culture

Margins To The Middle #SHRMTech18

It was around 6.30 AM at Hyderabad’s HITECH City. Tall buildings with glass facades dot the scant skyline. Just across the road, even as young people streamed in and out with nonchalance, she sat. She sold to the young people short eats, cigarettes, hot tea and the like. Each of her categories on sale was stacked in a sack. Each sack sitting on the road, just as she was. Sitting pretty in one of the stacks was a credit card Point of Sale, swipe machine. Another held a QR code for cashless transactions. That I was spotting this after hearing a day full of praise for technology at SHRMTech’18 ( SHRM India’s annual Tech conference) was not lost on me. The knocks on traditional boundaries accentuated by education and access were loud. This was technology moving from the margins to the middle!

More about that later.

For now, SHRM Tech 18. The conference has grown from where it started four years ago. This time too, it ticked all the right boxes. It had HR leaders and tech folks hold court, talk neat and walk tall. It had a dazzling array of exhibitors. From a Tata Car to plain old (or was it new) tea, to tech solutions to every conceivable HR Challenge. It had its share of arc lights, awards, survey results, music, debate and the like. Perhaps to accentuate the accent on tech, it even had a robot, inviting a speaker on stage. All in all, it was pretty neat.

If you missed it this time, please do look up #SHRMTech18 on twitter and you will get most of what happened on the stage. You are pretty much sorted if you seek to pick up that kind of action.
I go to such conferences for another reason. And that is to catch the moments in-between the stage shows and indulge in conversation. To listen in and hear more. To absorb the questions that are being asked and the live experiences that are shared. Away from the arc lights naked truth often makes a shy appearance. Often in the form of a sigh or a silence. Sometimes in a steady argument and expert deflection of an uncomfortable question. At other times, providing facts, data, stories, and interpretation of how things are working.

All of these are fascinating for several reasons. They reveal what’s on the horizon. What’s dying. What’s real and what is being dealt with. What opportunities are surfacing in the future and the dilemmas that are alive. They also bring alive, what’s being missed. Whilst a lot of what I have taken home stays with my notes and requires conversation and processing there were moments that held my attention. Here are my top three from a longer list.

Vineet Nayar kicked off the conference talking about the need to put the human being at the centre of the employee experience. That made a heap of sense. Even as technology is ‘Moving from the margins to the Middle’, replacing the human experience with technology needs to guarded against. Technology for technology’s sake is going to lead us up a garden path with no garden in tow. In a world replete with tech solutions, discovering our ‘human’ element is getting to be a taller ask. Not because of limitations with technology! To me, that message had the potency of setting a kitten amongst several pigeons.

Jayesh Ranjan, Secretary, Information Technology (IT); Government of Telangana, made a strong and persuasive pitch for Telangana. He courted the right audience with necessary facts and presented them in easy consumable chunks. Stories of state governments getting competitive and seeking investments are the new norm. That norm was taken a few notches higher by the articulate IAS officer.

On a different panel on Women in Tech. Dr.Ritu Anand from TCS spoke from personal experience about what it takes to lead (& that had nothing to do with gender) and that was lovely. Lost amongst the discussion was the fact that much of what was discussed alluded to programmes aimed at (& done ‘to’ ) women employees. It is both a familiar and a line of thought that falls woefully inadequate. The debate needs to continue.

Of course, there was Sunita Bhuyan and her music in full flow. Her piece titled ‘Conversations’ was more than mere music to the ear. On the sidelines, the catch up with a number of friends and colleagues was well worth the effort to get there. Some of them are doing some stellar stuff and am so looking forward to seeing it all come alive.

The new middle:

Back to the lady who sold me two full plastic cups of tea for Rs.15. Sitting on the pavement with the Credit Card machine carelessly tossed on a stack of goodies. She to me exemplifies someone who has kept her ear close to the ground. The changing tone of currency in her customer’s wallet has necessitated her adopting new ways of seeking a share. An innate understanding of ground realities of business helps choose, design and work with technology.

Technology is an enabler. Technology is not the reason for us to get to work. Whilst discussing technology we have to bear in mind that work needs reshaping. Slapping layers of cutting edge technology on fossilised ways of thinking is not going to get anyone anywhere. Unless you are talking about taking a few steps back!

Of these, we need to have more conversations on. The changing societal contexts. The need for finding meaning in work. Changing work in itself. What needs rewiring and rewriting are not the wires that connect our computers or the codes that run in them, as much as our own minds. It was Sherry Turkle who said something about our tools.

Even as we continue to ride on our high horses of tech progress with pounding hoofs and half breaths, we must pause to examine what it’s doing to the fabric of our workplaces. Change is multi-dimensional. HR leaders must pause, converse, examine, reflect on all the nodes each tech change is touching off.
One more thing. Change is tough. Change in the tech space is not linear but occurs in seismic shifts.

That necessitates change being held together with care. It is those that experiment with these changes that will get somewhere. Experiments, by definition, don’t have assured successes. We need to keep working with our head as close to the ground as possible. And that is not easy. But it is possible. And change happens in the moment with bold leaps and application of mind. We have never been limited by technology as much as we have been by our imagination.

Moving from the margin to the middle is often facilitated by leaps of faith and experiments. Experiments that seek both courage and investments. The lady who sold me two cups of tea and three different ways of concluding the deal taught me a thing or two about courage. The courage to move beyond algorithmic responses and robotic monotony in decision making is much needed. We could all learn a thing or two from her.

Disclosure: SHRM facilitated my participation in the conference as a member of the ‘blog squad’

Features Dont Sell

It was in an animated conversation with a dear friend a quote came up. He said, quoting the Marathi playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar, as he spoke of writing, “the experience is always bigger than the writing”. His words have stayed with me ever since. Especially so, when I sit down to write and wanted to describe an experience. Last week, in the middle of a conversation on Digital change, I was so reminded of this again. As a fine bunch of tech colleagues focused much on the technology that they were getting deployed. I call it ‘Feature Focus’. And features don’t sell!

Helping organisations navigate digital change processes brings me front and centre of how much ‘feature focus’ dominates conversations. The top three conversation dominators in my experience have been like the following

  1. This product can do ‘X’ and then it can do ‘y’.
  2. If users face a problem then they can click button Q and hit enter and they will get a view of the help centre and raise a ticket..
  3. It runs on ‘XYZ platform with ABC technology that has been adopted by 85% of Fortune 500 firms.

You get the drift.

Products rarely succeed (or fail) solely by virtue of the features within. What a product can do, in this case, a technology, is also dependent on the context of the environment in question.  To have passionate conversations without the end user’s context in the room often proves to be the digital change efforts undoing. Falling in love with our areas of expertise ( geeks falling in love with technology, facilitators obsessed with their ‘performance’ etc). So much so that focus remains trained on the features within, forgetting that the technology is just a means to a larger business goal.

Reflections on my experience and conversations with fellow change practitioners lead me to three thought trails. To many, am restating the obvious. But I have been through serial surprises over the last few weeks on how blinding the obvious is, that it is completely missed.

1. Features are contextual

Features are not absolutes. They are always a function of the context in which they are deployed in. A 5G phone may be fantastic by itself. In a geography where technology is limited to 3G phones, 5G has no relevance! While this may occur to you as a rather inane example, it illustrates the point. Imagine sitting in meetings where the virtues of such ‘5G technology’ are extolled.

Business rhythms, organisational cycles, tendencies for change and the need for change all matter much. When these are drowned in the noise of features, the change effort goes nowhere. It, in fact, is a giveaway for how the change effort will unravel!

2. Tech adoption is not a function of features

Features are important. So is context. Yes. There are more elements that determine adoption. To me, a key aspect is demystifying the technology element and weaving it into daily work.  The time lag between the start of the change effort and when change hits every individual is a big factor too. The essence, however, is to focus on ‘work’ and how work shifts for every employee. Features and glory of the technology in itself have to be experienced on the ground, more because of the shift in work. There is no glory in them being on Powerpoint slides.

3. Communication is not the fancy poster in the hallway

There is a communication 101 lesson that I recall. Communication is always a function of how it is received. Numerous change efforts have fancy posters, screensavers, games, and contests. To my mind, communication is a ‘moment of truth’ thing. It happens at places closest where work gets done. It often happens between people on the ground. At least the communication that determines the sustenance and success of the change happens there. That’s why keeping the ear to the ground trumps hanging from the nail in a hallway in the ivory tower.

Designing effective change requires courage. It seeks a huge degree of going beyond the immediate and seeing the larger picture. It requires a raw courage to thrive in the ambiguous gray of change.  Above all, it mandates going beyond a feature focus. That often means going past a stated requirement and find a new plane.  For a change practitioner, that requires comfort in crowing heroes of change and staying in the shadows. Borrowing from my friend’s quote of Mahesh Elkunchwar, the change that is sought is more important than the skills it takes to orchestrate it!

 

Building a Story Ecosystem

Post By Stephen Berkeley

In 2011 I had the fortune of spending three days with Peter Senge, the Author of “The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organisation” and “The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies for Building a Learning Organization” identified in 1997 by the Harvard Business Review as one of the seminal management books of the previous 75 years. The event was the Society of Organisation Learning‘s “Fundamentals of Leadership” workshop in Boston. It brought alive for me the importance of active listening in the building a story ecosystem.

Peter has a very Zen style, so when he spoke his words seemed to go deeper into the cerebral cortex than any speaker I have ever heard. One of his pearls that has shaped my work as an Organsiation Development Practitioner was “What we say and don’t say and what we do and don’t do creates culture”. From my experience of working at a leadership level in healthcare over the last thirty years in Australia, UK and India, I would rephrase this to, “what we say and don’t say, what we do and don’t do, creates stories, in our minds and the minds of others, and it is these stories that create culture”. And of course, as Peter Drucker famously said: “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

One of the hypotheses we are testing with the “Building Bridges and Breaking Walls, One Story at a time” workshops is that “When whole systems engage in deep listening to each other new realities emerge for the whole system that can be infectious. Systemic change will bring about lasting impact for the system and its constituents”. The exact opposite is also true, when we do not engage in deep listening to each other, new realities will still emerge and can be infectious for all the wrong reasons, because the untold stories live on in our behaviours.  The grapevine is stories that have not been listened to. So it can also be said that untold stories can have a “lasting impact on the system and its constituents”.

In healthcare, a reputation that has taken years to be built can be destroyed in a flash, whether it be an individual or an entire organisation, because lives are at stake. However, a system does not break down overnight. There generally is a steady stream of stories that would have been symptoms that the system is about to implode. But as leaders, we are often caught up in getting things done that we do not pay attention to the emerging stories within our organisations. Stories not tended to, have the capability of derailing everything from our overall vision to a new product launch, to a project or just everyday productivity. Not to mention destroying relationships. Stories like stones can be used to build a bridge or a wall. How we tend to stories determines whether we build a bridge or a wall.

I took the above picture at Haines Falls in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York shortly before my workshop with Peter Senge in Boston. I had just finished co-facilitating a 4 day Dialogue with 60 healthcare leaders from 7 countries who gathered to explore the intersection of spirituality with healthcare. It was a vibrant but intense experience as I was the graphic recorder, my first attempt. But I needed a bit of a release so I decided to go for a walk in the woods and discovered this epic bridge.

After four days of listening to stories and synthesising them into a graphic, this bridge represented our journey. We started the four-day dialogue with our own individual stories, but through a well crafted facilitative process involving Open Space Technology, World Cafe and Appreciative Inquiry we identified our commonality and the areas we could individually provide more leadership on. Each story was like a stone, we could have used them to build a bridge or a wall. We chose the bridge.

Trust plays a central role. To draw out the stories that are shaping your culture needs a facilitator skilled in creating a safe environment for conversations that count. Currently, there is a trend towards “storytelling”, but it is only part of the picture. There is, in fact, a Story Ecosystem. We need to pay equal attention to the component parts of this story ecosystem.  The art of story work requires you to be a story detective, a three-dimensional listener, a harvester, a curator, a synthesiser, a sense-maker and a facilitator. You need a systematic way of hearing all the perspectives and understanding the narratives.

Our workshops on “Building Bridges and Breaking Walls, One Story at a Time” and the online conversation we hope to create, will dive deep into the StoryWork Ecosystem. Do hope you can join us at #IAFAsia17 in Seoul on the 18th August. You can also follow our journey on our FB page

Story power !

Oxfam is betting on a new way.

Imagine having to sell second hand goods. Say, used furniture. Or other items of daily use. Like sunglasses. Or combs. Or radios. Whatever.

That effort is not going to fetch anything more than a small sum, unless ofcourse those belonged to a celebrity.

Ofcourse, the celebrity quotient is comes from the story that can be told.

“This hair strand is from Elvis Priestly”.

“This coffee cup was used by Sachin Tendulkar”.

Surely, the strand of hair is not worth so much if its not associated with Elvis. Nor the coffee cup with Tendulkar. These are stories that give life to random inanimate objects.

So here is Oxfam’s very interesting game plan.

Second hand goods gain a meaning when they come with a story. If there was a way of sharing a story about a second hand product with a prospective buyer, well, the chases are more for a purchase. (Every item on second hand sale will carry a story along with it and tagged to the item using a QR code. Any prospective purchaser would get to know of the story behind the item on sale. )

“Someone might donate a record and add that it was the song that they danced to at their wedding to its tag,” The chances of a purchase brightens with the story! (Not that it would result in a purchase everytime).

Stories have great power in them. Almost magical. Every individual carries his or her own stories and it becomes easy to relate to other stories that are told .

The humdrum of everyday corporate life makes it difficult for us to take the time to listen to stories or narrate our own. But when we do narrate or when we find a patient ear, what a difference it makes.

Methodologies like Appreciative Inquiry, inherently seek story telling and can create organisation wide energy. Every story holds significance and the very act of both telling and listening to a story can be sources of great energy.

Unfortunately, language creates its own complications and the word ‘story’ can sometimes lead to the narrative being thought of as a flippant waste of time. Call them what you will, stories have in them an inherent quality that brings alive people.

Grandma and her tales !

Personally, many of us would have grown up with stories. As children stories fascinate us. For many years, I grew up with stories that my grandmother used to tell me. Those gave a huge fillip to imagination and also, in retrospect, brought a contextual understanding of morals and values that was required in the family. The best thing about them, was I always used to look forward to hearing those ‘stories’!

In the corporate world the power of stories is often underrated. Grossly.

There are exceptions though. Coca-Cola is one that I know. Coca-Cola Conversations, the blog that Coca-Cola runs is a fine example of how corporate stories build or augment a brand. Infact, Coca-Cola has a historian and archivist with them : Phil Mooney.

Only, in the modern times, technology has given consumers the opportunity of contributing their own story to the brand. That is not only more interesting, it is as authentic as it can get.

Blogs, wikis, tweets all are available for imaginative use.

Within the organisation stories from the organisations past : accounts of successes / failures / decision points etc when told with a degree of authenticity and simplicity not only aid a great deal in building a culture, they are extremely non-invasive and interesting for employees.

So much for stories ! And by the way, they work. Very nicely !