You might know that I wrote a research-based book, which was published in 2013. The book is not for a general audience so I’ve collated some of the insights from the book and bundling them together with other stuff I’ve written over the past few years into an ebook, Calling All Instigators!
This post – part one – is about why I’ve written the ebook.
Calling All Instigators!
My interest in the themes in this short ebook extends back more than three decades. It is deeply personal. Working at the bottom of the organisational pile in the early part of my working life, I clearly remember being curious about my work. More specifically, I wanted to know more about the business of the business. What was the bigger picture? How did my department’s work fit into it?
And I was far from alone. I worked with funny, smart people whose full capabilities were underestimated and therefore overlooked. I have been convinced since then that most businesses are wasting an abundance of latent, under-appreciated talent and goodwill, especially at operational levels of organisations. This is, to say the least of it, a pity for those people. It certainly makes no business sense.
Here’s what Jimmy Reid, then a famous trade unionist, told the students at Glasgow University in his Rectorial Address to them in 1972:
“To unleash the latent potential of our people requires that we give them responsibility. The untapped resources of the North Sea are as nothing compared to the untapped resources of our people … The flowering of each individual’s personality and talents is the pre-condition for everyone’s development.”
He also said that ‘alienation’ was then a major social problem in Britain, defining alienation as “the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control.”
That was then?
But that was a long time ago, you might be yelling. That was a different world. It certainly was. I was 16 years old, still at school in the West of Scotland, heavy industry was in trouble and the Cold War was in full swing. Now all that heavy industry is gone and the oil in the North Sea is fast vanishing. New industries, for a new generation with new skills, are slowly replacing the heavy industries.
But have you seen the accumulating evidence on employee engagement – or more precisely, lack of it? Have you also seen the accumulation of research on the extent to which businesses try to control people? How can people be expected to be engaged when they are not trusted and closely monitored? Alienation, anyone?
Have we made any progress?
Thankfully, yes. Manufacturing began shifting from traditional ways of organising work to approaches that fundamentally depend on a philosophy of continuous improvement and problem-solving from about the mid-1980s onwards. The path from the traditional route was rocky and full of pitfalls and failures.
One of the things we know from businesses that did manage to make the transition then to new working practices was that the employment relationship had to change. You want people to share their deep tacit knowledge of their work, of each other and of their machines? Then you are going to have to treat people fairly, trust them and give the technologies and performance environments that let them do what they need to do.
There are loads of valuable insights from that time that remain relevant, of course interpreted and applied for today’s conditions.
The not so great news
The not so great news is that businesses that can be described as high-performing, building on the work systems and practices that originally developed through manufacturing, remain in the minority. Far too many continue to ignore the fact that what is good for people is good for business.
Part of the problem is the scale of the task in updating management and leadership skills. But one of the most phenomenal applications of social technologies is how they are being used to transform business education.
For the first time, people who previously had no access to a business school education can now get it online. Social technologies have taken a big can opener to the previously privileged experience and prised open opportunities for anyone committed and courageous enough to challenge themselves.
That’s why we have called the book Call Out The Instigators! Organisations are slow to change but as Euan Semple puts it, the internet is full of Spartacus moments. It is a handbook for those willing to step outside the constraints of their organisations to learn together and then take back what they are learning into the organisation. It was was Euan who brought to my attention Peter Fry’s lovely image of Trojan Mice to describe these people.
Taking personal responsibility
Jimmy Reid died in 2010. I have no idea if he recognised the enormous democratising potential of social technologies. He spoke about giving people responsibility. I see things differently.
The time is long gone when we waited around deferentially for others to give us permission to be responsible. The onus is on us to grab personal responsibility for improving our own and our colleagues’ experience of work, if that is possible, for our own benefit and the benefit of the organisations that employ us.
Most of us are still working in organisations, whether small or large. And the great majority of those organisations are confronted by galloping change on many fronts. Whatever the pressures of change being exerted on your organisation, it is inevitable that your own roles and responsibilities are undergoing change, too.
What’s in it?
The content of the book is drawn from many different things that I have written over the years, themselves the outcome of work that I have done with senior executives – nationally and internationally – either taking their businesses in new strategic directions or exploring current workplace trends.
It is divided into three parts:
- The first revises a few basics, covering what the research says people need from work, from each other and what sort of support they need to get things done together.
- The second looks at workplace trends, and thinks about what the trends might mean for updating skills.
- The third is called Just Do It! and is what the book is leading up to. This part of the book summarises nine high performance principles – to be covered in part two – and suggestions for things you can put into practice.
What do you want to do? What do you and your colleagues need to be doing better or differently? What tools, principles and methods have worked for others making the changes to more effective and satisfying ways of work? How do you know they are going to work for you? And that’s just for starters.