By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator: Errol Amerasekera

When we view the corporate landscape through the lens of performance and sustainability, there is little doubt that we are living in challenging times. At no point in our history has there been such a pressure on outcomes and performance. Simultaneously we are also challenged to ensure the long-term viability of our organisations, the wellness and fulfilment of those who work for them, while also working to mitigate the ecological issues facing our planet.

Understandably many organisations are becoming progressively more performance driven; forever increasing emphasis and value on measurable outcomes, at the expense of culture, relationships, connection and dare I say it – humanity. There is no doubt that organisations need to have a firm focus on operational excellence and meeting their KPI’s and milestones, but somewhere along the way, the strategies for achieving these outcomes sacrificed the things that matter most.

The irony is that most of the leaders of these organisations believe in the value of creating a positive culture. They see the benefit of building long-lasting and mutually beneficial relationships and they genuinely respect and value their people. How then do we explain the increasing prioritisation of outcomes, at the expense of culture and relationships? This dichotomous behaviour is often the result of one single flawed assumption; that building a care-based culture is mutually exclusive with delivering high performance.

We’ll blow that assumption out of the water in a moment, but first, what is a care-based culture?

A care-based culture places a premium on culture, relationships and humanity. It views and treats a team member as a whole person, not just as their organisational role and function. A care-based culture reminds us that people come with their own hopes, dreams and aspirations as well as their insecurities and fears.

This does somewhat complicate the management function. Managing someone’s hopes, dreams and fears, as well as their role based performance, is far more challenging than simply focusing on the results they deliver as part of their role.

But what if managers really saw the value in building a care-based culture and set about developing the additional skills needed to manage their people in a more holistic way?  Instead of trying to compartmentalise their lives by drawing boundaries between their work self and non-work self, team members would be supported to bring their whole selves to work, and can thereby gift all their talents to the tasks at hand.

Think of the benefits! Care-based cultures lead to greater levels of staff motivation and engagement – and people work harder and smarter when they are engaged in the task. When teams are able to see and support the humanity of each of their members, tighter bonds are formed and a culture of shared accountability created. This culture of care and humanity then flows into the manner in which team members deal with customers, clients and other key stakeholders – and it doesn’t take a genius to work out how this would be received.  When people turn up to work as their whole selves, it also enables them to be more creative and innovative by using more of their life experience, feelings and intuition in order to resolve complex challenges.

Finally perhaps most importantly, organisations that place a strategic emphasis on building a care-based culture not only perform at the very highest levels, the efficiency of the process by which that performance is driven makes it significantly more long-lasting and sustainable than being performance driven for the sake of performance itself.

For most of us, including myself, this is a radical paradigm shift. Until recently I have always advocated that leaders reinforce the boundaries pertaining to an individual’s organisational role, and support those individuals to manage the aspects of their lives that fall outside that role themselves. But in recent times I have been repeatedly astounded by the unexpected high performance that flows, almost as a side effect, from building a care-based culture.


By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator: Errol Amerasekera

Operational Excellence means that organisations have the capability to deliver a particular project or task to the required specifications and standards, on time and on budget. Whether or not an organisation achieves operational excellence by meeting its KPI’s is important. However, what is more important is how an organisation approaches the challenge of moving towards operational excellence. So, in building a healthier organisation, the old business adage of the process being more important than the outcome, is definitely true. In this case, the how relates primarily to the efficiency by which an organisation achieves a particular set of results.

Efficiency can be defined as the amount of resources that a business consumes to produce a particular outcome relative to the benefit of that outcome. In an organisational context, there are three key categories of resources — money, time and people. Obviously, these three categories of resources have significant overlap. The more staff on a particular project, the more money it costs the business in wages, but hopefully, the less time it takes. While all three resource categories are important, I believe the most valuable one is time. This is because if money is misspent or lost, it can be made again. Staff members can leave their roles and be replaced, and staff that have a reduced motivation or disengage from a particular task can be re-engaged. Therefore, as important as money and staff are in terms of the resources a business has access to, they can be considered renewable resources. In contrast, time is a non-renewable resource. Once time is spent, that minute, that hour, that day cannot be renewed or recreated. Unfortunately, there are no Mulligans (a golf term used when the golfer is given a second chance to play their shot) or Groundhog days (in reference to the cult movie with Bill Murray) for spent time. Thus, the efficiency at which organisations use their time is probably the most important ingredient in delivering operational excellence and therby showing how healthy that organisation is.

The True North Learning Organisational Health model is designed to do one thing — increase the efficiency which an organisation utilises its resources — time, money and staff, but especially time.

For example, we have worked with clients at their strategic planning days where a list of ten actionable items has been developed; each one of which has the potential to improve the business and its effectiveness in some aspect. Three months later, only a small minority, if any, of these strategies have been actioned in accordance with the implementation plan formulated at the strategic planning meeting. Hence, the one day those eight senior managers took and the associated resources have been effectively wasted. If we do the sums, 8 managers on an eight hour strategic planning day, the cost of transport, venue hire, catering, etc, probably thousands of dollars all for just about zero return. Those managers may well have taken that time and money and gone to the pub — at least they would have had a good time. The return on investment of those resources would effectively have been the same. I know this sounds a bit harsh, and I do admit that I am being a little tongue in cheek in order to make a point.  Most of us have been in teams or worked in organisations where creative and talented minds come up with amazing strategies, but because of a lack of capacity somewhere in the organisational system, these strategies never come to fruition. Therefore, the strategies do not provide a benefit to the organisation (or a return on investment on the resources that it took to create them). In fact, one could argue that not only does this have a minimal return on investment, but it actually also has a negative impact on organisational effectiveness. This is because when senior managers invest their time, ideas, passion and experience into developing a strategic plan only to repeatedly experience those items not coming to fruition, it builds the degree of hopelessness and cynicism in the effectiveness of their organisation. This then affects the extent to which those managers are prepared to invest themselves at future strategic planning days.

 

 


By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator: Errol Amerasekera

It is hard to imagine that a conversation can build more effective organisations. However, what we observe time and time again is that individuals and organisations that take the time and develop the capacity to have strategic and reflective conversations actually outperform those competitors who place less of a strategic emphasis on this skill.

To be honest, and also slightly more transparent, I am not talking about an average ‘chatting around the water cooler’ kind of conversation. What I am talking about is when and how we have strategic and reflective conversations. In some management literature, these are referred to as ‘difficult’ or ‘robust’ conversations, but I think these terms underestimate the potential benefit these conversations hold.

The ability to have strategic and reflective conversations is one of the most effective ways to engage stakeholders, give role-based feedback and align team members to performance and behavioural expectations. In short, it is probably the most effective way to build a culture of shared accountability within a team or organisation.

However, what we commonly observe is team members, especially managers, running away from these conversations as fast as they possibly can. There are numerous reasons for this behaviour, but most of them fall under one or more of three categories.

Firstly, most people have some degree of conflict aversion. Let’s face it, any normal and sane person, when faced with a choice, is going to choose the option with the least potential for conflict. At the risk of being too psychological, this aversion sometimes originates back in our formative years. It occurs when individuals grow up in a highly conflictual environment which over time reduces their tolerance for further conflict. Paradoxically, it can also occur in individuals who grow up in relatively harmonious environments. This is because, despite the idyllic-ness of a happy and harmonious household, it does not build skills and capacity in having these more challenging conversations.

Secondly, many managers feel under-skilled in the area of conflict management, and it is often for the reasons in the previous paragraph that this area of their development has been avoided or neglected. However, dealing with conflict and having a strategic and reflective conversation are simply skills. And, like any skill, the more you do it, the more you practice it, and the more coaching and support you get on it, the better and more comfortable with it you become.

Thirdly, and finally, some managers feel they do not have the time to have these conversations. I view most things in business from a cost versus benefit standpoint. However, one difference in my version of cost versus benefit is that I believe in viewing an organisation as a holistic system. In other words, we cannot just examine cost versus benefit from a profit or performance viewpoint. We also have to include more intangible costs and benefits. These include such things as levels of trust and engagement of key staff and stakeholders, the morale of team members, the well-being of the individuals within the organisation, the environment and perhaps the planet as a whole. It is only when we can appreciate the cost or benefit to these more intangible and less measurable aspects of our organisation that we can begin to ascertain the real benefit of these conversations.

For example, we have observed on numerous occasions that a one-hour strategic and reflective conversation have a benefit (or return on investment of resources — time, money, personnel) in terms of engagement, role clarity, motivation, performance and ethical behaviour, that far supersedes that initial one hour ‘investment’. Conversely, we have also observed numerous examples, unfortunately in greater numbers than my previous sentence, where the lack of a strategic and reflective conversation has deleterious and sometimes disastrous consequences for an organisation.

The irony is, in our experience, most managers are astute enough to know when one of these conversations needs to occur. The real question is: are they prepared to endure short-term discomfort for the long-term benefit of the organisation?

In summary, to build organisational capacity to have strategic and reflective conversations:

  • Support managers and staff to work on their own psychology around their individual conflict aversion and lead by example.
  • Invest in training and skills development programs so that members feel equipped with the required skill set in order to have these conversations.
  • Be disciplined. Develop the discipline to realise that a one-hour conversation, as difficult and challenging as it may be, could potentially save you and/or the organisation a far less desirable outcome.

 

 


By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator: Errol Amerasekera

In challenging economic times, it is imperative that organisations increase the effectiveness of how they train their people. Hence, organisations need to ensure that they get a significant return on the resources – time, money and staff – that they invest in training and development initiatives. We have found that organisations can increase the effectiveness of these programs by asking one key question, but more about that later.

From an organisational context, we see the purpose of training and development is to bridge performance gaps. Performance gaps (hereafter simply referred to as “gaps”) are the gaps between the current levels of performance (both team and individual) and the ideal or desired levels of performance.

One of the keys in designing and delivering effective organisational development programs is knowing which kind of gap the program intends to bridge. From our experience, there are two kinds of gaps. The first gap is a “technical gap”. This a gap created by the lack of skills or knowledge required to do the technical aspects of their role to the desired level of performance. These skills and knowledge are usually specific to the roles and are generally not transferrable to other roles where a different specialised skill set is required.

The second kind of gap is a “behavioural gap”. This is the gap between the way individuals and teams actually behave and the ideal set of behaviours. By “behave”, we are referring to what some may call the “soft skills” of business – it’s how people communicate, take responsibility and ownership of outcomes, how they build trust, have difficult conversations, collaborate, resolve conflict, etc. It’s all the aspects that go into making the culture of a high performance workplace. Behavioural skills are generally transferrable to a different role, even if the technical skills required are no longer applicable.

The key differentiator is how we train people in technical skills versus behavioural skills. Technical skills are generally better developed by what we would call traditional or didactic learning. This means attending lectures, reading, writing, research, and having knowledge imparted to you. Behavioural skills, on the other hand, are not effectively developed via didactic learning. This is because knowledge alone does not make a significant and sustainable change in behaviours. If knowledge alone was sufficient to change behaviours, people would not smoke, be overweight, drive too fast or end up bankrupt. Most people know that they shouldn’t do these behaviours and most know strategies on how to avoid them.

The most effective way to change behaviours is for people to have the opportunity to reflect on these behaviours. Via reflection, individuals can better understand why they behave the way they do, they can see the impact of those behaviours and also gain an awareness of the situations and triggers which elicit those behaviours. In short, the ability and opportunity to reflect on these behaviours is what builds people’s awareness of them. And it is only via awareness that behaviours can be modified or improved in a sustainable way.

Hence, the most effective way of bridging behavioural gaps is Experiential Learning. Experiential Learning usually starts with an activity designed to recreate the desired learning context. Then, via a facilitated debrief, participants are able to reflect on and therefore gain insight and awareness of their behaviours during the activity. Finally, participants make learning links between their behaviours with the activity and how they behave back in the office. They can ask, “How can I take what I learned during the activity and debrief and apply it back to my role within the organisation?”

Therefore, the key question to ask to ensure that training and development programs have the desired outcome is: “Is the performance gap this training is intending to bridge a technical gap or a behavioural one?”

As an example, I was recently working with a team of project managers. One of the challenges that they faced was their tendency to, as a group, rush through vital decision making processes because they wanted to quickly get to the outcome they wanted. Unsurprisingly, the rushed decision making process led to poor decisions and as a result, they spend more resources “cleaning up their mess” than they spent making the actual decision.

In designing their previous training, the assumption was made that the gap was a technical one and therefore the training consisted of the technical aspects of project management. This, however, did not change the dynamic within the team.

As we observed them through a series of Experiential Learning activities and debriefed their behaviours after the activity, what became clear was that under pressure, their trust in each other diminished and therefore their ability to sit in the tension of the unknown without a clear direction was compromised. As a result, they rushed through those parts of the decision making process, simply to escape the discomfort of the unknown and subsequent lack of trust and cohesion. This highlighted their behavioural gap and therefore changed the question we as trainers asked. The question was no longer how do we provide more training on their project management skills, but how do we built a culture that is more robust and functions at a higher level in the face of pressure and an unknown outcome?

This example highlights the tendency of managers to assume the gap they are trying to bridge is a technical one. Sometimes it may well be, but if the assumption is wrong, it will lead to a training and development program that fails to meet its objectives.

So before training programs are designed and implemented, ask the question: ““Is the performance gap this training is intended to bridge a technical gap or a behavioural one?”

 


By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator: Errol Amerasekera

In recent times I have noticed my growing frustration with our politicians- from both sides of the political divide. On further reflection, the aspect of their behaviour which fuels my frustration, is their ongoing tendency to appear to take no responsibility for their  actions, and to use so-called policy as a political football in the blame-game.

This reminded me of one of the models that we introduce many of our Experiential Learning training programs with. It’s called the “Above the Line” model. We introduce the concept by stating that when things don’t go so well, or don’t go to plan, individuals and teams behave in one of two ways-either “Above the Line (ATL)” or “Below the Line (BTL)”.  We have found that individuals and teams that are more effective, tend to exhibit more behaviours that are ATL.  Whilst less effective teams and individuals are prone to demonstrate more BTL behaviours.

Some BTL behaviours are Justifying eg “ I didn’t think that it was that that important”, Blaming eg “It was Fred who miscalculated the profit margin.”, Defending eg “Now you’re just picking on me” and Denial eg “It wasn’t my fault”. ATL behaviours, on the other hand, are to take responsibility, accountability and ownership of individual and team outcomes. It’s the “buck stops at me” mentality, as opposed to “pass-the-buckism”.

Upon presenting this to one of our clients a few weeks ago in the debrief after an Experiential learning activity, I was accused by the group of being BTL by pointing out their BTL behaviour. I have been wrestling with this issue ever since.

In other words, when we observe BTL behaviour that is not in service of the organisation’s outcomes or  its Purpose, how do we point that out without ourselves being BTL? Unfortunately, in this context, two sets of BTL behaviours don’t make an ATL behaviour, so as leaders and managers it’s imperative to model the very behaviour that we want to encourage more of in our teams.

Here is my view and I would be curious to hear the views of others.

Whether or not our intervention, upon seeing the BTL behaviour in our team or team-mates, was ATL or BTL can only be ascertained in hindsight. In other words, there is no recipe for what we should say when we observe BTL behaviour, nor is there a fixed way of how we should say it. Whether or not our intervention was ATL or BTL is dependent on the outcome of what we did. If what we did or said had a positive outcome and empowered or provided an insight which enabled the individual or team to transform their behaviour to be more ATL, then our intervention itself was ATL. If however, the outcome of what we did serves to produce more BTL behaviour, and actually moves the individual or team away from effective functioning, then our intervention was possibly BTL.

This way of leading teams challenges managers to take ultimate responsibility for the outcome of interactions between themselves and their reports. While this may be a heavy burden to carry, some would argue that it is the responsibility of leadership. I would also suggest that it is the responsibility of the authority conferred upon you by your leadership role within the organisation, which means the buck stops at you to a much greater extent than those you are leading.

So if we go full circle, is my frustration at pointing out our politician’s BTL behaviours, BTL in itself? Well the impact remains to be seen, but I suspect that not many people feel empowered or inspired to change by having their “faults” point out by a frustrated onlooker. I guess that means its back to the drawing board for me (read the therapist’s couch) to figure out ATL ways to think about our current political situation.

Please share your thoughts about how to address BTL behaviours in your teams, whilst at the same time remaining ATL yourself?

Dr Errol Amerasekera

 

For more on Below the line behaviours visit our ‘Beating Obstructive Behaviours’ program at http://truenorthlearning.com.au/problem-solvers/bob.php

 

 


Team building is so 1990s

 Team building programs are outdated, largely irrelevant and do little – if anything – to serve organisational outcomes.

If that sounds a little crazy coming from a Director of a company whose products include team-building let me expand.

To bring it down to basics, team-building programs are designed to take people out of their usual environment, get them active – and interactive – and give everyone a fun time. It can be as simple as going ten-pin bowling or go-karting, or something more substantial such as “Hollywood Blockbuster” where everyone gets dressed up and makes TV commercials about their organisation.

But if you ask about return on investment (ROI), this level of program (if you can even call a half- or one-day event a program) is not going to provide it. When organisations start fulminating   about team-building and what they are seeking to achieve from such a session I would ask them to STOP. THINK. I mean REALLY THINK.

If the desired outcome of a team-building program for a group of your employees or managers is to have fun, and only fun, then go ahead and fire up the go-karts!

But it your team is facing some challenges and is not performing to its potential then a team-building program is a very poor investment of organisational funds.

There has been a huge shift by best-practice businesses over recent decades towards building the Behavioural Sciences into key areas including Safety, leadership, innovation and organisational culture. That’s why team-building sits within Experiential Learning programs that deliver Leadership Development, Cultural Alignment, Team Effectiveness and Coaching & Mentoring.

For performance to increase there needs to be a growth in awareness and understanding around core behaviours, and attitudinal shift. This only comes by providing an environment in which participants are allowed the space and time to reflect on, and understand, the primary drivers – both individual and team-based – of our behaviours. Only by reflecting on what we do and why we do those things, and then developing a deep understanding of those dynamics, can there be substantive and sustainable change in the effectiveness  with which individuals and teams function.

These are outcomes that weave long-term improvement into the fabric of an organisation, empowering and informing individuals and teams about why they are part of your business and how they help deliver against the short- and long-term objectives that let’s face it, are the reason that everyone is turning up to work every day.

I also want to make it clear that being engaged, inspired and feeling a sense of personal satisfaction is a deliverable with any Experiential Learning program so no one is going to miss out on their quota of fun . It’s just that there will be more value and long-term benefits both to the organisation, managers, team and individuals.

Even if the desired outcome of a simple team-building event is to “improve team morale” – one common reason we are given when an organisation seeks out this basic service – such a program is never going to create a substantive and sustainable change, or even one that goes outside the parameters of the actual event. How can it? The depth of purpose and the required structure to support ongoing change is not in place.

Team morale is a complicated phenomenon, and there are many factors which contribute to and undermine it. These include alignment to organisational purpose, clarity of communication, established career development pathways, ongoing performance review, ability to manage conflict  and so on and on and on. I am sad to report that three hours of ten-pin bowling will not even start to address any of these challenges.

In an increasingly competitive marketplace and as the pace of change only accelerates, the  businesses that survive and thrive are going to be those that develop a strong ability to learn fast, adapt to market changes and facilitate the challenge of multiple and often competing demands.

These are complicated challenges and can only be addressed by robust programs that span a period of time and build desired skills, attitudes and understanding into your operations. These programs are not a “quick fix” – they are far more  intricate and harder to design than simple team building, and require high levels of skill to facilitate.

As a result they are more expensive than an afternoon of ten-pin bowling or even the more “dressed up” team-building events, although these can actually be quite costly in themselves especially when you take into account the fact that you are losing valuable team working hours while not actually gaining any benefits that extend beyond the event.

The upside is that while it costs money to deliver the type and level of program that will make a real and sustainable difference to your business, your organisation gets a real return on investment in both financial and subjective terms.

It is on the record that having a High-Performing Workplace rather than a Low-Performing Workplace generates substantial benefits at many levels – not least of which is financial performance and productivity.

The Leadership, Culture and Management Practices of High Performing Workplaces in Australia: High Performing Workplace Index, which was commissioned by the Society for Knowledge Economics, shows clearly that HPWs perform significantly better than LPWs in key areas as outlined above, as well as innovation, leadership, employee commitment, job satisfaction and customer service. The research drew on data from 5661 employees in 77 organisations and The Financial Review published a substantial report on it late last year so I invite you to take a look.

Add to this the data from the most recent Gallup poll of 1000 working people in Australia which shows that 79 per cent are not engaged and it shows how important it is to get real results (ROI) from your team training. In fact, Gallup put a figure on these statistics, as reported in the Financial Review – this disengagement and resultant stifling of productivity costs Australian business $33.5 billion a year.

While as a facilitator I try not to give advice, in in this case I just can’t help myself. So here are my tips before you book a team-building program:

  • Be very, very clear on exactly what you are seeking in terms of outcomes from the program. Don’t delude yourself that a half-day team building program is going to address deep and complicated issues that the team or broader organisation may be facing.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask. If you are not sure about where your team is right now, take the time to do some honest reflection and to seek guidance Also understand that part of a best-practice Experiential Learning approach is to undertake a baseline check to identify exactly is required. You may be surprised to identify areas of potential improvement you may not have even considered. By having the courage to identify the real challenges you will get the results – real outcomes – you want. While this reflection may present you with a much more complicated set of questions than those you started out with (how can we have fun and build team morale?) it is the answers to these questions that are going to support ongoing improvements to organisational effectiveness.
  • Don’t ask your Executive Assistant or other administrator to “do some research on team-building programs”. It is unlikely that they have sufficient in-depth awareness and understanding of the challenges being faced by a team, or the required outcomes. Sure, get the EA or PA to find some names but only a person in a leadership role with knowledge of the “big picture” and awareness of the needs of his or her team can really work with the provider to identify the best type and level of program for the desired purpose.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask and dig a little deeper. If you start off thinking about dressing up and a fun day out but really want innovation, leadership, empowerment and a strong team spirit with everyone walking in step towards a single goal, don’t waste your money on that half-day session. Instead, go for a program with clear and practical outcomes that deliver you real value for money, are relevant to your objectives and are in line with today’s business expectations.

Having said all of the above, if you are still thinking about team-building because you just want people to have fun and think it might help morale, book those go-karts now.

To find out more about True North Learning’s range of Team Effectiveness and Team Building options click here: http://truenorthlearning.com.au/team-effectiveness/team-effectiveness.php