By: West Vancouver ArchivesCC BY 2.0

Recently I’ve been working on an experiment to learn how to help companies improve by working with them remotely. This experience inspired me to write about broken companies, where you can get a better idea of what I mean by ‘broken’.

The difficulty I find most often in working with companies trying to improve themselves is that a new conversation needs to be started and it is often a difficult conversation to have. It is difficult for three major reasons:

  1. An organisation and its management have to acknowledge that there are problems that they cannot fix on their own. Acknowledging this can be a big deal – especially in companies that have a rich history of blame for things perceived as failure.
  2. Few –  if any –  of the people who need to be in the conversation have ever experienced being open-heartedly asked to join and take part fully in the conversation – at least not in a way that makes it OK to say ‘No’.
  3. Few –  if any – of the people in the organisation, know or have experience of facilitating this particular type of conversation.

Most employees were not hired to help improve companies.

Almost every company I have known in over 20 years of my working life has hired almost exclusively for function and competence at function – they hire people to do the job they want doing. In this regard people serve a functional purpose, just as a telephone serves a functional purpose, or a stapler serves a function. Yet human beings are so much more than simply functional resources.

So people join companies primarily to do what they were hired to do – not explicitly invited to take part in the continuous improvement of the company, themselves and each other. As people move from job to job, the invitation is never made. Until one day they get to a company that does make the explicit invitation and they have no idea how to do contribute to help make things better.

Continuous improvement of the sort that I believe in – where we are individually and collectively focused on improving both our product (and services) and each other in the process takes people who care. It is not the kind of continuous improvement that is mandated from above. The input about what needs fixing comes from the same people who will play a key part in fixing it – everyone. I’ve often heard this referred to as ‘bottom up’. I do not agree with this – because it implies that in this approach there is still a ‘top’. In fact there is no hierarchy when we have this conversation – we are all equal partners, albeit with different responsibilities.

I once invited a group of developers in a company to a brown bag session to explore what things they thought needed improvement and what capabilities they thought might enhance their effectiveness. As the invitation went out, I got responses from a number people who said they weren’t interested. One in particular elaborated on why he wasn’t interested. This email created such an impression on me that I saved the most relevant quote. Which I share with you now.

We are here to code this software and we have too much to do – I’m not fucking interested in helping anyone else to get things better – that is what we have managers for , isn’t it?

I often wonder how many of the people I have met in the companies I have worked with who feel this way but never say it, but act on it nevertheless. How many work in your company?

Now I also wonder how many of those same people would have applied for the jobs if they had been explicitly invited to help the company continuously improve – not through some bullshit HR feedback system – but through full participation and ownership of both the problems and the solutions. How many would be willing to take the empowerment that was offered and seek sustainable improvements through collaboration? How many would in your company?

Invitation? But joining in improvements is implied, isn’t it?

Often when I talk to groups about why an explicit invitation is essential, I often get people who roll their eyes and say “but it’s kind of implied, isn’t it?”. Of course, it is reasonable to assume it is implied if we are ourselves readily do it. Expecting of others what we do naturally is common human behaviour. It is also one of the commonest ways we inflict violence on ourselves and others. By expecting that others will behave in the way we think is implied often results in disappointment which often leads to judgements – ‘they are incompetent, they are selfish, they are <insert your moral judgement here>’.

I feel pretty strongly about this and see a strong analogy with  date rape.

A guy invites a girl out for dinner, a movie and some drinks – maybe even coffee. After the date, she drops him at his place and he invites her up for ‘coffee’. Is sex implied with coffee? What happens if the girl doesn’t recognise that implication and actually has no intention to have sex with the guy? For her, the invitation to coffee was exactly for a beverage. What happen if she says ‘No’? Whilst this situation may not always end in rape, one has to wonder what moral judgements emerge as a result, what coercion was applied, what suffering caused?

All this because an explicit invitation wasn’t made.

I deeply believe that whatever is risked by making an explicit invitation to join a mutually beneficial activity is returned several times over by the explicit buy-in and commitment that those who say ‘Yes’ give back.

Hire differently

I believe that it is a form of violence to demand people to do something they had no explicit knowledge they would be asked to do and then, if they do it ineffectively, to chastise them. Yet I see this happen often. The chastisement is not often overt, but it is present nonetheless.

This is why I think all organisations that are committed to developing the habits and behaviours of continuous improvement need to fundamentally redesign how they hire, to explicitly include the invitation – not demand – to prospective employees to participate fully in  continuous improvement.

Redesigning how hiring is done is actually the tail end of a longer chain of redesigning activities and attitudinal shifts.

To make the invite, the company has to figure out what continuous improvement means for them – this is the start of the internal invitation. The makers of the invitation – usually management – need to discover what a ‘openhearted invitation’ means and be comfortable enough to make one.

Then the invitation itself needs to be figured out.
If it is too vague, it risks being irrelevant.
If it is too rigid it risks being perceived as a demand and as coercive.
If it is just right, it is easier to have the conversation and demonstrates to the prospective employee that your company is worth taking a risk on.

Are you involved in continuous organisational improvement in your company, I’d love to hear your experiences. Please comment or tweet me: @mhsutton

Why I Wrote This

I wrote this because my mission is for the world  – including and especially the world of work – to be full of JOY.

I wrote this because I wish for the people who work in broken companies to see value and a potential for JOY in joining with others to improve their companies and I want them to realise this potential.

I wrote this because most of the time, I see that a huge amount of misery, frustration and anger could have been avoided by a few open-hearted invitations and conversations and I want to help companies start to have those conversations.

You can help spread JOY in the world by sharing this. Thank you

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