Psychological Safety and Routine Thinking

In Transformation with a Capital T (McKinsey & Co) the article begins with the statement: “Companies must be prepared to tear themselves away from routine thinking and behaviour.”

This is a provocative way to open an article, but it’s an idea I can’t help agreeing with. What we like to ask is how and why. But first let’s focus on what:

What is routine thinking?
Routine thinking is based on regular procedures and is often set within the parameters of expected norms. There is a safety in routine thinking: if something has worked in the past, allow it to work in the future too.

The problem here comes in the question of progression. What can be enhanced when we are confined to our way, or our organisation’s way, of thinking.

How do we tear ourselves away from routine thinking?

Now it’s all too easy to create debate. Poke a few holes in a theory and see if it is robust enough to pad out the gaps. If we want to move away from routine thinking, what would be the exact opposite of the routine; how feasible would that be to do?

To carry out this line of questioning through each procedure you have would be impossibly long-winded and ultimately demotivating for your team. So, instead of interrogating a new way of thinking at a process-level, the mindset has to be adopted at an organizational, or team, level. If you are to unlock new thinking and new behaviours in your people, you need to create an environment in which your people can thrive and truly think and behave differently.

Why should we do this?

Simple answer: for efficiency and effectiveness.

Detailed answer: In their Case Study, Project Aristotle, Google sought the perfect formula for creating effective teams. Routine thinking might suggest that effective teams are the result of effective management and leadership. But the results of Project Aristotle showed something else. In their research, over 180 teams were studied but no patterns emerged. They extended their research to review the traditions, behavioural standards and unwritten rules that govern how the team functions.

As no two teams appeared alike, Project Aristotle uncovered that a team’s norms are unique to that particular team.  Something has been established within a team to make it different from themselves. I believe the key to norms is through an emotional connection, and this is echoed in Project Aristotle’s findings that psychological safety is an essential component of an effective team. Teams were found to perform well when certain conditions exist; interpersonal trust, mutual respect and comfortable being themselves.

Key evidence is in the way they allowed others to fail safely, there was respect for divergent opinions, there was freedom to question the choices of others in a supportive way, and they never undermined the trust. This meant that they could do away with routine thinking and rely on the trust of their colleagues.

My primary takeaway from the Google research is the need for psychological safety. Charles Duhigg explores this further in his enlightening book Smart Faster Better.

Can this be more than Silicon-Valley Fantasy?

When I reflect on my own experience, I have only ever felt psychological safety twice in my 30-year career, and they happened simultaneously.

I was part of two teams. I had my own team and was a member of a senior team.  We outperformed all expectations this particular year.  Morale within my team was immense and that gave us a feeling of safety to encourage our colleagues to continue outperforming expectations.. We were unaware, however, of the merger talks happening at the same time.  After the merger was announced, I spoke to a board member about the decision. They spoke ruefully of our success, that “if we knew then how you were going to perform this year, we would never have agreed to merge”.

The psychological safety felt quickly turned illusory, and I wonder now how I would’ve felt if that year we plodded along in our routine thinking; would we have been more accepting of the merger? Was the news devastating in contrast to the high team spirit?

As leaders, there is an interesting choice

…do you:

  • Break the mould and create an environment where people can take a chance, fail safely, learn then grow on the back of it?
  • Accept the safety in routine thinking, play it safe but miss out on potential innovation?

Do you know leaders who sit somewhere between the two? Those who say that they are up for the challenge but revert to type at the first signs of trouble?

It is difficult to embed a different way of thinking to your working life. But to establish an environment of psychological safety offers Googleable advantage.

I accept this is simplistic but business today runs at such a pace. You only have to look at the media to see failure in businesses, large and small. Leaders make commitments to stakeholders on best information available that means results are then demanded. We look to blame others for failures which are then punished and, worse, the opportunity to learn is missed. When you add to this personal agenda and vested interest is it any wonder that performance and people suffer? However well intentioned leaders might be, when it all hits the fan, they revert to type to get stuff done. It is this behaviour that undermines psychological safety and essentially leads to any business running with the handbreak on. People hold back.

When faced with the pressures of today, it takes a brave (or clever) leader to tear themselves away from routine thinking and behaviour.

If you’d like to explore psychological safety in your organisation let’s have a conversation. Email me at ricky.muddimer@thinkingfocus.com and we’ll arrange a time to chat.

 

The boss who took responsibility

This is a story about a head of operations who had lost control. If you’re wondering how bad it was, I can tell you that she was on the verge of walking. Worse still, so were most of her team.

Gill felt her team was bordering on unmanageable and she was feeling less and less motivated to deal with them.  She had lost her mojo.

Her track record was good and she’d always been a high performer who had built and developed teams that performed and delivered consistently.

So what had beaten her this time?

She came to me in search of help. We explored the background and discovered that it wasn’t straightforward. The business was successful, built by an owner-manager.  The entrepreneurial spirit had created a culture built on individual strengths rather than standardisation and consistency, however, which is a nightmare for an operations expert.

Her role was to organise a group of lone wolves and somehow operationalise the business.  This dynamic was made worse by the owner cutting non-standard deals that were hard to resource and fulfil, let alone deliver cost-effectively.

Gill was at the end of her tether. How was she ever going to change things? Could they even be changed?

Her team was also frustrated with that they perceived as lack of control and direction, with duplication of effort and everyone in it for themselves.  Gill, by her own admission, had done little to address this, choosing to deliver hard messages by email and expecting it to land.

We explored the brutal facts but with a growth mindset.

We started by talking about what she wanted, exploring what was important to her and why.  She had a genuine passion to deliver and most of her frustration was with herself.

She also had a get out of jail card – there was another job offer on the table.

It was at this point that Gill took the decision to succeed.

Now that she was focused on delivering a successful outcome, we explored what had gone wrong and why she had succeeded in previous roles. It turned out that she had missed some of the lessons she had learnt in the past because she had adopted the cultural norms of the new team. It turned out that she’d known how to fix things all along.

There was a big but. Would the team go on the journey with her? We worked through the scenarios and explored reactions.  She decided on a reboot.

By reboot, we mean a fresh start.  Gill went back and literally, a couple of days later, sat down with each member of the team individually and apologised for her behaviour. She took responsibility.  She also set out what she wanted the future to look like; she agreed with the team what they should expect of her and encouraged them to call her out if she fell below the standard.  She took the opportunity to agree on expectations of the team, asking them to define what good should look like before getting them to commit to that standard.

The impact was instant, a fresh start. The team still slip into old habits but the new ‘contract’ enables Gill to take action and tackle the issue with confidence.  The team has responded positively and now Gill can address the operational challenges and progress with the system and process improvements that will make the business more consistent, efficient and effective.  Most pleasing of all for Gill is the way the team has engaged, taking on sub-projects to improve key operational areas.

I am so proud of Gill. She stood up to the issue, accepting she was the problem and took action that transformed the team and their behaviours.  The team now focuses on the collective good for the business and not individual agendas.

What I learnt from Gill

Grit – Gill showed real determination to stand up for what she believed and backed herself.

Growth Mindset – Gill was prepared to listen to feedback, albeit brutal in places and was prepared to ask herself “what could I do differently?”

Ownership – Gill could have walked away but decided to take it on, which was ultimately more satisfying.

What if?

If left unresolved, the impact on the business could have been huge.  If Gill had left for that new job there would have a time and cost implication to replacing her with no guarantee that a new person could ‘fix’ the team.

What if the new person adopted the cultural norms and felt like Gill did, following the same vicious circle?

What if the team felt more and more disengaged, become less productive and started leaving, adding to an already high attrition rate?

High cost situations like this can be resolved with support, feedback and coaching.

Do you need a reboot with your team?  

You might not need a hard reboot like Gill’s, but a different way of thinking could tackle some unhealthy cultural norms that have developed.

Think about this: What might it be costing you right now? What could it cost if left unresolved?

 

How do you turn thinking to your competitive advantage?

Most companies do the same things, with access to the same resources, making the people, and the way that they think one of the few differentiators left.

In this podcast Ricky questions Rob, exploring how we can turn thinking into a competitive advantage?

Harnessing thinking in a team and encouraging collaboration can undoubtedly be advantageous to an organisation. In the podcast, Ricky and Rob explore how critical thinking skills enable people to understand the importance of goals and gain real clarity about what they and the business are trying to achieve. It also enables us to make critical choices based on likelihood, risk and balance.

The pair go onto discuss what happens if people don’t believe in the set business goals or objectives. After all, belief and confidence are two essential elements if goals are going to be achieved. Rob outlines how creating an environment where there is so called ‘helpful’ and ‘unhelpful’ thinking enables us to clarify the goal and create a gateway to success. By being open to ‘unhelpful’ thinking, any issues can be tackled and dealt with effectively. It gives the team the opportunity to share and boosts collaboration which in turn benefits the organisation.

Rob and Ricky examine how ‘unhelpful’ thinking can provide an opportunity to grow, learn and accelerate performance because people are able to participate. By thinking a little bit differently and being open to ‘helpful’ and ‘unhelpful’ thinking, people will gain a level of confidence when it comes to achieving the organisational goals and objectives.

The Thinking Focus: The Question Is podcast series is available to download on ITunes.

Are you Getting in the Way of your Own Goal?

Jane is CEO of a retail business based in London and operating nationwide. The operational team is small, close-knit and dedicated to helping Jane achieve her ambitions. They have a few ideas themselves but they rarely share them because they know how she likes things done.

Mastering the art of getting out of your people’s way seems to be one of the best-kept secrets in business.  As a manager, it takes a leap of faith to allow your people the freedom to get on with it.

One of the best descriptions I’ve ever heard of how to achieve it came from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella who summed it up like this:

Tell your people: “Make it happen. You have full authority.”

Treating your people with respect and trusting them to do the right thing will reap real rewards.  Your performance will increase, significantly.  Your engagement scores will rise, your attrition will fall, compliance will improve.

CEOs who lead without trusting their people create managers who also fail their people in the way they lead. Those managers need to know what is going on so that they can prove themselves too. Their fear of being caught out drives them to be ever more overbearing.

Dan Pink in his book, Drive, talks about the science behind motivation; where a role requires a more cognitive approach than traditional carrot and stick approach, the latter fails consistently.

Exploiting these three fundamental principles will reap tremendous benefits:

Autonomy

It is highly likely your people understand the direction of travel; it is even more likely that they know what the key issues are along the way and what they want is for you to get out of their way and let them get on with it.

Allow them to decide how they will get there and you will see a level of engagement, creativity and problem solving that will amaze you.  We see this all the time in our workshops; our clients are continually blown away by their people, who willingly take on business challenges over and above their day job and come back with remarkable results.

Mastery

We like to get better at stuff, we enjoy taking on challenges and making a contribution, and we don’t always want rewarding for it!  Counter-intuitive, right?  Not if you look at examples like Wikipedia, built on free contributions by developers who give their time for free to improve open source software for the betterment of the user base.   What if your people could choose the skills they want to develop and focus that time on improving your business?  Win-win.

Purpose

Your best people are attracted to more than just the money; they want to feel that their work has meaning.  Your purpose, provided it is meaningful, is fundamental to engaging your people. This is the north star, the guiding light towards both autonomy and mastery.  If I connect with the purpose and I am allowed to apply myself I will give more than just what you expect; I will excite you with my passion and energy.  Why? Because you treat me like a person and not a machine that has been designed to simply shift a widget.

Getting out your people’s way makes sense commercially and scientifically, so why not give it a go?

Don’t take my word for it; Dan Pink says it far more eloquently than me in his book Drive and this short YouTube clip https://youtu.be/u6XAPnuFjJc

 

 

 

We’re Growing So That’s OK. Isn’t it?

Simon is CEO of a business operating in the Middle East and Africa and when I met him it was enjoying double-digit growth, significantly outperforming similar organisations in mature European markets. The most recent financial year had seen growth of 12%, something his former colleagues in the UK could only dream of.

So why wasn’t I impressed?

“What’s the potential in this region?” I asked.

“Around 40%,” he replied.

“So you’re underperforming by quite a long way,” I said.

He was quiet. For a moment I thought I’d overstepped the mark.

Then he admitted, “I’d never thought of it like that.”

I hadn’t been trying to undermine his achievement, merely open his mind to what was possible and shift his focus to the 28% that was up for grabs.

This led us to get his team together and explore the potential.  We brought his country managers together.  As is typical with these workshops, there was a lot of ground to cover.

Isolating the interference

We started with a venting session, designed to get out all the issues that hold us back. We label this interference. It could be real, imagined or perceived – anything that gets in our way and occupies thinking time or activity.

The team shared over 80 things that bothered them. These were the 80 things that were preventing them from hitting their €1bn target.  

Putting the barriers in boxes

We categorised every item on the issue list – all 80 of them – into three boxes.

  • Bothered
  • Not bothered (at all or right now)
  • Givens (things we can’t change)

At the end of the process we were left with three items in the “bothered” column and we knew that if we addressed those we could unlock €2bn in additional revenues.  Solving them required no magic, no investment and no more headcount.

Think differently

We showed the teams how to take ownership and develop a plan to capitalise on the hidden potential.  Will they unlock all €2bn? Probably not, but they will go beyond their current comfortable level of thinking and increase their productivity significantly.

So ask yourself:

  • What is your real potential?
  • What interference is getting in your way?
  • What are you prepared to do about It?

Why not try the 3  step process for yourself?

  1. Vent – write down all the things holding you back
  2. Categorise
    • Bothered
    • Not bothered
    • Givens
  3. Prioritise – Go to work on your bothered list

Why your current situation isn’t the problem

So you’re facing a bit of a business crisis. It might mean answering to shareholders, investment being put on hold, or even layoffs.

At a lower level, it may be that bonuses aren’t paid, promotions are passed over or individuals are held accountable.

It’s a problem, right?

Wrong.

How can the result be THE problem, when the result comes at the end?

Yes, the result may cause a problem and bring consequences, leading to a different set of decisions.

The real problem came earlier – and it was probably one of these:

  • The Unhelpful Mindset.  Often driven by the size of the target, the quality or price position of the product or service or even how well your people feel supported by their manager, colleagues or other departments will reduce performance.
  • Reward Strategies.  It could be the way you manage your people. Do they feel valued and appreciated? If there is a perception that others are valued more, then this ‘treatment’ will lead to a sense of unfairness and unhappiness and lower productivity – or worse.
  • Systems and Processes that make it hard for people to do their job can be immensely frustrating.  Whether I am trying to win business, serve customers or support the internal teams I want to feel like I have the tools to do my job well.  ‘Fighting the internal systems and processes is frustrating and reduces productivity. Worse still, you’ll lose your good people.
  • Measurement.  When you measure the wrong things, you not only drive the wrong behaviours and limit your performance, you seriously p*** off your people.  They don’t get it and you end up creating value destroying processes just to report on the wrong things.

Facing one of these issues is bad enough, but more than one and you’re in big trouble!

Ask yourself – to what extent …

… is your peoples’ mindset focused on ‘how to’?

… is the way you reward and acknowledge their contribution motivating them?

… are your systems and processes enablers for your people?

… do you measure the things that add the most significant value to your business?

Thinking Focus specialises in transforming business performance by unlocking potential in people.  Why not give us a call to discuss your current situation and how we can help? You can also tune in to our podcast series – ‘The Question is…’ available now on iTunes.

 

How can you motivate your team more effectively?

 

Ever wondered if there was anything you could do to motivate your team to achieve the goals and tasks that they have been set?

Ricky and Paul ponder this by exploring how relevance and purpose can be used to engage and motivate.

Ownership is key when it comes to approaching tasks or goals with energy, enthusiasm and passion. In the podcast, Ricky and Paul discuss the importance of giving a team clarity about what they are working on and outlining the purpose. Sometimes, leaders can too easily become caught in the detail of what needs doing but the focus needs to be on the vision and getting people to buy into that vision.

They explore how the issue of relevance is key to motivating a team. It’s important to make sure everyone knows how they fit into the bigger picture. How is it relevant to them and the wider organisation? Ricky and Paul consider how at work some people can be on auto pilot: they do what is asked of them very well but don’t see the connection to the bigger picture.

By giving people a level of autonomy, we can give them the freedom to express themselves and go after goals in their own way. They can deliver them in the way that feels most appropriate and bring a different perspective into the equation. Ricky and Paul refer to the book Drive by Dan Pink which looks at this issue in more detail.

The pair conclude their discussion by breaking the process of motivating a team more effectively into five steps: clarity, purpose, involvement, autonomy and ownership. We are likely to see real benefits and value if we can get people to own the task or goal. This will be apparent in the way they apply themselves and have a knock-on effect when it comes to the wider aspirations of the organisation.

The Thinking Focus: The Question Is podcast series is available to download on ITunes.

How can you write goals for things that are touchy feely?

 

Some goals are easy to write down, they have clear defined outcomes.  However, goals for feelings, such as confidence, or for perceptions such as relationships or expectations are much harder to articulate.

In this episode, Rob explains to Richard how you can use a benchmark within SMART to create clear simple goals around these harder to define areas.

When it comes to the best approaches for writing down goals around emotions and feelings, there are still useful techniques that can be applied. Rob explains to Richard how you can use a benchmark within SMART – specific, measurable, assignable, realistic and time related – to help you achieve a written down goal.

But how do we measure something that is a feeling or a perception? Rob explores how a useful technique is to consider the feeling on a scale of one to ten and then apply a numerical figure. For example, you may judge your feelings to be 4/10 at this moment in time but where do you want to be on the scale by a particular date?

Rob and Richard discuss how this approach allows us to write the feeling down in a SMART goal format: by this date… I will have…. improved to a specific number.

Rob adds that it’s important to use our imaginations. For example, on the scale we know what 4 feels like right now but how much would we like it to be? What would this feel like? We may feel an improved level of confidence in specific situations.

It’s fair to say goals around feelings are more difficult to write but as Rob and Richard explain in the podcast, there are useful methods that enable us to put these to paper.

The Thinking Focus: The Question Is podcast series is available to download on ITunes.

How can you get your team to contribute more ideas?

 

Ever asked one of your team, what do you think we should do?

Did you even get an answer?

Getting people to contribute ideas sometimes can feel like pulling teeth, but it does not need to.

Rob explains to Paul how, with a few simple steps, you can help everyone channel their creativity and expand the range of ideas available to you.

It can sometimes a feel a bit like pulling teeth when it comes to getting people to come up with ideas. In the podcast, Rob and Paul explore a few simple steps that can make the whole process run more smoothly.

At the outset, we need to be clear of the benefits when engaging a team to generate ideas. In the podcast, Rob and Paul discuss how it’s a two-sided equation. As team leader, we must be willing to let go and let others come up with their own ideas in the knowledge those ideas will subsequently be valued and considered. In turn, the benefits to the organisation are you can harness the collective thinking power of the group rather than just relying on one source.

Rob explains a lot of creativity comes from a combination of different ideas. It’s important to break the process into two parts. Some people are very good, for example, at coming up with lots of ideas whilst others are talented at evaluating those ideas. There needs to be a clear topic and a clear rationale: we then need to apply techniques to generate ideas and establish afterwards how these will be taken forward.

The pair conclude their discussion by focusing on a strategy known as the 20-idea method. It’s a simplistic but powerful way to solve challenges and get the creative juices flowing. It involves setting out a clear topic which is usually posed as a question. Everyone then individually writes down their ideas. Not only does this method generate a volume of ideas, we can achieve a wider scope of ideas. It allows us to compare, contrast and add to ideas with the further benefit of ensuring the whole group is involved.

The Thinking Focus: The Question Is podcast series is available to download on ITunes.

Should the R in SMART be Realistic or Relevant?

Have you noticed how some people use realistic, while others use relevant?

So which is the right one, does it even matter?

Rob and Rich discuss the merits of both.  Maybe they might change your mind about which one to use.

It’s fair to say the acronym that gives us a guide to setting goals and objectives, SMART, has been around for some time. In our podcast, we explore how you get better value if you consider the R stands for relevant.

Rob and Rich begin their discussion by reminding listeners what SMART stands for: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic/Relevant and Time-bound. Many people use realistic because that’s what they know but Rob is a big fan of applying the term relevant instead. He maps out how if you have a list of tasks to achieve on a day, we can always choose something that’s realistic. Just as an example, we could easily set ourselves the limiting goal of running 100 metres in 14 hours.

It becomes a different question if we ask how relevant is the goal? We should be looking at the relevance of achieving our tasks rather than just asking can I achieve them. By applying this technique, we can reach a meaningful goal.

Ricky adds that we bring into play questions and thoughts for the person writing the goal about their motivation if we use the term relevant.

Both agree that realistic and achievable can almost be interchangeable when considering the SMART framework. Substituting the R for relevant can help us to prioritise and consider our motivation therefore adding more value to the whole process.

There really are no right or wrong answers but using relevance in their expert opinion will add more depth and value when it comes to achieving our goals.