A little while ago, I wrote about the need to recognise that every organisation is—in reality—the sum of its people and their individual acts. Recently, I came across a presentation by Joe Leech (User Experience Director of cxpartners) that offered some great insights—albeit from a rather different field.
Entitled Using UX to change company culture, the presentation is focused on web design and the problems of being non-customer focused but, broadly, the same challenges and principles apply to becoming people focused. In the second half of the presentation, Joe offers three suggestions on “what to do” to change company culture; I’ve adopted and built upon these here.
First and foremost, to truly understand your organisation, you need to empathise with people: employees, customers, partners, suppliers, shareholders and more. Put yourself in their shoes and experience the organisation from their perspective. What works really well and where might there be frustrations? How does your experience of the organisation change when viewed from their standpoint?
Tools such as empathy mapping can help, as can stakeholder engagement. Even when you feel you have a good understanding of a given person’s experience, it is often helpful to ask individuals for their views. Matt and I frequently encourage stakeholder engagement in our client projects and find that sometimes the answers can be surprising. In any empathic exercise, be prepared to really listen, be open minded and put aside any preconceptions you may have. Not only does this foster greater honesty but it also ensures you see the situation as it really is.
In July 2003, IBM conducted what has become known as their Values Jam: a three-day discussion via the corporate intranet about the company’s values. To begin, the comments given by employees were “disturbingly dissonant” and 24 hours in, “at least one senior executive wanted to pull the plug.” Thankfully, Sam Palmisano, CEO at the time, wouldn’t hear of it. To have pulled the plug would have been to deny the reality of employee experience and to ignore valid criticism. Instead, Palmisano listened, empathised and immediately made changes. And it seems to have worked: during Palmisano’s tenure, IBM experienced 21% annual growth in earnings per share and increased its market capitalization to $218 billion.
Rather than focusing on targets, percentages, quotas and the numbers, take time to focus on people. In Playing for keeps (which largely inspired my previous article), Frederick Harmon gives the example of a sales manager’s performance appraisal. Typically such appraisals are focused on measuring performance against numbers but Harmon instead asks:
What if her boss went beyond the numbers? What if he asked her to think about which of her recurring acts had the most power to increase profit? What if he then asked her to find ways to add more value to the way she and her team carried out each of those critical acts? What if they worked out ways together to measure her progress? What if he then regularly reviewed that progress in addition to her numbers every month? Think of the impact on her performance.
In his presentation, Joe Leech also gives a brilliant example from Jack Dorsey (co-founder of both Twitter and Square) who, when asked by Square’s newest Director, Howard Schultz, “Why do you all call your customers ‘users‘?” honestly answered, “I don’t know. We’ve always called them that.” Jack then went on to write a letter to his team explaining that they would be removing the term ‘users’ from their vocabulary and that it should be replaced with ‘customers’ or the more specific ‘buyers’ and ‘sellers’. He writes:
While it might be convenient, “users” is a rather passive and abstract word. No one wants to be thought of as a “user” (or “consumer” for that matter). I certainly don’t. And I wouldn’t consider my mom a “user” either, she’s my mom. The word “user” abstracts the actual individual. This may seem like a small and insignificant detail that doesn’t matter, but the vernacular and words we use here at Square set a very strong and subtle tone for everything we do.
Jack even goes so far as to end with, “If I ever say the word “user” again, immediately charge me $140” (emphasis his).
Story telling is a powerful tool to humanise any aspect of your organisation. The quote from Playing for keeps with which I began my last article is a story. It’s a story about the individual acts that together influence next month’s financial statement.
Anecdotes are stories. The tales that are shared over coffee about the latest conversation with a supplier or the most recent email from a colleague can be surprisingly informative. They are also a great way to share your own experience and can provide unexpected business benefit.
In an HBR webinar, Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland shared the example of the call center of a bank which, in an effort to minimise “wasted time,” introduced “non-overlapping coffee breaks” to limit “personal contact and ‘non-essential’ communication.” Rather than bringing benefit, this initiative instead had an adverse effect. Unexpectedly, Pentland’s research team were able to demonstrate that shared coffee breaks allowed employees to disseminate important information about their experiences, which, in turn, enabled staff to improve their performance. As a result, the bank reintroduced overlapping breaks and “saw improved call-handling time, which translated into $15 million per year of savings.” In Pentland’s words:
Informal communication and the exchange of tacit information and best practices proved more valuable than formal team meetings, rules, and incentives.
Stories can also be used with effect in other ways. For example, what does your annual state of the nation report look like? Is it a series of mind-numbing numbers: “Customer complaints have decreased by 20%. Competitors have gained 5% market share. In the next year, we will be increasing departmental efficiency by 16%”? How much more engaging would this presentation be if you instead told a series of stories to illustrate and explain?
In his presentation, Leech gives the example of telling a customer story. Stories are great for understanding your customers and really help you to engage with their needs and situation.
Simple stories (such as that illustrated by Leech) are a fantastic place to start but if you want to build a more detailed story, personas can enable a deeper understanding. Stories and personas provide you with a human reference point against which to answer questions such as, “Would this encourage Tony to buy?” or “Will Jill find this easy to use?”.
Since the dawn of man, stories have been a highly effective communication tool—they are easy to remember, evocative, descriptive and empathic. They bring a subject alive and ensure that you talk about real people and real life situations. Increasingly, stories are emerging as a management discipline and, for some, storytelling is seen as a key leadership competency for the 21st century.
How could you further humanise your organisation? Your business is already its people but do you see it that way? Are you distracted by the numbers, stuck in a language rut or fearful of hearing what others really want to say?
I’ve offered three suggestions here but there will be many more approaches that you could take—I’m sure you’ll even have ideas of your own. Today, dare to open your eyes and to really see the people around you. Who knows what you’ll find—you may just uncover the true source of your organisation’s potential.
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