Whatever productivity is, and it’s not easy agree on what it is, other nations appear to be getting more bang for their buck. To use a horrible phrase.
I wrote in my last blog post about the seven Acas Productivity Levers, saying what I thought was missing (organisational cultures and performance systems that nurture strong informal social networks, where people can bond and develop supportive, congenial, playful relationships).
As I said, this flies in the face of decades of attempts to control social behaviour and messing around seen as wasting time – despite evidence that social bonds away from work are linked to high productivity.
This got me to thinking. How can things change? How can evidence of good practice, which piles up and remains valid, be discovered and used? Here’s what I know from experience:
- There’s always a somebody, an energy behind a vision behind a proposal for change.
- Starting small can get the ball rolling towards generating something big.
- I know who those somebodies were back then. Who are they now?
One of the things I saw two decades ago in companies shifting from traditional manufacturing to customer-focused ways of working and organising (lean, just-in-time, quality) was how often organisation-wide culture change was kicked off – and sustained – by a visionary person. This was typically a Managing Director, or a Production Director who could see there were better ways of doing things.
Focusing on some aspect of work that could be improved, or dropped altogether and replaced by new ways, these people showed their colleagues what was possible.
They involved them, persuaded them, listened to them, and made sure systems were in place so they could contribute their energies and knowledge to the innovation.
Starting small, doing something else, others then finding things they care about that they want to change – taking responsibility for it, and bringing colleagues along with them as needed. This accumulation of small things accelerated as people gained confidence and experience. It was how the transition to customer-focused working practices became the norm over time.
Learn From It
Roll forward some years to when I was working with senior people, who were using small, focused projects to introduce new technologies or working practices into their organisations. This was through an innovative post-graduate Master’s course at a UK university, and then later with the same university in partnership with a Russian university.
It was the same passionate, visionary people – Finance Directors, Marketing Directors, Operations Directors, HR Directors, and so on. For some of these people, they had a business problem that needed addressing. For others, they were curious to learn about ideas that could be applied to change or improve some feature of their work.
There were so many great things about working with the Russian executives. One was the realisation that these practical people did not dismiss theory and philosophy. They were curious to discover management ideas that were ‘the best of the West’ – not to copy but to evaluate for usefulness in their own contexts, and adapted to fit.
For all of them, the experience was an opportunity to engage with colleagues back in the workplace, demonstrating different ways of doing things. In one particular case, the project became the pilot that was the forerunner of a longer-term effort to improve the quality of services to citizens in a Siberian city.
Who are these people now?
It’s anybody. Let me qualify that. It’s anybody who cares enough, and who has the energy to change something about their work – for their own satisfaction primarily, but that will also benefit colleagues and the company they work for.
I’m hoping it’s going to be young people who are not yet infected with cynicism and who are at a stage in their lives where they are particularly open to learning. I’m part of the Baby Boomer generation and I never stop learning. But when I was first in the workplace all those decades ago, I learned things that stayed with me a lifetime.
The sort of people I worked with in the past had the influence and clout to instigate change that had the potential to go organisation-wide. What if others don’t have that positional authority?
The extent to which anyone can make an impact depends on how fertile the conditions are in an organisation for change to seed and grow.
And if those conditions are not there?
They might be absent organisation-wide but exist in pockets. If that is the case, then re-generation can happen locally – and for a time until conditions change, which unfortunately they can do.
So go on, young people. Hook up to others like me, who can point you to hidden, long-known principles of good practice. Be like my Russian friends – learn to interpret and use this information, and use it to change something about your work.
The information is there. The tools are there. It’s all possible.