.

Seeing things differently is actually pretty hard to achieve. Finding ways to challenge ourselves is difficult. Being challenged can feel threatening. Doing it ‘gently’ is very hard.

I know this.

I struggle to see other people viewpoint, yet I know it is at the heart of the important most important challenge in all businesses.

I think I am drawn to write, teach and facilitate about perspectives, as I know it is something I need to learn (and re learn) in each assignment and each day. As I help others hopefully I can learn to disappointment myself a little bit less on this!

So the idea of the importantance of perspectives is easy to understand: we know we see things differently to the person next to us and our different perspectives are at the heart of the problem (and the breakthroughs!) in strategy, change and team working.

And yet making this easy insight a practical part of each day is pretty hard.

Given that, what are some of the ways to gently discipline our minds (mind-sets) to make this important application all a bit easier? Finding ‘easy’ ways to do this sort of work safely matters, it really does.

1) Individually: get into the habit of asking ‘what am I missing’. Developing the discipline to try and see other points of view – what would they say, what might they be thinking? This is especially useful in a negotiation or a tense situation.

One way to practice this is through the lens of the news. I know that whenever a story I know something about is on TV or in the papers then pretty much every time the way it is presented and portrayed in the media is not quite right, sometimes in ways that are radically different to what I believe is going on. I remember one Panorama programme in the mid 1990s that I felt completely misrepresented the motivation of the managers it featured. When you read the news, think about what you might not be seeing. Why not seek out sources (papers, programmes, web pages) that you might not agree with or usually read.

Another way is through seeking feedback: with a deep curiosity to find out what you are not seeing, maybe through a 360 survey, a feedback circle or individual coaching. All are about trying to illuminate your personal blind spots – getting the top right pane of the Johari Window open a little bit.
2) In your teams: Try out some new rituals in how you meet. As well as adding in some shorter meetings (standing meetings to catch up, yes/no decision meetings) try some that slow the pace and step back from the busyness of business (and maybe the dazzle and ‘snow blindness’ of success) to explore knotty issues and what you are not seeing – possibly through the deep think process and other methods. Maybe commission some training and support from a team coach.

In your project teams and work take time to prototype, experiment and test – using PDSA and other continuous improvement and change methods.
There are lots of methods you can try in your meetings, workshops and events. Pausing regularly to ask “what are we seeing differently” is an important ritual and habit. We arrive at a session seeing things differently to other people. We leave seeing things differently to how we personally did when we arrived. Re-perceived. Hopefully.

3) In your leadership of your organisations: model inquiry, stepping back from harsh judgements and cynicism of others. This is hard work when others are wanting you to jump in, criticise and be certain. A spirit of certainty replaced by good grace and humility, based on a firm fairness. Gently. Hard work!

This sort of work is all about increasing your bandwidth, boosting your capacity. One ways many of us try to manage work pressure and stress to be certain. However, having fixed views can cause stress escalation, even to the point of cynicism and burnout. Why? Because we find ourselves in conflict with others, the world and even our own insights!

These sort of disciplines (looking for the other side, seeking the blind spot, pausing the pace to examine, taking time to notice re-perception) are all about finding ways to work, without opting for premature certainty. Finding ways to manage stressful situations other than needing to be certain. Being gentle, after all.

They are especially important when you are
- starting out with an enterprise, from a new project or new job to planning an important meeting
- stuck in conflict
- facing a major barrier in your work
- anticipating an important negotiation or even helping with mediation.

Thanks for reading this far. You get the role and importance of perspectives. Now a key question. ‘Are you bothered’? Do you want to take it on? Do you have a passion for finding and exploring different perceptions? To change your viewpoint? To step out of the herd and their assumptions in your organisation? Do you want to take time to practice? To get disciplined? For form new habits? With a your team? On your own?

All the best in leading re-perceiving. In taking time to practice challenging your own (and other peoples) thinking, mind set and action. Hard work. Important work.

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